June 30 , 2021 -- Just ahead of Independence Day, a nationwide chlorine shortage is putting a damper on summer plans for backyard pool owners and community aquatic centers across the country.
A massive fire at a Louisiana chemical plant that produces most of the nation’s chlorine tablets, combined with a new boom in pool construction, could leave many pools high and dry this Fourth of July, industry experts warn.
The shortage is already driving up chlorine prices and leading swimming pools in some regions of the nation to close or scale back operations.
But the chlorine shortage isn’t just hampering summer pool and vacation plans: Experts are worried about public health, too. Chlorine kills bacteria, and pools that aren’t treated correctly can spread life-threatening illnesses from E. coli,salmonella, and other germs.
"I’m calling it a poolapocalypse or poolmageddon,” says Rudy Stankowitz, a residential and public pool consultant. “It’s not going to be easy to make it through this, no matter what we do. The product is scarce. But it’s just like any other shortage.
“A year ago, a lot of people had enough toilet paper to last them a decade, and some didn’t know how they were going to wipe their butts next week. So, it’s the same scenario: There are folks who are wondering what they’re going to do to keep their pool clear next week.”
As if the chlorine shortage wasn’t enough to dampen summer pool plans, a lifeguard shortage is also forcing some community pools and beaches to close or curtail operations in some regions of the U.S.
For instance, several public pools and beaches in New York City and on Long Island have had to shut down or cut hours of operation because of guard shortfalls. The New York City Department of Parks and Recreation has been able to hire only two-thirds of the 1,400 guards it needs to fully staff its pools and beaches. Guard gaps have also forced some Long Island pools, swim camps, and beach clubs to limit operations indefinitely.
AAA Pool Services in Virginia Beach, which runs 50 regional swimming pools, has closed some operations because managers have been able to hire only a third of the 250 lifeguards it needs.
Meanwhile, Milwaukee County Parks is opening only four of its 12 public pools because of staffing shortages, and officials are concerned about drowning risks at public beaches on the shores of Lake Michigan that won’t be guarded this summer.
The American Lifeguard Association attributes the shortfall to pandemic-related cutbacks in lifeguard training programs. Another reason: COVID-19-related backlogs in processing temporary work visas that often brought in summer workers from abroad to fill those spots, according to the Pool and Hot Tub Alliance, a trade industry group.
But Stankowitz says a big reason is that young people are choosing other summer jobs.
“People don’t want to be lifeguards anymore,” he explains. “It started before the pandemic. It’s a job mostly taken on by young people, and it’s a first-responder position that doesn’t pay a phenomenal amount of money. So, it comes with a lot more responsibility than other jobs, and people are shying away from that. I know areas where they raised what they pay lifeguards to $20 an hour, and they’re still having trouble finding people for those spots.”
Cara Green, assistant director of aquatic operations at the University of Houston and a swimming pool consultant, says the chlorine and lifeguard shortages are making pool operations tougher.
She is particularly concerned about public health.
“I know the shortages are hitting the pool industry really hard, including people who are running community pools and backyard pools,” she says. “I’m worried that people aren’t going to stop swimming just because there’s not enough [guards] or chlorine in the pool.”
She also fears some pool owners might turn to unsafe alternatives, like laundry bleach, which can be dangerous.
“I’ve heard of people going to the supermarket and buying bleach to put in their pools,” she notes. “But consuming beach is not very safe, and we know that kids will get pool water into their mouths when they swim.”
Pandemic Pool Boom Fueling Shortage
A primary driver of the chlorine shortage is a massive boom in backyard pool construction during the pandemic.
“Because of the pandemic, homeowners couldn’t go anywhere, and they had all these dollars earmarked for vacations and entertainment,” Stankowitz says. “So, they started using that money for home improvement, and the installation of swimming pools was high atop that list.”
In fact, around 96,000 new pools were built in the U.S. last year -- about a 24% increase over the previous year, according to a Goldman Sachs report on the chlorine shortage. Another report, released by the research firm IBISWorld, attributed the growth in pool construction to “social-distancing guidelines and fears over the virus.”
Goldman Sachs noted chlorine prices surged 37% year-over-year in March due to the supply shortage. Prices are projected to spike 58% year-over-year from June to August, the height of the summer pool season. Of the 26 pool supply shops surveyed, 15 expressed doubts about having enough chlorine for this summer’s pool season.
The report also noted the pandemic pool construction boom isn’t over. It projects another 110,000 new pools would be built this year -- the most since the Great Recession, according to a survey of pool retailers.
Most of those new pools require chlorine for disinfection. Of the estimated 5.2 million inground background pools in the U.S., 60% or more use chlorine tablets, Stankowitz says.
Plant Fire Adds to the Problem
The pool construction boom isn’t the only thing straining the chlorine supply. In August, a fire decimated a BioLab Inc. chemical plant near Lake Charles, LA, that produces most of the country’s pool and spa chemicals.
The fire, which raged for 3 days and halted production of chlorine tablets, broke out after Hurricane Laura hit the area.
About 835 tons of tablets were stored at the plant, BioLab told the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board. KIK Consumer Products, which owns BioLab, would not say if all those tablets were destroyed in the fire, but said the company is rebuilding the plant and expects it to reopen next year.
In the meantime, many pool owners and operators, both public and private, are concerned about how they will keep them clean and safe.
Nick Barboza is one of them.
The 42-year-old Air Force retiree built an inground pool in his backyard in San Antonio, TX, last year as a Mother’s Day gift for his wife and for their three kids, aged 6, 13, and 18. He made the decision after the pandemic forced the family to cancel summer vacation plans, figuring it would foster “new memories we would create as a family.”
The pool was finished by the end of July and quickly became the center of family life, Barboza says. But last fall, he grew concerned after reading about the chlorine shortage experts were predicting. He bought a 50-pound bucket of tablets at Sam’s Club that he hoped would tide him over.
“But now, I’ve noticed the prices are through the roof,” he says. “They’re at least 75% higher.”
For the time being, Barboza says, he’s covered.
“However, for the long term, there’s going to have to be a backup plan,” he says. “If it needs additional chlorine, it’s going to be the liquid chlorine.”
He also worries that other backyard pool owners, who haven’t anticipated the chlorine shortage, could run into trouble.
And the risks to family summer fun aren’t his only concern.
“With a swimming pool, there is the risk for people getting sick,” says Barboza, a real estate specialist. “So, it’s something for people to be worrying about.”
Alternative Solutions: What You Can Do
Chlorine tablets are the most popular way to disinfect a pool. But they aren’t the only solution, experts note.
Homeowners can install different types of non-chlorination systems.
Saltwater pools, for example, have filtration systems that use salt and electricity to generate chlorine. A saltwater system can be costly to install -- $20,000 or so for an average-sized backyard pool, Stankowitz says. But for about $2,000, it’s possible to retrofit a pool with a salt system that reduces the amount of chlorine required, without replacing it entirely, he says.
Similar systems that cost about the same as saltwater systems and retrofits to install involve the use of ozone, ultraviolet light, and ionization to destroy contaminants.
Less expensive options include adding chemical alternatives, such as liquid chlorine. But liquid chlorine has also been in short supply because of manufacturing problems at several plants, Stankowitz says.
Aside from chlorine tablets and liquid chlorine, other chemicals can disinfect water and prevent algae growth, including borate, calcium hypochlorite, copper sulfate, and sodium bromide, he says.
In addition, the Pool and Hot Tub Alliance recommends several steps pool owners can take to reduce chlorine use and demand:
- Shower before swimming.
- Keep pets out of the pool.
- Run the filter daily.
The organization offers a searchable online directory of expert consultants on its website, as does the Association of Pool and Spa Professionals. Both provide resources and information for pool owners and managers.
Stankowitz adds that every state has its own pool and spa association that can provide direction and assistance.
“It’s not a hopeless situation,” he says. “The chlorine manufacturers will eventually get caught up. But I think it’s going to get worse before it gets better. My prediction is we’re going to feel the effects into 2022.”
In the meantime, the most important thing is to be sure any swimming pool you own or use -- public or private, backyard or community-run -- is properly disinfected, experts say. Equally important: Resist the urge to hoard pool chemicals, which could worsen the shortage.
“The big thing I would say is that people should not let it go,” Stankowitz says. “If the pool is not chlorinated, it is not safe. I can name about 15 different illnesses that people can get from untreated pool water, including leptospirosis, giardia, cryptosporidium, legionella, E. coli, salmonella, Naegleria fowleri, the brain-eating amoeba.
“All of these things are on the table if the water is not properly disinfected. So, it’s just not about green water, which is icky, and it looks bad. But there’s a lot riskier [implications]. It’s not just about ruining your vacation, but it’s about risking someone’s life in a serious way.”