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Does My Salt Cell Need Replacing?

Categories: Chemicals, Q&A Topics, Alternative Sanitizers, Maintenance & Upkeep, Salt Systems


Automatic chlorine generation is becoming more and more common in pools. It’s easy to understand why: owners are seeing that a reasonable up-front investment in a salt system, which converts ordinary table salt into pure chlorine, can lead to the end of their days of hauling chlorine bags around and constantly worrying about whether their pool is being properly sanitized. See our video on the advantages of switching to a saltwater pool.

But as with most innovations, pool modernizing can lead to uncertainty. Using a salt system requires becoming familiar with its components - the power center (the ‘brain’ that controls the system) as well as the salt cell itself, the part physically connected in-line to the pump.

At the first sign of trouble (chlorine levels becoming unstable or LED readings indicating a problem, for instance), new salt users are typically unsure how to react. Has the cell gone bad? Is the whole system kaput? And who can tell me definitively?

We regularly get calls from customers wondering if it’s indeed time to replace their salt cell. While this is often the case, as cells generally have a life span of three to five years even in the best of circumstances (10,000 hours of life is actually a better rule of thumb), there are several other factors that could be the root problem of recent trouble. Here are a few:

  • Pool chlorine may be diminished by harsh sunlight due to low levels of cyanuric acid (pool stabilizer) in the water
  • Improper pool filter operation could be disrupting the normal flow of chlorine
  • High water temperature (such as in specific geographic areas) could speed up evaporation of chlorine and other chemicals
  • Low water temperature (below 60 degrees Fahrenheit)
  • Unusually low pH balance is leading to a high 
  • A dirty/broken filter could be disrupting chlorine flow 
  • Power outages effecting the power center, preventing the chemical reaction that converts salt to chlorine 
  • Algae, pollutants, fertilizers, and/or large bathing crowds use up chlorine more quickly level of water acidity
  • A high level of phosphates (more than 100 parts per million) could be reducing chlorine
  • Calcium buildup in the cell (which is normal and can be easily cleaned as shown here by our professionals) is creating excessive water hardness
Any of these issues could be responsible for sudden changes in your pool’s chlorination. It could be well worth your time and trouble to check and see if they apply to you.

On the other hand, there are also solid indications that a salt cell really is in decline or not functioning at all. Here are some common ones:

  • "Check salt" light on power center indicates problem but a routine water sample inspection shows salt levels are fine
  • Power center's "Cell warning" light comes on and turns off after a cleaning but back on soon afterward
  • Voltage (higher than normal) and amperage (usually zero) level will show irregular readings
  • Your salt system is not producing chlorine. Read our blog post on how to know if your salt cell is producing chlorine.
Then there are indicators specific to various cell models that could mean the unit needs replacing, but may actually be caused by something simpler. Let’s use the two cells we’ve already mentioned, Pentair’s IntelliChlor and the Hayward AquaRite (whose power centers are shown below), since both are popular choices with proven performance histories, to illustrate.
AquaRite’s “Inspect Cell” LED turns on when the unit stops functioning. The problem could be that the cell needs replacing, but it could also simply need a good cleaning. The “Cell” LED light on the IntelliChlor is a constant green when producing chlorine, but when flashing could possibly mean the cell is dying or just needs to be cleaned.
”No Flow” light coming on probably means the cell’s flow switch has gone bad. Verify that the pump is running first (water is actually flowing through the line). If "No Flow" stays on the flow switch needs replacing.
”Flow” LED turning from green to red means water flow through the system has been disrupted. Just as with the AquaRite, this usually indicates a problem with the flow switch, and not the entire cell.
If you system indicates that your salt level is low even though testing shows it's actually sufficient, the cell needs replacing.  
It's important to focus on the cause of chlorination problems rather than the effect. If your salt or chemical levels are low, look to diagnostic tools like the power center and testing the water over several days to get a better sense of what could be happening. Adding salt and/or chemicals will likely only mask the real problem, which could indeed be a faulty cell or one that just needs cleaning. And, of course, the issue could be completely unrelated to your salt system.
The documentation provided by the manufacturer of your system is another great resource for troubleshooting. While they have staff available to take your calls they'd much rather you be able to pinpoint problems on your own so they provide help like this owner's manual from CompuPool to address your questions.
Again, it's worth remembering that a salt cell will typically provide you five years of service at the most, so common sense is often your best tool when deciding how diligently to investigate problems with a unit that has approached (or passed) that threshold.
But if your cell is significantly newer or there have been recent changes in your pool environment not directly related to chlorine generation itself (other new components, extreme weather, etc.), you might be pleasantly surprised to find that your current cell has plenty left to provide.
Regardless, we're here to help with your questions and concerns. Call or email us and our pool professionals will be happy to assist you with your salt system needs and much more.
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Pool Supply Unlimited is an e-commerce company that loves water. We love to pump it, filter it, heat it, chlorinate it, light it up and stare at it while we're barbequing a fat, juicy steak. There are real pool professionals working here. Our guys have seen thousands of pools in their careers, no exaggeration. We are based in San Antonio, TX and can land most products to your door (within the 48 contiguous states) in less than a week.
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