Just in time for pool season: a shortage of chlorine

Stuck at home due to the coronavirus pandemic, people who found themselves sitting on the savings of canceled vacations and other cutbacks built swimming pools in record numbers last year to make quarantine more enjoyable.

Then a fire at the end of last summer caused the closure of the plant which produces most of the country’s supply of chlorine tablets. This year, the arrival of Memorial Day and swimming season has warned industry experts of a shortage that threatens to disrupt yard plans from coast to coast.

“There is a very, very good possibility that we are running out of chlorine tablets,” said Rudy Stankowitz, a consultant and pool educator with over 30 years of experience in the industry. “People should start looking for alternative methods of disinfecting swimming pools.”

The shortage, which Mr Stankowitz described somewhat hyperbolically as a “poolocalypse,” will affect residential swimming pools more than public swimming pools, which typically use different forms of chlorine.

There are important implications for public health. Chlorine tablets are used to disinfect swimming pools and keep them free of algae and bacteria. Poorly disinfected water can turn cloudy, making it a safety risk and a leading cause of drowning, Stankowitz said.

“If someone falls, you may not see them or they may be disoriented and do not know how to get out,” he said. “There were even cases where the pools were green enough to look like a lawn.”

The chlorine shortage surprised some new pool owners like Stephanie Winslow.

Ms Winslow used to spend hot days with her daughter and friends at a local public swimming pool. When it closed due to the pandemic, she bought an above ground swimming pool for the livestock farm where she lives with her family in Philippi, W.Va.

“We get a lot of benefit from it,” said Ms. Winslow, an online college financial aid specialist. “We use it almost every day.”

This spring, Ms. Winslow bought a month-long supply of chlorine tablets from Walmart for $ 26. After hearing about the shortage, she returned to buy enough to last through the summer, she said, but there were none available at Walmart or Ace Hardware. On Amazon, a bucket of tablets – the same size that had cost him $ 26 a week earlier – was listed for almost $ 170.

“It’s just too bad that something that’s supposed to be really fun for people who come in the summer to enjoy it now is almost a problem because you don’t know if you’re going to be able to use it or not all summer long.” She said. .

Others fared better. Nick Barboza, a recent Air Force retiree, built a swimming pool in his backyard in San Antonio last May as a Mother’s Day gift for his wife, Julia. The purchase was possible, in part, because the pandemic had forced them to cancel their trips to Chicago and Hawaii.

The swimming pool “has improved the quality of life for our family,” said Barboza, whose children are 6, 13 and 18.

“We use the pool in the summer, maybe six days a week,” he said. “We’re always in the back yard, just hanging out, and it kind of brought the family together when we were stuck in the house.

The pool has a waterfall and is made of fiberglass, which requires less chlorine and fewer other chemicals. When he heard about the chlorine shortage in a Facebook group this year, Mr. Barboza bought a 50-pound bucket of chlorine tablets at Sam’s Club – enough to last all summer.

Mr Barboza’s swimming pool was one of 96,000 swimming pools built in the United States in 2020, a 23% increase from the previous year, according to a chlorine shortage report released by Goldman Sachs last month. The report, which is based on a survey of regional pool retailers, estimates that 110,000 new pools will be built this year, the most “in a single year since the Great Recession.”

In another report, research firm IBISWorld attributed the growth in swimming pool construction to “social distancing guidelines and fears related to the virus.”

The addition of so many new swimming pools might have been enough on its own to deplete the chlorine supply. But the real problem started in August, when a big fire broke out at a plant located just west of Lake Charles, Louisiana, and operated by Bio-Lab Inc., one of the largest producers of pool and spa products in the country.

The blaze, which occurred after the plant had already been damaged by Hurricane Laura, burned for three days, releasing chlorine gas into the air and halting production of chlorine tablets. Bio-Lab told the US Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board that 835 tonnes of tablets were stored at the plant when the fire broke out. A spokesperson for KIK Consumer Products, owner of Bio-Lab, declined to say how many of those products were destroyed.

Chlorine trichlor tablets are used to disinfect about 70% of residential swimming pools nationwide, Stankowitz said. He and other industry experts said the Bio-Lab factory produces the majority of the country’s supply of tablets.

The resulting shortage has gone relatively unnoticed until recently, as swimming pools in the northern states began to open for the season and owners noted higher prices and purchase limits at some stores.

Of the 26 pool supply stores that were surveyed by Goldman Sachs, “15 expressed doubts or doubts when asked if they would have enough chlorine for swimming pool season,” the report said. .

The spokesperson for KIK Consumer Products said the company is in the process of rebuilding the Bio-Lab factory. It will have 30 percent more production capacity and will be “well positioned to address the shortage quickly” when it reopens next year, he said.

Chlorine tablets aren’t the only way to keep a pool clean. Saltwater pools, for example, have a filtration system that uses electricity to generate chlorine, but swimming pool upgrades can be prohibitively expensive, Stankowitz said. Less expensive options include adding chemicals like borate, which prevents algae, or liquid bleach.

To reduce the need for chlorine, the Pool and Hot Tub Alliance, an industry trade group, advises people to shower before swimming, keep pets out of the pool, and run the filter daily. He also recommends that people “shock” their pools – by adding chemicals that raise the chlorine level enough to kill algae and bacteria – with liquid chlorine, calcium hypochlorite, or potassium monopersulfate instead. of chlorine tablets.

Above all, pool owners should resist the urge to panic and buy chlorine, Stankowitz said. This would risk making chlorine tablets as scarce as toilet paper was at the start of the pandemic.

“If people start piling up and people start taking more supplies than they need,” he said, “that will only make the problem worse.”

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