The Ultimate Guide to Picking the Right Pool Cleaning Chemicals

Allie Ogletree
Written by Allie Ogletree
Updated March 1, 2022
A modern two story house with a swimming pool
Photo: JohnnyGreig / E+ / Getty Images

Highlights

  • You need to maintain pH, alkalinity, calcium, chlorine, cyanuric acid, and other levels for your pool.

  • You can make your pool more environmentally friendly with a solar pool cover or UV and ozone oxidation system.

  • There are five types of chlorine options available.

  • Your pool needs testing at least two to three times a week.

  • It costs around $1,400 a year to hire a pro to maintain your pool.

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When most people think of taking a dip in their pool, chances are that the cool water, the hot sun, and the smell of pool cleaning chemicals come to mind. While chemicals and maintenance are just par for the course for pool ownership, knowing how to choose the right cleaning chemicals is key for having a safe and healthy swim. 

This guide will help you get started with pool maintenance so you can avoid cloudy pool water and have fun in the sun all summer long. 

What Chemicals Do You Need for Pool Maintenance?

Knowing where to begin is a big part of successful pool maintenance practices. Here’s a basic overview of the different chemical elements for managing a pool:

  • pH levels: Your pool needs to maintain a pH level of around 7.5. This can change depending on rainfall, frequency of use, number of swimmers, and debris entering the pool.

  • Alkalinity: Where pH is how concentrated the acids are in your pool, alkalinity is how well the chemicals can neutralize acids. This level should be between 80 to 120 parts per million (ppm).

  • Calcium hardness levels: Your pool also needs a calcium level between 175 to 300 ppm.

  • Chlorine: You want your chlorinated pool to contain chlorine levels of around 1 to 3 ppm

  • Salt and minerals: Some systems use salt and minerals in addition to a chlorinator system. Salt levels should be at around 2400 to 3200 ppm.

  • Cyanuric acid/Stabilizer: Your outdoor chlorinated pool needs around 30 to 50 ppm of cyanuric acid, while your saltwater pool needs about 60 to 80 ppm.

Environmentally Friendly Pool Cleaning Chemicals

While there’s no perfect alternative to chlorine, there are eco-friendly ways to keep pools clean and safe while reducing the use of traditional chemicals, if that’s something you’re interested in. A few methods include using a solar pool cover, which reduces chlorine evaporation and water wastage, switching to a UV and ozone oxidation system, or switching to a salt and mineral sanitation system. 

Some homeowners even use an “all-natural” pool that uses aquatic plants and wildlife to maintain healthy pH levels and remove harmful contaminants like bacteria. 

There are some downsides to natural pools to consider, however. For one, the water tends to have a green color to it, unlike that sparkling clear traditional pool. It also costs more than your standard pool and may attract unwanted critters.

Choosing the Right Chlorine for Your Pool

There are two types of chlorine for pools—stabilized and unstabilized. Of these two types, there are even more options from which you can choose. Each type works differently, making it important for you to figure out which one is right for your pool. Here’s a brief look at the available chlorine options:

Stabilized Chlorine

Who knew your pool could essentially get “sunburned”? That’s why stabilized chlorine contains something called cyanuric acid to balance out the chlorine and to protect the chlorine from the sun’s UV rays. Stabilized chlorine is like a sunscreen for your outdoor pool, and there are two types of stabilized chlorine options available:

  • Sodium Dichlor: This chlorine has a neutral and stable 6.5 pH level, 60% available chlorine, and high resistance to warm water temperatures, making it ideal for hot tubs.

  • Sodium Trichlor: These are your standard chlorine tablets for pools, which have a pH level of 3, 90% chlorine availability, and a slow-release mechanism that keeps your pool sanitized.

Unstabilized Chlorine

Unstabilized chlorine does not have cyanuric acid in it. So, unlike stabilized chlorine, unstabilized chlorine must be used often and in higher concentrations to keep your pool clean. 

  • Sodium Hypochlorite: Sodium hypochlorite, or bleach, helps maintain a pool’s pH and calcium levels. It has a high pH of 13 and is diluted to 10% to 12% chlorine availability. This option is most commonly used for commercial pool maintenance and water parks.

  • Calcium Hypochlorite: You can use this popular type of unstabilized chlorine to sanitize your pool. It has more chlorine available than the other unstabilized options (65% to 75%) and a high pH of 12

  • Lithium Hypochlorite: This chlorine option is ideal for decontaminating your pool when there is an overgrowth of algae, bacteria, and other microbes. It has 30% to 35% of chlorine available, an 11 pH, and is a granular form for quickly dissolving in the pool.  

Liquid vs. Solid-Form Chlorine

There are also two types of chlorine forms that you can choose: liquid or solid-form chlorine. 

The oldest and most popular method of pool chemical maintenance comes in liquid form with a limited shelf life of just a few weeks. This option costs around $30 per gallon. To apply liquid chlorine to your pool, all you need to do is just pour in the correct amount directly into the water. 

Solid-form chlorine tends to be more expensive at $50 per bucket, but it also lasts longer. You can purchase pucks, tablets, and granules, and they last indefinitely. Solid chlorine tablets are placed inside a pool chlorinator or floating dispenser, where they slowly release chlorine into the pool.

However, keep in mind that solid-form chlorine takes longer to work because it needs to dissolve over time. If you’re hoping to sanitize your pool immediately, opt for liquid chlorine. If your pool is already well-maintained, a slow-releasing tablet is a good choice.

Calculating How Much Chlorine Your Pool Needs

A man cleaning a swimming pool
Photo: amana productions inc. / Getty Images

Rain, heat, humidity, sweat, and the number of people using the pool affect the amount of chlorine needed and how often you need to replace it and test chemical levels. Test kits and test strips that check for chlorine levels, pH levels, and calcium levels are readily available online. 

You’ll generally want to test two to three times a week to ensure your pool has the correct chemical balance. If your pool is frequently in use, you may need to check even more often.

Chemicals and pool test kits to check the balance cost about $50 a month, so be sure to check before you pour additional chlorine into your pool to avoid putting in the wrong amount.

What About Cleaning Salt Water Pools?

Salt pools may leave your skin feeling softer, but they’re not like swimming in the ocean. The systems require a chlorine generator that constantly converts salt to chlorine and then adds it to the pool automatically. They don’t eliminate the need to test or use chemicals, but owners can leave their pools for vacation or work and come back to clean water since the system continues to run.

While you must purchase salt and chemicals to add to the system, you’ll shock the pool fewer times per year than you would with a chlorine system. Since salt systems require a generator, they can fail if calcium builds up inside. To prevent buildup, properly balance your pool’s water and clean the generator’s cell once a year.

Modern Pool Technology

Though not as popular as chlorine or salt systems, a newer type of pool maintenance technology is the ozone oxidation and UV water purification system. These technologies were originally used in commercial settings, but they’re now trending in residential pools.

Both generally work together using mechanical equipment that checks water chemistry and adjusts the levels accordingly. Ozone and UV systems reduce the number of chemicals pool owners must use to keep out harmful bacteria and algae. The ozone oxidation system attracts contaminants in the water and shocks them, while the UV system uses ultraviolet light to kill potential contaminants. 

There are a few drawbacks to these systems, including that there is no cost-effective way to measure whether they are working, and pool companies may not be as familiar with the way they operate.

DIY vs. Hiring a Pro for Routine Pool Cleaning Services

Many homeowners care for pools on their own, but for anyone new to the art of maintaining a clean pool, all of the different factors can make it hard to know where to begin. 

For one, costs for chemicals vary based on pool size and type. The warmer the climate and the more use the pool gets, the greater demand for sanitization. So, pools in sunny Florida will use more chemicals and must meet different standards than those in the Midwest.

To keep your pool properly balanced, you should regularly test or hire a local swimming pool cleaner to test the pH levels, available chlorine, total chlorine, calcium hardness, alkalinity, and cyanuric acid/stabilizer. Pools may need to be over chlorinated or “shocked” to return to normal levels when water levels don’t balance. Unbalanced pools may have algae growth or scaling.

Pool Maintenance Costs

Costs for pool services differ by location, but on average, expect to pay around $960 to $1,800 a year or $1,400 on average to hire a pro to maintain your pool. This includes weekly visits, the cost of chemicals, brushing, skimming, vacuuming, and emptying skimmer baskets.

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