Swimming pools may not be the "greenest" of our creature comforts. And some people might argue that there is no such thing as a green swimming pool at all. But I'm not exactly an impartial judge on this one. See, it was my early experience as a lifeguard and swimming instructor when I was a teen that led to my first job after college building, fixing and repairing swimming pools and hot tubs in Colorado. That's right, I was the pool guy.
[Note: If you're conjuring up images of a job spent leisurely skimming pools (shirtless, of course) while lonely women wearing big hats and sipping ice cold drinks fawned over me, don't get the wrong idea. First of all, that doesn't happen in real life. Second, this was Colorado, and this was a year-round gig. More often than not, my job involved wading or crawling through ice and snow in single-digit temperatures to repair plumbing leaks and pool and spa equipment -- jobs that would leave me feeling cold and wet and making my hands feeling like useless frozen stumps. This was gritty work.]
While my penchant for environmental politics and sustainability ultimately brought me back to grad school, I learned several tricks of the trade and a few upgrades that you can implement to use less water, consume less energy and require fewer harsh chemicals to keep your swimming pool an enjoyable place for you and your family and friends to enjoy.
1. Turn down, tune up or just turn off your heater.
Sure it was nice having 85° water for your annual Memorial Day barbecue and pool party, even though the only one swimming was that weird neighbor of yours who invites himself over every year and does laps. But if you live in most parts of the country where you actually do close your pool over the winter, chances are you spent a lot of money heating it up to a comfortable temperature for your party.
According to the California Energy Commission, heating the average backyard pool requires the same amount of energy as it does to power a standard size home for three months.
2. Get a good cover -- and use it.
If you have a pool cover, use it. If you don't have one, get one. According to the U.S. Department of Energy's office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) "covering a pool when it is not in use is the single most effective means of reducing pool heating costs." If you live in a dry climate, you know all to well that a good cover will also save you hundreds of dollars annually on your water bill. Covers also help keep debris out of the pool, which ultimately makes the pump and filtration system run more efficiently, using less energy. Lastly, if you do use chlorine, a cover will keep UV rays from the sun from burning off the chlorine. A pool cover can help reduce a pool's chemical consumption by 35%-60%.
3. Use a time clock for your circulation pumps
The circulation pumps on most swimming pools and spas run more often than they need to. But on the flip side, you want to be sure that the water in your pool circulates often enough to stay clean. A good rule of thumb is that water in the pool should be filtered once every 24 hours. If your pump is properly sized to your pool, you should be able to shut it down for 8-12 hours every day. If your pool doesn't already have one, install a time clock so you can set your pool pump to avoid running during summer afternoons, when electricity demand is peaking (and prices are at their highest). Not only can a timer cut electricity costs associated with pool filtration by 40-50% (even more if used in conjunction with time-of-use metering), it can also extend the life of your pool pump.
4. Install a solar swimming pool heater or heat pump
Despite the popularity of solar photovoltaic panels, one of the cheapest and most efficient forms of converting solar rays into usable energy is via solar thermal systems. Installing a simple solar water heating system for your swimming pool is a great way to take advantage of your solar resource and cut down on your gas or electric bill. At a cost of roughly three to four thousand dollars, the initial investment for a solar pool heater isn't cheap, but the free energy plus not having to call the pool company every other year to fix or service the heater will pay off the investment in 1-7 years, depending on a number of factors.
Alternatively, you can install a heat pump swimming pool heater. And while heat pumps are nowhere near as sexy as solar, they can help drastically reduce the need for your gas or electric heater.
5. Ditch the chlorine altogether with alternative sanitizers, ozone
If you're over the dry skin and disinfectant smell you have every time you get out of your pool, consider switching to non-chlorine pool sanitizers that are usually based on hydrogen peroxide or even oxygen. Non-chlorine options include hydrogen peroxide sanitation systems as well as oxygen-based sanitizers. The added benefit of the oxygen-based shock, potassium monopersulfate, is that it is made with the carbon dioxide produced in natural gas production. The oxygen-based sanitizers act as a carbon sink, of sorts. Unfortunately, there is way more carbon dioxide produced by power plants and the fossil fuel industry than there will ever be a need for in oxygen-based sanitizers. Although used less often in pools, the use of electronic ozonators in hot tubs and spas has become particularly popular as they can help cut chemical use substantially.
6. Keep your filters clean... the entire pool will thank you.
If you use cartridge filters you need to take the filters out and rinse them with medium to high water pressure (most garden hoses will produce a good enough stream to rinse the dirt and oils out of your filters. Be thorough and only use a degreaser on an interval (there's no reason to use a degreaser every time you clean your filters). If you use a sand filter or diatomaceous earth (DE) filter, cleaning your filter is much easier but it does require more water. Now you don't want to be drinking this effluent from your sand filters when you backwash or anything. But unless your chlorine levels or other chemicals are way out of whack, that's still good water for lawns, trees, bushes, etc., especially when combined with fresh tap water.
7. Fix leaks when you find them.
A leak in a swimming pool system, no matter where in the system is located, is more than just an inefficiency, it is an invitation for bigger, more expensive problems down the road. Because of the corrosive nature of long term exposure to swimming pool water, many plumbing leaks in pool systems spring up where gaskets and seals fail. Even the slowest and most innocuous-looking leaks, like one of the most common leaks found at the "mechanical seal" between the pump housing and motor can lead to bigger problems down the road. If left unchecked a ten-dollar mechanical seal can leak down the shaft of the pump and get in the motor where it will corrode the metal, cause it to run inefficiently and eventually seize up the motor. After labor, the original leak would've cost you $75 to fix if you call a pool technician. Wait until you've fouled the motor and it might cost you $375. (On that note, if you do think your motor is dead, before buying a brand new one, ask the pool tech if they repair motors or know of a shop in your town that does.)
8. Harvest rainwater to fill your pool.
We talk about rainwater harvesting all the time, mostly because it's an easy way to make use of a free resource that falls on the roof of your house. Just think, any water that you're not harvesting and putting to productive use in your garden, filling your pool or washing your car is water that you'll likely have to purchase from your local water utility. Water that comes out of your faucet requires all kinds of energy to pump, purify and sanitize. Water that falls out of the sky doesn't need any of that stuff before you can swim in it. Just be sure to keep an eye on your pool chemistry if you are using rainwater as water in some regions can knock off your pH balance if you're not careful.
9. Install a salt-water sanitizing system
Have you ever noticed the difference between how your skin feels after an hour in a swimming pool and an hour in the ocean? Salt water is much easier on the skin and it won't dry it out like chlorine will. You can get that same feeling in your home pool if you install a saltwater sanitizing system and eliminate the need to buy any chlorine again.
Now, before you get the idea that you'll be have a miniature version of the Great Salt Lake in your back yard, it won't be that salty. Actually what is happening is that you buy a cell that reacts with the saltwater in your pool and generates low levels of chlorine. If you took 8th grade chemistry, you can probably figure out how this works.
10. Buy in bulk.
Whatever chemicals you are buying -- even if they are just to balance your pH -- buy chemicals in bulk. This tip is not unique to pool chemicals, but it certainly is worth mentioning. The standard array of pool chemicals can all be found in single-shot packets and quart bottles all the way up to 50 and 100-lb. bags and buckets. Not only will you save a bunch of money, you'll waste a lot less plastic in the process.
11. Don't drain your pool in the fall.
For those of you living in many parts of the south and southwest, this may not apply, as you may not have to contend with the annual rite of winterizing your pool. But the practice of annually draining a swimming pool is not only a waste of tens of thousands of gallons of usually perfectly good water, it's bad for your pool. Pools react differently to sitting empty for a long time, some of them will actually pop right out of the ground because of the hydrostatic water pressure pushing them upward.
12. Drain your pool in the fall... for good.
A long-term drought in Southern California is often credited as the most important driver in the explosion of skateboarding in the 1970s. People weren't allowed to fill their pools so they drained them - and then the kids came and skated in them. The greenest thing you could probably do with your swimming pool is drain it and perhaps put a vegetable garden in its place. But in all likelihood, swimming pools aren't leaving us anytime soon, so we might as well look at them as an opportunity. An opportunity that sounds pretty refreshing in this summer heat.