A chlorine shortage this summer could leave Mainers searching for alternative ways to keep their pools sanitized. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

It’s going to cost you more than double to keep your freshwater swimming pool sanitized this summer over last year, experts say. That’s because there is a national shortage of chlorine thanks to an increased demand that hit around the same time as a fire closed down a major chlorine manufacturing plant late last summer.

The Bio-Lab factory in Louisiana, which produces pool and spa treatment products, experienced a devastating fire last August after the landfall of Hurricane Laura. No one was injured, but the fire destroyed the facility’s roof and halted production.

The plant remains offline and with pool season about to begin, the prices for the chlorine tablets have jumped more than 58 percent compared to the same time last year, according to an online report by NBC.

That same report noted the pool industry saw a boom last year as more people had private in-ground and above-ground pools constructed since they were forced to spend more time at home due to the pandemic. Chlorine tablets are used to keep your swimming pool sanitized so it is free of bacteria and algae.

“If you don’t have chlorine tablets now or get them soon, you are out of luck,” said Shawn Surrette, owner of The Pool Shed in Hollis. “It’s not a good situation right now.”

Surrette said he has enough of the chlorine tablets in stock to meet the needs of his existing regular pool maintenance customers, but has little to share beyond that.

“I had a lady from Burlington [Vermont] looking to get chlorine tablets from us,” Surette said. “I was not able to help her because I need to take care of our customers.”

It’s not just swimming pools; chlorine tablets are also used to sanitize hot tubs and water spas, according to Lisa Silva, manager of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s health inspection program.

“Chlorine is the first defense against the germs that cause recreational water illnesses,” Silva said. “Used at the recommended level it can kill most germs in the water within minutes.”

Chlorine is a natural and abundant element found in the Earth’s crust in minerals containing halite, commonly known as rock salt. In the ocean, chlorine is part of the compound that forms sodium chloride — common table salt.

When it comes to that kind of sanitizing, there are really no simple alternatives, according to Dr. Alice Bruce, professor of chemistry at the University of Maine.

Plants like the damaged facility in Louisiana use a complicated chemical process to convert the natural forms of chlorine into products like the tabs used to sanitize swimming pools, according to Bruce.

“The plant in Louisiana used natural chlorine to create a sanitizer that kills germs and organisms in your pool,” Bruce said. “Chlorine is the element that makes that sanizing possible.”

Bruce said there are non-chemical alternatives like ultraviolet light filters.

These filters work as a sanitizer and destroy most germs in your pool. But they also work best when used in combination with chlorine. For a UV filter to properly work, you need to make sure your pool water is constantly circulating past it. However, some germs are able to reproduce faster than a pump can circulate the water past the UV light. Chlorine will kill those. The good news is, with a UV light, you need far less chlorine than using the chemical alone.

You can also make your chlorine go further by reducing the temperature in your pool. The colder your water, the slower the growth of bacteria and algae.

Another option is to convert your pool to saltwater. Saltwater pools have a special salt cell generator that uses the process of electrolysis to pull the chlorine out of the salt in the water, thereby sanitizing your pool.

Saltwater pools require a special generator, pumps and filters to work properly. Saltwater is corrosive, so if you are upgrading make sure you get salt-resistant parts, surfaces and pool liners.

The initial cost of a saltwater pool is on par with a freshwater pool, but according to Surrette, converting an existing pool can cost up to $2,000.

“You can do it,” Surrette said. “But it’s going to be expensive.”

If you decide to go back to a freshwater pool at some point, you can. It means spending the time and money changing out your pump and filters back to a freshwater system.

For now, pool maintenance experts are recommending buying your summer supply of pool chlorine as soon as possible.

“It’s going to get difficult to find,” Surette said. “Everyone is staying home and you can’t blame them for wanting pools — people need something to do.”

Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.