Saturday, November 25, 2006


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:

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

Then I went here:

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:

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.

No comments: