How to Troubleshoot a Salt Chlorine Generator
Salt chlorinators, also known as saltwater pool systems, are very popular these days and with good reason. There is no better or cheaper way to keep your pool sanitized. Modern units have sophisticated circuitry that requires very little supervision and are generally quite reliable. Most go years with only an occasional cleaning of the cell. However, when they do stop working, pool owners often need help identifying the source of the failure and this article was written with that in mind.
If you check your water chemistry regularly, the first sign of a problem could be a sudden lack of chlorine in your water. If your salt system display appears normal, the first thing to check is the water; have it checked for phosphates and make sure the cyanuric acid (stabilizer) is up to par. Phosphates are a more common problem than ever; perhaps due to unusual weather patterns. If necessary, purchase the PhosFree treatment and get a reading below 100 PPB.
If you don’t check your water chemistry regularly, the first sign of trouble will likely be algae in the shallow areas of the pool. Whether or not the generator is running, you may need to treat the pool immediately with granular shock and algaecide to prevent a large-scale algae bloom. It is always cheaper to attack algae early and aggressively than to wait. In warm weather, it grows rapidly.
After eliminating the possibilities described above, it’s time to take a closer look at the salt chlorinator system. If the unit is completely dark with no signs of life, check the power source and make sure it is receiving power. Ideally, check the source with a voltmeter. If the unit is receiving proper voltage, check to see if the chlorinator control unit has a reset button or internal fuse. These protect the unit against a short circuit in the cell. It only takes a bit of grass or a hairball to lodge momentarily between the titanium plates to trigger the reset button or blow the fuse. If the cell has a calcium crust and the plates are sticking together, this is obviously the problem. Clean the cell, change the fuse and you should be good to go.
If the control appears to be working normally, it is time to check if the cell is producing chlorine gas. If your unit has a transparent cell body, you can simply watch the cell while it is running and if you see mist coming off the plates, it is working. If the fog is minimal, the cell could be worn. Most brands have cells that last around 8,000 hours and a couple of brands have cells that are made to last 15,000 hours. Using your history of running hours per day, you can do the math and determine if the cell is at the end of its useful life. If you’ve ever cleaned your cell with too strong an acid solution or if you’ve ever made the mistake of letting it soak for too long, you’re all out and you may be facing early cell failure. Pull out the old Visa card. Some pool stores have a device that tests a salt cell, but many technicians doubt the validity of these machines. (Cell Error = Commission)
If your salt system has an opaque cell body, the only way to test for activity is to capture some of the water coming out of the pool jets and test it for chlorine. Use an empty coke bottle or similar, hold your thumb over the opening and hold it against the pool’s return stream. Try not to let the sample get too diluted with the water in the rest of the pool. If your system is running, you should see a difference in the chlorine level in this sample vs. a reading taken in the far corner of the pool.
In some cases, salt systems work as they should, but the display shows erroneous salinity and/or temperature readings. This is usually a sign that the calibration circuitry has been affected by a power surge. Many units can be recalibrated by the owner on site. Check your owner’s manual or google for calibration instructions for your model. If the display or warning lights indicate “water failure” or “water flow” problems, verify that water is flowing freely through the generator cell. If the water is flowing, you may have a faulty flow switch. Most units have a separate flow switch, but some have this feature built into the cell. On some, the water fault indication can occur if the aforementioned calibration deviates drastically. In all cases, closely examine the electrical connections between the cell and the control and between the flow switch (if present) and the control. These connections must be clean, tight and dry. Often a bit of sandpaper on these terminals can bring a dead system back to life.
Even if you can’t get your generator to work, following these steps will prepare you for a phone call to the factory technicians. Most manufacturers expect their installers to handle problems, but if you try, you can usually talk to one of their technicians and get their help. Like everything else, salt chlorinators aren’t really complicated once you understand how they work.
Thanks for reading and happy swimming!