Monday, August 20, 2012

Call Me Crazy: Zinc Balls & High Current Flow

I took most of the summer off this year. It was great. Not only did I get away from the Texas heat, but I spent most of the summer in a city that has very few swimming pools - San Francisco. It was great. Foggy and cool, or sunny and cool, or windy and cool. It was cool.

Then I came home. It was over 100 degrees every day for about the first ten days I was back. Got me all tuned up and back in-the-mode again.

Two things caught my eye after a summer of not thinking much about anything but walking up and down hills and not sweating. The first is this pic I snagged at my local pool wholesale supplier:

Notice the little black sign? SALTWATER PROBLEMS? Sacrificial Zinc Anode. They put stuff behind the counter for easy access to their higher volume articles. They have a whole warehouse of merchandise for sale, and about one hundred square feet of display space behind the counter, and right in the center of that display area are sacrificial zinc balls.

I wrote about zinc balls WAY BACK HERE. It was one of the first pieces I wrote, back when everyone was saying, "the Poolguy's  crazy, but you might want to put some Zinc Balls in your skimmer baskets, anyway".

If you look at that photo again, let your eyes wander down from that sign to counter top level, and then over to your left, and you'll see another item for sale on a blue card, it's another variety of sacrificial zinc anode. This one is meant to be installed in the plumbing line so that it has direct contact to the pool's bonding grid. In fact, if you go to POOLTOOL.COM, you'll see that Saltwater Problems have turned into big business for this company. Clearly, their top-selling items are Salt Pool related.

That's really the Smoking Gun, you know, attaching to the bonding grid. That's the same as an admission that Stray Currents are amplified and made much more destructive by these Salt Systems. That's why they want you to attach a sacrificial zinc anode to that grid; to put the least noble (softest) metal out there to bear the brunt of damage from the Stray Currents riding on your pool's bonding grid. The truth is your non-salt pool may have Stray Currents on the bonding gird as well, but you don't have highly conductive salt water to amplify the damaging effects.

Too, there's a chance that the units themselves could introduce Stray Currents onto your pool's bonding grid. No one's really done any testing to see.

Anecdotally, there's the recent article in Pool & Spa News that a salt system manufacturer is suing a pool equipment distributor for breech of contract; not paying for salt systems they received and resold for installation in people's back yard. You know, like YOUR back yard. The distributor explained that the reason they didn't pay was that the systems were faulty, in that they MELTED DURING OPERATION.

Hmmm... don't you hate that when your salt system melts down? It's better than having them EXPLODE, but only a little bit better. One of the installing company was quoted in the article as saying, "They are melting... It's a huge safety issue... I'm afraid someone's going to get hurt. It's a public safety hazard".

Turns out the first installing activity quoted in the article has installed "more than 200" of these systems in people's back yards, and now they're worried that the systems WILL MELT. The article doesn't indicate whether this company has notified these customers about the potential hazards in their back yard.

I'm betting not.

Another company had installed about 40 units, and when failures - READ MELTED SALT CELLS - topped 25% of installed systems, they yanked them all out of their customer's back yards and discontinued sales of the units. So, they're the Good Guys in the story.

Use the link above to the P&SN article and you can see a picture of one of the char-broiled salt cells. If you recognize it as something like what you have in your back yard, RUN!

You see, with most Salt Systems, you're running something less than 20 amps, but not much less. I know 20 amps because the cell fuse for a Goldline AquaRite is a 20 amp fuse. Leave a little + or - room, and you've got somewhere around 15 to 18 amps going through that cell on an average day. If I remember my old safety courses from the Navy, it takes 100 milliamps (one tenth of one amp) to kill you, so this is about 150 to 180 times the current requirements to kill someone. So it's easy to see how it would melt the salt cell. The company who makes this stuff admits that the salt cells melt, but blames it on the installers, saying they didn't properly connect the brass pins to the salt cell, allowing them to overheat and cause melting of the plastic salt cell housing.

The reason they heat up is because with a faulty connection, you have more resistance to current flow. The argument for the safety of putting 20 amps into the water is that with very little resistance between the cell plates, you never have any Stray Current leaking out via other, higher resistance paths to ground. But as you increase resistance to the current flow through a faulty connection, and you have a power supply capable of putting out 20 amps max, you basically have a recipe for disaster.

My blog is full of incidents of pool owners feeling a "tingling" when they grab a ladder or a side rail at their pool. That's Stray Currents, amigos.

I still marvel that we're having a discussion about the advisability of putting a known corrosive (salt) into pool water and then whacking in with something near 20 amps of current flow to save a buck on chlorine tabs.

Call me crazy...

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Shameless Self Promotion

I know you all came here for help with your salt swimming pool, and there's plenty of that info here. But this post is about MY NEW NOVEL. Yes, you heard it here first. VAMPIRES IN PARADISE: A TALE OF LOVE, BLOOD & ADDICTION is available HERE & on AMAZON, or if you're over the "hold the book in my hands" thing, you can get the E-book for a mere 99 cents HERE. If you buy the trade paperback at Amazon, you can combine it with any other purchase and get free shipping.

Try it. You'll like it... And then tell your friends.

Then, scroll on down this page for blog posts relative to your problems with your salt pool.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Proof That Builder Not Playing With Full Deck Emerges

Yep. You guessed it. The Pool Guy Rides Again. Hi Ho, Silver, and all that...

Reason I just can't keep quiet is on full display in these two photos. Take a look and tell me, "what's wrong with these photos"?

Yes. That's a Coates Electric Heater.

And yes, that's an Intellichlor Salt Cell plumbed into the outlet of that Coates Electric Heater.

Still see nothing wrong with this? Okay. Let's try doing a little light reading (you're gonna have to click on the Limited Warranty to make it big enough to read. Here's a little hint; skip down to item 4 on the Coates Heater Limited Warranty):

Isn't that funny? A builder intentionally built a spa and used a Coates stainless steel electric heater with a Intellichlor salt system big enough for at least a 15,000 gallon pool, which automatically voided the warranty on the Coates electric heater.

Why would he do that, you may ask. Especially when he's building that spa for a guy who can afford all of this:

Truth is, he built a reflecting pool on the other terrace of this guy's penthouse. Built it in the same style as the spa, with the big glass walls and - yep, you guessed it - a salt system. He sold him another Intellichlor salt system for a six inch deep basin of water that no one even wades in. And guess what material he used for the corners to join the glass panels on both the spa and the reflecting pool?

That's right. Once again, our Intrepid Builder used stainless steel. Because if it's good enough for the electric heater folks, it's good enough... Hey, wait a minute. Something's not right here. It's NOT good enough for the heater folks. In fact, they denied the warranty claim on the failed and leaking heat exchanger the minute they saw that salt cell plumbed in line. And maybe that's why the reflecting pool lost watertight integrity at one of those stainless steel corners and leaked out and down and through the deck and then through the ceiling of the penthouse below. And of course there was an automatic water leveler on the reflecting pool so no one put two and two together for awhile on where the water was coming from.

Imagine that phone call...

Ring... Ring... "Hello.. Yeah, this is (owner of penthouse upstairs from the flooding penthouse). Who's this? Maintenance? Yeah, what can I do for you? No. I'm not leaking any water up here. I'm good to go. No, my reflecting pool's just fine... What's that? How do I know it's fine? Because the water level is the same as it always is, that's how I know it's just fine."

Now, anyone who's read very many of my blog posts knows that I'm somewhat less than forgiving when so-called Pool & Spa Professionals make bone-head mistakes like this. I figure if you're gonna advertise your services as Pro Builder, then Buy the Ticket, Take the Ride. And in this case, if this was all that was wrong, I'd say it's just a moron who knows squat about equipment, material and salt compatibility, even though every trade journal and even some manufacturers have been saying for years that you need to READ THE FU&%$G DIRECTIONS, especially the Limited Warranties - hence the term LIMITED warranty - before you spec a project that's going to include salt.

But this guy holds a special place in my heart, because in addition to all of these money grubbing, bone headed moves, he sold two - count 'em; two - complete Intellitouch control systems: One for the spa (okay, I'll buy that) and one for the reflecting pool...

Yes, that's right. One for the reflecting pool. The one that doesn't do anything but... well, reflect.

And so it goes....

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Salt Peddlers Respond to IPSSA report. Send out Hired Guns and Crackpots to take Pot Shots.

Pool & Spa News reports that people are already taking exception to the NPIRC/IPSSA report on how hard it is to take care of salt pools with weekly service visits. The crux of their complaint is that IPSSA used the wrong Total Alkalinity standard for their testing because salt chlorine generators are a base type sanitizer, so a lower Total Alkalinity should have been used for testing.

IPPSA responded by pretty much rolling over, beating their breast, crying, "We're sorry!", and swearing it'll never happen again. Here's what they said; "We didn’t really take total alkalinity into account," (I just can't believe anyone would ever allow themselves to be quoted saying that) "and we should have... For all our calculations, we were working from the IPSSA point of view and based our figures on IPSSA’s general alkalinity, pH and hardness recommendations. I admit we didn’t test any further than those.”

What they should have said was, "You people have been lying in all of your advertising for all of these years that your salt based chlorine generators produce a 'pH neutral' chlorine - not a base type chlorine - and so we tested your sorry salt boxes based on the claims made in your own ads. You've been building and selling these machines in mass quantities for the last 8 or 10 years and never once did any of you do a minute of research into these questions, leaving it up to non-profits and not-for-profits to do the testing that you, as allegedly responsible manufacturers, should have done before the first unit went out the factory door. Builders and service folks have been crying for guidance for years on this technology and all you've done is obfuscate, mislead and misdirect, changing your mind more often than Italy changed governments in the sixties, never once setting forth concrete water chemistry guidelines for your own equipment, and then repeatedly denied salt damage to stone and metals. And now you send out the same old 'aquarium-laboratory-in-the-garage guys' to throw rocks at us."

But they didn't. Search me why.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

This Just In: Industry Admits, "The Pool Guy Was Right."

Yep. I'm still the same old humble, lovable Pool Guy. Those of you who know me well can attest to that.

Those who only know me through what I write in this blog? Well, let's just say it's a skewed opinion you may have of me. Skewed either by my sometimes inflammatory rhetoric - some people just don't like the bomb-throwers among us, think that all discourse should be couched in temperate language - or, your opinion may be skewed by your inability to see beyond your own money-grubbing determination to saddle your pool customers with unmanageable, highly destructive technology for a buck.

Up until now my detractors have always been able to rationalize away what I say by taking harbor in the lie that, "everything the Pool Guy writes is just hearsay. It's not research. It's just anecdotal. Or worse yet, just his opinion," even though I always try to post a link to some type of research or plain old scientific fact along with anything I state in this blog. The few who would admit that I did back up what I said with credible links were usually able to maintain their continued suspension of belief by saying, "yeah, but those aren't links about pools. They're studies of salt damage to winter roads, or salt damage to architectural stone in coastal areas. There's no real studies done with test pools."

In fact, one idiot, kinda famous around the blog here (coincidentally, his name rhymes with Con), was always fond of responding with challenges to show records for the "alleged affected pools". You see, his Out was always the fact that almost no one keeps daily or even weekly records on their private residential pools. That's the kind of thing you only do once a problem presents, a problem like metal corrosion, or stone and concrete deterioration. But he would insist that since no one had any records going back to Day One of startup, he and his company - and by extension, the whole family of companies involved in salt based chorine generation technology - were off the hook, that it was all clearly the homeowner's fault for sloppy water chemistry and the Pool Guy was just mean for trying to pin it on that benevolent gang of guys and gals who populate the sales staffs and board rooms of the corporate world.

So these corporate humanitarians would go about their business, as if none of what I was documenting was occurring. They just carried on the pretense of being helpful, responsible equipment manufacturers and representatives, answering everyone's technical questions about how best to install this nearly unmanageable and highly destructive technology on pools, and just ignore the issues I was raising here in this blog, throwing the old "show me your papers" routine at anyone who might raise their hand and ask why their pool was dissolving. And these ploys worked for a long time.

Because the truth is, I'm just a pool cleaner in Dallas, Texas, and I sure didn't have the pockets deep enough to fund the kind of research to reproduce in a lab the problems I was seeing with salt based chlorine generators.

But IPSSA did. That's the Independent Pool & Spa Service Professionals. They're pretty close to being a nationwide organization of, like the name says, independent pool & spa pros, who had been seeing the same problems I've been seeing for all these many years. Too, they had an organization with deep enough pockets to go and get answers to at least some of the questions.

Now, as you look down this page, if you're saying to yourself, "I ain't reading all this", just stick with me for a few more paragraphs before you close your browser. I'll hit the highlights for those of you lacking the Geek Factor one might need to get all the way through a piece like this. And I encourage you to read at least these next few paragraphs. Because this is it; the Smoking Gun, as it were. This is a document that no one selling salt based chlorine generators can hide from. Because it is true, unbiased research, conducted by research scientists at Cal Poly State University, in real swimming pools built for the specific purpose of conducting research for the pool industry by the National Pool Industry Research Center.

IPSSA's research protocal #1 asked the simple question: Can a Salt Water Pool Be Maintained Properly With Once-a-Week Service?

The short answer is NO. And here's why: The research concluded that salt based chlorine generators "do not provide for stable, in-specification, pool water chemistry parameters". What they found was that the pH would rise "very rapidly" after the weekly adjustments were made. This is something that all of us who service pools on a weekly basis have known about salt based chlorine generators since they first came back into vogue around 2002. Of course, you can still find manufacturer's literature that swears salt based chlorine generators make pH neutral chlorine. I explained why that's a load of crap back on November 4th, 2006 in the blog piece Welcome to the Caveat Emptorium. Here's what I said then:

"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 [chlorine gas, caustic soda and hydrogen gas] 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."

And here, five years later, IPSSA and the NPIRC have proved that I was right, proved it in their test pools monitored by their research scientists.

Now, what has happened in that five years? According to an article in Casual Living magazine, in "2002, only 15% of new pool installations were salt water. Today, [2009] an estimated 70% of all new pools are being built with electrolytic chlorine generators and the nation has more than 1.3 million salt water pools".

In 2005, when the problems with salt chlorine generators began to present and people like me started talking about it, not only did the industry ignore what we were saying, but they made an active effort to thwart our message, with lip service to the problems we were reporting by promising manufacturer funded research. I remember around March of 2007 a group of seven salt system manufacturers claimed - via a Pool & Spa News article, "Coping With Salt" - that they were investigating these issues and that results would be forthcoming. But absolutely nothing ever came of that, except that those manufacturers redoubled their efforts to sell a salt system to every pool owner worldwide.

So now we have salt systems on about 40% of the pools out there, and the most credible pool & spa service association on the planet (IPSSA), after reviewing the results from the most credible pool & spa research entity on the planet (NPIRC), says that these things aren't manageable on a week to week basis.

But the damage is done. The money's been made. And the consumer is still left with the impression that Salt's Great, because that's what the Sales & Marketing Guys have been preaching at them for a decade. Unfortunately, if the Average Pool Owner goes off-script and tries to find any information on their own about salt, they're more likely to read the article in Casual Living about how great salt pools are than they are to read an article in Pool & Spa News about the results of IPSSA funded NPIRC research on the problems with salt pools.

And even though some of the manufacturers have modified their pitch to tone down their outrageous claims of the benefits of salt, while totally avoiding any admission that there's any downside to salt at all, you can still find manufacturers Living the Lie on "pH neutral chlorine". Like this ChlorKing pdf from January 2010, touting the delivery of pH neutral chlorine from it's X-Gen On Site chlorine generator. In bold print, no less. It used to be that nearly all the manufacturers would say it, but most of them stopped when they saw the writing on the wall about those pesky old facts finally getting into print somewhere besides a pool cleaner's blog.

Now, let's look a little bit deeper at the research that was done. If you want to read the full report, you can download it here, at the IPPSA website. The pools that were used for this research are located in San Luis Obispo, CA on the campus of Cal Poly State University. The pools are small, approximately 8,000 gallons of water. You can see the pools here, at the NPIRC website. They're located at the top of a hill, with a 7 or 8 foot chain link fence surrounding them. The deck area around the pools is large and there is no vegetation growing near the pools. So, although they get some debris blown in over the fence from the surrounding trees on the campus, I wouldn't say it comes close to the level of debris that we get here in Texas in our older city neighborhoods with mature, heavily landscaped yards and lots of pool side foliage and tree overhang. Too, the weather in that area is pretty mild, with the average high temperature in July being 80.3 degrees. Here in Dallas, our average high in July is 96 degrees, resulting in 88 to 90 degree pool water. So, it's a pretty safe bet that the average Dallas residential pool would have about 3 times the chlorine demand from the salt cell as would be required to maintain the FC's detailed in the NPIRC report.

Another reason I think that would be true is my own personal experience with other forms of sanitizer in different climates. I lived in San Diego, CA for many years, and I distinctly remember keeping my pools on the high side of normal FC with 1 to 3, 7 oz. tabs every week (3 tabs being a very big old deep diver), shocking the pool with a gallon of liquid chlorine about once every never. Here in Dallas, it's typical to add 5 to 6 tabs every week during the summer, and shocking with a couple lbs. of cal hypo (equivalent to 1 gallon of liquid) about every two weeks.

So, I bet that the salt cells at NPIRC were running about 20% to 30% output, whereas we run salt pools through the swimming season at 100% output. The result being that we have two to three times the output in high pH chlorine in our salt pools, resulting in a much more rapid rise in pH.

I would bet it's the same in Arizona or New Mexico, or to the east of me across the sunbelt all the way to Florida: Higher ambient temps and water temps resulting in higher chlorine demand, resulting in higher output from all those salt cells and higher and higher pH's.

You know, when I was younger and more naive about the motivations of industry and the products they sold, I used to have this theory I would share about 7 oz. trichlor tablets, and it went something like this; pool water, given the parameters we need to protect the plaster surface, which is basically an alkaline, high pH surface, tends toward high pH. And trichlor tablets tend toward low pH. The two create a symmetry, a balance of sorts, that results in pretty rock solid pH right where we want it to be at 7.5. Because week after week, on pool after pool, out in San Diego and here in Dallas - two areas with vastly different fill water - given a proper Corrected Total Alkalinity (80 ppm to 120 ppm) - I would see the same pH on all of my pools; 7.5. And as long as I compensated for the high pH of my other chlorine products (sodium hypochlorite in San Diego and cal hypo in Dallas) when it came time to shock by adding a little muriatic acid in the deep end, I had no problem maintaining that perfect pH. The result was I never scaled or etched a pool. And I used to think this was by design, that thought and effort on the part of the industry went into all this.

But the full court press to ram salt chlorine generation down the throats of the industry by the manufacturers has proved to me that the trichlor thing was just a coincidence, and the only real design is making money, even if it scales the pool, corrodes all the metal and erodes the stone and concrete.

Thank goodness for organizations like IPSSA and NPIRC and their efforts to bring the facts out into the light of day. Too bad they don't have the advertising budget the manufacturers have to neutralize the good they try to do.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Stray Currents Are Still Destroying Your Pool... and Spa... Especially Your Heater

Got this great comment today from PFLOVING in response to one of my first posts, in October '06, Why Salt Sucks. I didn't want it to just be buried in the comments so I'm creating a post just for it:

Found this blog and boy u guys are onto something. I too am battling this question on corrosion. here is my story. I have a hot tub with a swg eco spa generator. Made it one year and the inline heater started to show signs of corrosion around the heater terminal. It was replaced and my pool guy placed a zinc anode disc in the strainer basket and ran a copper wire to the bonding/ground terminal on the side of the balboa heater box. In 3 months the heater was toast. The stainless turned into a rusty dripy mess. The thought was that the swg was putting out too much clorine and maybe aggressive water since he had installed lots of these swg's without very many problems in our area. I questioned the bonding that was done from Coleman since it wasn't a contiuous wire linking all the pumps and heater together. So that heater was replaced and all the bonding was tightened down the way Coleman had installed it since most connections were very loose and dielectric grease placed on those connections. 2 months later now the new heater is destroyed....eaten up. He doesn't know what to think but I know it is stray current in salt water and dissimiar metals causing this. I also think, from my research, that the titanium plates and the stainless in the heater are reacting. The zinc anode goes uneffected since its not bonded to anything, at least thats my thought. One person in the industry suggested to bond everything together but don't hook that bond up to ground or back to the house panel as this is where you get stray current. This way everything is at the same potential. Also hook the zinc anode to the bond wire which it will complete that circuit and the zinc should dissolve and not the stainless heater. Thoughts?

PF: thanks for the great comment!

And, yes. I have quite a few thoughts on this subject. Your description of the problem fits in exactly with what I've come to believe about salt pools; if there is any Stray Current on the grid, proper bonding and salty water will amplify it's damage. Not to say that every electrical appliance attached to a pool shouldn't be properly bonded. They absolutely should be. That's how we keep people safe in water that is filtered, circulated, sanitized and illuminated via electrical devices; through proper bonding.

That's why I can't say that your idea of creating a separate bonding grid for your spa is a good one; because I don't think it would meet code. Check with an electrician in your area to be sure. But the last thing you want to do is to compromise your bonding where water and people are involved. And you may say that you're just creating a separate grid from the other, so it will be safe and isolated from the problems. But if anyone gets hurt, all that will matter is that you may have violated code to try to create a less susceptible bonding grid.

Second, Ground is Ground the World 'Round. Driving a new rod into the ground a few yards away from where your house's bonding rod is doesn't change much. If there are Stray Currents in the vicinity, they will be felt on your new grid as well.

Any electricians out there who want to contribute here, I'd appreciate it. I think my logic is right on this, but I invite everyone's input.

Having said all that; the fact that your second heater failed faster than your first heater AFTER you cleaned up the bonding indicates that the better the bonding for the appliance, the more susceptible it will be to Stray Current Corrosion. IF there is any Stray Current on the grid, it will be amplified by the highly conductive salt water and the cleaned up bonding grid will present even less resistance and a more conductive path to the equipment, in this case your heater.

So, the issue becomes one of either getting rid of the amplifier (salty water) or troubleshooting the grid to isolate and eliminate the sources of the Stray Currents. Here's a link to a story from a pool builder, Rod Ogilve, who had a similar problem with Stray Currents. It's a thread over at the APSP website about salt pools and what the builders think of them. Scroll down to his post that starts, "at the risk of sounding like another salt blast..." It is very applicable to your problem. After that, scroll through the whole thread while you're there. There's lots of great Horror Show pictures of salt damage to pools.

Also, take a look at this post; The Trouble With Heater. Scroll down until you get to the part in italics. it's the latest update to the Never Ending Saga of trying to find a pool heater that plays well with salt. So far, none do.

My best advice is take the salt system off your spa, use a little Twenty Mule Team Borax to soften the water and forget all your problems with Stray Current Corrosion. Or spend hundreds of dollars on electricians to find out that your neighbor two blocks away has a bad sump pump.

Good luck with your spa!

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Arch Plaster Study

I do a lot of reading. The older I get – and the less time I spend in the field – the more I read all the things that I used to tell myself I would get around to reading when I wasn’t too busy cleaning pools.

And, man, oh man, am I disappointed. For most of my career I’ve just had my head down, focusing on taking care of my pools, going to the odd show here or there, attending a water chemistry seminar now and then. But most of my experience and knowledge was gained poolside. I haven’t paid a lot of attention to what The Experts write – with the exception of Bob Lowry of Lowry Consulting Group. I’ve said it elsewhere in this blog; if you passed the IPSSA water chemistry exam in the last 20 or 25 years, you probably used Mr. Lowry’s books to study for it. He writes great, layman’s explanations of what’s happening in pool and spa water. But other than his stuff and what I’ve picked up on my own from textbooks and the like, I haven’t paid a lot of attention to many of the documents that end up, through their influence, controlling the direction of our industry.

They’re not really documents, per se. You seldom, if ever, see the actual study information – like the real research data, for instance. The internet is huge and space on it is free, or next to free. But still, you never get a look at how tests were really done, or all the data that was collected. Mostly they’re just reports, or, more correctly, brochures. And the ones that seem to have the most stacked decks and the most biased information are the ones from companies selling stuff to us.

Imagine that.

Now, if you’re a homeowner wondering what any of this has to do with how salt damaged your pool, it doesn’t. Use the Labels on the right to find blog pieces about your symptoms or about Making Salt Work for your pool, because this blog piece is going to have a huge water chemistry geek factor. But if you’re one of the guys who is in that spot that I was in until about a year ago, busy with your route and your repairs, with your head down and hardly any time to read what it is everybody says are the latest governing documents for how we ought to take care of our pools, take a minute and read this:

There’s this report that’s been rattling around the internet and the trade shows and seminars for the last several years. You can find it here:

Sorry. Dead Link

or here:

It’s title on that first website is:

High Cyanuric Acid Levels & Plaster Degradation In Swimming Pools

by Ellen M. Meyer, Ph.D

It’s commonly referred to as the Arch Study. It was a three part study; the first part 5 weeks long, the second part 6 months long, and the third part 4 months long. The gist of the first part of the study is that they put some freshly made plaster coupons into some test tanks and then added as much as 500 ppm cyanuric acid to them, and that over a period of 5 weeks, the cyanuric acid level fell from 500 ppm to about 140 ppm in one tank, and from 200 ppm to about 100 ppm in another tank, and that in both tanks, the cyanuric acid collected as a residue on the surface of the plaster. The fourth paragraph says, “surface analysis showed the accumulation of cyanuric acid on the plaster”.

Okay, so just stop. Stop right there and think for a minute. We’ve all seen pools with 200 ppm stabilizer, right? If you’re honest with yourself, unless you’re Super Poolman, you probably have a handful of pools like that on service right now. I know I do. Most of my pools are under 100. But there are some that are higher. I admit it.

Now, ask yourself a simple question; have you ever seen the cyanuric acid level in those pools drop to as low as 100 ppm and deposit as a residue on the plaster in a 5 week period?

I didn’t think so. In fact, I know so. In fact, it is safe to say – through thirty years of empirical observation - this has never happened anywhere outside the laboratories of Arch Chemicals.

So, how much stabilizer is 500 ppm? Well, it’s about 42 lbs. of stabilizer dissolved into your average 20,000 gallon pool. I’m talking pure, granular stabilizer melted into a freshly plastered backyard pool. Because that’s how this study was done. They took freshly troweled plaster coupons and put them in a tank and put in an amount equal to you putting 42 lbs of stabilizer on Day One of start-up. And how do I know that? Because I finally sat down and gave it several careful readings – something I don’t think many of us have done – and down in the 5th paragraph, in talking about pH control during the 6 month study, they say “because the plaster coupons were new, the pH rose continuously…”

Oh, yeah, that’s Real World. Throwing 42 lbs. of stabilizer into a freshly plastered pool.

So, the assumption I make about that first 5 week test was that they put these new plaster coupons into tanks and didn’t adjust the pH during the 5 week test, and viola! The pH skyrockets and the cyanuric acid falls out of solution, accumulating on the surface of the plaster. Here’s a quote from Dr. Meyer in a Pool & Spa News article: “The cyanuric acid was no longer in solution… It was on the plaster surface, having some kind of affect.”

Now, that’s not really a scathing indictment, is it? Having some kind of affect?

I promise you, if you plastered and filled a 20,000 gallon pool, and on Day One you dissolved 42 lbs. of cyanuric acid into the water, then went away for 5 weeks, when you come back, it would be a logical result to have more than half your cyanuric acid plated out on that pool’s surface.

But then, if you didn’t have any pH control for 5 weeks, you’d have to demo that plaster and start over, because a little cyanuric acid on the surface of the plaster would be the least of your problems.

So, based on these shocking results, this company - that coincidentally makes cal hypo products and owns a few non-chlorine alternative sanitizer labels - decided to do a 6 month tank test. Now they introduce water chemistry parameters. I know that because the say so, a conversation conspicuously absent from the 5 week test. They say the “water in the test tank was adjusted to try and maintain pH between 7.2 and 7.8 and alkalinity between 60 to 100 ppm”. The key phrase there is “try and maintain”. Note that it doesn’t say, like it does later when talking about the 4 month test in test pools “were maintained at…” Old “try and maintain” indicates that boat was missed. So we can assume, from the very language of the report, that, because they were using new plaster coupons, they weren’t able to maintain their own stated water chemistry parameters. You know how it is; three day weekends, somebody forgot, etc.

Too, repeat those water chemistry parameters back to yourself; 7.2 to 7.8 pH and 60 to 100 ppm alkalinity. What happened to 7.4 to 7.6 and 80 to 120? That’s industry standard, isn’t it? Then, after stating these parameters, they contradict them in the next to the last paragraph, where they admit “that pH and alkalinity of the tanks ran on the high side (pH~8, TA~90 ppm), but then they say that despite “the high pH and alkalinity in the test tank, plaster degradation was still seen.

Really? Look at the 3 photos, labeled 100 ppm, 250 ppm & 500 ppm. Those are the ones from the test tanks. Looks like scaling to me, which is exactly what you get when you run your pool water scaling on the Saturation Index.

Now, these “dramatic results” prompted them to do yet a third study; “additional tests were initiated in larger bodies of water where the water balance could be maintained more easily”. They operated five test pools, maintaining their water chemistry at 7.2 to 7.6 pH, alkalinity at 80 to 120 ppm and calcium hardness at 180 to 250.

After four months, they took pictures, which you can see at the bottom of their page. On the left, you have 14X magnified plaster coupon immersed for 4 months in 0 ppm cyanuric acid. Look hard at that photo. Doesn’t that surface look like the beginning of an etched surface? Doesn’t that look like we’ve already burned off the butter and we’re starting to expose the aggregate?

Now look at the plaster coupon on the right, the one that was in the pool with 200-250 ppm cyanuric acid. That’s looks severely etched, doesn’t it? Well, 7.2 pH, 80 ppm alkalinity and 180 ppm calcium hardness is an aggressive environment, all the way up to 80 degrees, assuming a minimum TDS of 430 (their calcium hardness and their cyanuric acid), and all the way up to 90 degrees if the TDS was a little higher, even as little as 80 points higher.

But let’s say that this was done in an air conditioned laboratory in Georgia. A reasonable assumption, right? So, let’s assume a water temperature of 72 degrees. That water is even more corrosive. An extra 0.1, and it being a logarithmic number, 0.1 is a doubling of it’s corrosiveness. Basically, that water is 5 times more corrosive than water balanced to the industry standard of 7.5 pH, 100 ppm TA, 200 minimum Calcium Hardness and average water temp of 78 degrees.

I’m using the handy automated Langelier Index provided by one of the folks who host this study on the internet. You can find it here:

Now, I have a couple of questions about this report.

1. Why did they use such low calcium levels? 180 to 250 isn’t mean calcium as recommended in our industry. When we all start up pools, we make sure the calcium is at least 200 ppm, and I’ve always been told by plaster consultants whose opinions I have come to respect that probably 250 ppm is a better place to start, that 200 ppm is the minimum. And the reason we start our calcium so low is to let the level grow over time, with condensation and the addition of calcium based chlorine products. But why run it so low in the lab? Why not set and hold all pools at 250 or 300 ppm? Because the lower calcium sure clouds the conclusion that it was cyanuric acid, and not out of balance water, that caused the etching.

2. Why is the loss of cyanuric acid only mentioned in the first 5 week study? Did the application of water chemistry parameters in the 2 subsequent tests eliminate that phenomena? Shouldn’t we be able to see the buildup that they talked about in the first test in the 5 photos from the second and third test that accompany this article? Shouldn’t there have been some mention of how they were constantly reintroducing cyanuric acid to the test tanks and test pool in the 6 month and 4 month studies? Remember that quote from Dr. Meyer in a Pool & Spa News article: “The cyanuric acid was no longer in solution… It was on the plaster surface, having some kind of affect.”

Obviously, she’s referring to the first 5 week test. But that quote is mixed in, where the previous paragraph is talking about the 6 and 4 month tests, making it sound like every time you get high stabilizer levels you end up with cyanuric acid falling out of solution. If that were the case, we really wouldn’t have to worry about high stabilizer, would we? Every time it hit 200, we’d just wait a few weeks for it to drop back to 100 and then vacuum the residue to waste.

3. Why in the world would they use freshly troweled plaster coupons to run this test? When would new, uncured plaster ever be exposed to cyanuric acid levels as high as 500 ppm? Not only is it not Real World, it’s not even Real Lab. After all, shouldn’t the lab make an effort to replicate the conditions you’re going to face in your customer’s backyards. Like I said, unless you bring a 50 lbs. bucket of cyanuric acid poolside and dissolve most of it in on Day One of startup, you’re never going to see the conditions they talk about in this report. And by the time you do, you’re going to have two or three year old, very well cured plaster. Of course, there will be folks who will want to play What If on this point. All I can say is that What If is a game for children and not one we ought to be playing in the laboratories and in the professional journals of our industry.

So, why do I care about the Arch Study? Because it is having an affect on our industries perception of cyanuric acid. Look at all the places I’ve found where it’s referenced as the report that shines the light on plaster damage caused by cyanuric acid:

That took five minutes of googling to come up with those links. And it doesn’t even scratch the surface of all the times this study is linked to in the forums - or the Finger Pulling Contest, as I like to call them - and probably 50 or 100 times throughout the thousands of forum threads discussing pools and plaster problems.

But now, whenever people google for the Arch Plaster Study, a link to this blog piece will come up as well.

What irritates me the most is how easily we were all duped. Honestly, why didn’t everyone say to themselves, “200 ppm stabilizer in the water may be high, but if I wait 5 weeks half of it is not going to fall out of solution, UNLESS I jack around with the water chemistry so much that EVERYTHING is going to fall out of solution.”

And that was the first chart on the page. We’ve all sat here and looked at that for all these years, and none of us, me included, has stopped to say, “Hey, wait a minute. That never happens.”

Is it just politeness that causes us to not ask those basic questions? I mean, when knowledgeable people have interviewed Dr. Meyer over the years, didn’t it come up? Something like, “Gosh, Dr. Meyer, you’re the first person in the history of history to report a 50 to 70% loss of cyanuric acid over a 5 week period. Are you sure you were watching that pH and not, intentionally or unintentionally, creating an environment where that was the only logical outcome?”

The Elephant in the Room, as it were.

Or is it because this report supports what a lot of people want to believe about cyanuric acid, and so it becomes the Straw Man for that camp? If you’re face is reddening as you read this, then maybe there’s some truth to that.

The craziest thing about all this is, I’ve heard there are people trying to DUPLICATE THE RESULTS OF THIS TEST and consider their tests failures when they don’t achieve the same results. You see, this thing has become the standard that other efforts are gauged by. It is now assumed that cyanuric acid damages plaster and it’s just a matter of holding your tongue right to achieve the same “proof” that Dr. Meyer achieved.

All I know is this thing gets referenced all the time, usually as “recent studies indicate that large quantities of cyanuric acid can even damage plaster”.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Lions and Tigers and Bears, oh my!

This study is being used by different groups of people to different ends. The folks at Arch are using it to generate heat for cya based products and a bump for sales of their calcium based chlorine and another reason for people to consider their alternative sanitizers, like Baquacil. People have argued with me that I’m wrong there because Arch also sells cya based products, too. Well, how is encouraging people to keep their cya level between 25 and 50 ppm anything but good for trichlor sales?

That tricity link is on the website of a company that’s big on UV sanitizing. There’s nothing wrong with that. UV sanitizing works and it’s not a scam to be selling the units. And throwing rocks at high cyanuric acid won’t hurt those sales, either.

This report supports a philosophy, a philosophy that high cyanuric acid is bad for us. And it is. The more I read and research, the more convinced I become that high levels of cyanuric acid are inhibiting our ability to effectively combat the growing threat of cryptosporidium outbreaks. Too, from what I've read, it does have the general effect, in high levels, of reducing the kill time of chlorine.

But it doesn’t destroy plaster. Not in the Real World. If a guy lets his pool get to 200 or 300 or 500 ppm cyanuric acid, he’s got enough other bad water chemistry habits to destroy the plaster without cyanuric acid having anything to do with it.

Now, I tried to play fair on this. I e-mailed Dr. Meyer on February 28th and asked her, “when you raised cyanuric acid to 250 and 500 ppm, did you use any correction factor on your observed TA?”

On March, 13th, she wrote back that, “yes, we did use a correction factor on our observed TA for the pool study that was run. We subtracted 1/3 of our CYA reading from the observed total alkalinity to get the carbonate alkalinity.”

I wrote again on March 14th to ask her about the issues of the cyanuric acid falling out of solution, and asked why they used new plaster vice cured plaster coupons for their tests.

She has not responded. If she does, and if she can explain any of this, then I’ll gladly amend what I’ve posted here.

Instead of arguing about whether you can create test tank or test pool environments that will damage plaster, how about somebody asking a useful question, like, "why, when I buy that Chinese cyanuric acid in bulk from my supplier do I end up using twice as much as I used to?"

I'm working on it. I'll have an answer in a couple of months. Sooner, I hope. Also, there’s a second, more “in-depth” brochure about the effects of high cyanuric acid that Arch has produced. I’ll be reviewing it in the next few weeks. So stay tuned.