March 22, 2012 | Vol. 42, No. 12

Salt corrosion taking toll at pool

The Haines Borough should reconsider the salt chlorination system at its swimming pool in the wake of the failure of a stainless steel tank there that apparently developed problems within a year of its installation, facilities director Brian Lemcke said this week.

“We need to review the salt system and see if we shouldn’t look at a direct chlorine way to deal with it,” Lemcke said in an interview.

Besides replacing the three-year-old tank, the borough needs a $13,000 part for its “salt water chlorine generator,” the device that converts salt into chlorine through electrolysis.

A manager for the company that installed a stainless steel tank beneath the Haines pool in October 2008 this week said it’s no surprise the vessel didn’t last three years.

“We told them that running a saline (chlorination) system would eat up a lot of things,” said James Gumaelius, operations manager for Chester Pools in Albany, Ore. Gumaelius helped install the tank.

Lemcke said Gumaelius told him this week the company doesn’t warranty any equipment involving a saline system. Replacement of the surge tank and of a recirculation tank in 2008 cost the borough $120,000.

Borough paperwork shows there were concerns with the 500-gallon surge tank as early as 2009, said Lemcke. In that year, the borough already was looking into a fiberglass replacement tank of the new, aluminum model, he said.

It’s only a question of when the salt chlorination system will claim the pool’s aluminum gutter system, company and school officials said this week.

Chester Pools built the elevated, aluminum-hulled pool here in the early 1980s. During its 2008 visit, it coated the aluminum gutter with protective epoxy. The pool’s interior was coated with vinyl about a year before.

“It’s going to be hard on it. It’s going to eat it up eventually,” Gumaelius said of the saline’s potential effect on the gutter.

To the delight of swimmers who had complained for years about irritation from chlorine and chlorine gas, the borough switched to salt from a conventional chlorine system in 1997. It’s unclear whether borough and pool officials at the time understood that salt systems were particularly corrosive to metal pools, pipes and fixtures.

But Lemcke said a review of borough documents and his discussions with Chester officials indicate the company stepped away from warranting work after the salt system was adopted.

“Somewhere down the line, when things developed, (Chester) made it clear they weren’t going to warranty their work if we went with this (salt) system,” Lemcke said this week.

Independent Internet sources this week cited potential corrosion problems with salt chlorination with metal pools and fixtures. “What seems to be the case is that if your pool is made with materials that already tend to corrode, salt will make it worse… For owners of vinyl lined pools with plastic pipes and plastic pumps, adding salt shouldn’t be an issue,” writes Ben Powell, an engineer who maintains the website “Pool Solutions.”

According to the website Wikipedia, “pool equipment manufacturers will not warranty stainless steel products damaged by saline pools.”

An October 2008 Chilkat Valley News report on the replacement tank said: “The warranty on the recent work has yet to be determined, in part because the pool uses saline water treatment instead of chlorine.”

That the borough went ahead with the stainless steel tank in 2008 is puzzling, Lemcke said this week. “Did somebody not tell (the borough)? Did somebody not ask? I want to know why they installed the thing if everybody knew that it wasn’t going to work,” Lemcke said.

Brandon Mitchell, a shop foreman for Chester Pools, was optimistic three years ago, telling the Chilkat Valley News that the reworked gutters should last 15 to 20 years, depending on how well they’re maintained. Mitchell no longer works for the company.

Lemcke was more skeptical. “Just painting (the gutters) with epoxy, I don’t know… I think there’s trouble ahead for the pool.” He said salt chlorination may reduce the life of the pool hull and may be the cause of recent deterioration of the pool blanket.

Lemcke said corrosion issues may have been overlooked, or not fully understood, when the salt system was installed. “People are in love with the salt system, is what it boils down to.”

Grant Moore served as pool manager when the change was made to salt chlorination. Moore said corrosion may have been mentioned as an issue when the new system was being considered, but he doesn’t have a clear memory of it. Moore said he spoke with managers of pools who had salt and liked it.

Current pool manager Patricia Peters said the local pool was one of the first in Alaska to switch to a saline chlorination system.

“There was no (discussion of corrosion). We were the first pool in the state of Alaska to have this system. Juneau was second. They waited to see how our pool was going to react before they put theirs in,” Peters said.

Peters said many of the pool’s metal pipes have been replaced by plastic ones in recent years.