Sunday, April 06, 2008

Green Pools - and other nonsense - In Florida

A few weeks ago, I saw a newspaper story in the Orlando Sentinel titled “Ensure that your swimming pool is on the road to greener pastures”. Now, normally, green is a bad color for a pool. But it’s the latest thing, you know; Green Pools - as in Environmentally Friendly Pools. Here’s the link to the story:


http://www.orlandosentinel.com/features/home/orl-green0908mar09,0,599071.story

The story goes something like this; while homeowners have become ecologically aware about their homes and their landscaping, they aren’t paying as much attention as they ought to their pools. But the Florida Green Building Coalition has the answers.

To quote the article; “Pools are not environmentally sustainable, according to this nonprofit corporation that sets green-building standards in Florida, oversees green-building certification and serves as a resource for builders and consumers. Although a popular amenity for homes in Florida, swimming pools and spas utilize precious fresh water resources and harmful chemicals in their operation and maintenance,’ the coalition says in its Green Home Standard Reference Guide. If you want your pool to go green, the organization recommends taking steps to minimize or eliminate the use of chemicals, minimize the energy used for pumping and heating and reduce reliance on fresh water by minimizing evaporation.”

So far, so good. I agree with everything they’re saying. Pools aren’t environmentally sustainable. They require tons of extra electricity to filter the water, electricity that wouldn’t be part of the home’s carbon footprint if the pool wasn’t in the backyard. Too, they require an entire industry in chemical manufacturing and subsequent distribution to the end user, the pool owner or your local pool service company. That’s another whole carbon footprint that gets stamped on our society so that a select few people can enjoy a backyard pool. Minimizing energy use for heating and evaporation, too, a good idea. Sounds like a pool cover, either the bubble type or the automatic, track driven safety cover would handle that. The automatic one is going to add to the electrical load, but it’s easier to use and so would get used more often, thus saving more water and heating costs. So, the offset is probably real.

Then, the article veers off into the Twilight Zone. If you know anything about pools and the issues that surround their environmental impact, you can tell that this is where the reporter, G. K. Sharman, exhausted their knowledge of these topics and started cutting and pasting disparate pieces to try to cobble together a middle and an end for the story.

The story goes on; “Use a salt- or UV-sterilization system instead of chlorine. This is the top item on the coalition's list of pool standards.” Now go back to the first quote from the story - “swimming pools and spas utilize precious fresh water resources” - Yes, they do. But nothing makes pool waste water more expensive to reclaim than adding 3,500 ppm salt to it. Desalinization is the most expensive of the waste treatment procedures, and almost no municipalities in the US use the technique. They just rely on dilution to keep the chloride level below their established threshold.

The story goes on; “Pools generally need chlorine concentrations of 2 to 4 parts per million to stay clean. The chemical generally is added weekly and in high quantities, but it can evaporate fairly quickly.”

First of all, chlorine doesn’t “evaporate”. I guess that was just a handy word used for expediency at the cost of accuracy. But if it did, chlorine produced by a salt system would “evaporate” just as quickly as chorine added to a pool through chlorine based products. Further, you’re increasing the carbon footprint of the pool by adding another appliance; the salt system. Not to mention that its a bit misleading to advise people to use a salt system instead of chlorine. In spite of salt systems being at the top of the coalition’s list of ways to reduce chemical use, you’re still using chlorine. The article even says so, after just telling you to use salt INSTEAD OF chlorine, they say, a “ salt system converts salt into chlorine, eliminating the need to transport and handle chlorine tablets or liquid”.

Ah-hah. So, is that what they meant? Eliminate the carbon footprint of the manufacturing and distribution system by making your chlorine at home? Has anyone done any studies that show that inexpensively manufactured (read cheaply made) and inefficient home electrolysis units, usually operated at less than optimum performance by homeowners, are more environmentally friendly than a professionally monitored manufacturing process?

Did you see what I just did? See how I asked them to prove their claims by showing us studies? I learned that from a Salt Rep. There’s this Huge Pain In The Ass Salt Rep who’s always answering every question about the disastrous effects of salt water pools by saying, “Okayfine, just show us the records for that pool with the salt damage for the last thirty years. And then show us contrasting records from other pools that you don’t have these problems with. Oh, you don’t have the records? So very sorry, we cannot help you.”

But getting back to the efficiencies of professionally manufactured chlorine versus homemade chlorine. When you manufacture chlorine, I’m thinking that you’re probably going to be a bit more aware of the process, and things like salt level, conductivity, cell plate condition and cleanliness, etc. - all those things that go into minimizing the cost and greenhouse effects of manufacturing - than a homeowner who looks at a salt meter every once in a while and based on it’s less than accurate readings, dumps a bag or two of salt into the pool and cranks up the salt system output (which increases the energy consumption and increases the carbon footprint... get it?)

But homemade chlorine must be what they think is best, because the very next thing they say is, “A salt system converts salt into chlorine, eliminating the need to transport and handle chlorine tablets or liquid. ‘Chlorine is a toxic chemical,’ said Tracy DeCarlo, a Florida Green Home certifying agent and a home-design function analyst with Detailed Solutions Inc. ‘I don't believe we should be drinking it or swimming in it.’ Pool water that is sanitized by a salt system feels like bath water and won't ruin hair or bathing suits the way chlorine does, DeCarlo says.”

Did you catch that? Ms. DeCarlo says that chlorine’s a toxic chemical and we shouldn’t drink it or swim in it. But chlorine made from a salt system won’t ruin your hair or bathing suit the way that chlorine does. I’m confused. If we’re talking about HOCL, we’re talking about HOCL. I don’t care where you get it.

But doesn’t that sound familiar? That thing about the bathing suits and ruining your hair? Doesn’t that sound like something right out of a salt system marketing brochure? Because it is.

http://www.jandy.com/html/products/chlorinegenerators/

By the way, while you’re checking that out, check out the UPDATE at the bottom of that page. I like to call that the Pool Guy Update. It wasn’t there until I started blogging about all of this stuff a year and a half ago.

So, anyway, I wrote to Ms. DeCarlo about this mix up.

I would have written to the newspaper, but they’ve removed all contact information from their online publication. Last season, this newspaper used to list the e-mail addresses of the editors of their different departments. But this year, they just created a Comments section (or Rant Here Section, as I like to call it) for people with opposing viewpoints. It cuts way down on all the e-mails they have to read, and relieves them of their journalistic responsibility to be responsive to the public. Geez, and they wonder why newspapers are going the way of the dinosaur.

Anyway, getting back to Ms. DeCarlo. I wrote to her and said that her, “salt system recommendation really snows me. I can't think of a single appliance that is less environmentally friendly than a salt system... On your own website [Ms. DeCarlo has a website, a good one, called Detailed Solutions. Here’s the link:
http://buildingtips.net/ ] you link to an article you wrote encouraging folks to use salt-free water softeners. In volume 2, issue 4 you state, ‘Traditional water softeners... work by exchanging calcium and magnesium ions with sodium or potassium. These methods lead to increased salt concentrations, which are then carried into drinking water and into the environment’. And you're right about it being carried into the environment. Electrolytic salt chlorination systems do the same thing, either through the release of brackish (3500 to 4500 part per million) backwash effluent, draining the pool for maintenance, and even splash out during use. In every one of those cases, the salt contaminated water finds it's way back into the environment. Even if you discharge it to the sewer system, salt is considered a ‘pass through’ pollutant and is not removed from the waste stream during waste water treatment.”

She responded the same day:

“I certainly appreciate your feedback and wanted to let you know that when asked about pools I specifically told them that I am far from an expert on the subject. I gave them several ideas that can contribute to a green pool and told them to get proper information from someone in the industry. I didn’t expect my input to be included in the article.

Tracy DeCarlo
Detailed Solutions, Inc.
Home Building Function Analyst
Certified Green Professional
Florida Green Home Standard Certifying Agent
Certified Aging in Place Specialist
Free EZINE - 'Tips for Designing a Functional Home'
www.buildingtips.net "

And there’s the rub, you see. Ms. DeCarlo isn’t even in the pool business, and G. K. Sharman knew that, but went ahead and just cobbled together some information from the Green Building Coalition’s website -

Read Page 1 & 2: http://www.floridagreenbuilding.org/db/standards/homes/HomeRefGuide5.pdf

- and some quotes from a person who told them upfront she was not a pool professional, and submitted this mish-mosh of misinformation to the editor for publication.

I wrote back to Ms. DeCarlo and thanked her for responding and tried to provide her with some other information to back up my assertion that a salt pool has no business on the Green Building checklist, except maybe to subtract points if you come across one.

She responded:

“Here in Florida a salt chlorinator is considered a green item by the Florida Green Building Coalition. Points toward green home certification are awarded for the use of ‘Sanitation system that reduces / eliminates chlorine use (prereq)’. I’m glad you addressed this issue and will forward the detailed information from your email to the document committee.”

Now, that response made me think that this Green Building Coalition in Florida wasn’t all bad. So I wrote to the Executive Director, two times, to ask him for comment. His name is Roy Bonnell and his e-mail is
execdir@floridagreenbuilding.org

He was, as they say, unavailable for comment. Now, I’ve looked through the rest of the Green Building Coalition’s website and I’ve read over their documentation for building green, and I have to admit, in every area except the pool area, I’m impressed. There is an incredible amount of detail in all of those other areas. It appears that a lot of thought and hard work went into the green building standard for everything else. But then, Im only an expert on pools. Perhaps the other areas are, to the appropriate expert, just a bunch of boilerplate.

For the pools, though, there isn’t even the semblance of boilerplate. It looks like they just called up a Salt Rep and asked them to write them a little ditty, down to and including a WEB PAGE LINK TO A SALT SYSTEM MANUFACTURER IN THE GREEN HOME STANDARD REFERENCE GUIDE! Sorry for shouting. It was just so unexpected after seeing the depth of the other areas. It was almost like they were saying, “We really don’t understand swimming pools, but these guys say they do. So, hold onto your wallet and click on this link.”

But in the final analysis, who cares, right? After all, it’s just one little One Horse State. Can’t even get their elections right, so who’s going to pay any attention to their Green Home Standard?

Well, let me tell you a story. This falls under the category of Folklore. It’s something that someone told me a long time ago. Maybe it’s true, maybe it’s not. But it sounds about right. You be the judge.

A long, long time ago, back when they first started using cyanuric acid to stabilize chlorine, the health departments were wondering what the “safe” level in the water should be. You see, it was brand new back then, and nobody knew if, after swimming in it for a couple of years, their kids might grow six toes or a second head. They knew that when they fed lab rats a 100,000 part per million diet of the stuff, they died. So, they figured that to be on the safe side, they would establish a one thousand fold level of safety for us humans and they set the the maximum level at 100 ppm for pools regulated by the health department. The first health department to adopt that standard was the Los Angeles County health department, which, in those days, led the way for health departments across the nation. So, it became the standard because “Los Angeles said so”.

Now, I’ve looked around the internet at all the green building standards I could find, and so far, Florida’s is the most in depth and complete - except for the part about pools - and I just didn’t want for that to become the standard for a Green Pool, “because Florida said so”. I mean, we already got a President and a War On Adjectives and a Recession because Florida said so. I really think that’s enough.

Don’t you?

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