Ammonia in Swimming Pools

by Pool Builders on 07-27-2013 in Articles

So what's all this "new" talk about ammonia in swimming pool water?

I hate to burst your bubble but ammonia is NOTHING new to swimming pools. In fact, I've been talking about this problem for about 40 years!

Ammonia is a naturally occurring, very simple chemical that is found anywhere Hydrogen and Nitrogen can come together. Ammonia is NH3 or for you non chemists like me, Ammonia is composed of ONE Nitrogen atom attached to THREE Hydrogen atoms.

If you remember your high school chemistry, water is composed of TWO Hydrogen atoms and ONE Oxygen atom (H2O). So now that we know where the Hydrogen came from (by the way, Hydrogen is the most plentiful element in the universe), where did the Nitrogen come from?

That is NOT a mystery!

Nitrogen, like Hydrogen, is also a very plentiful gas. Nitrogen is everywhere. But this "bad" Nitrogen that we're specifically talking about comes from common, everyday, normal environmental waste. And that includes waste from you and me.

As an important aside, Ammonia also comes in most tap water these days. That's right! As people have unfortunately screamed and howled about the amount of chlorine that WAS being used to keep our drinking water clean and pure, water treatment authorities began adding Ammonia to the sanitizing mix creating the Chloramines that we'll address shortly.

Nitrogen can come from urine or sweat. Nitrogen is found in fertilizers (both natural as well as man-made). In small quantities, this "wasted" Nitrogen really doesn't amount to anything, but when it piles up, that's when the problems begin. In other words, it really depends on HOW MUCH Nitrogen is present in the water.

And when that excess Nitrogen comes in contact with the water (simple chemical attraction), you get Ammonia. It's always occurring. That may sound a little simplistic, but that's the bottom line.

What we're really dealing with...

The real problem as I mentioned is something that we commonly call "CHLORAMINES". Chloramines are simply Chlorine molecules that have "gone bad" because the Nitrogen was more attracted to the Chlorine atom than to the Hydrogen atom. People aren't the only ones who make wrong partner choices...

When Chlorine (or Bromine for that matter - when combined are called Bromamines) ome together with Nitrogen (or Ammonia if you prefer), bad stuff begins to happen; slowly maybe, but happen it will. First you'll notice a strong "chlorine odor". What you're actually smelling is LOW chlorine being overtaken by nitrogen or ammonia. After the odor starts, the real problems begin: burning eyes and sometimes even irritated skin and mucous membranes (you know when you get a snout-full when opening a bottle of cleaning Ammonia... ). Next comes dull or hazy looking, then cloudy water. After that, you'll typically see an algae bloom and growth. Algae, like all green plants, loves nitrogen and is a food source.

And all of that can happen in a matter of hours or a couple of days. You have to deal with this problem quickly and completely. By no means can you let it fester, it will only become much worse.

What to do...

Like I just said, if you want to deal with this problem, you've got to do it quickly and completely. And what you have to do with this bad partnership is what you do with any bad partnership: BREAK IT UP at any cost!

In swimming pools, we need to properly and thoroughly shock the water with sufficient chlorine to break up the Ammonia-Chlorine bond. The problem most people run into is that they don't add enough chlorine or shock and then actually cause the Chloramine problem to become worse - and sometimes significantly worse.

If Chloramines are NOT completely destroyed, you will only create MORE Chloramines - lots more.

Is there a way to prevent this problem? Yes there is! A couple of things: first make sure that you're testing the pool water once or twice each week on your own, then at least monthly at a professional pool store. Make sure that you are testing for Free Available Chlorine (FAC) as well as Total Chlorine (what most people test for). If there's a higher Total Chlorine level than FAC, you've got Chloramines.

The next thing to do is to properly and regularly shock the pool to prevent build ups of Chloramines. You can never shock a pool too much.

What happens if you choose NOT to deal with this Ammonia-Chlorine problem? It will only get worse. In short order, your pool may develop a Chlorine Demand which will drive you just short of insane as you struggle to maintain even the most minimal amount chlorine or bromine to sanitize the pool.

To sum it up, Ammonia is NOT a new thing in swimming pools. It's a naturally occurring problem that is as old as pool care (and nature) itself. You just have to learn how to control it properly, and controlling it is easy!

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