Bring the Ocean Home


Saltwater pools can be gentler on the skin, the bank account and the to-do list


MAGICAL PROPERTIES | The saltwater in Melissa Phipps and John D. Gray’s New Orleans pool eviscerates thug-like bacteria and requires minimal maintenance. Paul Costello for The Wall Street Journal

UNLIKE THE illicitly delicious smell of gas fumes, chlorine vapors are not at all pleasant. Acrid bleach-y odor along with the attendant threat of bleary-eyed conjunctivitis and skin-stripping dehydration are precisely what has driven swimmers toward a purer alternative. For the last 20 years, pool owners have been converting from chlorine to saline and more recently, copper ionization systems.

When my own pool was mistakenly drained by a knuckleheaded maintenance guy, it popped up out of the ground like something from the Old Testament (New Orleans has an extremely high water table and pools must be filled for ballast or the ground will literally push them up and out). But there was a silver lining. I was able to rethink all things piscine. I updated the shape—from a 1970s amoeba to a sleek rectangle with limestone coping—and tinted the plaster to a deep gray instead of old-school white, rendering the water a deep blue. And finally, I was able to switch from chlorine to saline.

Before taking the plunge, so to speak, I interviewed the president of Gulf South Pools, Read Richardson, a New Orleans-based water guru whose number is on many a local speed dial. Mr. Richardson clarified the chemistry. “A saline pool is still a chlorinated pool. Most people think they’ll be swimming in a backyard ocean paradise,” he said, “but there’s a huge difference between the salt content of the sea, 35,000 parts per million and a pool’s, which should be around 3,200 parts per million.”

Saline pools use a chlorine generator cell and a few bags of table salt to produce electrolysis, turning the salt into chlorine or hypochlorous acid, which vaporizes algae and bacteria. “The biggest comfort factor is properly balancing acid levels,” Mr. Richardson explained. “The pH should match your body’s, which is between 7.2 and 7.4, and the alkaline, an acid neutralizer, should hover between 80-120 parts per million.”

An algae-free, mildly saline oasis is painless to maintain. You must clean the chlorine cell once a year to keep calcium buildup at bay, but otherwise simply sprinkle $10 dollars worth of salt in the water once a month and you’re done. I spoke with my capable friend Matt Larkin—a topiary trimmer, landscaper and partner with his talented wife, Lainie, in Grant Larkin Furniture and Interiors—who has one of the all-time most beautiful pools in Richmond, Mass., about saline’s benefits. “Our saltwater pool is awesome,” he said. “Besides silky skin, I actually feel more buoyant. The best part is you can swim with your eyes wide open.” Mr. Larkin respectfully confirmed his pool’s un-diva-like ways. “It’s totally low maintenance; I don’t even bother with a pH strip. The minute the water gets cloudy, I pour a bag of salt at each end and step out of the way,” he said.

My other favorite saltwater natatorium belongs to married writers Melissa Phipps and John D. Gray, whose magical, meandering southern garden has a hidden swimming pool bordered by lime trees, climbing Cecile Brunner roses, variegated ginger and swampy philodendron plants that arch over and kiss the water. With uncanny prescience, John D. and Melissa switched their old chlorine system to saline right before Katrina struck. In the chaotic weeks post-disaster, “everything was looking pretty punk,” John D. explained. “The roof was blown off our house—debris everywhere—but amazingly our pool, the sole survivor, was algae-free, albeit with a few leeches.” John D. further noted that the salt system was actually less expensive to maintain than chlorine. Unlike at Whole Foods where the organic option comes at a premium, saltwater pools actually make financial sense. Over the course of a year, you can expect to save roughly $800 versus a chlorinated system.

Three days from the time this article is published, I’ll be doing laps in my brand new swimming hole, where I’ll be reaping the suggested benefits of my salty water. Thinner. Silkier. And richer.

—Ms. Costello is a writer and design consultant based in New Orleans.