Pool maintenance guide

If you have a swimming pool, cleaning and maintenance are crucial to keep the water safe.
 
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  • Updated:3 Mar 2008
 

01 .Introduction

Hands cupping pool water

If you have a swimming pool, cleaning and maintenance are crucial to keeping the water safe for you and your family.

From collecting leaves and debris to keeping the chlorine levels stable, there is a huge range of tricks, tools and products that will keep your pool in tip top shape.

This guide provides information about what to look for when you’re deciding which pool maintenance regime and equipment will suit your needs. This includes:

  • Cleaning your pool
  • Pool chemicals
  • Pool heating

Cleaning your pool looks at the different options for collecting the dirt and leaves that inevitably collect in pool water. We outline the pros and cons of various cleaning systems, to help you decide which type will be the best choice for you — from simple creepy crawlies to high pressure cleaners with their own booster pump. 

Pool chemicals describes how best to chlorinate your pool water, looking at the pros and cons of regularly adding chlorine mechanically, by hand or installing a salt chlorinator. We also explain why the chemical balance (including pH) of your water is crucial for sanitisation and swimmer comfort. 

Pool heating describes the various solar, gas and electric options that are available, and suggests which type is likely to suit your climate, lifestyle and budget.

Please note: this information was current as of March 2008 but is still a useful guide to today's market.


 
 

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All pools require cleaning to remove the leaves, dirt and human residue that collect in them. The kind of cleaner you need will depend on:

  • The kind of pool – inground or above ground. Suction pool cleaner
  • The size of your pool.
  • The quantity and type of leaves it collects.
  • The filtration system and plumbing you have.
  • Your budget.

DIY
The cheapest option is of course, to do it yourself by 'hand vacuuming'. The 'vacuum' is attached to your skimmer box to create suction and then you manually push the vacuum around the surfaces of your pool with a telescopic pole. Typically this will take between an hour and an hour and a half and you’ll need to do it once a week.

Employ a pool cleaner
Most pool shops offer cleaning and maintenances packages where a trained pool professional will come and clean your pool. They’ll also check it’s operating correctly and do any required maintenance. A regular visit may cost from $50 upwards. One-off call-outs will naturally be more expensive.

Automatic pool cleaners
There are a variety of automatic pool cleaners. Suction cleaners, often known as creepy crawlies, are the most popular and are also the cheapest. But there are also discharge/ pressure cleaners and robotic cleaners.

Suction cleaners

A Kreepy Krauly is a brand of pool cleaner which was developed in the 1970s and is still available. These days its name (or 'creepy crawly') is often used to describe all suction pool cleaners.

Suction cleaners attach via a hose to your skimmer box and use the suction created by your filtration system to suck up grime. They work by scrubbing the pool’s surface up to the waterline and picking up leaves. Most manufacturers recommend that you remove these cleaners from the pool when people are swimming. There are two kinds:

  • Inertia driven suction cleaners — these cleaners clean in a random pattern. While they will cover every inch of your pool, it may take some time. Some surface areas may end up being cleaned 10 times, others only once. Inertia driven cleaners work well in 'old-fashioned style' pools with curved walls and no sharp corners.
  • Geared suction cleaners — move in a pre-determined pattern and will clean your pool surface in the shortest time possible. They can easily get into tight corners which makes them suitable for smaller pools with lots of steps and sharp ledges. Geared cleaners have more moving parts than the random pattern models, so are likely to require more maintenance.

A suction cleaner made out of good quality plastic from a reputable brand should last for 10 to 15 years. Bear in mind that these cleaners sit in sun and chlorine for most of their working life and can clock up more than 1000km per year – so some cheaper models may not last the distance. Before you buy, make sure the model you’re interested in has a reasonable warranty period. Expect to pay upwards of $500. See our test report for more information and test results for suction cleaners.

Pressure cleaners

Pressure cleaners are more powerful than suction cleaners, making them ideal for pools with a heavy leaf load. These models clean through a combination of suction and jet action. While some can be hooked up to your existing pool pump, the majority of models operate with an additional booster pump. This means they need their own separate hose connection in the pool wall.

If your pool doesn't already have one of these, you will better off looking at other options as they can be expensive to retrofit. Models that connect directly into your existing pool pump may put strain on the filtration system. This is far from ideal, so consider whether your filtration system will be able to take the extra load required.

Like geared suction cleaners, pressure cleaners can reach into tight corners. They collect everything from fine sand to rocks and leaves. This debris ends up in a filter screen or bag which will need to be emptied. These cleaners only need to run for as long as it takes to rid your pool of debris — this could be as little as half an hour, compared to up to 8 hours for a suction cleaner. Typically, you will need to use your pressure cleaner at least once a week — or more frequently if you have a high leaf/debris load.

Overall pressure cleaners are more expensive than suction cleaners. They are also likely to require more maintenance. Models that use your pool’s pump start around $1100. Those with a booster pump start around $1800.

Robotic or electric self-propelled cleaners

Robotic cleaners are good for very large pools, because they are efficient and they aren’t limited by the length of a hose. They are mainly used by commercial pool operators. Like the pressure cleaners, robotic cleaners are capable of sucking up a high leaf load.

They operate completely independently of any pool plumbing, moving thanks to their own low voltage power source. They collect debris in their own bag or body and have their own pump and built-in filter which cleans the water before returning it to the pool.

They are by far the most expensive of the three automatic pool cleaner options, starting at around $3500.

Without regular sanitisation, all pools develop bacteria which can pose serious health risks to swimmers. Top-up water, leaves, grass, dust and swimmers all cause bacteria to grow. These factors, along with the size of your pool will determine the level of sanitisation you need.

Most pool owners use chlorine. There are other options to keep pool water clean and in balance, such as using ozone gas, UV sterilisation, bromine or ionisation. But these methods occupy a very small slice of the Australian market. Health Departments around Australia generally recommend all domestic pool owners have a chlorine residual in their pool. Check with your local health department to confirm the requirements in your state.

There are three main ways domestic users can keep their pool chlorinated.

  • By hand – which involves adding chlorine manually.
  • Installing a salt chlorinator – which produces chlorine and is the most common form of domestic pool chlorination in Australia.
  • Installing a liquid chemical feeder – which automatically adds chlorine.

Chemical balance

In addition to sanitisation, you also need to chemically balance your pool water. The chemical balance of your pool is made up of: 

  • pH (acidity/alkalinity level): 68%
  • Total Alkalinity (TA): 16%
  • Calcium hardness: 16%

You should monitor your chlorine and pH levels at least once a week or every day if your pool is in high use. Total Alkalinity and Calcium hardness levels can be monitored less frequently.

Balancing pH

Maintaining the pH level of your pool is critical to providing a safe environment for swimmers. Incorrect pH levels can cause itchy skin and red eyes. It can also reduce the effectiveness of chlorine.

PH ranges from 0-14, with 7.0 being neutral, above 7.0 alkaline, and anything below 7.0 acidic. The Australian Standard for pool water is 7.0 to 7.8, with 7.4 being ideal.

Rain, water top-ups, swimmers and chlorine will all alter your pool’s pH. PH levels can be raised by adding soda ash (which is alkaline) or lowered by adding acid.

Total Alkalinity (TA)

Total Alkalinity is the measure of bi-carbonates, carbonates and hydroxides in your pool water. Low levels will cause erosion to pool surfaces and corrosion of equipment. It can also cause pH levels to become very unstable.

The Australian standard recommends that your TA level should be 60 to 200 parts per million. You can raise the TA level by adding 'buffer' – sodium bicarbonate – or lower it by adding acid. Bear in mind, adding acid will also affect your pH levels.

Calcium hardness

Low levels of dissolved calcium in pool water can corrode pool equipment and high levels can create scale. Calcium hardness levels can’t be monitored using most domestic pool water testing kits. Instead you need to take a sample of your pool water to your local pool shop for testing. In areas where calcium levels aren’t high, you shouldn’t need to do this test more than once a year – unless you use calcium hypochlorite to sanitise your pool.

Testing kits

There is a wide range of kits on the market which you can use to test your pool water – from simple strips to sophisticated electronic units.

A basic 'Four in One' test is a good starting point. This basic kit tests chlorine levels, Total Alkalinity, pH as well as the level of acid needed to rebalance the pH. These cost around $33. Alternatively, you can now buy electronic testers, which will analyse a disposable strip that you dip in your pool. These strip readers cost around $100 and additional packets of 50 strips costs around $19.

Chlorination

Manual chlorination

The most labor intensive way of keeping your pool sanitised is to manually add chlorine as it’s required. This involves testing your pool’s water and adding the required amount of chlorine. This may appeal to people who are renting a property with a pool and aren’t looking for a long term solution.

The average backyard pool will need additional chlorine every second day – and this can be added in liquid, granular or tablet form.

Salt chlorinators

Salt water pools are popular among Australian pool owners – but they don’t do away with the need for chlorine. Salt water pools use salt chlorinators to convert common salt crystals into chlorine gas which is soluble in water. You can install a salt chlorinator into the existing pipe work of any kind of pool. The only exception is above ground pools with metal structures - as they will rust.

Salt chlorinators use an electrolysis process to turn salt into chlorine gas which in water forms Hypochlorous acid – this is what disinfects your water. The size of salt chlorinator you need will be determined by:

  • The size of the pool
  • The environment, for example weather and leaf load
  • Bathing load
  • Temperature of the water

Your chlorinator should be able to cope with your pool’s maximum bathing load. So if your child’s basketball team is planning to come over regularly, factor that into your calculations. Also consider your climate. A pool in tropical North Queensland will have different chlorine requirements to a pool in suburban Melbourne.

There are two kinds of salt chlorinators – those that are self cleaning and those that aren’t. If you don’t buy a self cleaning model, you will need to manually clean the salt from the cell. This could be required as frequently as every fortnight. Self cleaning models don’t require this intensive maintenance but they are more expensive.

When a salt chlorinator is initially installed, you will need to add salt to your water. The recommended initial dose is 4kg of salt per 1000 litres. This is no where near as high as the salt levels in the ocean. The electrolysis process doesn’t consume salt but 20 to 30% will be lost every year due to backwashing, splashing and overflow. Periodic salt top-ups will be needed.

Salt chlorinators operate automatically — so you can go on holiday, knowing your pool water will remain safe. They are also cost effective to run. The ongoing costs of an average domestic pool with a salt chlorinator should be around $10-15 a month.

The initial cost of a salt chlorinator ranges from $600 to over $2000. You can expect them to last for around 5 years — but eventually they will wear out because the electrolysis process is sacrificial. This means the cell is gradually consumed by the electrolysis process.

The capacity of a chlorinator is generally expressed in grams per hour. Some pool suppliers will express a unit’s capacity in terms of its liquid, granular or tablet chlorine equivalent. As a guide, liquid chlorine is about 12 to 15% chlorine, granular chlorine is about 65% chlorine and tablets can be up to 100% chlorine.

While salt chlorinators automatically put chlorine into your pool, you still need to monitor and adjust the pH, Total Alkalinity and Calcium hardness.

Liquid chemical feeders

Liquid chemical feeders are fitted to your pool’s filtration system and automatically add liquid chlorine, and in some cases, acid to the water. The simplest models only inject chlorine into your pool – the amount and frequency will be programmed by you. These units start from around $600.

More sophisticated models have a sensor probe which automatically tests the chlorine and pH levels of your pool every few minutes. They then inject chlorine and/or acid to keep the water clean and balanced. This means that if 10 people jump into in your swimming pool, the feeder will automatically inject more chlorine.

These models start at around $2000, plus there will be the ongoing costs of liquid chlorine and acid.

Even though the more sophisticated models monitor and adjust pH levels, it’s still recommended that you regularly test the levels yourself.

Verdict

Which chlorination system will suit you?

  • If you have the time or aren’t looking for a long-term solution, manual chlorination may suit you.
  • Although the initial set up costs are high, salt chlorinators can be a convenient and economical option over time, because they generate their own chlorine.
  • With liquid chemical feeders, there's no cost-saving in terms of chemicals over time. But the chemical balance of your pool will be steadier.

In cooler climates, heating your pool can give you more swimming time than just the summer months.

There are three main heating options:

  • Solar heating
  • Gas heating
  • Electric heating (heat pump)

An ideal pool temperature is said to be around 25 degrees Celsius. The best heating choice for you will depend on where you live, how you use your pool and your budget.

No matter how you heat your pool, a solar/thermal blanket is an excellent way to reduce heat loss over night. These blankets not only keep the heat in, they also reduce evaporation. For this reason, some state governments offer rebates if you buy one — so find out what’s on offer in your state.

Solar heating

If you live in an area with a lot of sun and have a large roof area, solar-powered heating is an efficient option. Installation of a solar heating system starts around $5000 for a pool sized 50,000 litres.

Solar heating works by pumping pool water into rubber matting that is installed on your roof. The matting is hot from the sun, and transfers the heat to the water before it returns to the pool.

A solar controller allows you to preset the water temperature you want. In order to be effective the rubber matting should be equal to at least 80% of the surface area of your pool. Ideally the matting should be installed on North- or West-facing roofs.

While solar heating is the most efficient form of heating, a cloudy day could leave your pool too cool for a dip. But in warmer, sunnier climates it’s realistic for a solar system to heat the water to 17-20 degrees, 10 months a year.

If you live in a tropical climate where your pool water becomes too warm to be refreshing, a solar heating system can be used to cool it down. The water is cooled by pumping it through your rubber matting at night.

Gas heating

Gas heating is good option if you have access to natural gas. You can use gas heating to maintain a constant temperature, or alternatively just turn it on for the occasions when you want to swim. The latter option will naturally be more economical but it will require planning as the water will take between 12 to 24 hours to reach its ideal temperature.

If you want constant heat, you can use a thermostat to maintain the temperature. A gas heater will cost from $6000 for an average-sized pool. The ongoing costs will be dependent on the gas price in your area.

Electric heating (heat pumps)

If want your pool to stay at a steady temperature for 12 months a year, a heat pump can be a good option. Small heat pumps start at $6000, but a more realistic cost would be around $9000 to 10,000 to heat an average-sized outdoor pool.

Heat pumps use the same technology as air conditioning and refrigeration. In simple terms, they draw water in from your pool, and pump it through a heat exchanger, which is very energy efficient. Initially heat pumps will take 2 to 4 days to heat your pool to an adequate temperature. So if you only plan to heat your pool occasionally, some planning is involved.

Verdict

Which heating system will suit you?

  • Solar heating won’t deliver a perfect temperature all year round – unless you live in a very sunny place. But it is suitable for warmer, sunnier climates or for swimmers who are prepared to miss out in bad weather. It’s also the most economical of the three options.
  • Gas heating is a good option if you don’t use your pool all the time, but do want it heated when you do. If you’re after constant heating, it can be more economical than a heat pump if gas is cheap in your area.
  • Electric heating is a good option if you want to heat your pool all year round.
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