I have been a water baby since a very young age. The most enduring memories of my childhood are visiting the Florida beaches where I grew up. I took to the water at quite an early age and have worked around swimming pools almost my whole life. As a swimmer myself, I have always been concerned with the health and hygiene of my pool. As a teenager, I spent many hours as a pool boy and a part-time swim instructor at the Miami Biltmore Hotel and this is where I was initiated into the world of water treatment. So when WaterMan, a water treatment company started by my friends and myself, came into being, our main focus was on helping local pool owners maintain the right sanitary levels for their pool.
There are several questions when it comes to taking good care of your pool. If the water is dirty or has contaminants, you could be responsible for making a lot of people unwell and sick. If you have a swimming pool, it is your duty to ensure the water is clean, treated and fit for use. This is not only taking care of yourself but everyone else who could be using your pool. As a swimmer, I learned this valuable lesson quite early in my life. In this article, let me take you through the myths and doubts about water treatment and maintaining your swimming pool. The biggest question is about the phosphate level in the water. Pool owners become almost frenzied with the idea of putting phosphate remover in the water, but is this really necessary? Before we get into all those questions, let us get some of the basics out of the way:
What Are Phosphates?
Phosphates are a salt of phosphoric acid, commonly found on the surface of the water. It can accumulate on water due to several environmental factors and is typically what leads to the growth of algae in water bodies. While phosphates are important for human and animal health, too much of anything, of course, can be harmful. Phosphorus is a naturally occurring metal. It is a non-metal and is not toxic the way it is made out to be. The only fault lies in the fact that it is the perfect fodder for algae growth and could be responsible for your pool turning green and gooey – an undesirable prospect by all means.
How Are They Harmful?
As described above, phosphates contribute to the growth of algae in the water. While seeing algae in lakes and natural water bodies may not be surprising to you, but it means the more algae there is in sources of drinking water, the greater the number of phosphates. This means that water needs to be filtered and purified and the greater the number of phosphates, the more expensive and time consuming the process of filtration.
Excess of algae in water bodies also means other marine life have to fight to get adequate oxygen. The more algae there is in the water body, the more they prevent the light to enter the water. It affects the amount of oxygen other species are getting, resulting in them dying out. Besides, unless the water is treated, the algae growth will only keep increasing. During its life cycle, algae stores phosphates and when it dies it sinks to the bottom of the water body. All the phosphate is then absorbed back into the water and the cycle resumes. Not to mention, new sources of algae continue to get added to the water body. This is called nutrient pollution and is one of the worst environmental offenders.
Do You Need to Remove Them from Your Pool?
But how does all this affect you if you’re not swimming in a lake or drinking your pool water? Well, if the phosphate content in your pool is not regulated, you may as well be swimming in a lake. Imagine wading through the pool in your backyard but the water is mossy and green. Left untreated, the algal bloom can become a host for the growth of a variety of microbes, that could be harmful to humans. Besides, the more you leave the algae untreated, the greater the chance it will clog the pool filters and cost you a lot more to carry out repairs.
So do you need to remove algae from your pool? Yes, you do. But does that mean you need to remove all the phosphate content from the water? No, not unless you’re taking active measures to prevent algal growth. Removing the phosphates entirely from the water is an expensive, added expense and requires you to introduce another unnecessary chemical into the water. How often do you have to drain your pool anyway? Chances are not very often, so it’s not like you are regularly pouring in phosphate-rich water into your local ecosystem.
Phosphate Removers Do More Damage Than Good
Many advertisers who don’t have your best interests in mind will insist you use phosphate removers to clean your pool. But let’s get one thing straight. Phosphate removers can often do more damage than good. They can become active toxins in the water and do more than just remove phosphates from your pool.
Phosphate removers essentially use a metal element called lanthanum. It is classified as a rare earth metal. There have been studies that show species like freshwater crustaceans are especially sensitive to lanthanum. In other words, it is known to have a toxic impact on at least one kind of marine life. More studies and research needs to be carried out in order to determine the exact level of toxicity of the metal and whether it causes harm to human beings. But if there’s a legitimate possibility that it could be toxic, would you want to take a chance by pouring it into your pool without knowing for sure? The safer thing to do would be to steer clear of chemicals that could potentially make you and your loved ones sick. If it gets a clean chit after further research, by all means, use it. But until you know for sure, it’s best to be safe than sorry. So then, how are you supposed to maintain the health of your pool without using phosphate removers?
How Can You Treat Your Pool Water?
There are several ways in which you can treat your pool water without using any phosphate removers. The idea is to prevent algae from forming in your pool. Phosphate in itself is not the problem, the problem is the algae. So the smart thing would be to deal with the problem. Now, of course, you may argue that if you eradicate the source of the problem, that is treating the problem itself. But to remove phosphates, a non-toxic element, you will have to introduce lanthanum, a potential toxin. Instead, what you can do is control the effects of the phosphates by curbing algae growth. To do this, you can use a strong pool sanitizer and maintain the chlorine levels of the pool. I also highly recommend that you use an algaecide to keep algal bloom. What you need to be careful about is that if the algae level in your pool becomes too much, it may be overwhelming even for a pool sanitizer and chlorine to rectify it.
Shocking Your Pool
It would also bode well for you to shock your pool every now and then to ensure it gets a thorough clean. This includes pouring at least three times more the amount of chlorine and sanitizer you usually put in the water. You need to figure out the timing of shocking the pool and how often you need to do it, depending on how frequently it is used, how many people use it, etc. If it works as a sauna or has warm water for a good part of the year, you will need to shock it even more frequently. It’s also important to use the right procedure for shocking.
The chemicals should dissolve within the hour and your pool should be safe to use soon after. Try to carry out the procedure at night so the sun’s ultraviolet rays don’t interact with the chlorine.
The key is to carry out your cleansing with consistency and regularity. If you lag behind, there will be a build up of algae in your pool. So while phosphates are naturally occurring and are a part of our ecosystem, you can do something about their repercussions even if it’s not ideal to remove them clinically.
Signs of Phosphate Abundance in Your Pool
If there is an abundance of phosphate in your pool and it is already leading to the growth of algae, there will be very evident signs of this. Even if the water hasn’t turned entirely green, if you notice a slimy, thin film on the surface of the water, you may be in for an algae problem. Some other common signs of excess phosphates in your pool are:
- Unclear, colored water
- Slimy surface of the water
- Mustard or green colored flakes or debris in the water
- Poor quality of water
All of these may be signs of phosphate in your water but that is not necessarily the problem. The problem is that your algal growth is going unchecked and you need to take measures to curb the growth of the algae. Phosphates in themselves are not the problem, as elaborated through this article. They are neither toxic nor are they harmful. But they do result in the growth of algae which are the problem that needs to be checked.
For example, if your glasses fog over every time you drink a hot cup of tea, does that mean you need to stop drinking hot tea or stop wearing glasses? Will you cut the source of the problem in this situation or will you simply fix the problem at hand as it arises? Similarly, there will invariably be phosphate content in the water. Instead of removing the phosphate altogether, an expensive and potentially dangerous act, it would be wiser to treat the algae which is the actual problem.
Phosphates Are Not the Only Things Feeding Algae
You may be told that phosphates are the primary source of food for algae and that if you remove phosphates from your pool, you will curb your algae problem and the water will remain crystal clear. Now, this may not necessarily be the whole truth. Nitrates, also commonly found on the surface of the water also serve as food for the algae. While it is true that algae eat phosphates, this should be your concern only if you have algae. If you use a decent chlorine routine and maintain the sanitary levels of your pool, you are killing the algae anyway. Now whether you have phosphates in your pool or not is irrelevant – the algae has been eradicated!
Just by accepting this and knowing the truth about phosphate removers you can save yourself thousands of dollars every year. If your pool is clean and devoid of algae and all the other elements are in balance, why would you need a phosphate remover?
How Did the Myth of Phosphates Come About?
You may be wondering why I’m trying to convince you of the harmlessness of phosphates if it has such a bad reputation? The worst effects of phosphates are that it leads to an algal bloom in our water bodies, leading to an imbalance in our ecosystem, affecting other plant and marine life and often contaminating our sources of water. If the algal bloom in certain water bodies becomes too much, it may be too hard and too expensive to filter them out. It may become a lost cause after a point if the phosphate content is allowed to fester. This is where the element gets a bad name because often it is not introduced into the water naturally but through chemicals in our washing detergents.
Phosphates and the Detergent Industry
In the early 20th century, most households, in the western world at least, used natural detergents to do their cleaning. These detergents were often vegetable oil or olive oil-based. While these were environment-friendly cleaners, they did not always do the job when it came to cutting grease out of utensils and clothes. After all, how can oil remove oil? Gradually, after the Second World War, when the world economy was more steady, soap companies were able to develop synthetic detergents which did the job far more efficiently. Incidentally, what they used as the ‘builder’, one of the main components of laundry detergents was phosphate. Phosphate was able to soften the water and it also worked well on stains that were stubborn and hard to clean. It was also able to break down calcium build up. While its domestic use began with laundry detergents, it gradually made its way into other industrial cleaning products too.
The Situation Today
In 2010, several American states banned the use of phosphates in household detergents. Several big brands like Palmolive and Tide used phosphates in household detergent and soaps in a big way. The element had a big hand in ensuring a clean wash. Without it, people found their dishes still soaked in grease and grime.
But the dirty water from our kitchens and laundry was being introduced directly into the local water bodies by way of the sewage system. A build-up of phosphates in the water body served as fertilizers for algae and several water bodies have for long borne the brunt of this. But while phosphate and nutrient pollution continues to be a problem for our local water body, your swimming pool is neither a local water body nor is it a large enough ecosystem in which algal bloom cannot be contained. Phosphates are a contaminant, but not necessarily for your swimming pool if you use the right methods to maintain your pool’s hygiene.
Besides, removing phosphates is counter-productive if you also need to treat your pool for excess copper or iron deposits. You may need to use a metal sequestrant to treat the excess levels of metal in your pool (to prevent the water from turning green or a rusty brown). But most metal sequestrants are phosphate-based. Now if you introduce phosphate remover into the mix as well, your metal sequestrant will not work. So now, even though you have removed the phosphate content from your pool, your pool is still contaminated with metal deposits.
Phosphates and Saltwater Pools
Other than the general misgivings about phosphates, there is also the belief that phosphates prevent saltwater chlorinators from doing their jobs. Now, this is an area that requires far more research and I am no expert in the field. But I do know that not enough research has been conducted to prove this claim. But if there are pool owners who found their chlorinators are not producing enough chlorine, does it necessarily mean phosphates are the elements to be blamed in the situation? Since not enough research has been conducted in this sphere anyway, could it be that the chlorinators are the reason there is an abundance of phosphate in the pool and not the other way round? Perhaps the dosage is not right or you are not using the right kind of chlorinator for your pool. But if there continues to be a problem of phosphates in saltwater pools and your chlorinator doesn’t seem to be working either, what do you do?
The first thing to do is check the size of the pool. Are you certain the chlorinator you are using is equipped to handle the size of your pool? There may be several other reasons why the chlorinator is not working even if it is the right fit for your pool. The climate you live in could have an impact. You may have to supplement the chlorinator with regular chlorine every now and then.
In addition to this, be sure to shock your pool regularly. If the phosphate content in your pool is still too much, maybe you need to shock it more often than you have been otherwise. If you’re doing it once a month, try switching to twice a month instead! Try this for a few months and see if it makes a difference. If you jump directly to the conclusion that it is the phosphate that is impacting the function of your saltwater chlorinator, you may be neglecting all the other potential causes. So try to assess all possible factors before making up your mind and using phosphate remover.
To cut the long story short, you don’t need to use a phosphate remover in your swimming pool. It consumes money, introduces unnecessary chemicals into your pool and the worst part is, you don’t even know the dangers you may be exposing yourself to by swimming in a pool full of phosphate remover. This has been elaborated enough above, but to put things in a nutshell, phosphate remover is a product sold to you by advertisers that want to make a profit. But the truth is, not enough research has been conducted in this area for you to use this product with confidence. There is a lot that we don’t know about phosphate removers and their potential toxicity. So how can we be okay with using them in our pools?
You may argue that phosphates are contaminants that are impacting our ecosystem. But will using a potentially toxic substance to eradicate something we know is not toxic help matters? Our fight should be against algae, which can be helped in a safe, time-tested way. As long as you maintain the chlorine balance of your pool and carry out regular shocks and checks, you should not have an algae problem. If there are no algae, you can swim in a phosphate-laden pool and you won’t know the difference! So don’t fall for claims and have a happy swim at a far lower cost!