I get asked how to clean a pool without chemicals quite a bit by people wanting to maintain their pool in a manner that is safe and healthy for their swimmers. As a parent, I certainly understand not wanting to expose children to harsh chemicals.
I have previously written that chlorine is king when it comes to pool sanitization, and I still hold true to that statement. My backyard pool is a saltwater pool that is properly maintained with crystal clear water, no red eyes, no algae, no worry about viruses or bacteria in the water, and water that is 100% safe for my family.
While I do not recommend maintaining your pool completely without chemicals, I am writing this guide to help you understand the components of maintaining your pool, products to help lessen the traditional sanitizer levels in your pool and offer tips if you truly want to try and maintain your pool without any chemicals.
Table of Contents
Key Components of Maintaining a Pool
Let us begin by analyzing the key components to maintain a healthy pool or pool grotto, regardless of your choice to use traditional chemicals, no chemicals, or a hybrid approach of the two.
Sanitization is a chemical or other actors that kill living microorganisms in your pool water. This includes viruses, bacteria, mold, algae, and other living things in your pool.
These contaminants can be introduced by being blown into the water, animals that get into the water or fly above the water, and swimmers in your pool.
The elephant in the room with pool sanitization is that most microorganisms are introduced to your pool by the swimmers themselves. This includes fecal matter bacteria, viruses, and other human pathogens that are contained on all swimmers to your pool.
To safely maintain your pool, you need a sanitizer to kill these harmful microorganisms. Chlorine is the most widely used sanitizer in pools, but there are alternatives that I will address later in this guide.
While sanitization focuses on living things in your water, oxidation handles non-living contaminants. These non-living organics include body oils, sweat, mucus, urine, saliva, sunscreen, lotions, deodorant, leaves, dirt, dust, metals, etc.
The oxidation process involves redox reactions where the oxidizer reacts with the organics at the molecular level by manipulating and replacing electrons and causing the material to break down. In simpler terms, oxidation burns up these non-living substances in your pool.
Chlorine is also the most common form of oxidation in pools, but oxidation can also come from enzymes, ozone systems, and Advanced Oxidation Process (AOP) systems.
Pool filters quite simply filter particles from your pool water as the water flows through the pool equipment. The most common types of filters are:
- Sand Filters
- Cartridge filters
- Diatomaceous Earth (DE) filters
All of these filters are mechanical filters, meaning they physically remove particles from your water and do not utilize any chemicals in the process. While all 3 filter types will work, I would recommend either a sand or cartridge filter if your main goal is to go as chemical-free in your pool as possible, since the DE within those filters can have health concerns when handling the dry DE to recharge the filter after a backwash.
The process of skimming is the act of cleaning the surface of the water, typically through a pool skimmer that strains leaves and other surface debris into a basket for easy removal.
Skimmers are an important component to keeping your pool clean and do not involve any chemicals.
Lastly, all pools will get debris including leaves and dirt that generally sink to the bottom of your pool and have to be removed. Typically debris removal is accomplished by either manually vacuuming your pool, or using an automatic pool cleaner. You can read my overview of the various types of pool cleaners here.
Similar to skimmers and pool filters, debris removal is accomplished without the use of chemicals and any type would work for those wanting to minimize and eliminate the use of chemicals in their pool.
Chlorine Free Pools
Now that we have explored the various components required to keep your pool clean and sanitary, we are going to focus on some alternatives to manually adding chlorine to your pool for sanitization and oxidation.
Saltwater is my favorite method to maintain a pool. You do not have to add external chlorine to your pool to sanitize and oxidize. Saltwater pools use a piece of equipment called a Salt Water Chlorine Generator that turns a portion of the salt into chlorine through electrolysis.
From there, the chlorine produced by the saltwater pool acts the same as the chlorine added to a non-salt pool by sanitizing and oxidizing.
I enjoy the fact that I do not have to add chlorine to my pool, yet I get the benefit of knowing that my pool water is free of any harmful organisms and is safe to swim.
The most widely used alternative to chlorine is Bromine which acts as both a sanitizer and oxidizer.
Bromine is typically added to pools in either liquid or solid forms, similar to chlorine. Many owners of bromine pools claim that they do not have the chlorine odors or red eyes commonly associated with chlorine pools.
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To me, the biggest downside of bromine is that it is less commonly used than chlorine and therefore may be harder to obtain. I would recommend ensuring you have a good supply of bromine available to you before finalizing your decision on a bromine pool.
Polyhexamethylene Biguanide (PHMB)
PHMB is commonly called Baquacil and is a system that includes a sanitizer and oxidizer as well as algaecides, pH balancing, flocculants, and clarifiers.
Similar to Chlorine and Bromine, Baquil is EPA approved as a sanitizer in your pool.
- A highly effective polymeric swimming pool sanitizer and algistat that...
- Highly stable in use
- Lasts longer than chlorine
While there are many satisfied Baquacil customers, I find Baquacil systems more complex and expensive than other methods to maintain your pool. While Baquacil is an alternative to chlorine, it is certainly not chemical-free and in many cases, you end up needing more chemicals than a chlorine pool.
Chemical Free Sanitizers and Oxidizers
Now that we have reviewed several alternatives to chlorine, I will walk you through the truly chemical-free sanitizers and oxidizers.
Keep in mind that all sanitizers are not created equal and many do not have residual sanitization properties seen in traditional sanitizers. That means that the only time the water is sanitized is when it passes through the pool equipment, so bacteria and viruses may be present in your water until that bacteria or virus pass through the pool equipment.
You know ozone is a gas found in our atmosphere that protects us from the sun, but did you know you can also generate ozone to act as a powerful sanitizer and oxidizer for your pool.
As water passes through your pool equipment, it also passes through an ozone generator that sanitizes and oxidizes your water before it is returned to your pool.
- Wall Mounted
- CD engineering eliminates need for air dryer
- Airflow management via Mazzei venturi injector
- Operates under vacuum for effectiveness and safety
- Mixing Degas Vessel available
While ozone itself is effective at killing and oxidizing contaminants, it is limited to the small percentage of water that is passing through the ozone generator and has no residual sanitization properties. That means any contaminants introduced to your pool may remain in your pool for hours or even days before it makes its way to your ozone generator.
As there is no residual sanitation in ozone systems, manufacturers recommend that you still use chlorine or another sanitizer to properly sanitize your water and keep it safe.
Another disadvantage for ozone generators is the inability to test to see if it is working properly. Some units have diagnostics lights on them to let you know they are working, but unless you check those lights very frequently, many ozone owners find out it is not working when their pool begins to turn green.
Several companies sell mineral systems to lower the chlorine needs of a pool. These mineral systems are plumbed into your pool equipment and generally contain a replaceable mineral cartridge.
- Fits most in-ground and above-ground pools up to 25,000 gallons with 1 ½""...
- Easy, do-it-yourself installation. Everything in one box.
- Cartridge lasts up to six months.
- Reduces chlorine use up to 50%.
- Controls algae and bacteria..Decreases pool maintenance..A better swimming...
These “minerals” are typically copper or silver that are released into your pool water. While copper is effective at killing algae, and silver can kill bacteria these minerals do not fully sanitize your pool and do not offer any oxidization properties.
Similar to other chemical-free solutions, manufacturers recommend using them in conjunction with chlorine or other sanitizers with residual sanitization.
Another major downside is that you are introducing copper and silver to your pool water that can build up over time and cause staining on your pool surface, cause green hair, and swimsuits.
Ultraviolet Light (UV)
UV systems work very similar to ozone systems because they use UV light to turn air into ozone which is injected into your water as it passes through your pool equipment.
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While effective at sanitizing and oxidizing, UV systems have the same downsides as Ozone systems in that they are not to be used as standalone sanitization and it is hard to tell when they have stopped working and need to have their UV bulbs replaced.
There are many types of copper ionization products that utilize the algae-killing properties of copper.
This model floats on your pool surface and is solar powered to release copper into your pool water.
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- Visible Results - Carefully read the instruction on how to introduce the...
- Solar Panel - The energy from the sun activates the ionization of the...
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Similar to the mineral systems we explored earlier, copper ionization can build up in your water to cause staining. Additionally, copper is limited in its sanitization powers and offers no oxidization.
Various companies also sell enzymes to add to your pool as eco-friendly alternatives ways to maintain your pool. These enzymes act as an oxidizer and break down the body oils, sunscreen, and other organic materials introduced into your pool.
- Eliminates scum lines and waterline buildup
- Clarifies pool water so it sparkles
- Keeps filters cleaner longer
- Augments chemical treatments
- Supports optimal water balance
Enzymes lack any sanitization properties and should not be used exclusively to maintain your pool.
Advanced Oxidation Process (AOP)
AOP systems are a relatively new product to the market that combines Ozone and UV Sanitation. Water is sanitized and oxidized as it passes through the system.
Truly Chemical Free Pools
I have outlined the various alternatives to chlorine and those sanitizers including the pros and cons for each. While I generally do not recommend going completely chemical-free, the recommendations below are your best bet to achieving a chemical free pool.
Recommended Chemical Free Setup
If I were designing a chemical-free setup I would look at the following:
- Del AOP system for your sanitization and oxidization needs
- A variable speed pump so that you can efficiently move water through your sanitizer, filter, and skimmers 24 hours a day
- A cartridge or sand filter
- A Nature2 mineral system to provide additional algaecide properties
- As needed, you can also add supplemental enzymes to help oxidize materials in your pool.
Going truly chemical-free is still a risky venture, mainly due to the lack of any sort of residual sanitizer in your pool. If you decided to go this route, you need to be prepared to dump and replace your water if you ever find yourself in an algae outbreak or other water issues.
Dumping the water and restarting is the only truly chemical- free way to deal with water issues. Even if you dump 100% of the water, there will still be residual algae in the pipes and equipment that may require the temporary use of chlorine upon refilling to avoid a continued algae outbreak.
What else can I do to reduce or eliminate the chemical needs for my pool?
Answer: By reducing contaminants to your pool, you can greatly reduce your need for pool chemicals. Contaminants from individual swimmers can be reduced by requiring showers before entering the pool. Pool covers and screened enclosures can also reduce the amount of contaminants falling or blowing into your pool.
If I go chemical- free, should I continue to test my pool water?
Answer: Yes. While the chlorine tests will show 0 chlorine, you will still need to test and adjust to keep your pH, Total Alkalinity, and calcium in range for your pool. If you are using mineral systems or any other product that contains copper or silver, I also recommend regular testing for metals in your pool to prevent staining.
Can I go chemical-free on a public pool that I maintain?
No. This would not be recommended due to the larger bather loads in a public pool. Public pools generally have to adhere to specific water standards that include EPA approved sanitizers and oxidizers.
Wrapping It Up
Hopefully, this guide takes you through the various aspects of keeping a pool clean and sanitary so that you can use the best system possible to meet your needs.
I am passionate about taking care of pools and started over 20 years ago as a young entrepreneur taking care of several neighbor’s pools in the Houston, TX area. Now I live in Prosper, TX, and am known as the Prosper Pool Consultant:
I specialize in solving short-term pool issues with the goal of educating that customer so that they never need my services in the future. It is a unique business model, but I find it very rewarding to see pool owners gain the confidence and tools to manage their pools themselves.