Sunday, August 12, 2007

Soylent Green Is… Baking Soda

I admit it. I’m a Glass Half Empty kinda guy. The few rules I live by run in the vein that There’s No Free Lunch, Everything’s a Hustle, and that, like P T Barnum said, There’s One Born Every Minute. I’m the guy peering at the horizon searching for the Thunderhead behind the Silver Lining.

I didn’t start out this way. It’s just that I’ve been paying attention as I grow older. If you have even a moderately curious mind, and scratch even the surface of most things, you don’t have to dig very far to find out things like the Fajitas sizzle is just water and oil they spritz on the cast iron “sizzle platter” – yes, that’s what it’s called – before they bring it to your table.

Too, being a Pool Guy, I’m exposed to those kinds of hustles every day in my industry. Like the Soylent Green thing… I mean, the Total Alkalinity Control thing. About ten years ago, I was in a pool store and saw where their chemical supplier was boxing up sodium sesquicarbonate and telling their customers that they MUST USE this to adjust their Total Alkalinity. And the reason they did that was so they didn’t have to admit that you could go to the grocery store and buy boxes of Baking Soda off the shelf, and even in one pound boxes, the most expensive way to buy the stuff, you were going to save at least half over what they were asking.

Now, the real hustle part of that example is that Baking Soda is not only cheaper at the grocery store, but it’s more appropriate for raising just your Total Alkalinity. You see, Sodium Bicarbonate has a pH of 8.3, and sodium sesquicarbonate has a pH of 10.5. So, if you use the sesqui stuff, you’ll have to add some acid to bring your pH back down to normal, which will burn off some of that Total Alkalinity you just raised, so then you’ll have to add more sesqui stuff… hey, wait a minute. Maybe they’re on to something, huh? It’s an endless loop of making money off of misinformation.

The funniest part of that story is that the same pool store, which was part of a nationwide franchise for a particular chemical line, used to sell 50 pound bags of industrial grade Baking Soda to customers who knew enough to ask for it. They sold it for about $25 for the 50 pound bag. They sold a 12 pound box of the sesqui stuff for $18.99.

Here’s a couple of examples of the price differences between what a pool store will charge you and what you can get if you’re an informed consumer.

Leslie’s sells a 5 pound bucket of Baking Soda for $9.99. They’ll sell you a fifty pound bucket for $52.99. That’s as much as $2.00 a pound.
It says right in the product description that Alkalinity Up is 100% granular Sodium Bicarbonate.

I’ve found one pound boxes of food grade Baking Soda in the grocery aisle for as little as sixty-eight cents a box.

But the price thing’s not the big issue here. Leslie’s is marking up Baking Soda nearly four times what you’d pay for even smaller quantities at the grocery store. But they’re not a nationwide supermarket chain. They’re a boutique. You knew they weren’t going to be cheap going through the door.

And, truth is, they’re at least admitting that they’re selling you Baking Soda.

Let’s look at another pool store chain. BioGuard sells their Total Alkalinity Control as a product called Balance Pak 100. Click Here for a link to their MSDS page. That’s Material Safety Data Sheets, in case you didn’t know. These are the government required ingredients sheets. They are outside the arena of sales and marketing and so explain what you’re really buying. Sort of like fajitas without the sizzle spritzed on. If you want to know what’s in something, ask them to see the MSDS at the point of sale.

But it seems they’re not selling Sodium Bicarbonate for Total Alkalinity Control. They’re selling Sodium Hydrogen Carbonate instead. Hmmm… if you scroll down to page 2, you’ll see it has a pH of 8.2, nearly identical to Sodium Bicarbonate and all the other information seems to be a mirror image of… Wait a minute. Look down there on page 3, under Transportation Information. Its proper shipping name is Sodium Bicarbonate. Baking Soda.

Do tell…

Sodium Hydrogen Carbonate is another name for NaHCO3; Sodium Bicarbonate, or Baking Soda. Did you know that?

Let’s look at another BioGuard program; Mineral Springs. Click Here. This
is the Mineral Springs program description page. The way it works is they sell you an Aqua Rite chlorine generator that’s been private labeled for BioGuard as a machine that converts “essential elements” – read salt – into a sanitizer – read chlorine. The key to this program is that you buy bags that are 75% to 90% salt and 5 to 15% boron salts (probably sodium tetraborate pentahydrate since they own that patent) and then other inorganic acids to make the thing equal 100%, all for about $40.00 a 30 lbs. bag. I didn’t learn the true ingredients on the Mineral Springs page. I learned it by going to, once again, the MSDS.

Anyway, you need 1 thirty pound bag for every thousand gallons of water in your pool to get started on the program. If you have a 20,000 gallon pool, that’s $800.00 plus tax, just for the “essential elements”. Not to mention another $15.00 a week forever to add Mineral Springs Renewal. That's an additional $60.00 a month; $780.00 a year.

OR, you could go to Home Depot and buy 13 bags of salt pellets for about $4.90 a 40 pound bag, and about fifteen boxes of 20 Mule Team Borax (sodium tetraborate decahydrate) for about $2.90 a box, and a couple two gallon cases of acid for about $8.00 a case – you’ll need the acid to neutralize the 9.25 pH of the Borax. With tax, you’re out the door for about $135.00.

In California, due to the restrictions of selling borate products for use in swimming pools, BioGuard just sells you salt, 95 - 98%, with 1 - 2% Cyanuric Acid (commonly called Stabilizer) thrown in and still calls it Mineral Springs. That way, they can still call it "essential minerals”. The guy in the pool store pitching it to you knows all this, and he's able to stand there with a straight face and sell you about $3.75 worth of salt, with 0.3 to 0.6 lbs. stabilizer in it for significantly more than that. Here’s the MSDS for Mineral Springs in California.

If you think I exaggerate, if you think I paint too bleak a picture here, go back to the Mineral Springs program description page and use your browser’s Search function to search for the word Salt, or Saline, or Salinity, or Sodium Chloride, anything that might disclose that people are buying a regular old salt system.

No? No hits? Now go here, to the Mineral Springs Frequently Asked Questions and do the same thing. Same results, you say?

Do tell…

This whole program has done so much to prove that PT Barnum was just a Piker, that now Leslie’s has gotten into the act, teaming with Hayward/Goldline to private label their Aqua Rite and call it the Hayward Swim Pure Salt System. And guess what? They have companion products to go along with it. But you probably guessed that.

First, there’s Salt Water Magic Foundation. You need one, five pound container for every 5,000 gallons of pool water, and it only costs $34.99 per container. So, for that same 20,000 gallon pool, you’ll need $139.96 plus tax. You’ll still need salt, though. So, after your Home Depot run, you’ll be out another $63.70. Then, every time you add a make up bag of salt during the year, you’re supposed to add a container of Salt Water Magic Support, for $24.99.

That works out to be about $30 every time you add a bag of salt. And Leslie's is by far the less expensive salt water based program.

Hmmm… I thought these Salt Systems were supposed to eliminate all these extra costs. Instead, the manufacturers who got you to buy these Trojan Horses on the premise of saving you money have now teamed with the retailers to find ways to make this just another way of separating you from even more of your money.

You have to admit that if you listen to the Industry Experts, and follow their advice on what you ought to buy, you're going to be out a lot more money than if you'd stuck to your old chlrorine tab feeder and a bucket of shock.

Well, at least Leslie’s calls theirs a Salt System.

These are the kinds of Staring You Right In The Face If You Know Where To Look observations that make me that Glass Half Empty kind of guy.

The saddest part is, everything I've said is true.


Evan said...

Yes, I have to agree that everything you said is true but then again, it's old news for the people who frequent the pool forums that you seem to disdain so much. Hmmmm, could you have possibly found out this info by browsing the forums? If you are going to talk about deceptive practices by Chemtura, Bioguard's parent company, how about their company line that CYA levels up to 200 ppm do not present problems (when using their trichlor products) and to back them up they quote the Pinellas County Study funded by Olin as proof!
Also, the original patents on borates are held by John Garvin, who started Proteam which was later sold to Haviland.

Evan said...

Also, Salt Water Magic is NOT a Leslie's brand. It is a line by NaturalChemistry, the folks who push enzymes and phospate removers. Swimpure is also NOT a rebranded Goldline Aquarite since Hayward owns Goldline Controls. I suspect that they will eventually make a trasition to having the entire line Hayward branded.

Just clearing up some of your statements.

The Pool Guy said...


Yes, I know. And I even thought about referencing your thread, the great sodium tetraborate experiment, when I mentioned the Home Depot run for Borax. But I didn't. Because this is My Beach, My Board, My Wave... and, too, I knew if I didn't, you'd write to remind me.

And, you're right, Salt Water Magic isn't a Leslie's branded product, but it's a matter of semantics to say that Swimpure isn't a Goldline private labeled for Leslie's. It may just be Hayward's way of making the transition to phasing out the Goldline name, but it's ceratinly part of the deal for Leslie's to be Totally Hayward.

You know, you talk a lot about this Chemtura issue. I say this in all seriousness that you should get a free blog here at blogspot and start blogging about it. Get the information out there without all the distractions that are part and parcel of the forums.

You could have a much more targetted message that comes across so much more clearly to everybody if you'd do something like what I've done with salt. Get on message and stay on message until you feel you've made your point.

You can do it, Evan. It is something that is important to you, much like seeing how salt has destroyed so many pools here in Texas is to me.

Think about it.

chem geek said...

Some chemical equivalents and names include the following:

Most "pH Up" products are also called "Soda Ash" and are identical to "Arm & Hammer Super Washing Soda" (careful: not the detergent) and is simply the chemical "Sodium Carbonate".

As you pointed out, most "Alkalinity Up" products are identical to "Arm & Hammer Baking Soda" and is simply the chemical "Sodium Bicarbonate" which has the synonym "Sodium Hydrogen Carbonate".

The Alkalinity raising product that contains "Sodium Sesquicarbonate" is identical to a combination of "Sodium Bicarbonate" plus "Sodium Carbonate" plus water -- so it's identical to mixing pH Up with the more common Alkalinity Up (plus some water, since the sesquicarbonate salt has two water molecules in it).

Proteam Supreme and other products that contain "Sodium Tetraborate Pentahydrate" are nearly identical to "20 Mule Team Borax" that contains "Sodium Tetraborate Decahydrate", the only difference being that the latter contains more water in it so you have to add 31% more by weight to be equivalent.

One can also use Lye aka Caustic Soda aka Sodium Hydroxide to raise pH, but this is uncommon.

Many of these products may be bought not only in grocery and hardware stores, but also online at chemical distributors, such as

If your point is that the pool and spa industry is not fully disclosing and that there are myths and falsehoods spread and that the training is poor, I think that's a given. If you look up the antonym of integrity, you'll probably find this industry. That doesn't mean, however, that everything an industry person says is wrong. It just means you need to "trust, but verify" until the level of integrity improves.

The Pool Guy said...

Chem Geek, what a great comment! I laughed out loud when I read the antonym line. That was truly funny, and oh, so sadly true. You are right, too, that not everything anyone in this industry says is wrong. I'll be eating my veggies and explaining that in a little more detail in my next blog entry. So, hey, why don't you get together with Evan and get yourself a blog and blog about Chemtura and all those other CYA bandidos? I'll give you guys a link on the Honor Roll to help get you rolling. Whadaya say? We really need a central repository for all this data that separates the wheat from the chaff on that issue.

John said...

I have had many customers here in Ny come in the store and ask why when they put Baking Soda in their pool it clumped up and dropped to the bottom like a rock. They are told that baking soda is the same as alkalinity in all ways except that alk powder is more of a "salt" consistency and not a powder. Thats why alk powder is better for the homeowner. As far as salt I personally have never told a customer they will save money by switching to salt. They are told, "You are just replacing your chlorine(tablets, granular). And will need pH minus instead of pH plus." Long story short, as a homeowner you need to find a business that has been around for a while,(30+ years) with a staff that is not made up of high school kids of summer break. Pool Stores come and go these days. If you find a good one, spread the word.

The Pool Guy said...

John, um.... yes and no. What you're selling as alkalinity up has a name. It's either sodium bicarbonate or it's not. It's my opinion that pool chemical supply companies use something other than sodium bicarbonate - like sodium sesquicarbonate - to mislead the consumer into thinking there's some magic way to raise TA and baking soda from Wal Mart just isn't enough.

I think you retail guys just get stuck shilling for these crooks because you have to say something when people call you on the old Smoke & Mirrors aspect of charging $21.99 for a 12 lbs. box of something that's nearly identical to baking soda and is available at the mass marketers for under $5 a box.

And I'm sorry about that. Really. I am. But clumping is hardly any reason to spend 4 times as much at the pool store. Put the baking soda in the skimmer and run the pump for half an hour. At a pH of about 8.0, that ain't gonna cause any problems going through the system, and that'll dissolve those pesky clumps and save enough money to afford the outrageous price you guys charge for chlorine tabs.

t said...

Clarification, when you said Acid you are talking about muriatic acid, correct?

The Pool Guy said...


Ted said...

I've looked at Menard's and Lowe's for salt that is granulated as small as the beginnings and haven't found any anywhere. Do you have any suggestions on how I could use the larger chunks or where I could find smaller granulated salt. Also, You've published the percentages of salt, borax, and acid, but they are pretty wide percentages do you have more precise percentages or is it best guess any monitoring?

The Pool Guy said...


Sorry it has taken so long to get back to you on this. I don't check my Pool Guy e-mail nearly often enough.

I use Aqua Salt on my pools. Here's a link:

It may be available in your area, probably at pool stores only. What you're looking for is Food Quality salt. Reason being is that industrial grade is going to have contaminants in it. Pretty much any pool store is going to have some brand of Food Quality salt available. I've even seen some brands of Pool Salt at the Big Box stores.

The next comment contains a procedure I e-mail out to folks who write and ask how to replicate what they're getting with that stuff you're using. It's too long for a single post in the comments section, so read it below.

The Pool Guy said...

Getting away from that program you're on is a whole different way of looking at adding salt and the other additives into your pool. First, stop using that stuff altogether. No more weekly dosing.

Now, we're going to treat the three components that make up that program as separate things to measure:

1. Salt level
2. Sodium Tetraborate level (20 Mule Team Borax)
3. pH level

Salt level: Buy the Taylor Salt Test Kit. Here's a link to the kit I use from an online store. This company has been around a long time, they have fair prices and they also have a service business so they're knowledgeable. If you need to call them for help, chances are the person who answers the phone isn't just a shipping clerk.

Most salt systems require 2700 to 3200 ppm. Some require more. Check your owner's manual to see what level is required for your pool. If you have the Bio Guard Mineral Springs salt system, it's a private labeled Hayward Goldline Aquarite. So, monitor your salt level to maintain it between 2700 and 3200 ppm. Here's a link to the Hayward Goldline Aquarite owner's manual. Scroll to page 4.

This is a table that shows you, based on the gallons in your pool and the current salt level how much salt to add to get to 3200 ppm. You won't have to do this more than a couple times a year, because unless you get a lot of rain or a lot of splash out, the salt level stays pretty constant.

Where you get your salt is important. I've had a bit of a change of heart with the water softener salts. Often, they have additives to minimize corrosion in the water softening tanks. These additives are often phosphate based, which can convert to orthophosphates, which is algae food. Too, these pellets with the additives can stain your plaster if you let the pellets dissolve without brushing them around.

The Pool Guy said...

Sodium Tetraborate level (20 Mule Team Borax) - Go to your Bio Guard store and ask them to sell you some Optimizer test strips. They're the only place I know that sells test strips for sodium tetraborate (Optimizer, aka Proteam, aka 20 Mule Team Borax). You're going to have a residual of sodium tetraborate in your pool already. So when you test with the test strips, don't be surprised if you already have the target dose of 30 to 50 ppm. If you don't, then go to the dosage chart at the Proteam site, here:

and use this to determine how much 20 Mule Team Borax you're going to add to your pool. Like salt, it only goes away with rain and splash out, so you won't have to do this very often, either.

Both salt level and sodium tetraborate level should be checked once a month. If you see that it stays the same from month to month, then you can reduce the frequency of your testing. Just remember to go back to month to month testing during your rainy season and during your prime pool season when the pool gets a lot of use and you have lots of splash out. You will be amazed at how little salt and 20 Mule Team you use in the cours e of a year, and how much cheaper this approach is over those weekly bags you were buying.

pH level: Using any good test kit, test your pH every week. Test it and adjust it. You use soda ash to raise pH and muriatic acid to lower it. You will probably only have to lower your pH because of the inherent rise in pH caused by a salt system. The easy way to adjust pH is, if it's high, add one pint of muriatic acid (for a small pool) or add one quart of muriatic acid (for a big pool), either dilute it in water first or run the pump and circulate the water in the vicinity that you add it with your pool pole and wall brush or skim net. It also helps to add the acid near a return so that the force of the jet can help disperse the acid into the water. Now, wait a day and retest pH. If it's still high, add another pint /quart and repeat, etc. until you get a pH level of 7.5.

And there you have it! Good luck with your pool.