The most important aspect of owning a swimming pool is pool care. Without proper maintenance, a pool can quickly turn from a great investment to an awful one. You can always pay for someone to take care of your pool for you, but that's hardly the best option. It's expensive, for one, and if you have a sudden problem with your pool, it can also be pretty inconvenient to have to wait on someone else's schedule to get it fixed. Luckily, providing your own pool care is easy to learn and does not take much time at all.
Table of Contents
Before learning how to care for your pool, it's important to understand the different parts of your pool system.
Anatomy of a Pool
In the diagram above, you can see the different parts of a standard pool system. Although there are multiple varieties of swimming pool with various types of construction, they're all set up in the same basic way with similar system parts.
The basin is the part of the swimming pool which contains the water. In aboveground pools, the basin typically consists of a frame and the liner. Frames are generally of steel, aluminum, or strong resin construction, and the skin of the pool usually has a vinyl liner. Stimes, aboveground pools have a steel wall for added strength. Below ground pool basins are made with various methods using concrete, and sometimes fiberglass, covered with a wide variety of finishes.
After the basin, the most important part of the pool is the pump. The pump keeps the water in the pool moving through the treatment system, filter, and basin. Without a pump, the water in the pool would quickly become stagnant and filthy.
Drains and Returns
Every swimming pool has at least one drain, as well as at least one return. Drains are where the water exits the basin to go through the filtration system. Conversely, the return is where the freshly sanitized water re-enters the swimming pool basin.
Your pool filter removes impurities from the water passing through it, which, if it is a cartridge filter, requires periodic changing. There are also sand filters and diatomaceous earth filters, which do not need changing but require other forms of critical maintenance periodically.
Skimmers and Feeders
All pools have a skimmer, and most have chemical feeders as well. The skimmer is usually located over a drain and helps to remove bugs, leaves, and other debris from the water before it passes through the filter. Chemical feeders are sometimes by or inside of a skimmer, but can also be found floating freely in the pool. Typically, the chemical feeder releases chlorine or bromine into the water to purify microbes.
Your pool system also consists of all of the piping used to connect the various parts of the filtration system and pump to the basin.
Three Core Pillars of Pool Care
When it comes to pool care, there are three core concepts that you need to master. Otherwise, your pool maintenance suffers. Circulation, cleaning, and chemistry are all essential areas of pool care that every pool owner should learn.
For many pool owners, chemistry is the most intimidating part of pool maintenance. Although chemistry itself is a pretty complex subject, pool chemistry is surprisingly simple. You have to know how to test your water, as well as what you're looking for when you're doing tests. Most of the time, you'll be testing for chlorine levels, alkalinity, pH balance, hard water, and algae.
Testing Your Pool Water
You should be testing your pool water at least once per week during seasons that your swimming pool is in use. There are a few different options concerning how you can carry out testing. You can use a liquid test kit, get it done professionally at your local pool store, or use test strips. We'll discuss each of these methods below. You can also watch the following video to get a walkthrough on testing your pool water:
Liquid Test Kit
It's easy to find liquid test kits at just about any pool store, website, or from general vendors like Amazon. Although there are quite complicated liquid tests, most owners only need basic options for weekly pool care. You're going to want to test chlorine and pH levels. Phenol red is a water-soluble chemical that you'll use to determine pH. By adding pool water to phenol red and looking at how red the water becomes, you can find out the pH of the water. The redder the water is, the higher the pH. OTO is a similar yellow chemical that tests chlorine and bromine levels.
Professionally Done at a Pool Store
This is perhaps the easiest way to test your pool water. Using some sort of clean, capped container, like a bottle, you take a water sample from a few inches below the surface of the water. You should try to get as close to the middle as possible, but staying away from any skimmers, returns, and chemical feeders is good enough. Once you have your sample, just take it into your local pool store and ask them to test the water. Even if you choose to test your water yourself at home, you should occasionally have it professionally tested just in case.
Test strips are likely the most accurate form of testing when it comes to home pool care. They're also very easy to use. You can find test strips that test practically everything about your water, but they all operate in the same fashion. Once you have your water sample, dip the to vacuum your pool all at once properly in it. After removal, wait 15-20 seconds and compare the results on the strip to the guide that comes with the packaging.
What Are You Testing For?
Now that you know how to test your pool water, let's talk about the things you'll be testing. As mentioned above, keeping track of pH balance, chlorine level, alkalinity, calcium hardness, and algae are all important aspects of pool care that you'll need to know how to manage.
If you remember anything from high school chemistry, now is the time to use it. High pH means that the water is "basic," and pH that is too low is "acidic." You're aiming at pH-neural water that is between 7.4 and 7.6 on the pH scale. Unfortunately, almost everything can impact pH levels. Water added to the pool, removed from the pool, people entering and exciting — virtually every aspect of actually using a pool (or having the pool exist, pretty much) can cause the pH to fluctuate.
Because of that, you're going to want to keep a good supply of pH increaser on hand. Decreaser is less critical, and you will need it less often, but is still useful to keep around.
Chlorine purifies the water, and it's extremely effective. Because UV rays remove chlorine from the water, it's essential to monitor your water's chlorine content and adjust it accordingly. When chlorine is at the right level in your pool water, it kills bacteria and algae to keep the water safe for people to swim in. Chlorine is often in stick or tablet form, and either uses a chemical feeder to dispense or is located in your skimmer. When you're testing your chlorine levels, you're looking for a chlorine level of three ppm, or parts per million. If it's too high, the water will burn your eyes, have a strong smell, and cause discomfort. Too low, and bacteria and algae can grow in the water.
Occasionally, you'll use chlorine to "shock" your pool. Over time, chlorine in your pool combines into molecules, using matter from bacteria and other substances in the pool. This "combined" chlorine loses its sanitizing power. To regain its purifying power, you'll need to turn it back to "free" chlorine. You can test both the free and combined chlorine levels in your pool to get the most accurate reading possible.
Using Chlorine to Shock Your Pool
To shock your pool, you keep adding chlorine to your pool until you reach something called "breakpoint oxidation." That's a fancy term that means there's a huge amount of chlorine in your pool water — 10 ppm over whatever your combined reading was. The best time to shock your pool is near dusk to stop the sun from interfering with the chemical process. You should leave your pump on and the water circulating while the chemicals work. It is not safe to swim in a pool while it is being shocked, but luckily, the process only takes a few hours. Not all chemical shocking methods require chlorine — if you're interested in alternatives, ask at your local pool store.
Testing and managing your alkalinity level is another key part of managing pH when it comes to pool care. Remember when we mentioned how susceptible pH levels are to fluctuation? The alkalinity of the pool helps to offset that fluctuation. When alkalinity is at the optimum level, which is between 100 and 150 parts per million, the water is less prone to pH fluctuation. You should keep a good supply of alkalinity-increasing chemicals on hand. If your water tests low, you'll want to add alkalinity increaser until it's back at the right level.
Another important thing to balance in your pool water is calcium content. If your pool has too much calcium in the water, you'll experience hard water buildup inside of your pool in the form of scaling. It's annoying to clean and avoidable as long as you're testing and maintaining your water. If it's too low, your water might dissolve calcium out of your liner (depending on the material) or anywhere else it can get it. This is a problem especially for plaster and concrete-lined pools. The right calcium level is between 200 and 275 ppm.
Algae itself is not harmful to humans, but the bacteria that feed on it will quickly make your pool an unfriendly place to be. The best way to treat algae is through prevention. As long as your chlorine and pH are at the right levels, you shouldn't get algae. If your chlorine dips below where it should be and you don't catch it soon enough, you should treat your pool with algaecide. If you have a bad algae problem, don't fret — there are still solutions. You're going to have to brush the inside of the pool, shock it, and make sure that it is circulating well and has a clean filter. You may have to repeat the brushing and shocking process more than once depending on how bad the issue has become.
The second of the three core components of pool care is cleaning. Maintaining your pool's chemistry in order is all well and good, but if you're not keeping the pool clean and free of debris, it's not going to work as it should for long. The filtration system will do much of the heavy lifting, but there are manual aspects to keeping your pool clean as well, like using a net to clean leaves and debris from the water. Vacuums that clean the bottom of the pool are also very useful.
The Filtration System
There are several types of pool filtration systems in different configurations, but they all work mostly the same way. The biggest difference is the type of filter used. The pool skimmer, pool nets, a brush, and pool vacuums are also essential parts of pool care.
Types of Pool Filters
There are three basic types of pool filter: sand, cartridge, and diatomaceous earth. Each has advantages and disadvantages and requires a different form of maintenance, but they will all clean your pool water to satisfaction.
Sand filters run the water through a chamber containing a large amount of sand to scrub impurities from the water. You clean a sand filter by "backwashing" it, which reverses the pump direction and pumps water through the filter the opposite way, venting it as the sand becomes clean. Sand filters operate best when they are slightly dirty, and you clean them when the pressure gauge shows they are a few pounds over the normal operating pressure. For more information, consult the manual of your sand filter.
As with sand filters, cartridge filters need cleaning when the pressure gauge is a few pounds higher than normal. To maintain a cartridge filter, you simply take the cartridge out and hose it off. After that, you soak it in a filter cleaner for several hours. When that's done, give it a final rinse, and then put it back in the filter. Ideally, you will swap between two or more filters. That also gives them time to dry before being put back into the housing, helping them operate as efficiently as possible.
Diatomaceous Earth Filters
A diatomaceous earth filter works much like a sand filter. However, they require more maintenance. After you've backwashed a diatomaceous earth filter, you generally have to add more DE to the filter. Also, the filter grid needs cleaning several times per year, and at least once per year, you must give it a good deep cleaning. Deep cleaning a diatomaceous earth filter requires you to disassemble it at least partially.
Another part of your pool that will need manual cleaning is the skimmer. The pool skimmer uses mesh to catch bugs and debris before they enter the filter and pump system. You should check your skimmer often, and dump it whenever debris starts to accumulate. If your skimmer contains chlorine sticks, you should also use this time to check if they need replacing.
A pool vacuum makes getting debris off the bottom of the pool a breeze. Most vacuums have a brushed head and use the water intake at the skimmer for suction. When you're prepping your vacuum, make sure that it and the entire hose are filled with water before you attach the hose to your skimmer. Otherwise, you'll feed your pump air, which is not good for it. Most pools take about 30 minutes to vacuum. If you're having trouble setting aside enough time to properly vacuum your pool all at once, don't worry — you can always do it in sections.
You can also use the vacuum head to brush your pool. Brushing your liner is the best way to prevent the build-up of metals and algae.
Pool nets are great for aiding and supplementing your skimmer and are an essential tool to have in your backyard. Using a pool net, you can remove debris from the surface of the water yourself. Any time you are cleaning your pool, you should skim the surface with a pool net first. Most people can't afford to run their pump 24/7, so it also helps to skim your pool before starting the pump back up. Otherwise, debris that collected in the meantime may clog your skimmer.
Despite being listed last, circulation is actually the most important aspect of pool care. If your pool isn't circulating, chemicals won't mix right, debris and impurities stay in the water, and your pool will not remain safe to swim in for long.
Why Is Circulation Important?
Circulation ensures that chemicals evenly distribute through your water and that impurities and debris are constantly removed. It's also much harder for a build-up to occur on the liner of pools that are circulating. Meanwhile, standing water quickly becomes disgusting. Ideally, you should run your pool pump for at least 10-12 hours daily.
The best and cheapest time to run your pool pump is at night, but it should also run if you are adding chemicals to your water or otherwise maintaining it. Because of that, it might be more convenient to run it during the day. You want to try to make sure that all of the water in your swimming pool goes through the filter at least once per day, but the time it takes to do that can vary wildly between different pools. You might be able to find more information on how much time your pump needs to spend running a day in the manual or at your local pool store.
The Role of the Pump
The role of the pump in your filtration system is simple — keep the water moving. Your pump is the engine that keeps water moving through your filtration system and pool basin.
The Return Jets
Water returns to the pool through the return jets. Usually, these are at least semi-mobile and the direction of the jet can change.
Circulation, cleaning, and chemistry are the three main points of pool care, but there are a few other details of which you should also be aware. Some pools have covers, heaters, automatic vacuums, or other abilities that make pool care much easier.
A pool cover is exactly what it sounds like. If your pool has a cover, you should keep it on when you are not using or maintaining it. With proper use of a pool cover, you can cut the debris that enters your pool down to practically nothing. Very few leaves, pollen, and bugs are going to make it into the water. That lessens the strain on both the pump and you — after all, you don't need to dump the skimmer as often or use a pool net if nothing gets in the water in the first place. If you can find one that fits, it's also possible to purchase a cover for pools that did not come with one.
Some pools come with heating. If you have a heated pool, it's usually an easy matter to use the thermostat to adjust the water temperature to your liking. You should be aware that heating up and keeping an entire swimming pool warm can use quite a bit of energy.
If you're tired of vacuuming your pool yourself, there's an easier option. There are quite a few robo-vacuum models on the market that automatically crawl across the bottom of your pool, sucking up dead bugs and other debris. Generally, the debris is then caught in a net and held there by the water pressure used to vacuum. Here's a video highlighting several popular models of robot vacuum:
If you have a "smart pool," maintenance will be even easier than you can imagine. Smart pools can monitor their own chemical levels, temperature, adjust lighting, and more, vastly reducing the amount of time you will spend on pool care. They come with a display to control all of the features, and often connect to wifi, enabling you to control the pool remotely.
Closing Your Pool for Winter
If you live somewhere with seasons, it's important that you prepare your pool for winter. Failure to properly winterize your swimming pool can cause damage to it in the worst case scenario. In the best case, it will leave you with a massive, headache-inducing mess to clean up in the spring. You'll need to do final water tests, add winter chemicals, plug up your skimmers, winterize your filter and pump, drain the pool at least partially, and cover it up for proper pool care.
Test and Clean Your Water
The first step to getting your pool ready for winter is to clean and test your water. You should skim, vacuum, and brush your pool, in that order, to get it as clean as possible. After that, test your water using the methods described earlier. At this stage, you should also remove any ladders, floating skimmers, and other removable equipment.
Add Winter Chemicals
Once you have the results from your water tests, you should use chemicals as needed to get your tests into the right ranges. You want your pH to be 7.2 to 7.4, the alkalinity to be between 80 and 120 ppm, and the calcium level to be somewhere between 180 and 220 ppm. You should also shock the pool several days before you begin the winterization process. Don't do it to your pool just before — the high levels of chlorine can damage your pool cover and other equipment. If you're going to add an algaecide chemical, wait until after shocking is complete.
Plug Up Your Skimmers
If your chemicals are in balance and your pool is free of all debris, it's time to plug up the skimmers. Lower the water in your pool to several inches below the level of the skimmer, and then close it off.
“Winterize” Your Filter and Pump
When you lower the water in your pool, it's a good time to go ahead and winterize your filter and pump, too. Sand and DE filters should have water drained to waste, which will also aid in the draining of the pool to the right level. Make sure to clean your pump, and drain the water from all chlorinating, filtering, pumping, and heating equipment. If you live somewhere with cold winters and expect it to drop below freezing frequently, you should also blow out the plumbing lines.
Covering Up the Pool and Air Pillow
When your filter and pump systems are ready and your water drains to the right level, you should put an air pillow and cover on your pool. The cover's purpose is fairly obvious: to protect your pool from weather and debris during the winter months. Many people, however, are unfamiliar with the use of an air pillow.
Specially-designed air pillows go under the cover of the pool and are an important part of overwintering pool care. By creating a void in the water and a gap between your cover and the pool, the air pillow forces ice to build inward, instead of outward. That saves your liner, cover, and other parts of your pool system from ice-related damage during the winter months.
While many people find DIY pool care to be intimidating, in reality, it's actually pretty easy. As long as you remember chemistry, cleaning, and circulation, you'll be on the right path to saving money and stress by providing your own maintenance. If you run into any unexpected issues or problems with your pool or find yourself in need of professional advice, your local pool store will almost always be happy to provide the answers you need.