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Swimming in green: Eco-friendly pools

Swimming in green: Eco-friendly pools

Salt cells, crab shells, UV lights among products that cut chlorine, costs

Green hair and red eyes - they're a sure sign of summer in Tucson, when temperatures are soaring and pools are swimming in chlorine.

More Tucsonans are choosing to go eco-friendly when it comes to caring for their pools and spas, which can mean cutting the chlorine and turning to salt and even ground crab shells to keep water sparkling.

When Tucsonans Noah and Judith Sensibar built their pool two years ago, they included an automatic cover to minimize evaporation. They use a salt chlorine generator and ultraviolet light to keep their solar-heated pool clean.

"The chlorine made us all itch," Noah Sensibar said. His boys - Elijah, 15, Gabriel, 10, and J.J., 6 - spend lots of time in the pool with friends, and they appreciate the "soft" water experience created by the salt.

"And we lose almost no water or chemicals," Sensibar said.

Kurt Papke replaced his more traditional system two years ago with a high-efficiency programmable pump and solar heating. He also converted to salt water.

Thanks to the pump, Papke's electric bills have gone down, and his home is in the top 10 percent of the neighborhood in energy efficiency, according to his Tucson Electric Power bill.

He said his pool-care system requires less maintenance, and while there was an initial investment, it saves money in the long run. "It's good for the planet to save energy and it's also putting money in your pocket."

Homeowners are looking to reduce the environmental impact of their pools while saving money, say local pool care professionals.

"We call it going green, which in our business isn't always a good thing," said Grant Ross, owner of Cabana Boy Pool Works. "But this is a good green."

Ross, who said he services a couple of hundred pools a week - including Papke's - said more homeowners have converted to salt systems, which recycle salt to produce chlorine. He installs IntelliChlor salt chlorine generators, which cost about $1,600, including installation.

In the last couple of years, the pool care industry "has been making a move towards energy efficiency and eco-friendly products that are good for your skin and body," Ross said. He said salt-cell generators top the list in terms of popular products.

"Salt is added to pool water," he said. "As it passes through the filter and return lines it goes through the salt-cell generator and passes through a pair of electrodes and it gets sparked," Ross said. "The salt breaks down and it produces chlorine."

The salt does not evaporate, and eliminates the need for buying manufactured chlorine tablets.

"You get what is called a smooth swim - no irritation, and your hair isn't going to turn green. You have an enhanced swimming experience," Ross said.

He said swimmers enjoy the slightly salty water. "You don't feel like you are in the ocean," Ross said.

He also uses a product called SeaKlear Mighty Pods, which use byproducts from crab shells and turns them into a petroleum-free water clarifier. They come in a pod similar to dishwashing liquid and are dropped into the pool skimmer basket, where they "polish" cloudy water, Ross said.

"For a long time, the pool business was slow moving as far as the innovation side - there was always a filter, a pump, chlorine tablets," Ross said. "Out of the recession came a lot of innovation - ways to do things better."

Carl Ragel, owner of Natural Pools & Gardens who helps maintain the Sensibar's pool, has been installing more salt generators and ultraviolet light systems to sanitize pools.

"There are other ways to sanitize your pool that cost less," Ragel said of the UV systems. "But there are a lot of folks who are interested in having less chlorine in their lives and this is a great solution."

Ragel has been installing UV devices in pools since 1999. They are installed in-line with pool equipment and use a UV lamp to neutralize micro-organisms like bacteria and algae

"You can reduce the amount of chemicals you use substantially," he said. "Everybody is shooting for a chlorine-free solution but all you can do realistically is reduce it."

He said the UV light "knocks out any kind of bacteriological pathogens in the water." As the water filters, it is hit by UV light on its way back to the pool, preventing pathogens from reproducing, Ragel said.

The UV devices cost about $850, but reduce the amount of money spent on chemicals.

"Customers are all very happy with the feeling of less chlorine on their skin," he said.

Scott Lake, owner of Aqua-Man Pool and Spa, said about 80 percent of his customers use salt-chlorine generators.

"There is a big difference in the way the water feels," he said.

He said more customers are also using programmable, highly-efficient pumps, which cost $1,200 to $1,500, about twice the cost of a traditional pump.

"People end up recouping that from their energy savings," he said.

Contact local freelance writer Gabrielle Fimbres at

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