Saturday, November 25, 2006

THE CIRCLE GAME


This week we’ll talk about salt and the meters that read it; we’ll explore another sterling example of the power of galvanic corrosion; and discuss warranty policies that take sales away from you.

So, just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water, huh? Just when you thought this seemingly endless screed about salt had to have run it’s course, had to be winding down, as it were, along comes our favorite celebrity contributor, Baboosa, and stirs the pot again.

If you missed his comment on last week’s post, I quote it here:

“Hey Pool Guy, I was thinking... I have this cute little meter that says it measures NaCl. My suspicions are it just measures conductivity and lots of different salts like maybe even calcium chloride. So how do it know? what the NaCl level is. Am I supposed to just believe what it says and trust them.. cause it is printed? Okay well I was just wondering if I actually had the right amount of salt in my pool degenerator.”

You know, in all of the hub-bub these last several weeks, with all of the really crappy things about salt systems that there are to talk about, I forgot to mention how that little meter on your salt system operates, or what, precisely, it measures.

It reminds me of a trouble call I had many years back. I was at a pool with a salt system and we were having trouble holding a chlorine level. So, I called the 1-800 number and got tech support on the line. The first question he asked me was, “What’s the salt level?”

“Well, the meter reads 3100.” I told him. “Oh, you can’t trust that.” he said. “Use your salt test kit if you want to know how much salt is really in the water.”

Okay. Good to know. Don’t trust the manufacturer’s equipment. I’ve called on other occasions and tried to draw out various 1-800 tech support folks on how their meter works and what it’s measuring.

“Uh, yeah. Let me put you on hold for a minute,” is the most common answer I get.

You want to have some fun? Take time out of your week and call one of those 1-800 tech support lines and ask them just exactly how their meter works. It’ll be like the old Flash Crowd phenomenon. It’ll be a Flash Question. Come on. Do it. Just once... all your friends are doing it...

But, just so’s you know, in case you get stuck on Ignore when you call, it’s more than likely just a conductivity reading. Basically, it’s a Total Dissolved Solids (TDS) meter. From what I could learn on the internet, you can load a computer with the conductivity curve for a particular substance, like NaCl, so that it will convert the conductivity reading to parts per million NaCl for your display, but it’s assuming that everything that went into that conductivity reading was NaCl.

Now, maybe I’m wrong and they have high dollar reflectometers installed in all those salt systems out there. Those would read just the NaCl. But I doubt it.

I did a quick test on three of my salt pools, comparing the displayed value against what my little Taylor 200 ppm per drop test kit told me, and used my Taylor 5 way to measure the calcium level, and at the end of the day, the results were all over the board. After subtracting the calcium level from the displayed value and comparing it with the titrate salt test, the results were sometimes higher, sometimes lower. Inconclusive is what they were. But then, that’s pretty much real world out there on the pool route.

I need to add, though, that when I did the test, all the pools were around 59 or 60 degrees. That’s a big number with salt systems.

For example, Aqua Rites drop down to 20% output when the water temp is between 50 and 60 degrees, and completely stops chlorine production below 50 degrees.

Pentair’s FAQ’s points out that below 59 degress, the Intellichlor stops generating chlorine.

A 1-800 rep once explained to me that it did this to protect the cells from damage caused by running with too little salt, because when the water gets cold, the calculation for salinity is so out to lunch that it can’t be trusted. Hmm... so I guess it isn’t a reflectometer after all.

Moving on.

Not too long ago, I had a spa that plated out copper everywhere. It’s really a spa and fountain. Real high dollar stuff. Octagon shaped, with eight recessed brass pencil jets, and a bubbler in the center, raising about a two foot tall column of water right at the point where the streams of the eight pencil jets meet. Real Sparklett’s Dancing Waters kind of stuff.

And I couldn’t figure out why it plated out. It was just under a year old. My first thought was that the pH had been run too low. But this spa had a salt system, a Jandy Aqua Pure 700, and the one thing I have to say about a salt system; I’ve never had to worry about LOW pH when there’s a salt system on the job.

At first, I considered that maybe we had overcompensated with too much acid on our cleaning visits. But with over one hundred pools and spas on service and forty-five of them with salt systems (Don’t look at me. I didn’t sell them.), I found it hard to believe that this was the only spa we screwed up on with too much acid. I admit, It remains a possibility. But a pretty thin one.

This all happened before I’d heard the term galvanic corrosion, so at that time, the best reason I could figure had to do with those eight brass pencil jets at the end of a pipe being fed by a chlorine generator. Perhaps the corrosive produced at the cell was making it’s way down the line, causing the brass to break down into it’s components, zinc and copper. Then the copper fell out of solution due to the wide variances in pH and temperature. Remember, it’s a spa; 50 to 104 degrees three or four nights a week all winter long.

I did have some support for that theory. About six months earlier, someone I know had queried a published water chemistry guy about another pool he’d seen with a salt system feeding into copper return lines.

Here’s what the published water chemistry guy said: “The short answer to your question is that I do NOT recommend using a chlorine generator on any swimming pool that has copper plumbing lines. The chance of salt corrosion, high levels of acid and caustic, and high levels of chlorine all will contribute to dissolving of the copper pipes and subsequent depositing of the copper compounds on the vessel.”

So, I sold the folks with the coppery spa an acid wash, disconnected their salt system and plumbed in a tab feeder on the return line to the center bubbler. Nothing but PVC all the way. That way, too, they only melt tabs while in the fountain mode. Not the spa mode.

Then, I started reading about galvanic corrosion and I started leaning toward that as the explanation for the brass breaking down so fast. But still, it puzzled me why I didn’t see this kind of problem on all of my pools and spas with salt systems and brass water features.

Then, the other day, I was reading Jandy’s brochure and they were all bragging how their cell is so much better than everybody else’s because they have “solid titanium plates coated with precious metals for durability and longevity”. Further down the page, they even show 7X and 14X photos of the cell plates of their competitor’s versus their own, coated with “30+ layers of Ruthenium”. I found out that Pentair’s Intellichlor also uses ruthenium coated cell plates for corrosion resistance.

Then I went here:

http://education.jlab.org/itselemental/ele044.html

and read: “Adding 0.1% ruthenium to titanium makes titanium 100 times more resistant to corrosion.”

Then I went here:

http://www.springerlink.com/content/v880614u2kx8g524/

and read: “There is evidence of anodic inhibition and this seems to be responsible for the observed increased corrosion resistance of the duplex stainless steels with small ruthenium additions.”

So, ruthenium added to stainless steel will make it less susceptible to galvanic corrosion. It sounds like ruthenium added to any metal makes it more corrosion resistant and more likely to galvanically corrode other metals. What I understand about galvanic corrosion is that the more resistant to corrosion a metal is, the more galvanic effect it will have on metals less “noble”, or less anodic. And while I couldn’t find anything that came right out and said “titanium enhanced with ruthenium will make the alloy even more anodic”, I found this:

http://www.p2pays.org/ref/05/04159.pdf

It’s pretty boring stuff, so I’ve italicized the important parts. It says: “Traditionally 0.15% of palladium has been included in the alloy which greatly increases resistance to crevice corrosion for titanium alloys. Palladium is very expensive and the introduction of this small percentage virtually doubles the cost of the alloy. However, recent work has indicated that the palladium content can be reduced to 0.05% for most applications. Alternatively the palladium can be replaced by 0.10% of ruthenium. The lower palladium addition restricts the increase in cost to 30% whilst the addition of ruthenium increases the cost by only 10%. The ruthenium enhanced alloys are a new development and are being specified in such commercial activities as wet oxidation, deep sour gas, hydrometallurgy for mining, geothermal wells, offshore platforms and subsea systems.”

Which, from what I can deduce, is blah, blah, blah for “one tenth of one percent of ruthenium added to titanium makes it kick ass corrosion resistant in salt water. You know, like swimming pool kind of salt water”.

Later, this report says, and this is sort of the smoking gun part: “When in contact with other metals in seawater, titanium is normally a cathode and this may accelerate the attack on other active metals such as aluminium, and copper alloys. The extent of galvanic corrosion will depend on the anode to cathode ratio, seawater velocity and seawater chemistry”. Or, in our case, anode to cathode ratio, pump gpm output and chlorine generator salinity requirements.

Brass is a copper alloy. Copper and zinc, as a matter of fact.

So, when Jandy and Pentair increased their salt cell corrosion resistance by a factor of 100 by adding ruthenium, how much did they increase the anode to cathode ratio of their cell plates to my brass pencil jets? Enough to cause the brass to break down and put copper in the water? Enough copper to be really noticeable in a little old spa? Does that mean that the same configuration of salt systems and brass features or fixtures on your pools, with lots more water than my spa, would cause the same buildup of copper over a longer period of time?

I don’t know. Do you?

But, shifting gears here, I do know this; another way that we’re getting screwed on these salt systems is on the five year warranties. Like the warranties from Zodiac, Goldline and Jandy. They have a deal that if the salt cell goes out in less than five years, they’ll sell the customer a new cell at a pro-rated amount. So, after about year three, when the cells typically fail, they sell it at 60% of the “suggested retail price”. It’s an over-the-phone, credit card only, customer to manufacturer deal that leaves you sitting on the sideline, playing errand boy to let your customer know they have a bad cell so they can go buy it directly from the manufacturer. The manufacturer makes a tidy profit at 60%, seeing as how you and distribution are cut out of the deal. In year four, for Zodiac and Jandy, it’s 80% of “suggested retail price”. Just a quick question here... has anything for a swimming pool ever sold at the “manufacturer’s suggested retail price”? Wouldn’t you just love to get some of that?

Too bad. They take it all for themselves.

You see, the way this works is: YOU maintain it. YOU clean the cell when it needs it. YOU hump the salt to the pool every time it rains. YOU fight the high pH. But the manufacturer gets the resale. And this goes on forever. Every three years or so, the cell fails and the manufacturer sells YOUR CUSTOMER a new cell.

And you don’t think this deal is cooked to keep you out of the loop? Ring up your distributor and get a load of your pricing for replacement cells. First, they’re usually special order because nobody but the manufacturer is selling them, and B, the “wholesale” price is set so that even if you wanted to, you can’t compete with their pro-rated pricing for those first five years. Five years is FOREVER in our business, and ETERNITY for a salt cell. You see, they're just playing the Circle Game. It's a game played by two: the manufacturer and your customer. Over and over and over again.

What? You don’t believe the three year cell life thing? Go to the FAQ’s on a Pentair sell sheet and read this:

“ ‘Life’ light is flashing

If flashing, the Intellichlor has limited remaining life. The Intellichlor under proper operating conditions should provide over 10,000 hours of operation, which is 3 to 5 years of normal use.”

Do the math. Here in Texas, when the water hits 88 and 90 degrees, we’re running our pools 10 and 12 hours a day and the salt systems are running on high output. Even factoring in fewer hours for winter operations, these systems are running an easy 3,000 to 3,500 hours per year. So 10,000 hours is 3 years or a little less from date of purchase.

Pentair offers a three year warranty on their cells. At least you have one manufacturer that admits the cells only lasts three years, even with ruthenium alloyed titanium plates, and they provide a warranty to match that anticipated life. The rest provide a 5 year warranty and capture 100% of the resale market in years 3 through 5. The customer is no better off than if they’d been able to buy a “discounted” cell from you in year 3 or 4, because if the manufacturers hadn’t rigged the warranty program, they would be providing cells to distribution at a much lower price, a price not meant to keep you from competing in the first place. The bottom line is the manufacturer is making way more profit per unit than if they sold those same cells through normal distribution. The only one who’s profit is being thrown away is yours and distributions. And the risk for the manufacturer is the same in years 1 and 2 and right up to 3; almost nil. And if a cell does make it past 5 years, they still make nearly as much money with their current “wholesale” pricing when you buy it special order from distribution.

These systems have been out there for a while now. Ask yourself. How many cells have you sold after the warranty expired? How many got replaced during the warranty for the pro-rated price?

Sweet deal for the manufacturers. Wouldn’t you say?

Oh, and something else I found interesting on the Pentair FAQ’s sheet:

“What happens if I add too much salt?

Over salting will not harm the Intellichlor, but will cause the water to taste salty. In addition, if salt level is too high (over 4000ppm) you can sustain corrosion damage to metallic equipment such as stainless steel handrails, ladders, filters, light rings or copper heat exchangers.”

So, are they just picking on Zodiac, a system that operates at 4,000 ppm, or do they really believe that a level 500 ppm above their own system’s maximum recommended salt level (3,500) is somehow a magic number that suddenly makes salt bad - Bad salt! Bad salt! - and will corrode all your metal? That’s slightly more than one bag too much salt in a 15,000 gallon pool. You ever poured one too many bags of salt into a pool? What happens if you read the salt meter when the water temp is 59 and add salt based on that? Will you be adding too much or too little? Will you have 3,500 or 4,000 ppm?

Boy. This whole enterprise seems fraught with peril, and very little profit, if you ask me.



Postscript: I swear what I’m about to say is true. It just happened today. A lady who takes care of her own pool called me for advise. She asked, “Three days ago, my salt system was scrolling Check Salt Level on the display. Now it’s not and the salt’s reading 2900. What’s the deal?”

“What have you done since then?” I asked her.

“All I did was heat my pool for the Thanksgiving holiday.”

The thing really does speak for itself. Res Ipsa Loquitur.

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Sunday, November 19, 2006

Lying Liars


There is so much going on, it’s hard to know where to start.

How about this? A really, really big pool builder here in the Great State of Texas has stopped selling salt systems. Now, this falls under the category of gossip, because I’m not a journalist. I’m a pool cleaner and a blogger. But I heard this stuff from four different stalwarts in the local industry hereabouts, and so I believe it.

But before we talk about that, listen to this:

I was roaming around the internet and I happened upon this little tidbit from the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services:

“Both Na+ and Cl- cause a taste in water. EPA has identified a concentration of over 250 mg/L of either Na+ & Cl- as a concentration which can be expected to impart a ‘salt’ taste to drinking water.” Read it HERE New Hampshire Govt.Website

Just to review, 1 mg/L equals 1part per million (ppm).

That reminded me of something I read recently from a manufacturer of salt systems where they were going on and on about how the amount of salt you put in your pool - three to four thousand parts per million, depending on the system - is “below the level of taste”. I couldn’t remember where I read it, so I Googled “below the level of taste” and “chlorine generator” and this is a sampling of what I got:

http://www.waynesolar.com/pdf/aquarite.pdf
http://www.bestbuypoolsupply.com/chlorinators.htm
http://www.solarblue.org/aqualogic.html
http://hayward.swimmingpool.com/chlorinegenerator
http://hayward.swimmingpool.com/logiccontrols
http://www.haywardnet.com/inground/products/controls/Aqua_Logic_Pool_Spa_Automation.cfm
http://www.h2opoolproducts.com/product_info.php?products_id=24
http://www.premierpoolsupplies.com/automaticcontrols_Hayward.html

Every one of these websites say that the amount of salt needed is “below the level of taste”.

So, um, uh... that’s a lie. It’s above the EPA identified level of taste by a factor of 12, to be precise.

Each of these websites, and plenty more, keep repeating the same lie over and over again until it becomes fact. That is the secret of Sales and Marketing. You tell a lie. You tell that lie for money. You get others to repeat that lie for the same reason; money. You rely on the fact that the average consumer and the average reseller aren’t going to question your lie, because there’s no profit in proving that it’s a lie. There’s no money in it, so why would anybody in their right mind set out to disprove the lie if, at the end of the day, it doesn’t make them any richer?

Because it’s a lie.

There are other, more subtle ways of pumping up a product without technically telling a lie. Like the same vendor’s claim:

“You'll never again have to worry about red irritated eyes, dry itchy skin, bleached bathing suits or green hair!”

http://www.goldlinecontrols.com/AquaRite.aspx

Green hair? Hmm... Green hair doesn’t come from other types of chlorine, which, if you follow the sleight of hand there, is implied but not said . Once again, Smoke and Mirrors, Sales and Marketing.

Green hair is caused by copper in the water.

http://www.10news.com/lorensfieldnotes/173301/detail.html
http://www.southshoregunitepools.com/resources/pdfs/green_hair.pdf
http://www.pg.com/science/haircare/hair_twh_97.htm
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7233585
http://chemistry.about.com/od/howthingsworkfaqs/f/greenhair.htm

How about bleached bathing suits?

“Experts disagree widely about a maximum level for free chlorine, if any. AQUA TIPS interviewed swimmers who had been bathing in 5, then 10, and on up to 25 ppm free chlorine. In the files we found the story of a junior high school pool that was mistakenly carried at 60 ppm free chlorine for about a week's time. We interviewed one individual who had been swimming in 200 ppm free chlorine for 30 minutes. In each of these cases, pH and other water chemistry factors were almost perfectly balanced. Complaints in the above cases were of bleached bathing suits, dry skin, and mild eyeburn.”

http://www.stranco-leisure.co.uk/pdf/Back_to_Basics.pdf

There are several other websites with the same information. Just Google bleached bathing suits. Too, there are several websites that will tell you that chloramines cause red irritated eyes and dry, itchy skin. But bleached bathing suits? I’m sorry. That’s from too high a level of free available chlorine, and you’re just as likely to have it with a chlorine generator set too high as you are with a feeder stuffed with too many tabs.

So, why is this important? Because this is the small stuff. If they’re willing to lie and misdirect on the small stuff, what about the big stuff? Big stuff like galvanic corrosion, or ruined coping, or environmental issues. It begs the question, what else are they not telling you?

They’re not telling you things like this:

“Sodium and chloride are costly to remove from water... Normally the best method to control sodium and chloride in drinking water is to prevent or better manage those activities that dispose of salt near the water supply source”. (Whatcom County, WA Health Department, Sodium in Water)

That’s a link to the Whatcom County, Washington Health Department website. “...prevent or better manage” the disposal of salt. Just a crazy thought, but how about not putting salt in your pool in the first place?

Think about it. If you’re trying to maintain a level of less than 250 ppm in your water supply, then dumping a 20,000 gallon pool of 3,000 ppm salt water just brought 240,000 gallons of pure water right up to the level of taste. If it’s 4,000 ppm, then it’s 320,000 gallons.

How about a water park that uses salt chlorination? If you dump a 700,000 gallon Lazy River at the end of the season, that dilutes to as much as 11,200,000 gallons of 250 ppm water. And that’s if the dilute had 0 ppm salt to begin with. Not to mention that the Lazy River’s just one ride in the water park.

But it gets worse. The Salt Institute, a group that represents 36 foreign and domestic salt producers, admits you can taste salt at levels even lower than 250 ppm.

“The secondary drinking water standard for chloride is determined for taste and established at 250 mg/L. If 100% of the chloride in a particular drinking water were in the form of sodium chloride, water containing 250 mg/L chloride would contain 160 mg/L sodium. Thus, 160 mg/L would be the appropriate level where people would notice the taste of sodium chloride.”

http://www.saltinstitute.org/pubstat/ccl8-02.html - Update 03/09/09; this link is dead. It is no longer anywhere on the Salt Institute's website. It's no longer anywhere on the internet except here. I guess they no longer wanted to own that opinion, seeing as how it's been so effectively used to prove just the reverse of what they intended for it to do.

Remember, this is from the Salt Institute, the lobbying arm of the salt industry. So, that means that the folks selling salt systems to you just made up the idea that 3,000 to 4,000 ppm is below the level of taste and then put it in their Sales and Marketing brochures.

Are you insulted yet?

Every place I go in the real world - by real world, I mean things like water treatment info, or drinking water data, or environmental studies, or architectural information, or infrastructure impact studies - I read nothing but the negative impacts of salt.

Well, that’s not completely true. I did recently read how “salting, especially of meat, is an ancient preservation technique. The salt draws out moisture and creates an environment inhospitable to bacteria.”

http://home.howstuffworks.com/food-preservation5.htm

But starting around 1876, when Karl Paul Gottfried von Linder invented the first practical refrigeration unit, salting meat has been kind of tapering off.

So, there’s all this real world data about the negative impacts of salt.

And then there’s the world of Sales and Marketing, where salt is portrayed as a beautiful, naturally occurring substance that has revolutionized swimming pools and is protecting all those poor little rich folk from the horrible, unmentionable side effects of chlorine.

Be honest. How many homeowners have you talked to who had that exact impression when they contacted you about a salt system? And even when you tried to explain to them that, “chlorine’s chlorine, whether it comes from a tab or from an electronic box”, they give you that, “Yes, but salt’s better, right? More natural, right?”

The deliberate misinformation surrounding the introduction of salt systems is still startling to me, even after all these weeks of reading and writing about it. So, wake up, Also a Pool Guy. It’s not just a swimming pool. It is a conspiracy. A conspiracy to say whatever needs to be said to create and maintain a market for salt systems, whether they’re good for your business or not.

Which is a nice segue into the Big News this week. The Big News goes something like this:

Big Texas Builder came to the conclusion that salt systems, instead of being a profit center, are costing money and slowing production. The unrelenting damage caused by salt created tons of go-backs (doncha just love them free go-backs) to replace diving board stands, rip out ruined limestone, etc., tying up crews that otherwise would have been laying coping and mastic and such on new pools instead of pools under warranty. Not only was it costing a lot to redo the work, but it was costing a lot by slowing new production.

You have to wonder, too, if part of their reason wasn’t the lost referrals that always come with that kind of mess. It reminds me of a recent conversation I had with another builder. He’s a small custom builder, who lives and dies by the referral, and by way of telling me that he, too, had stopped selling salt systems, (that’s two; one Big Builder, one Small Builder) he told me the story of how he lost a whole town to a spate of heater problems a couple of years back. Gosh, I wonder which heater that was?

He’d been going great guns in this small community here in the Metroplex - for all you people not lucky enough to be from Texas, that’s what we call the Dallas/Fort Worth area - all from one customer telling a friend, and that friend telling a friend, (repeat until rich) what a great job he’d done for them. Then, the heaters stopped working. They wouldn’t fire during start up. The local reps were swamped with calls from everybody, so even herculean efforts on their part weren’t keeping up with the trouble calls. (Yes. Mark your calender. I just said something nice about reps. Technical Reps, that is.) Then, a week after the heaters were fixed, they’d fail again, creating an even more upset customer. And then another trouble call, and another, and yet another...

Pretty soon, what his customers out there were telling their friends changed from, “He’s so great and everything works so well”, to “I’m so mad at that guy. He sold me a spa I never get to use because he sold me a broken heater to go along with it.” And he hasn’t had a referral in that town in the three years since.

So there’s that.

And then, in closing, I wanted to thank Also A Pool Guy for his comments. And I wanted to clarify, like Another Pool Guy already pointed out, that 7.6 isn’t neutral pH. 7.0 is neutral pH. Further, the difference between 7.6 and 7.7 isn’t “slightly basic”. The difference between 7.6 and 7.7 is that 7.7 is 20% more base than 7.6. The pH scale is a logarithmic scale, where the number to the right of the decimal - the mantissa - is the logarithmic representation of the actual number. The number to the left of the decimal - the characteristic - represents the power of 10 the number is to be raised to. So, 7.6 represents -40,000,000 and 7.7 represents
-50,000,000. With that kind of progression, the difference between, say, 7.2 and 8.2 is -30,000,000 and -300,000,000, respectively. So, 8.2 is ten times more base than 7.2. The pH scale has fourteen orders of magnitude (0.0 to 14.0), expressed in this logarithmic notation, pH being the negative logarithm of the concentration of hydrogen ions. Kind of like 7.6 pH is 40,000,000 hydrogen ions per liter... not.

Phew! I wanted to spit all that out to illustrate what a bad idea it is to throw even a tenth of a point on the pH scale around so casually. And I realize that it’s open season on the above paragraph from all you chemists out there. So, go ahead. Take your best shot.

Also a Pool Guy has started his own blog here on Blogspot. He calls it Another Look at ThePoolBusiness. You can access it by clicking on his name at the bottom of his comment. He hasn’t posted anything, though. Perhaps he’s busy studying up on the pH scale.

Yes. I know. That was mean. I am ashamed. But I’m not stupid. And that brings up an interesting point about this blog. Usually the guys who will tell you the truth about anything aren’t nice guys. They’re rock throwers looking for a plate glass window. And they don’t have solutions. They have questions. If you think about it, they’re not supposed to have solutions. Because they didn’t build and sell the problem. They just point out that the problem exists.

Res Ipsa Loquitur.

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Monday, November 13, 2006

RUST NEVER SLEEPS

When I first started cleaning pools, back in nineteen hundred and mumble-mumble..., one of the first things I learned about cleaning pools was to know the difference between debris that you could vacuum out, and the stains that you couldn’t. You saved yourself a lot of time knowing the difference. Part of noting that set me to wondering why there were these little rust stains on the pool floor around all the returns. I asked the guy I was working for and he gave me the old civil service salute - a shrug of his shoulders - and told me not to worry about it. We were working out of his garage, both of us cleaning pools part time. Me, I was just trying to hustle up some extra Chirstmas money. I was sure pools were just a passing thing. I knew there was just no way I was going to be doing pool work even a year later. So, I followed his advise and quit worrying about it.

A year later, I was cleaning pools full time for another guy. Funny how life works.

He built pools, too. Had a pool store, a design office and a fading showroom with dusty tile samples and plaster plugs and even a hot tub - an old redwood hot tub - on display. Yes, it was that long ago. Tub O’ Gold was a big seller back in those days.

So, I asked my new boss, who was a lot more serious about taking care of pools than me and my buddy had been, why most of the pools had those tiny rust stains on the plaster near the returns. In those days, almost all plaster was white, and that made those rust spots really stand out.

His eyes started to roll back in his head until all you could see were the whites, and drool slipped out of the corner of his mouth. His hands began to tremble and I got the coffee cup out of his grip just in time, and he collapsed backward into his chair, gasping for breath. His mouth gaped open and I knew I was witnessing a man in the throes of a heart attack or someone about to Speak in Tongues.

Instead, he said, "Well, you see, it’s because these sons-o-bitchess who build pools for a living sell heaters on the cheap and won’t pop an extra hundred bucks for bronze headers. And the sons-o-bitches who build the heaters shouldn’t be sellin’ them damn cast iron headers to begin with. By God, I’ll tell you what, they oughta take the whole lot of them crooked bastards out and..."

Perhaps you begin to see where I learned to be, shall we say, critical of our industry.

My old Mentor taught me lots that morning, and lots more as the months went by. Once he saw that I was interested, he would take time out of his day every now and then to show me this and teach me that.

Like that day. He explained that the problem with cast iron headers is that they’re made of cast iron. Even though they have a ceramic coating over the internal waterways, they’re still made of cast iron. You know. Iron. Of Iron Oxide fame. Rust.

Problem being that cast iron and ceramic have a different expansion/contraction coefficient when heated and cooled. Pretty much cast iron expands and contracts, and ceramic doesn’t. Eventually, the ceramic cracks, them flakes away, exposes the cast iron to corrosive chlorinated pool water. The cast iron rusts, flakes away and gets blown into the pool via the returns, where it settles to the bottom and sets to making rust stains.

That’s all water under the bridge these days. Now all the heaters have space age polymer headers. Pretty much, anyway. And I think the few cast iron headers left are internally coated with a resin epoxy that expands and contracts along with the cast iron. And the rest are bronze.

But getting back to the pre-polymer, pre-resin/epoxy days.

When I left my old Mentor’s shop and went out on my own, I knew that when I got a chance to sell a heater, the only thing I was going to sell was a heater with bronze headers. No cast iron for me or my customers.

To me, that made sense. The builder might have screwed the customer by starting them out with cast iron headers, but there was no reason I had to perpetuate the situation by repeating that mistake when it came time for a new heater. In the builder’s defense, maybe he’d just been living under a rock somewhere and hadn’t noticed that every remodel he went to bid on had funny little rust stains clustered around all the returns, or maybe he’d never had a single conversation with a pool cleaner in his life and so really didn’t have much of a feel for what a pool looked like a year and a day after it was built, or maybe he just figured that the ceramic got him through a one year warranty and the heck with what happened on day 366.

My idea was, sell them a heater with bronze headers and a light acid wash, or new plaster if they were due, and you made it all better.

So, finally, my phone rang one day and it was one of my customer’s wanting a new heater. She was tired of just looking at the spa part of her pool/spa and wanted to start using it again. I told her my story about cast iron versus bronze and told her to just look at the stains in her pool to see what I talking about. She did and came back to the phone - they had cords on them back in the olden days - and signed up for the whole program; the heater with bronze headers and the acid wash.

Imagine my surprise when I walked into the supplier next morning and asked them to load up a 400,000 BTU with bronze headers onto my truck and they looked at me and said, "Oh, bronze headers. That’s a special order. We don’t stock those. Everybody just sells cast iron."

"Even though cast iron rusts and blows chunks back in the pool after a couple of seasons?" I asked.

"Yeah. You want a heater today or not?"

I puzzled over that for a long time. I mean years. And I suppose I still do. Because none of it made any sense to me.

Cast iron headers weren’t as good as bronze headers, because they had that problem of eventually breaking down and blowing rust chunks into the pool. Granted, not a huge problem in the grand scheme of things. Just some small rust stains on the plaster finish. The heater still worked just fine. I mean, I never heard anybody say, "Gosh, I can’t heat my pool because the interior waterways of my heater headers are rusty".

But in my mind, it was still a problem. It was a misrepresentation, plain and simple. It was a manufacturer saying, "this ceramic coating works and it will continue to work for the anticipated life of this heater". When in fact, they knew that within a couple of years, it was going to start blowing rust chunks into the pool and marring an otherwise beautiful plaster finish.

It’s like knowing you have a problem going in, and knowing that the cost to fix the problem once it starts occurring isn’t going to be cheap - front and rear headers being just about the most costly parts to replace on a heater - and choosing to inflict the problem on your customer anyway.

It’s just like saying, "We’re a cheap company, with shoddy engineering practices and you can’t trust what we say".

Or, if you’re the builder, it’s just like saying, "I’m selling you equipment that’s built on the cheap, and as long as it makes it through the warranty period, then I’m home free".

And as harsh as that may sound, that is exactly the perspective that homeowners who have accomplished enough in life to be able to afford a pool think about you when, two years after the sale, their weekly pool cleaner guy tells them that the reason they have a bunch of stains on their plaster is because, even though bronze headers were available, the heater company chose to use cast iron, and the builder saved a hundred bucks or so and made a conscious decision to saddle them with the cheap headers.

In fact, their perception is even worse than that, because up until it’s explained to them how easily the problem could have been avoided - spending an extra couple of hundred bucks up front on a thirty-five thousand dollar swimming pool - most of them had been pleasantly surprised to find that the pool industry wasn’t the fly-by-nightmare experience that all their friends had warned them it was.

And then their pool guy tells them about the rusty headers and they nod and start to feel just like the guys at the office said they would, the guys who warned them that it would happen, that they would get screwed. It just took the screwing a couple of years to show up.

Why did we keep selling those heaters with cast iron headers? Is it because we just got so used to looking at those rust stains as we came up through the ranks from pool cleaner to repairman to remodeler to builder that we just accepted that those stains were part and parcel to having a pool and having a heater? Is it because we were afraid our customers would balk at the upcharge for bronze, even if we explained to them why they ought to get it?

I don’t know.

But I do know this. The Big Three can’t field a product that’s bad for your customers unless you help them. You may say that’s not true. You may say that they can advertise right around you and create the buzz that has your customers asking you for this or that product. And that’s true.

But you’re the Gatekeeper. If you say, "I wouldn’t buy that, and here’s the reasons why. Oh, and I have pictures in my office I can e-mail to you, too," then they’re going to believe you.

Because every time I ever told a customer about cast iron headers, when it came time to buy the next heater, they always bought bronze.

Like salt systems. If you have pools with damaged coping, take a digital photo and blow it up to 8 X 10 and show it to people when they ask for salt. If they want soft water, tell them to buy sodium tetraborate. If they’re tired of red eyes, and they have ten kids, tell them to buy a bucket of non-chlorine shock and shock the pool twice a week in the swimming season.

Soon enough, you’re going to need to have some answers for your customers about these salt systems. My customers with the weathered limestone and the ruined decks and the one with the dead pecan tree? What do you think I say to them when they ask me, "Why would they sell me this thing if they knew this was going to happen?"

Right now, all I can do is give them the old civil service salute and say, "I hate to admit it but... It’s the Pool Business".

Kinda like, "We have met the Enemy, and He is Us."

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Saturday, November 04, 2006

Welcome to The Caveat Emptorium

Funny, huh? You know, Caveat Emptor, Let The Buyer Beware... I know. Never explain jokes. But doesn’t it just conjure up images of a big box store, replete with lights and calliope music and chock full of dubious gadgets and services being hocked by those same carny barkers that run the midway at the state fair?

I can see it now. There’s the Gypsy greeter who meets you at the door with a smile and a wave and then tries to pick your pocket when you walk by. Next up is his wife, Desdemona; Pet Psychic. There’s a booth that sells waterless cookware for drought stricken countries. Another guy sells flood insurance that doesn’t cover wind driven water or storm insurance that doesn’t cover floods, choose one and only one please. Then there’s the guy in the gray flannel suit selling shares of Enron stock. "Ten shares for a penny!" he cries. "You never know when it might come roaring back!"

You can drop your children off at Caveat Emptorium’s Free Day Care, where they can bob for apples in the piranha tank, play Russian Roulette with a single shot pistol, or sign up for swimming lessons at the shark tank.

And, yes folks, you guessed it, no need to worry about the kiddies having those red, runny eyes after cheating death and learning the backstroke because... wait for it... we’re using salt water.

I thought this week we ought to try to look on the bright side of salt systems. Let’s start with the manufacturer’s claims.

"Enjoy sparkling clean water, naturally and automatically. Never buy, mix or measure chlorine again. No more red eyes or itchy skin. No chemical smell. Just pure, clear water for day after day of fun in the sun."

That’s a quote off a marketing brochure. Let’s talk about that statement.

The Way Salt Works:

I bought this book a while ago, called Pool Chlorination Facts, by Robert W. Lowery. I love this book. If you don’t have it, and you have anything to do with taking care of the water quality of pools, you ought to get it. He’s a really smart guy who writes like a regular person. You may have already read his stuff without knowing it. If you ever took the IPSSA water chemistry exam and read those three handbooks they give out to prep for it, then you’ve read his work.

He talks about three types of chlorine generators; the brine system - or the portable bomb as I like to call it, the in-line system, and the in-pool system. Most everything we see in the field these days is the in-line system.

What I got from reading his description of in-line systems is that as the salty water passes through the cell, DC current is applied to it, and that causes three things to be formed; chlorine gas, caustic soda and hydrogen gas.

Now, if you look up the manufacturers sales pitch stuff, this is where they get that myth that the type of chlorine they generate is pH neutral because these three thing balance each other out. Not true. Much of the hydrogen gas rises to the surface and leaves the water. It gasses off, being a gas and all. Duh. That reduces the amount of hydrochloric acid created, and so the caustic soda - sodium hydroxide - neutralizes the hydrochloric acid and what’s left raises the overall pH.

But if you’re a pool cleaner like me, you already knew that without all them fancy words. Because every week when you go to your salt pools, the pH is through the roof. You ask the reps why and they shrug their shoulders and tell you that your meds must need tweaking because "our system only produces pH neutral chlorine. It has be something you’re doing wrong because we’re your friends and we would never lie to you."

So, you add gallons and gallons of acid trying to neutralize this skyrocketing pH, which if you read your handbook, Guide to pH, Alkalinity, Water Testing & Water Balance, you know that all that acid is burning off your Total Alkalinity. So, then you start adding DE scoops of baking soda - oh, excuse me, let me put my sales and marketing hat on... ahem... I mean Total Alkalinity Control, $18.99 a twelve pound box - and you’re stuck in this vicious loop of trying to maintain the 80 to 120 ppm Total Alkalinity that our industry preaches to you. But the pH of the baking soda you’re adding is 8.3, or eight times more base than the proper pH of pool water. So, again, you’re raising the pH. So, you pour more acid...

Hmmm... What’s wrong with this picture?

If your calcium hardness is 300 ppm and your water temperature is 88 (pretty common in August around here) and you know your pH is going to be 8.0 before you get back next week, then use your watergram and tell me where your Total Alkalinity ought to be. It lines up at about 22 ppm. Now, you’re going to adjust the water to 7.5 while you’re there. So, what’s the Total Alkalinity supposed to be for 7.5? 70 ppm.

You need to add a few points to it because I don’t think they took 3,500 ppm TDS (salt plus everything else) into account when they built your watergram.

Same example except now it’s dead of winter and the water temp is 45. The watergram lines up at 50 ppm Total Alkalinity at 8.0 and 155 ppm at 7.5

Plug in your own calcium hardness and your own high and low water temps for your region and do the math.

But wait. This can’t be right. Go to the inside door of the salt system controller. Right there it says to keep Total Alkalinity between 80 and 120 ppm and the manufacturer’s rep already told you that they’re your friends and they would never lie to you. So, we’re back to adjusting your meds.

You see, in the textbook world of The Way Salt Works, pH isn’t increased when the chlorine is made, because the hydrogen gas didn’t gas off. So the manufacturers didn’t have to put any money toward research that would promulgate new and unique guidelines for salt pools. Because it wouldn’t have sounded nearly as good saying "Never buy, mix or measure chlorine again", if they’d had to tack on, "But, boy, are you ever gonna need a buttload of acid and baking soda and a way more sophisticated test kit than that measly little two-way tester you got away with when you were using tablets. Now you have to learn about calcium levels because if you don’t, that pH swing inherent in our system is going to rip right through that pretty plaster of yours. If we don’t scale it with high pH and high Total Alkalinity when you try to follow current water chemistry guidelines, then we’ll burn holes in it with low pH and low Total Alkalinity when you only do half the job and just adjust pH, because at the lower Total Alkalinities, there won’t be as much buffer and so when you do your acid demand test and read off the table how much acid to add, it’ll have a more drastic effect on the pH than you anticipated because the table was computed with industry standard 80 to 120 Total Alkalinity in mind ...".

Sorry. I got carried away. My point is that salt pools are a different animal than tablet pools. Standing there and saying that they’re not, when even the pool cleaners know that they are, just gives guys like me more ammunition to point out that the Emperor Has No Clothes and he’s a liar to boot.

So where else was this rambling screed going? Oh, yes. I was supposed to enumerate the good things about salt systems...

Oh, yeah! Here’s one.

You know how some of the manufacturers call the mode that forces the system to maximum output for 24 hours Super Chlorinate? Well, that’s a lie. But the good news is, it’s only half a lie. Or some part of a lie. How much of a lie depends on how much Combined Chlorine is in your pool and where the salt system output is when you turn on Super Chlorinate.

For example, if you’re running your system at 100% output and you flick on Super Chlorinate, the system will produce at 100%. Hmmm... That’s not going to work.

But, if you’re running your system at 20%, and with water temp and swimmer load and debris load and every other load, that 20% setting produces 2 ppm Free Available Chlorine for you, but your Total Chlorine is 2.5 ppm, which means that 0.5 is Combined Chlorine and you need 7 to 10 times the level of Combined Chlorine to get to Breakpoint and burn it out, then going to Super Chlorinate for 24 hours, in this example, will create 8 ppm more Free Available Chlorine. Somewhere around 5 ppm Free Available Chlorine, you’ll hit Breakpoint and burn out that 0.5 Combined Chlorine, leaving you with 5 ppm Free Available Chlorine. Maybe. As you can see, this is an exact science.

So, how do they get away with labeling the switch Super Chlorinate? Because it’s just an industry term. It has no definition beyond what the user gives it. It may mean something to you as a pool professional. But that doesn’t mean they can’t redefine it to mean "produce at 100% capacity for 24 hours".

That way, they can say, "Never buy, mix or measure chlorine again" Which is way easier than saying, "Never buy, mix or measure chlorine again... as long as you never have to run your salt system at a level that precludes achieving an output 7 to 10 times your level of Combined Chlorine".

And that is a look on the bright side of salt systems. Caveat Emptor.

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