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Thread: Alternative sanitizers and "chemical free" pools--The Truth!

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    Alternative sanitizers and "chemical free" pools--The Truth!

    Pool owners frequently seek out "Chemical Free" alternatives to pool water sanitization. Many claims in favor of these systems and methods have been made (usually by the manufacturers of such systems) often without adequate scientific proof of their efficacy. Let's take a look at them and see how well they hold up.

    The notion of a "Chemical Free" pool is a bit of a misnomer. If you want sanitized water, as defined by the EPA, you should know that there are only three EPA approved primary sanitizers -- chlorine, bromine, and biguanide (aka Baqua, SoftSwim, Revacil, etc.). These are your only choices - period. Everything else is a supplemental sanitizer that MUST be used in conjunction with one of these three if you want sanitized water! Why are these the only three approved sanitizers? These are the only sanitizers with fast kill times that also leave a residual in the water for ongoing protection.

    Let's look at some of these alternative sanitizers and see if they "hold water".

    First there are the 'metal ion' and 'mineral' systems that might also include oxidation by oxygen (not ozone). Some of them are active and use electricity and metal electrodes to generate the ion and others use an erosion feeder with metallic salts like silver nitrate and copper sulfate that slowly dissolve to put the ions in the water. These added metals (usually copper, silver, and/or zinc) can hardly be considered 'chemical free.' Metals do have algaestatic and bacteriostatic properties but they have very slow kill times so they look better on paper then in actual use. They can be very effective for drinking water purification since the water can sit in the tank for enough time for pathogens to be killed before being used (and this water purification usage is often cited as a tribute to their effectiveness) BUT water purification is a closed system, while a swimming pool is an open system, meaning anything can and will drop into the pool at any time, (such as bird droppings, sweat, urine and feces from bathers, dogs jumping into the water, etc.) For this reason a residual EPA approved sanitizer with fast kill times such as one of the three above is needed.

    Many of these metals systems used to be advertised as chemical free or chlorine free, but this is no longer permitted in most countries for obvious reasons. They might also use the term 'minerals' to make it sound healthy and spa like! - minerals are good for us, aren't they? How about if the 'minerals' are copper sulfate and silver nitrate? Still sounding healthy and chemical free? Ionizers do basically the same thing by electrolysis of copper and silver electrodes. A new twist is combining copper ionization with titanium electrode oxygen generation! - pure pseudoscience!

    What about copper systems - chemical based? (See ionizers and mineral systems above.) Again, they are not primary sanitizers and need to be used with a chlorine residual. Most of this type of product (chelated copper sulfate) is actually sold as algaecide and not sanitizer. Of course there is that 'chlorine is bad and I want something safer' market to tap into, and there are plenty of well-intentioned people who buy into the hype. It makes for slick marketing but knowing what you know now, would you rather have chlorine or copper sulfate in your water? Since chlorine is an effective sanitizer and oxidizer and copper is not (and copper can and will stain pools and turn hair green) then give me the chlorine!

    The biggest drawback to metal ion systems, besides the fact that they are NOT primary sanitizers, is that they can stain pools and people--green hair is caused by copper.

    An interesting thing about these metal systems, is that they are not permitted in Australia even with reduced chlorine levels but must be used with normal chlorination levels. Why? Research has shown them to be ineffective at quickly killing some of the 'nasties' that can get in to a pool. Also, most state Health Departments do not recognize them as suitable sanitizers for commercial installations. Why? Once again, they are not effective without a residual sanitizer. Remember, copper is a very effective algaecide and zinc is almost as effective so if you have one of these systems your water will probably look clear most of the time because algae won't grow but other things can! Clear water does not automatically mean safe water! These systems leave you feeling like you are doing something good for your family, but what you are potentially doing is exposing them to dangerous bacteria and pathogens.

    What about ozone and/or UV? Can't that reduce or eliminate the need for chlorine? In a word, No, and for a very simple reason. Ozone and UV have NO residual effect so again, a residual sanitizer is still needed. The only place these will kill pathogens is in the contact chamber (where the water is exposed to the ozone or UV), not in the pool. Ozone will destroy chlorine but will oxidize organics so it's a two edge sword. You will generally have higher chlorine consumption with ozone than without and it does not allow you to run lower chlorine levels because there is no residual effect from the ozone. The higher bather to water ratio in a spa makes ozone much more useful there than in a pool because it does oxidize organics. Ozone is also toxic in large enough quantities to actually sanitize pool water. For many, ozone is more useful in bromine systems since it will activate the bromide into bromine sanitizer so it works with bromine instead of against it. However, it will cause bromates to form and they are a suspected carcinogen in drinking water!

    UV light can kill pathogens and some of the units also produce some ozone but this only occurs in the contact chamber and there is no residual effect in the pool. Once again, more useful in a spa than a pool. UV might be of some value in an indoor pool in conjunction with chlorine to help destroy persistent chloramines.

    Not convinced yet?

    What about Enzymes? They can help reduce or prevent a scum line but are NOT sanitizers?

    Hydrogen peroxide? Hydrogen peroxide is NOT effective as a stand-alone sanitizer. To have a high enough level of hydrogen peroxide in the water to act as a sanitizer would cause extreme bather discomfort, to say the least! In the US it is used as an oxidizer in conjunction with biguanide.

    MPS (potassium monopersulfate)? An oxidizer, NOT a sanitizer! Some metal-based systems used to say that you could use strictly MPS and no chlorine was needed. This has changed and they no longer say that in the US (and most other countries as well).

    "Proprietary mixtures" that make all kinds of claims and have a lot of pseudo sciences are nothing more than snake oil. If they won't tell you what is in it you don't want to use it! If they say that you need to shock or use a bit of chlorine it is NOT a primary sanitizer!

    What about magnets, electronics devices that generate 'standing waves' in the water, nascent oxygen, etc? If you believe any of this stuff works then you may be beyond help.

    Chlorine gets a lot of bad press but anyone who follows the methods we outline here and at TFP know that a properly chlorinated pool does not fade your bathing suits, make your eyes red, or smell like chlorine! It actually is a lot safer than the alternatives when it comes right down to it.

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    chemical fre pool/pond

    I read a couple of articles about some pool owners (primarily in California) who are using water gardens and natural filtration to keep their pool clean. The pools have algae at the beginning of the season. After that it is like swimming in a lake or pond, but with cleaner water. See this article in the New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/04/05/garde ... 2F4BebiTtw (If you cannot get to it, it is an article April 5, 2007 "A No Chlorine Backyard Pool.") I am sure it is not as sanitary as a chlorinated pool, but it is out there.
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    JasonLion's Avatar
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    Yes, and that style of pool is significnatly more common in Europe.

    There has been quite a bit of debate about that approach in some circles. My take is that it is difficult to tell if you are maintaining the proper balance. The pool could become unsafe with very little indication that you are having a problem. Or there might be clear indications of a problem but no obvious way to get it back in balance. For now I put them in the advanced hobbyists only, swim at your own risk, stage of development.
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    Note in particular the following items from that site:

    The pools have skimmers and pumps that circulate the water through the regeneration zone and draw it across a wall of rocks, loose gravel or tiles, to which friendly bacteria attach, serving as an additional biological filter.

    Asked about safety concerns, Mr. Petrich said that the water in the natural pools his company builds meets European Union standards for bacteria levels and that the risk of swimmers becoming sick is “very low.”

    But given algae’s sliminess and the widespread view of it as disgusting, Mr. Hilleary has taken additional measures to stem the growth of algae and eliminate bacteria, installing ultraviolet sterilizers in the pump area.


    I'm not sure how one can allow for friendly bacteria and make sure unfriendly ones don't reproduce.
    I don't see how the EU standards for bacteria levels are achieved if there is no disinfection.
    The UV sterilizer will get rid of free-floating bacteria, assuming a very fast turnover, but will do nothing for any pathogens stuck in biofilms on surfaces.

    As Jason points out, this is a "swim at your own risk" sort of situation.

    Richard
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    risk of becoming sick very low, well i wouldn't try it until its said no risk, im a big baby when it comes to sickness, thanks for the articles their intresting.

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    They are basically treating the pool like a very large aquarium with biological filtration. The purpose of biological filtration is to convert ammonia into nitrate by aerobic nitrification. It certainly is not removing any organics since the nitrate levels do need to be reduced in an aquarium, either by harvesting algae from the refugerium, anerobic denitirfication, or dilution. If anyone has ever had a well balanced aquarium tested for pathogens the water is teeming with them. I certainly wouldn't swim in it! (and I have been keeping aquariums for over 40 years now so I know a bit about them!) These "natural pools" are nothing more than large artificial ponds with mechanical and biological filtration (and possibly UV). Some designs I have seen on the net have had refugerium areas also. Thses are all common techniques for aquariums and while they might keep the algae at bay they certainly do NOT provide sanitized water!

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    HERE is some more information debunking various alternative sanitizer claims.
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    Federal guidelines for drinking water suggest 4ppm chlorine. I've been drinking tap water my whole life, as have most of us. Considering that pool water is supposed to be even lower than this in chlorine, I don't see how anyone could consider it dangerous at those levels. Personally, I like to run my chlorine a bit above 3ppm (more like 5) because I do use CYA and I'm confident enough that it's not dangerous at those levels.

    I think the bacteria present much more of a threat than the sanitizers. The only exception I guess would be one of those rare individuals allergic to chlorine. Fortunately, my family and I are not. We never even notice the chlorine, as with a SWG your chloramine levels remain virtually zero at all times. (I've yet to detect any level of chloramines in my pool.)

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    Matt,

    Don't forget that you aren't drinking the pool water. The drinking water limits assume drinking of lots of tap water every day -- quarts and quarts of it over an extended period of time. There is no comparison between that and using a pool.

    Also, as you point out, there is CYA in the pool water and that makes the effective concentration on the order of 0.1 ppm FC if no CYA were present (assuming an FC that is roughly 10% of the CYA level).

    Finally, most bacteria are extremely easy to kill so need only miniscule amounts of chlorine. The reason we keep higher chlorine levels is to prevent algae growth since that requires far higher levels than the killing of bacteria. Also, the higher levels help prevent transmission of pathogens from person-to-person as they kill bacteria and inactivate viruses more quickly -- at normal pool levels the 99% kill time is a minute or two in most cases.

    Richard
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    Re: Alternative sanitizers and "chemical free" pools--The Truth!

    Reading the comments on the water gardens as pool cleaners in this old thread does strike me as a bit odd... My parents had a summer cottage on a lake when I was a kid, and I essentially grew up spending most of my summers swimming in, and boating on a pond... The pond had lots of fish and other such critters in it, most of whom presumably peeed in the water and it was never a big concern... Certainly the water was never as clear or pristine as a pool, but IMHO while a pool is not bad, it's a poor substitute for a real pond... So why the big suspicion about artificially creating a mini-pond, which presumably is using much the same sort of natural cleaning system that a real pond would be, and without as much of a critter load as a normal pond would have?

    I'm not going to try and convert my pool to a pond tomorrow, but why the big deal? I never heard of anyone getting sick from swimming, etc. in our pond...

    Gooserider
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    Re: Alternative sanitizers and "chemical free" pools--The Truth!

    Quote Originally Posted by Gooserider
    Reading the comments on the water gardens as pool cleaners in this old thread does strike me as a bit odd... My parents had a summer cottage on a lake when I was a kid, and I essentially grew up spending most of my summers swimming in, and boating on a pond... The pond had lots of fish and other such critters in it, most of whom presumably peeed in the water and it was never a big concern... Certainly the water was never as clear or pristine as a pool, but IMHO while a pool is not bad, it's a poor substitute for a real pond... So why the big suspicion about artificially creating a mini-pond, which presumably is using much the same sort of natural cleaning system that a real pond would be, and without as much of a critter load as a normal pond would have?

    I'm not going to try and convert my pool to a pond tomorrow, but why the big deal? I never heard of anyone getting sick from swimming, etc. in our pond...
    Gooserider
    You may want to read this article, I didn't read the whole site but it does have info on "recreational water illnesses".
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    Re: Alternative sanitizers and "chemical free" pools--The Truth!

    (The article linked to above is in the same section as some more specific sections I refer to below.)

    It's simply a spectrum of risk. There are a proportion of people who do get sick, sometimes very sick, from swimming in natural "stagnant" waters such as ponds. This link talks about an amoeba that can kill you, though fortunately is rare because it requires water to get up deeper into your nasal passages. The most common recreational water illnesses are diarrhea illnesses as described here. This table shows the effectiveness of chlorine against a variety of waterborne pathogens. Basically, chlorine is very effective at killing most bacteria, inactivating viruses, and killing some protozoan oocysts.

    "Natural" systems do not purge the water of bacteria, viruses or protozoa that may come from fecal matter or nasal secretions. They may come into some sort of balance between competing organisms, but quite frankly the pond would remain much more safe if no one every swam in it. It's somewhat like taking a bath, but never changing the bath water.

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    Re: Alternative sanitizers and "chemical free" pools--The Truth!

    One other thing, the smaller the amount of water, the more difficult it is to maintain a balance. Anyone working with a fish tank (especially salt) knows that a bigger tank is easier to maintain (water chemistry wise). Same is true for spa vs. pool - maintaining a spa requires more work because the bather load per volume of water is so much higher.

    I would guess that the same applies to pools vs ponds/lakes. Maintaining a "natural" pool has to be more difficult just because the bather load is much higher. Even so, one of primary reasons that we finally put our pool in is that multiple town "ponds" in our area have had multiple instances of unexplained bather sickness striking LARGE numbers (>200) of people. Most of the outbreaks have never been pinned down to any specific organism (at least nobody released that information).
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    Re: Alternative sanitizers and "chemical free" pools--The Truth!

    Good points, especially about the volume issue... I would say that a lot of the "recreational area" type pond swimming areas are quite likely to have extremely high bather loads as large numbers of people (mostly strangers w/ unknown health issues) crowd into a relatively small area of swimming space - even if you have a much larger body of water to eventually dilute everything, you have to wonder what the concentration levels are during the peak useage times, especially if you don't have a lot of wind or currents to encourage circulation... Seems like it might approach that of a "water park" without the sanitation benefits (such as they are)

    OTOH the part of the lake where I spent my childhood summers was all privately owned cottages, probably 50-100 feet of waterfront per cottage, and this was typical of most of the lake's shore. Figure a generous 4-5 bathers per cottage, and the load is still miniscule... (Despite the fact that it was known, but little discussed) that there were a lot of poorly maintained septic systems leaking into the lake, and that many of the cottages had minimal plumbing, so people tended to really "BATHE" in the lake...)

    Gooserider
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    Re: Alternative sanitizers and "chemical free" pools--The Truth!

    I just (a few hours ago) finished a meeting with the owner of the largest pool builder in our area (Baton Rouge). He said SO much about physically building the pool that was insightful, logical and made so much sense. He is 62 and has been building pools for his whole life. I was flabberghasted when he departed from the planet earth and earnestly recommended that I get Nature2, and stay away from chlorine in the pool because it was bad for you. He went on and on about how guilty he felt for building pools all these years and all these people swimming in (GASP!) chlorine all this time, and how unhealthy it was.

    I tried to lightly disabuse him of his notions that chlorine was bad, but he stuck to his guns... it was so sad, he was so earnest, and I believe genuinely believed he was giving the best advice. Once I was firm, he backed off and said that it was totally my choice and he was just making a recommendation and he realized that he might have gone overboard, but he just felt that strongly about it... I was just stunned... a guy who builds such amazing pools, so misinformed and misinforming.
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    Re: Alternative sanitizers and "chemical free" pools--The Truth!

    I still favor him strongly for building my pool.
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    Re: Alternative sanitizers and "chemical free" pools--The Tr

    Any comments about hydrogen peroxide used with ultraviolet to replace chlorine? I just happened to come across this article, "Could Chlorine in your Pool be Affecting your Skin?" and I'm curious if hydrogen peroxide/ultraviolet is a viable option or if this is a gimmick.
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    Re: Alternative sanitizers and "chemical free" pools--The Tr

    Quote Originally Posted by codybear
    Any comments about hydrogen peroxide used with ultraviolet to replace chlorine? I just happened to come across this article, "Could Chlorine in your Pool be Affecting your Skin?" and I'm curious if hydrogen peroxide/ultraviolet is a viable option or if this is a gimmick.
    Peroxide doesn't last very long in a pool, and it isn't as "strong" of an oxidizer as chlorine. It is used as an oxidizer when you have a biguanide pool, but it doesn't remain in the water long enough to be a good pool sanitizer. The UV cleans up the water as it passes through it, but doesn't affect what is already in the pool.

    Think of it this way: If you were able to fill your pool with absolutely 100% sterilized water, you'd know it was clean. But if 5 other people are in that water, some of them sick, would you feel comfortable?

    With a chlorine, bromine or biguanide pool, the water itself is attacking and killing germs all the time. UV does a fine job of killing germs, but only as they pass through the unit, so it may be hours before the germs are taken care of. Since the HOH doesn't remain in the pool, it doesn't do anything either. If a mechanism to maintain a peroxide residual were developed, it might be a reasonable solution.
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    Re: Alternative sanitizers and "chemical free" pools--The Tr

    Quote Originally Posted by JohnT
    Quote Originally Posted by codybear
    Any comments about hydrogen peroxide used with ultraviolet to replace chlorine? I just happened to come across this article, "Could Chlorine in your Pool be Affecting your Skin?" and I'm curious if hydrogen peroxide/ultraviolet is a viable option or if this is a gimmick.
    Peroxide doesn't last very long in a pool, and it isn't as "strong" of an oxidizer as chlorine.
    Back to the classroom with you, Hydrogen peroxide IS more powerful an oxidiser than chlorine but a weaker disinfectant.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hydrogen_peroxide

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    Re: Alternative sanitizers and "chemical free" pools--The Tr

    Quote Originally Posted by teapot
    Quote Originally Posted by JohnT
    Quote Originally Posted by codybear
    Any comments about hydrogen peroxide used with ultraviolet to replace chlorine? I just happened to come across this article, "Could Chlorine in your Pool be Affecting your Skin?" and I'm curious if hydrogen peroxide/ultraviolet is a viable option or if this is a gimmick.
    Peroxide doesn't last very long in a pool, and it isn't as "strong" of an oxidizer as chlorine.
    Back to the classroom with you, Hydrogen peroxide IS more powerful an oxidiser than chlorine but a weaker disinfectant.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hydrogen_peroxide
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