How does a self-cleaning saltwater chlorinator work

So you’ve gotten yourself a brand-new saltwater chlorinator and the box (or website) says that it’s “self-cleaning” and you’re wondering exactly what that means. Well, wonder no more as we’re here to de-mystify how exactly a self-cleaning saltwater chlorinator works.

Saltwater Chlorinator Basics

Before we go ahead and explain how saltwater chlorinators can self-clean, we must first understand the reason why they need cleaning in the first place. A chlorinator works by running a current through its cells or electrodes that changes the salt into sodium hypochlorite, which is a safer type of chlorine. The sodium hypochlorite sanitises the pool and whatever remains, turns back into salt, restarting the whole cycle. This cycle of salt -> sodium hypochlorite -> salt is fairly efficient at what it does and depending on the efficiency of your saltwater chlorinator, you should only be adding salt around once or twice a year.

Now, during the process of converting salt into sodium hypochlorite, the electrodes in your salt cell will become very hot and the cathode plates will produce a strong alkaline substance called sodium hydroxide (don’t worry, this doesn’t affect your pool’s pH levels). This combination of heat and high alkalinity in the enclosed salt cell will cause minerals in the water like calcium, phosphate, silicate, and sulfate to precipitate out of solution and form scale or deposits on the elements itself.

Why should you be worried about scale on saltwater chlorinators?

While it is out of sight and out of mind, scale on your electrodes do pose a number of serious threats to the longevity of your saltwater chlorinator.

  • Heat Build up - As scale coats your saltwater cell electrodes, it traps heat within the scale and the elements themselves, preventing the water from cooling it off. When when the electrodes overheat, this can cause damage to the protective coating of the elements and will effectively shorten the life of your chlorinator cell.
  • Poor Conduction - Since scale is basically like powdered stone forming on the elements, it’s a very poor conductor of electricity, which means that your chlorinator will need to push out more electricity to get the needed chlorination action from your saltwater cells, more electricity means more heat. Couple that with the heat build up we mentioned earlier then you have yourself a recipe for saltwater cell failure or at the very least, reduced lifespan.
  • Pool Chlorine Production - As the scale covers the surfaces of the elements of your saltwater cell, the less direct contact it has with the water, which in turn reduce sodium hypochlorite (chlorine) production which results in improper sanitising of your pool.

How does a self-cleaning chlorinator help?

Calcium, silicate, and other minerals that are in your pool water are positively charged while saltwater chlorinator cells regularly operate on a negative charge. You know what they say, opposites attract! This is actually a scientific principle where ions with opposite charges attract each other and those with same polarities will repel each other. If you’ve ever tried to put two magnets together at the same positive sides, then you’ll see that it’s almost impossible to connect them unless you connect them at opposite ends.

Now this is exactly how a self-cleaning chlorinator works. Depending on the model, it may reverse the polarity of the electrodes on a schedule, automatically, or manually, but the result is the same, the positive polarity of the salt cell electrodes will repel the positively charged mineral particles, preventing the formation of scale on the electrodes, which in turn will keep your saltwater chlorinator running as close to optimal levels at all times.

Does that mean I don’t have to clean self-cleaning chlorinators?

Absolutely not. This is one reason why the “self-cleaning” bit is a bit misleading. The reversing of polarity trick only works if the minerals haven’t already latched on to the elements. There will always be some sort of scale on your saltwater chlorinator no matter how advanced it is. The only difference is that with self-cleaning chlorinators, the volume won’t be as much as with older chlorinators and it’ll be super easy to remove, usually just requiring a hose down to remove whatever scale has accumulated on the plates, with an acid soak being highly unlikely. Not only that, but with a self-cleaning chlorinator you can go much longer in-between cleanings.

For more information on cleaning your saltwater cells, check out our salt water cell cleaning guide here.

Conclusion and Recommendation

Always remember that having a self-cleaning chlorinator isn’t a license to get away with not cleaning it. If you have a self-cleaning chlorinator then you should give it a good cleaning at least two or three times a year. It shouldn’t take more than a couple of minutes to remove any minor scale formation on it. While it still needs a bit of a clean every now and then, it's a huge help in reducing the load on cleaning tasks and simplifies the saltwater cell cleaning process.

Is your old chlorinator on the fritz and you're looking for a replacement? Or are you thinking of switching from traditional chemical-based chlorination to hands-free saltwater chlorination? At Mr Pool Man, we aim to make your pool maintenance life much simpler and as hands-off as possible so we recommend the Water TechniX Atomic WTA35 Salt Water Chlorinator, it's self-cleaning (or as we like to call it, easy-clean), it's designed and built right here in Australia so you're sure that it'll survive our weather conditions, and you'll get full iron-clad support from Mr Prool Man! Not only that, but it has one of the lowest salt PPM requirements for chlorinators out there, which means that you'll need to refill your pool with salt less often when compared with other chlorinators.

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Do you have any questions about this topic or the featured products? No worries, we're here to help! Drop us a question down below and we'll get back to you ASAP.

Happy swimming :)

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Post author:

Tom Hintze

Head of eCommerce & Operations at Mr Pool Man,
Co-Founder at Water TechniX

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