The Persistent Myths of Salt Systems

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The salt chlorine generator is one of the great success stories in the history of the industry. It automates the delivery of chlorine, providing a steady sanitizer level. It removes the burden of transporting chlorine products to the pool. And many consumers say the water in an SCG pool feels better on their skin.

But from the days of its introduction to the industry decades ago, misunderstandings about the system have lingered among consumers. A recent survey from chemical vendor Lonza has shown a persistent belief that "salt pools" use no chlorine and are better for the environment.

The survey also found widespread credence that pools with salt chlorine generators require less maintenance than pools that chlorinate water using traditional methods such as tabs or direct application. Further research found that some of these misconceptions about SCGs extend to distributors and dealers, the professionals of the water care business.

Where have these myths originated? To some extent, they find their basis in the desires of consumers to swim in a "natural" environment, like the ocean, free of chlorine. When introduced to the term "salt pool," the willing consumer mind needs little encouragement to make the obvious leap to the idea of a pool filled with saltwater, like the briny sea.

But at the same time, some sellers of salt chlorine systems, whether they are online or in person, have been complicit in misleading pool owners about the nature and capabilities of salt systems, often through their own lack of education on the subject.

Consumer Campaign

For many years, awareness of widespread consumer misunderstandings about salt systems has been common in the pool industry. The author of this story has had dozens discussions with industry members over the last 15 years who reported encounters with pool owners insisting their "salt pools" were chlorine free. These same industry sources would often add that they knew of competitors that either gave out misleading information or remained silent in the face of a potential buyer's illusions. A few admitted the practice themselves.

The matter came to the forefront recently with the announcement of a consumer campaign by Lonza, a large chemical manufacturer, to dispel misunderstandings among homeowners about salt chlorine generators.

The campaign, entitled, "Salt or Chlorine?" was launched in May 2015 with the stated goal of educating pool and spa dealers and consumers on the differences between traditional chlorine and saltwater sanitizing.

RELATED: Lonza Addresses Saltwater Pool Myths

The campaign was substantial by pool industry standards, with online, broadcast and print components, and celebrity spokespeople such as four-time Olympic gold medalist Janet Evans and HGTV host Monica Pederson on TV talking about the advantages and disadvantages of traditional chlorine sanitization compared with salt chlorine generators. As of December, the campaign website had garnered over 160 million online impressions.

According to Lonza, the campaign was based on the assumption that the growth in popularity and sales of saltwater pools is fueled by misunderstandings. Its research prior to the campaign showed that most consumers falsely believed that a salt pool is chlorine free, uses less chlorine, requires less maintenance, has no environmental impact and is less expensive to maintain than traditional chlorine pools. This included surveys of distributors and retailers of pool products.

Lonza said that consumers it had contacted through surveys reported surprise and dissatisfaction when they discovered that saltwater pools are not maintenance free, can erode metal objects and have associated high electrical costs. Beyond these issues of consumer ignorance, Lonza said it was even more surprised by its findings on the awareness and education levels of those who sell SCGs.

"What we found is that there are not just a lot of misconceptions about salt chlorine generators among consumers, but also among dealers and distributors and even people who report on the industry," says Elizabeth Jarrard, senior account executive for Lonza's agency in the U.S. who worked on the campaign from its inception. "There were people who really did not understand how to sell salt chlorine systems."

"When we looked at that, we thought it was an opportunity to take the high road and say, 'The salt chlorine generator is such a big investment. You may not understand all the facts β€” here they are.'

"That was how it all started. Based on that we put together a multifaceted campaign that dealt first with Lonza's internal audiences and their dealers and distributors. Ultimately, we went to the end consumers. We have been careful throughout the campaign to simply stick to education and present the facts in an unbiased manner."

As part of the effort, Lonza created printed information for dealers and distributors to keep on hand to help respond to questions from consumers. By giving SCG sellers informational materials and then encouraging consumers to work with local professionals, the company hopes to help small retailers compete.

"We know the problems retailers have had competing against either mass merchants or online retailers," Jarrard says. "And so part of our consumer campaign was messaging consumers to talk to their local pool dealer. In our campaign we are urging consumers, 'Don't just believe what you read online, talk to your local professionals.'"

Selling Salt

Jarrard prefaces her remarks with the observation, "The issues with salt chlorine generators are not new."

Indeed, ever since their introduction to the industry more than 20 years ago, salt chlorine generators have enjoyed widespread consumer enthusiasm for their benefits, but the temptation has always been present (as it is with all products) for those who stand to profit from the sale to exaggerate certain aspects of their performance and omit pertinent details.

This, too, as Chris Callanan points out, is not new. Callanan is the owner of North Shore Pool & Spa in Wakefield, Mass. With 28 years in the pool and spa industry, he is able to give the issue some context.

"Have I ever known of people selling chlorine generators as a chlorine free option, or perhaps a pool professional simply staying quiet about what a salt chlorine generator really does? Yes, I've known of that happening. But I've seen that happening with a lot of different products. I mean, I've seen ozone generators sold as sanitizers, which they're not. (You can't use ozone by itself as a sanitizer.)

"I don't know that it's necessarily malicious, this sort of thing. I think it's more often just a lack of education on the part of the salesperson. And that's the thing that concerns me most β€” you sometimes have uneducated people selling this product. They're not stressing the importance of keeping the other water parameters in balance, and they're not saying you still need to oxidize once in a while to get out the contaminants that have built up, and so forth."

"What concerns me is the customers who may be led to believe that since they've got a salt chlorine generator, they're set for the season. That's just not a true statement. You can't let people walk away believing that."

Free Installation

The view from Jerry Pahl in suburban Tampa is similar, with some caveats. Pahl is owner of Pool Medic in Lutz, Fla., just north of the Bay Area, where salt systems are quite popular β€” along with their myths.

"Are some people misled on salt systems? Yes, that's true to a certain degree," he says. "It's out there. I mean, we have people that come in and say, 'Oh I don't use chlorine, I have a salt pool.' I even have a customer that won't let me add chlorine to her 'salt pool.'

"And I've seen some customers that have recently gotten salt chlorine generators say, 'Great, now that I have a salt system I don't need to do anything to my pool.' But of course that's not the case."

Pahl believes the main source of the enduring salt myths is the Internet, where sites sometimes make absurd claims about SCGs. The problem, he says, is these claims are very credible to pool owners. "Whatever they read there, to them, is real."

But he's quick to tout the undeniable benefits of the salt system, a piece of equipment he endorses wholeheartedly as a cornerstone of his business. Not only does Pool Medic sell a fair number of SCGs, the company installs them for free for customers that are on regular pool service.

"Why? It helps our service business," he says. "One of the advantages of a salt chlorine pool is you have constant generation of chlorine. (You could say that with a tab feeder, too, but one of the problems with tabs is you get a buildup of cyanuric acid with tabs, and you can start to have problems from that. If your cyanuric acid gets too high you inhibit the chlorine.)

"Also, with salt systems running in pools on our routes, that means we don't have to carry liquid chlorine in our vehicles. That's a big savings for us in terms of weight and space.

"It's a win-win. Our customers like it and we like it."

Short and Long Term

Callanan notes that another source of disconnect may stem from the different sales models employed by different segments of the industry. A salt chlorine generator can be sold by a builder as part of a new pool package, or it can be sold by a retailer or service person to customers looking to upgrade their pool.

Those two groups have different business models. In general, the retailer and service person are looking to build a steady, ongoing relationship with weekly or perhaps monthly points of contact, while the builder is usually only involved with the customer before and during construction.

"I think some of this comes from the situation where you've got a builder selling add-ons to a pool who may not really get involved much in pool chemistry. And when they're done with that sale, they're done with that customer and moving on to the next construction project," he says.

"Again, they're not being malicious, they are just not going to be involved with the customer long term."

Like Magic

The sources of SCG confusion are plainly varied, which likely reflects the rather obscure nature of its design concept as a sanitizer delivery mechanism.

It is unique in the inventory of pool equipment. The concept of a pump, heater or filter is straightforward and universally understood. Even other sanitizing devices like ozone generators and chlorine feeders add something tangible to the pool. But the salt chlorine generator, somewhat magically, transforms something that is already in the pool into something else.

It's easy to see how that trick might be the source of confusion. Given the large and growing number of customers who continue to invest in the technology, it will serve the industry's interest to push for better education to ensure a well-grounded consumer base.

Comments or thoughts on this article? Please e-mail [email protected].

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