Sunday, July 01, 2007

The 2.6 Million Dollar Salt System

Someone sent me an interesting news clip last week. I’d tell you where I got it, but it came from a source pitching another alternate sanitation technology. And if I cited them, then all you guys who think I’m just a shill for some other pool gadget or the chlorine tablet manufacturers would point to that and say, “See? See? The Pool Guy’s a whore just like us.”

And my only response to that is to say; I know you are, but what am I?

The news clip was just a couple line item. When I first read it, I thought I’d post it in the next blog piece and be done with it. But then, I started Googling, and that’s a lot like falling down a rabbit hole. One thing leads to another and to another and another and pretty soon a picture begins to emerge. And so it becomes a whole story that doesn’t start with the couple line news clip. The news clip comes about three quarters of the way through the story, as it turns out.

It starts like this: On October 29th, 2004, the City of Calgary, Alberta, Canada posted a news release titled “Southland Leisure Centre Pool Switches to Salt Generated Chlorine”. Here’s a link to the press release.

Now, pay attention to that date, okay? That’s less than three years ago.

And here’s how the press release started:

CALGARY - A safer alternative for Pool Water Sanitization.

Did you know that according to the Salt Institute, there are more than 14,000 uses for salt - from flavouring pheasant to mummifying Egyptian Pharos [sic]?

Did you also know that salt offers a cleaner, safer alternative to using chlorine gas to sanitize public swimming pool water?

As part of its annual maintenance the Southland Leisure Centre is offering patrons a positive replacement to chlorine gas, by installing a new chlorine generating system, via the use of salt

Geez, doesn’t that sound like something a Salt Rep would write? I can just hear the phone conversation that led up to that opener. “Hey there, Salt Guy. I’m writing this darn press release for the new pool salt system and I need a snazzy opening. Howzabout you fax me something spiffy, eh?”… I’m not sure they say snazzy and spiffy up in Calgary, but I do know they say, eh. A lot. Anyway, you get the drift.

The press release goes on to tout all the normal BS that we’ve come to expect from Salt Reps when they lie about their systems. Like:

The conversion will be much safer for staff, and save money over time through fewer chemical costs”.

Which is just so not true. While chlorine gas isn’t something most of us even want to fool with, we all know it is by far the cheapest conventional method of chlorinating a pool. If you want to argue that, argue it with Bob Lowry, who has actually written The Book on chlorine. He also wrote a booklet, Guide to Chlorine, about the different types of chlorine for Service Industry News many, many years ago. It’s on the Required Reading List for IPSSA membership and it’s the source of many of the questions on the IPSSA Water Chemistry Certification Test. In fact, that three book set that he wrote are where ALL of the questions for that test come from. So, if you want to say I’m wrong, then I’m wrong in some pretty good company. Wouldn’t you say?

Hence, it’s a foregone conclusion, ergo an accepted industry standard, that it doesn’t get any cheaper than using chlorine gas. And while the Pro-Salties will clamor that all you need for a salt system is a little salt when you fill it up and a little acid every once in a while, they always leave out that part about buying new salt cells every 2 to 4 years. Imagine how many thousands of dollars it would take to replace all of the salt cells on all of the pools at the Southland Leisure Centre every couple or so years. But that, as we shall see later, is the least of their worries.

The press release goes on to say “The reduction of hazardous materials is also better for the environment, and completely removes the chance of a dangerous chlorine leak.”

They didn’t mention how installing the salt system is really just a hazard trade-off. Salt systems introduce the chance of dangerous hydrogen gas explosions, like the one that occurred at the Fremantle Leisure Centre in January 1997, when there was a buildup of hydrogen gas and an explosion, an accident so significant that a 1997 accident report published by the Australian government cited it thus; “The most significant incident for the year occurred at the Fremantle Leisure Centre where a hydrogen gas explosion forced the evacuation of approximately 600 people from the premises during the busy summer holiday period.

Here’s a link to the whole report.

and here’s a link to a follow-up safety announcement where they were still talking about it five years later.

Of course, the Pro-Salties will be clashing spears on shields again here, saying that I exaggerate the accidents that occur with exploding salt systems, although the internet is littered with reports and anecdotes of Salt Water Chlorine Generator explosions. But it’s alright for them to rave about “dangerous chlorine leaks” when it comes to chlorine gas.

Sure, that’s fair.

The other part of the statement that’s so bogus is about the reduction of hazardous materials being better for the environment. They made a big deal about this same thing in Calgary Transit System’s annual Envirosystem Report, where they touted the Leisure Center’s conversion to salt as this huge step forward in improving the air quality in all of Calgary. As if they were having chlorine gas leaks a mile a minute – or I guess it would be a kilometer a minute in Canada, eh? Here’s the report.

Click on Envirosystem Report 2004 and scroll down to pdf page 9, report page 7, and read, “Recreation eliminated chlorine gas for pool sanitation at the Southland Leisure Centre. The new disinfection system generates chlorine from salt. The salt eliminates the potential for a chlorine gas release on site and the hazards associated with exposure.”

Then scroll down to pdf page 13, report page 11 and see where they enumerate it again as one of their positive steps forward in eliminating the deadly hazards of chlorine gas emissions.

Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My…

Then they turn right around, in the section of the report titled “Managing Our Impact – Water”, and talk about the potentially disastrous effects of road salt and how “ROADS partnered with Parks and Wastewater to build the 194th Avenue Roads Maintenance Depot to address Environment Canada’s requirement to reduce concentrations of chloride from road salt that could affect plants, aquifers and watersheds. The Depot uses facilities and practices to minimize wind erosion, run-off and leaching of road salt products. The site includes two large tent structures on an impermeable base, for storing road salt materials. A lined containment pond was constructed adjacent to the storage area to provide emergency containment in the event of a release. Ongoing environmental monitoring is conducted at the site. Parks reviewed the Biophysical Impact Assessment for the site and assisted with planting appropriate trees, shrubs and site vegetation. Wastewater assisted in the design and regulatory approvals of the runoff catchment features.”

You see, this salt stuff is so bad for the environment that they had to build a lined containment pond to protect against an accidental release of… Hey, wait a minute… They used those same words back in Air Quality to talk about the deadly threat of an accidental chlorine gas release. And they fixed the chlorine gas thing by replacing it with salt… Hmmm… It must just be something that only Canadian Civil Servants can understand. It must be so deep that I’m just not able to grasp it. Let me review all this stuff again…

Oh, here it is. I found it. Go back to the press release. This explains everything.

Although the centre will use salt to sanitize the pool, the water itself will not technically be salt water.”

Well, that’s A Horse of a Different Color. Because then, when they need to dump their pools for routine maintenance, they won’t have to worry about dumping that water into a containment tank or anything. Since it’s not salt water, they’ll be able to dump it right on the ground.

Okay. So let’s give ‘em kudos. They're not as think as we dumb they are. A little smoke and mirrors and viola, they get environmental credit both ways. And after all, what’s more important? Saving the Environment? Or The Appearance of Saving the Environment?

Now. let’s fast forward two years and seven months, and this headline appears in the Calgary Herald; “City left with pool’s $2.6M tab”. Here’s the link.

The story starts off, “Council is being asked to approve $2.6 million in emergency funds to fix the wave pool at Southland Leisure Centre, after recreation officials discovered a switch to salt water has corroded the filtration systems.”

There’s one thing to correct here. It’s not the filtration systems that got screwed up by the salt. That’s just an indicator of the depth of knowledge that most reporters have about swimming pools. Whatever goes wrong, it’s the filter. Ask them to point out the filter on an equipment pad and 99 out of a 100 won’t get it right. More correctly, it’s the whole damn building that houses the indoor wave pool that’s corroding. You see, they foolishly made everything out of metal. They thought that it would be okay, though, because even though they were pouring salt into the pool, they weren’t actually using salt water. The 2004 press release said so. Because anybody with an ounce of sense would have known that the wave pool was going to agitate the water and aerate it and create a salt spray – hmmm… there’s a funny expression; Salt Spray. Where have I heard that used before? Oh, yes, I remember now; as in ocean waves crashing against the shore and creating a Salt Spray.

But since they weren’t using real salt water, they didn’t think about it. “ ‘What's happening is, in a wave pool situation -- which no one could have really anticipated -- the salt is going airborne as a result of the wave action,’ said Ron Krell, manager of Southland Leisure Centre. ‘We're getting a coating of salt in the leisure centre equipment.’”

Which no one could have really anticipated…” That’s Civil Servant for, “It didn’t occur to us and the salesman never brought it up, so we spent your money to buy this overpriced albatross and now we want more of your money to fix the damage it has wrought.”

Because, pardon me for pointing it out, but anyone who’s walked on an ocean beach where there’s even the slightest wave action can tell you that when they finished their walk their lips tasted like salt, from – once again – the Salt Spray.

And that’s the part about journalism that blows me away, and I think it’s more than half the reason we perceive that journalists are in bed – in the figurative sense, of course – with the politicians and the bureaucrats they interview. Here’s this woman, Colette Derworiz, interviewing this guy, Ron Krell, and he makes this CYA statement “a wave pool situation -- which no one could have really anticipated -- the salt is going airborne as a result of the wave action,” and she just dutifully writes it in her notebook, without asking the obvious follow up, “Well, have you never been to the beach, Ron? Come on, fella. That’s a pretty lame defense against 2.6 million dollars in damages. Surely you’ve got something better for us than that.”

Or, she could have asked, “Didn’t your Salt Reps warn you about this? Didn’t they bring up the point about the salt spray? Had they never been to the beach, either?”

Or, she could have asked, “Is the Southland Leisure Centre’s wave pool the only one that’s been affected this way? Are there any other wave pools around the country or in the US suffering the same sort of damage?”

Or, she could have asked, “What is the Salt System manufacturers position on this? What do they have to say about their system causing 2.6 million dollars worth of damage in 2 years and seven months?”

But she didn’t.

So, Ron dodged all those bullets. But still, he had to go, hat in hand, to the City Council and ask for the 2.6 million beans to fix up the damage that the wholly unanticipated salt spray had caused in a little over two and a half years. Say it slow so you get the full effect; two million six hundred thousand dollars. Even in Canadian dollars, that’s a buttload of money. In fact, that’s $2,760.00 Canadian every day since they converted to salt.

Well, poop. There goes the all the money they saved converting to salt.

Back to Colette Derworiz’ report in the Calgary Herald:

But the committee members refused to approve the expenditure, saying there wasn't enough information to make a decision. ‘This is a lot of money,’ Ald. Diane Colley-Urquhart told the committee.

Another alderman, Gord Lowe, said he wouldn't support the spending until council receives a detailed cost analysis, a full history of the conversion to salt water, a legal opinion on the issue and a report on whether the salt has damaged any other parts of the pool, including the cement.

‘I think there's a disease, and we're looking at a very big symptom here,’ he said…. According to Wednesday's report, the wave pool's system started corroding after the installation of a salt filtration system in November 2004

I bet you can guess my favorite part. It’s the “I think there’s a disease, and we’re looking at a very big symptom here”. Gee, that sounds like what I’ve been saying for a long time. And I’ve been called the vilest things by some of the biggest greedheads in our business for saying it.


Did I mention that I was right?

So, there’s that.

Anyway, it turns out that the Calgary Council did finally agree to shell out the money to repair the salt damage to the wave pool and it’s enclosure. Here’s the link to that story.

Here’s how it went: “Council approved the repair Monday after receiving a detailed cost breakdown, a full history of the conversion and a closed-door update from the law department on any recourse for council to consider.”

Once again, I bet you can spot my favorite part. It was the “closed-door update from the law department on any recourse for council to consider”.

So, to recap, this is how it looks like it all went down, and let me say up front that this is speculation on my part. I’m filling in the blanks here. I tried to get a hold of Ron Krell, the Southland Leisure Centre manager, and find out how it all really went down, but, as they say in the newspapers, my “call was not immediately returned”. So, here goes.

A Salt Rep came along and told the folks in Calgary how great salt would be for their indoor pools. The Salt Rep said his company had tons of experience converting Leisure Centres just like theirs to salt all over the world. He probably didn’t mention the one in Fremantle that exploded. But like I said, I’m guessing.

They told them that it was going to be expensive up front because they needed lots and lots of commercial grade Salt Water Chlorine Generators to chlorinate that much water – the Wave Pool weighs in at one million liters, which is 264,000 gallons in the Lower Forty-Eight - but it would be worth it when the big bucks started rolling in from all the money they were going to save by not buying chlorine gas. I know it’s hard not to laugh at that part, but we must do our best.

Then, when corrosion started showing up, the Salt Reps probably tried to blame it on low stabilizer levels in the water, because that’s what they do every place else. But then, the janitor probably told them that when he wipes down the railings and such, he ends up with a salty residue on his rag and the light went off in everybody’s head at the same time. At least in the heads of all of those who had ever been to the beach and seen a real wave.

“It’s the salt!” they cried, and started casting about, searching for the Salt Rep, hoping to catch him and maybe drag him behind their trucks for a while. But he was nowhere to be found, since he was paid in full. And so they had a meeting to decide who was going to tell the Calgary City Council that they were going to have to spend an extra 2.6 million dollars on the Wave Pool this year, and Ron got the short straw.

Now, the City Fathers, seeing how badly Ron and his crew got screwed by this Salt Rep, are looking at their options to sue the crap out of him – or her, in that PC gender-neutral sort of way. I mean, it’s a cinch that the Salt Rep isn’t going to write them a check for the damages. And neither is the Salt System manufacturer. Because that would set a precedent, wouldn’t it?

Incidentally, there’s a picture of the Wave Pool at the Southland Leisure Centre. You can find it here.

Warning: It’s nearly a 10 meg pdf file and takes a while to load.

It’s the SP&S swimming pool supply catalog. The picture of the Wave Pool is on pdf page 48. You can see there’s lots of surfaces to corrode. It was provided to SP&S courtesy of the Southland Leisure Centre. I don’t know why the Wave Pool’s picture is in this catalog. Maybe Southland is one of SP&S’s customers… Do you think? No… Could it be?

Gosh, I don’t know. And it wouldn’t be fair to speculate on something that important.

Because whoever sold this salt system without thinking about the wave action and the salt spray is in for the skinning of a lifetime. $2.6 million dollars worth of a skinning. Not to mention the skinning still to come from all the other indoor wave pools they’ve probably put it on since they did this one.

I’m sorry. I can’t help it. I have to say it.


Another thing that would make this whole situation laughable if it weren’t so sad; Go here.

It’s on the same City of Calgary website that the Enviro report is on. It’s their Water Hardness FAQ’s. I’m going to cut and paste the second FAQ on the page:

What are the health issues surrounding water hardness?

Health Canada has not established drinking water guidelines for hardness because there are no known health effects associated with calcium and magnesium minerals in drinking water. However, conventional softening systems (those which use salts) may not be suitable for people on sodium-restricted diets. It is recommended that consumers thoroughly research the various water softener systems available prior to deciding whether or not to soften their water. Water Softeners should be connected so that the water you are drinking is not softened

So, salt can be bad for your health. And salt is definitely bad for the environment, as evidenced by all the hoops they have to jump through just to keep a couple of piles of salt laying around for road de-icing. But it’s great for swimming pools!


The real shocker is that even after the salt water in the Wave Pool has caused 2.6 million dollars of damage, as far as I can tell by the reports, they’re only going to take the salt system off the Wave Pool and leave it on all the rest of the City’s indoor and outdoor pools.

What’s that old saying? Screw me once, shame on the President… or something like that.

And then, just because I can’t say enough bad things about salt, here’s a delightful little gem of investigative/editorial news reporting:

The Ancaster News, in Ancaster, Ontario, Canada, reported this past Friday, June 29th, 2007 the following news item:

It is likely that the city's Dundas indoor swimming pool (following the very questionable decision to convert the well established disinfection system installed in 1971, to a salt chlorine gnerator which requires a minimum sodium chloride level of 3,000 parts per million) is one of major polluters of the sanitary waste water plant.

Each backwash and water dumping of 20 litres per bather per day as required by provincial codes, not only wastes volumes of clean, filtered, heated, and chemically balanced water; this 'new' system also adds salts far in excess of the maximum levels for chlorides as set out in the City of Hamilton sewage discharge bylaws.
Guess who pays the by-law infraction charges if any are applied?

We are also advised that each of the four cells installed at the Dundas pool cost about $10,000 yearly to replace as well as the electricity to run them.

Backyard pool owners might also become suspects should they install one of the smaller chlorine generators. If it sounds too good to be true....”

This is a follow up to a story that ran the week before, titled “City cracking down on polluter: sewer boss”.

You can read about it here.

The city of Dundas has hired a dozen extra enforcement officers in the last year and a half to enforce the new bylaw limits for harmful volatile organic compounds enacted last August. In the June 22nd article, they talk about their efforts to get companies into compliance without shutting them down, how to work with them to achieve the goal of compliance while still allowing them to operate. It also points out that this approach doesn’t always work:

In the past, compliance agreements have not always led to quick action. The city's lone such existing agreement, for instance, is for Stoney Creek's Taro dumps and has been in place since 1993.

When it was struck, then-owner Philip Services Corp. promised to build a pretreatment plant within 18 months -- predominantly to deal with high chloride levels…

The plant never materialized, Philip went bankrupt, and its successor negotiated a new deal in 2001 that prompted a review of the city's sewer bylaw

Then, the June 29th story points out that the municipal pool is designed to be out of compliance every time it backwashes it’s filters to be in compliance with public health ordinances.

And just like with the Southland wave pool damage, you have to go back and lay the blame at the feet of the company who sold these Salt System to these municipalities. They are ultimately responsible for the damages done and for the environmental laws violated. For them to say, “we didn’t know” is a sorry, sad, worn out excuse, and hardly of any consequence when computing damage claims.

Every week there's yet another story of how salt destroys everything it touches. And every week, the Salt Reps say, "Well, yeah, but that's it. But it's not our fault. We didn't know. Everything else is okay." Until the next story comes out and they say, "Well, yeah, but that's it. We didn't..."

When will we all stop letting them get away with saying, “We didn’t know”?

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