Depending on who you ask, how difficult it is to chemically maintain an above-ground swimming pool can be described as anything from super easy to impossible.
Testing the pool water for specific levels of things on a regular basis is absolutely a “must do” when maintaining a swimming pool, although some don’t.
There are three options for what to use to test swimming pool water – test kits, test strips, and digital testers. Test kits have two tubes to fill with your pool water and then droppers with reagents to drop into the tubes for readings. Test strips are simply dipped into the pool for instant readings. Digital testers are expensive and often problematic.
THINGS YOU TEST FOR WHEN DOING REGULAR CHEMICAL POOL MAINTENANCE
With pool maintenance, you should test the water once every week. What to test for every week depends on who you ask. Here is a list of all the things that you can test for with a swimming pool.
WARNING: Do not test for all of these things in your pool every week. It is not necessary and will only drive you crazy with trying to keep everything at proper ranges.
1 Chlorine level
Some don’t use chlorine for their pools, but more than 95% of them do and it’s clearly what I recommend using (for a sanitizer and oxidizer). Anyone who knows a lot about pool water chemistry will recommend the same.
There are various test kits and strips available to test pool water. Some are super simple testing for just two things and some test for up to seven different things.
Regardless of the fanciness level of a test kit, they all test for chlorine.
Chlorine can be tested in two forms. I’ll list the second one later in its order of importance
2 pH range
The pH range is easily the second most important reading that you need for chemical pool maintenance. This along with chlorine will be the only other thing that every single test kit out there from simple to complex will have on it.
Understanding what pH is is not necessary to get good at pool chemistry.
3 Total Alkalinity
Although not necessary to get a reading every week, more complete test kits have this available.
4 Cyanuric Acid (CYA) or stabilizer
This is another secondary test that many mid-range and complete text kits or strips have.
5 Calcium or Total Hardness
NOTE: With above-ground or inground vinyl-lined pools, you don’t need to worry about calcium levels.
6 Free available chlorine
Some test kits will have two readings for chlorine. The second one is for chlorine present in the water that isn’t attached to anything yet. This is called free available chlorine.
Depending on who you talk to, some will tell you that you can rely on this test. I disagree as I haven’t found testing for only free chlorine in the water independent of combined chlorine to be accurate.
7 Salt test
This is only needed if you have a salt pool (salt chlorine generator).
8 TDS (Total Dissolved Solids)
This is something that most pool owners will never have to test for, ever. Usually, any pool in an area that gets at least some rain will never have too many dissolved solids in its water.
Another extremely rare condition for a swimming pool is having a large presence of phosphates in the water, so testing for it regularly is a waste of time.
10 Copper or metals
With the rise of ionizers and copper-based algaecides like poolRX, some will have to test for metals.
GOING DOWN MEMORY LANE (THE BEGINNING OF THE TEST STRIP)
As an old-school pool guy, I remember the days before the test strips. All pool service professionals would use the big all-inclusive test kit made by Taylor.
Those Taylor test kits were great then and are still used by some pool guys. I’m remembering how official I looked filling the cylinders up with pool water and carefully adding a certain number of drops of reagent in, then shaking for results.
Of all the literature on pool water chemistry I read at the beginning of my pool service career, the little booklet that came with the Taylor test kit taught me more than maybe anything else. I loved my test kit.
About 25 years or so ago, these test strips came available for testing pool water. This was towards the end of my service career and I was very opposed to them.
As a pool guy, you see a lot of things come and go quickly. It makes you leery of anything new until it stands the test of time.
When you have one or two pools only that you take care of (yours and maybe your relatives or aged neighbors), you can afford to be idealistic with new products that come out boasting great things.
When lots of people are paying you to give them steady and perfect results, you are less likely to buy into all the fluff that comes with new products. AND you also find out that most of those things are just lies and gimmicks. Ones that eventually cost you more money and make you look bad at your job.
These new-fangled test strips looked like every other gimmicky thing that comes out, so I was opposed to them. Then they stayed around a bit and I had a couple of fellow pool cleaners using them with normal results.
At some point, I surmised that they were accurate enough and may be an alternative to my test kit, but they were way too expensive.
Eventually, two things happened. The price of the strips went down and the bottles (holding the strips) got better to use by being better quality and having a clear range chart on the side for easier use.
One of my good friends who was also a pool service guy started using the strips and loved them. Still reluctant, I continued to use my trusty Taylor test kit. Then I finally did a price comparison.
When I compared the cost of using both the strips vs the test kit, I found out that it was a closer cost than I thought. This got me to try a bottle of them.
The first bottle I used didn’t go well. On about the second day in, I reached into the bottle with wet hands and contaminated about half of the strips in the bottle. That sucked and brought me back to my test kit.
As I reduced the number of pools I was servicing (because I was getting out of the service business), it became easier and better for me to use the test strips over the kit, so I eventually made the complete transition to the strips.
Today, most pool guys in Central Florida use the strips, but not all. When I ask about why I get different reasons why they use a kit. Some don’t trust the accuracy of the strips, some don’t like to worry about getting the inside of the bottle wet and contaminating the strips.
I think the professionals who still use a test kit are mainly doing so because of the cost savings. If you have a lot of pools and know what you’re doing, then the test kit will be cheaper to use.
TEST KITS VS TEST STRIPS
As stated above, there are only two options for what to use to chemically test pool water. And they are a test kit or test strips.
PROS TO USING A TEST KIT FOR TESTING POOL WATER
1 Potentially more accurate
I say “potentially” because I’m not sure if this is true. Some think that though, so I guess I’ll put it here as a pro.
2 You can test only for what you want to.
With a test kit, you can test for chlorine only if you want. This may be all that you need to test for at that moment, so that’s good.
Test strips test for everything on the strip. You can’t save the alkalinity test portion of the strip for another time. It’s all a one-time deal.
Psychologically, I don’t think it’s a good idea for a pool owner to see all the different levels of things every time they test the water. It may make them want to adjust something when they shouldn’t really mess with things that much.
3 May be less expensive
I say “maybe” because if you are the kind of person who keeps it simple and only buys and uses a very simple and inexpensive test kit that reads only chlorine and pH, then it will be cheaper to test your water with a kit over using strips.
PROS TO USING TEST STRIPS FOR POOL WATER
1 Easy to use
There is nothing easier than a test strip. You take it out of the bottle, dip it into the pool water, then read the strip against the chart on the bottle for your levels.
2 Easier to store
Test strips come in a bottle. There are no other parts.
In comparison, a test kit has a plastic tube, two-cylinder lids/caps, and at least two different reagent droppers. These are things that can get lost.
THE DIFFERENT TYPES OF TEST KITS FOR SWIMMING POOLS
2-Way test kit
This will test only for chlorine and pH, which in most cases, is all you need ninety percent of the time.
In addition to testing the chlorine and pH, the 3-way tests for bromine too. This is not at all needed unless you have a hot tub too that needs testing.
4-Way test kit
Along with chlorine and pH (the 2 essential tests), the 4-way adds bromine and total alkalinity.
Out of these 4, you’ll only use 3 of them for your swimming pool. Bromine is used in hot tubs (less harsh sanitizer used in smaller bodies of water).
Total alkalinity may need to be tested if you find your pool is green or cloudy though, so that’s good.
Taylor K2005 test kit
This is the complete test kit. It’s the one I used as a pool professional for about 15 years.
THE DIFFERENT TYPES OF TEST STRIPS FOR SWIMMING POOLS
4-Way test strips
These will test for chlorine, pH, cyanuric acid, and total alkalinity
This is a good test kit for above-ground pools.
7-Way test strips
This is a solid testing strip that covers free chlorine, total chlorine, pH, alkalinity, bromine, total hardness, and cyanuric acid levels.
Aquacheck pro 2
This test strip is used to test some secondary readings for your pool
It tests for Total hardness, cyanuric acid, and TDS or total dissolved solids.
Salt content test strip
If you have a saltwater pool, then you’ll need to know how much salt or sodium chloride there is in the water.
A WORD OR TWO ABOUT DIGITAL TESTERS
While living in this wonderful world of technology, you might be tempted at testing your swimming pool with a fancy digital tester. On paper, these cool electronic devices look and seem like the way to go if you are into electronics and have some extra money to spend.
In reality though, these devices are quite problematic. I tried two of these in the past and found them to not be worth it.
Electronic water testers have issues like inconsistency, inaccuracies, battery issues, poor shelf life, and electronic issues to name just a few.
I think those who try a digital tester are doing so just to be using something cool only. Ultimately, they will use a manual test kit or strips to maintain their pool. For this reason, I will not cover digital testers here.
WHAT TO TEST FOR IN AN ABOVE-GROUND POOL
Pool chemistry can be as simple or complicated as you want it to be. This is what you should test for and why.
1 Chlorine level (test once a week in the summer)
If you get only one thing from this article, get this:
“With pool chemistry, Chlorine is king”
Learning how to use chlorine properly in your pool is of paramount importance. So, checking the level of chlorine is important.
NOTE: Many test strips give you two different chlorine readings – total and free chlorine. I really wish they didn’t give you this as it only makes water chemistry more confusing.
2 pH reading (test once a week in the summer)
The pH reading is the second most important reading to take as pH needs to be close to its proper range so chlorine (or another sanitizer) can work well.
3 (Total) Alkalinity (test when the pH is fluctuating or the pool is green/cloudy)
There’s a relationship between pH and alkalinity, so if it gets way out of range, it should be brought back to normal.
4 Cyanuric acid (stabilizer) (Test once a month during the summer)
This helps keep a chlorine reading in your pool. Chlorine tablets have cyanuric acid in them, so don’t get in the habit of adding more. Too much of this is way worse than not enough.
5 Total hardness (calcium) (Never test for an above-ground pool)
It is not necessary to test for or maintain any level of calcium in an above-ground pool.
6 TDS (total dissolved solids) or Phosphates (test for only if you are having long-term problems)
These are rare instances when needing to know if your pool has too many total dissolved solids OR phosphates in the water.
MY BEST ADVICE FOR CHEMICALLY MAINTAINING A SWIMMING POOL
Our civilization has become so detailed and complex. We also now try to solve every problem with testing levels of things.
In reality, the physical world that we live in is no more detailed or complex than it has ever been. Only our perception of it has changed.
You may be asking what the hell is this pool guy talking about. Well, what I mean here is that your swimming pool doesn’t exist online or in some cyber world where you have to put on a mask to see it. It exists outside in the real world.
I have maintained swimming pools for 36 years and as a full-time pool cleaner for 16 of those. I chemically maintained pools way before all of these add-ons and complexities came into play.
When I ran into issues with pool chemistry and run into them now, I don’t solve the problem by testing more things, keeping track of more things, or adding specialty chemicals. That almost never works despite what the internet tells you.
I solve pool issues simply! Learn basic pool chemistry and keep it as simple as you can. If you do this, you will have an easier time taking care of your pool and it will look and feel a lot better.
Remember to go by how the pool looks and feels first. The readings are important but always secondary to this.