Common Salt Cell Questions

What Is a Salt Cell For Pools?

A Salt Cell is the most important part of a Salt Chlorine Generator - the electronic device that chlorinates a salt water pool and eliminates the need to regularly buy & add chlorine conventionally. The salt cell is a set of titanium plates - also ‘blades’ or ‘electrodes’ - that reside in a PVC housing through which the pool water flows. The salt cell is typically the last component in the plumbing of the swimming pool’s equipment system, so that as water leaves the salt cell it returns back to the pool.

How Does a Salt Cell Work?

A salt cell works by sending a weak electrical current from the salt system’s controller to the salt cell. The current passes through the water between each pair of titanium plates, causing electrolysis by which the low level of salt (Sodium Chloride) in the pool water is converted into a pure form of chlorine by splitting apart the Sodium and Chlorine atoms. The salt cell’s is designed to work automatically in tandem with the pool equipment system.

How Long Does a Pool Salt Cell Last?

Unfortunately, Salt Cells slowly wear out as they work. When a salt cell is depleted and no longer produces chlorine, it is easily replaced.

The answer to “how long should a salt cell last?” depends on a number of variables, including: the durability and longevity of the salt cell model, the pool’s water quality and balance, cell maintenance practices, pool size vs salt system capacity, targeted chlorine level, and length of the swimming season. Having said that, a common range for many Salt Cells to last is 3-7 years. Depending on the variables it could last longer, or potentially less.

However, replacing the salt cell over the salt system’s lifespan allows you to save significantly versus the equivalent amount of conventional chlorine that would otherwise have to be purchased and manually added. So even though there is a replacement cost involved, common industry estimates are that it is saving as much as 40-50% over traditional chlorination.

How Do I Clean a Salt Cell?

Cleaning the salt cell is the primary maintenance that saltwater chlorine generators require. Salt cell cleaning is done to remove any mineral scaling that the pool water may deposit over time. How to clean a pool salt cell involves removing the cell from the piping, blasting away any debris or loose buildup with a stream of water from your garden hose, and then soaking the blades in a prescribed mixture of muriatic acid and water.

Some cell models alternatively allow for physically removing buildup from the cell blades with a non-metallic cleaning “wand”. Always refer to the product manual for cell cleaning instructions, particularly regarding the acid/water mixture, the length of time, and whether to utilize a cleaning wand.

How Often Do I Clean My Salt Cell?

Over time, mineral scaling builds up on a salt cell, making it hard for power to be passed through the cell. At this point, a salt pool system will activate an alert that cell maintenance may be needed. The frequency of this warning is based primarily upon the pool water’s chemical balance.

With properly balanced pool water, a salt cell commonly needs cleaning one to three times a year, even in areas that are thought of as having “hard water.” This can also vary with usage and other factors.

If a salt cell experiences rapid mineral build up, the good news is that this can usually be addressed via the pool chemistry levels. The flipside of this coin is that with some water chemistry conditions, cell cleaning might be a very rare event.

How Do I Know If My Cell Needs Cleaning?

Fortunately, Salt Chlorine Generators are designed so that they display a message or warning light indicating that the cell needs to be cleaned or inspected. Additionally, you can take a look at the cell blades, where you’ll see a white-ish powdery accumulation on the dark titanium plates. Cells with clear housings make this very easy to see. A cell should be cleaned once you see significant buildup of deposits on the blades. A cell should always be cleaned before deposits bridge the gap between the blades.

Can You Clean a Cell Too Much?

Cells should be cleaned to remove scaling that builds up over time. If by “too much,” you mean that due to mineral build-up cleaning is required too frequently, remember that this is a water balance issue that can be fixed. If by too much, you mean unnecessary soaking of the cell in the cleaning solution (cleaning longer than needed or when it is not necessary to remove mineral scale), yes this should be avoided.

As to when to clean the cell, it should be done when scaling may be nearly thick enough to bridge the gaps between cell plates and of course if the system triggers a warning light or error message. A cell doesn’t necessarily need to be cleaned just because the plates might have a slight powdery accumulation, however you may want to keep an eye on it since it could mean that cleaning may soon be required.

As long as cell cleaning is done to remove the presence of minerals, you’re probably not cleaning the cell “too much”. That being said, don’t soak the cell for longer than necessary to remove the mineral scaling, and don’t walk away during cell cleaning and accidentally leave the cleaning solution soaking for hours.

Why Clean My Cell? It Says It’s Self-Cleaning.

Decades ago, the earliest salt chlorine generators used rather different technology - one large difference being that they only “sent” power in one direction through the cell (cathode), the consequence of this being that a cell could get so much mineral scaling that it would require weekly cleaning.

Modern salt chlorinators adopted a process of switching polarities (direction of the electrical current) within the cell, which functions as a self-cleaning process. As mineral scaling occurs, the reverse polarity function inside the cell ultimately inhibits scaling at the natural rate.

So a “self-cleaning” salt cell is absolutely essential, but it doesn’t mean that the cell never needs to be cleaned, rather that the ongoing polarity reversals within the cell minimize the amount of cleaning required.

Why Does My System Say To Clean My Cell? It Looks Clean.

If your salt chlorine generator is warning you to ‘check’ or clean your salt cell, you should first check your model’s user guide to verify exactly when the system is telling you (for example, make certain it’s not simply a time-driven, reminder message intended to have you inspect the cell’s condition and reset the reminder).

If you’ve confirmed that you are seeing the standard message that the cell requires maintenance, you could be dealing with deposits (scaling) that are not readily noticeable. This is particularly common with cells in opaque casings that limit your view of the blade and sensor surfaces. When cleaning the cell, pay close attention to whether you have a fizzing or bubbling reaction to the acid solution. If you see fizzing when the cleaning solution is added to the cell, there is indeed mineral scaling that is being removed.

Alternatively, confirm that your water’s salinity is in the proper range, and that air is not accumulating inside of the cell during the course of the day. These are less common issues that could potentially also be at play. Finally, if you have performed all troubleshooting steps and if your cell is many years old, one last possibility is that the cell is depleted and no longer able to effectively pass power through it.

Why Do I Need To Clean My Cell So Often?

Cells typically need one to three cleanings a year on average; more frequent cell cleaning should not be required. A frequent need to clean your salt cell indicates that there is a water balance condition that needs to be corrected, namely a high Saturation Index (LSI).

Even for swimming pool owners living with hard water, proper water balance can prevent the need for more frequent cleanings. Check your water chemistry to see that you have all the readings where they should be and if the frequency of cleanings is measured in months, then don’t worry.

If you’re experiencing a need to clean your cell in a matter of weeks or even days, then you’re almost certainly dealing with a water balance problem. Specifically, you are probably dealing with a “high” LSI (Saturation Index) problem.

Take current water chemistry figures and, using one of the readily available online-calculators, calculate your LSI which is a measure of your water’s “balance.” Your LSI can be high or low, regardless of whether the individual water readings are each “within range.” Rather, the particular combination of levels that determine the LSI can create either a caustic imbalance, or one prone to rapid buildup of deposits - sometimes very rapid.

An LSI calculator will allow you to test the effect on your LSI of raising or lowering individual water readings. The LSI is a very sensitive measure, so small changes can have big results. The LSI calculator will allow you to determine what adjustments to your pool’s water chemistry will bring your water back into balance.

Will Cleaning My Cell With Acid Shorten the Life Of My Cell?

Performed correctly and when appropriate, acid-washing a salt cell should not shorten its life and is vital to the proper functioning of the salt water chlorinator. In fact, if you don’t clean your cell and heavy mineral scaling bridges the gaps between the titanium plates, this can cause excessive wear-and-tear. You can also shorten the cell’s life by damaging the blade surface with a metallic scraper, repeatedly using an overly strong acid solution, or frequently soaking the cell for (far) too long.

How Can I Tell If a Salt Cell Needs Replaced?

A commonly asked question is, “How do I know when my cell is worn out?” When a salt cell is depleted, it can no longer effectively pass power along across its titanium plates. This will cause the system to display a warning message and/or error light. In other words, if the system gives a warning, and you’ve done all other related troubleshooting then the cell itself is the remaining issue and cell replacement is probably called for.

This troubleshooting typically means ensuring the pool water’s salinity is within range, that the cell has been thoroughly cleaned, as well as other miscellaneous issues (like air in the cell or a damaged sensor).

Cell depletion, though, is typically many years down the road. Some salt system models will also provide an indicator that your cell life may be low based on how many hours it's been used, so that you can be prepared for the impending failure.

If you have no error lights, you can be sure that the cell is still functional. The common pattern associated with a depleted cell is when you have (false) Low Salt warnings and/or Check Cell warnings that persist even when the water has the proper salinity and the cell is thoroughly and completely clean.

So in summation, how you can tell if your salt cell is bad is by troubleshooting and eliminating common causes when you get an error light. If you still get an error light and the cell is old, you can be confident that cell replacement is called for.

How Do I Reset My Salt System?

Questions about how to “reset” a salt cell or system are rather common, because, generally speaking, there really isn’t any formal “reset” process with salt systems. (See your products manual, there may be rare or limited situations where a system can have an internal timing feature reset.) Having said that, powering a system off, then back on - power cycling - can sometimes clear a warning light whose fault condition has been addressed and no longer exists.

More commonly, though, cycling the power off then back on will create a brief window of time during which the system will try to operate until the error condition is sensed and the error lights come back on. If you power cycle your control module and the initial array of warning lights is good, be sure to wait at least 5-10 minutes (typically) to ensure that the system has run through self-diagnostics and has attempted to operate normally. Check again at that point to be certain the warnings have not reappeared, rather than walking away assuming the errors have cleared, only for them to shortly return.

Good practice is that anytime you’re seeking a way to “reset” the system, you will probably be best served by following all of the possible troubleshooting tips prescribed for the errors that you are wanting to reset.

Can a Salt Cell Be Repaired or Rebuilt?

Many of us try to make sure equipment has as long of a service life as possible, and want to repair or rebuild whenever possible. When your salt cell reaches the end of its life, you might be inclined to investigate repairing your salt cell. It may seem a little wasteful at first glance, but you can’t rebuild salt cells. Salt cells are consumable parts that get depleted as they work. For the most part, they are not built with replaceable elements and rebuilding or refurbishing cells is neither practical nor cost effective. Despite the fact that the electrolytic plates eventually wear out, the amount of chlorine they can generate over their lifespan is typically much greater than how much conventional chlorine you would get for the same amount of money, meaning that a salt cell can be much less wasteful in the end.

Why Is The Inside of My Salt Cell Brown?

Brown staining of the inside of a salt cell is often an indication of iron in your pool water. While the process of electrolysis is generating chlorine for you, it can also cause iron in the water to deposit on the plastic housing of the cell. After confirming the presence of iron in your water with a water test, it is advisable to treat your pool with one of the numerous products on the market that will bring iron down to acceptable levels and take care of the problem.

Which Way Does a Salt Cell Go?

Generally speaking, salt cells can be installed with either end as the inlet and the other as the outlet, so a salt cell being installed “backwards” isn’t usually an issue for its operation. Should the orientation of the salt cell be vertical or horizontal? Unless explicitly stated otherwise in the manual, inline salt cells can be installed vertically or horizontally.

However there are exceptions. Some designs have only one way the cell can be installed and there’s no mistaking it. Typically, this will be indicated by an arrow on the body of the cell housing.

Some current designs include a flow switch as part of the cell assembly. With this style system, the flow switch may work in one direction only or function correctly in either direction. In these instances, look carefully on, and around, the flow switch to see if there is any marking to indicate a specific direction for the waterflow. Absent any marking or indicator, if the system does not report a “No Flow” condition, then the cell is oriented appropriately.

What Does a Dirty Salt Cell Look Like?

Over time, the plates on a salt cell can accumulate calcium and mineral deposits. The deposits are predominantly white and grayish-white, but sometimes blue-greenish or reddish-brown deposits can also develop, respectively, from copper or iron in the water. They say that a picture speaks a thousand words, so here’s several thousand words on the subject:

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