Trichlor shortage may open new doors
By Hayward Inc.
If you’ve been following the trade news over the last few months, you’ve probably seen one topic in particular flooding every outlet’s feed: Trichlor.
But beyond understanding that there's a shortage of this common sanitizing agent, you may not know a lot about the situation as a whole. So let’s discuss what it is, why it’s so hard to find, its common substitutes and (most importantly) what you can do to make sure that a Trichlor shortage doesn’t leave your business coming up short.
What is Trichlor?
First things first: let’s make sure we’re on the same page about Trichlor and how chlorination actually works. Yes, by now you’re probably an expert on chlorine’s practical effects, but understanding the nuances of this shortage requires a certain amount of inorganic chemistry.
Trichlor (or, more specifically, “Trichloro-s-triazinetrione”) is the disinfectant/bactericide most commonly found in circular 1-inch or 3-inch dissolvable tablets. The nickname “Trichlor” is derived from the three chlorine atoms in its chemical formula— the key distinguisher between Trichlor (C3Cl3N3O3) and its molecular cousin Dichlor (C3HCl2N3O3), which only has two.
In either case, the water-dissolved chlorine forms hydrochloric acid (HCl), which is when the real germ-killing magic happens. When the acid comes into contact with microorganisms, it oxidizes them by breaking through their cellular walls and disrupting their internal structure. Imagine popping a water-submerged water balloon with dozens of tiny pin pricks. Eventually, the contents of the balloon will leech out into the surrounding water, and there will be nothing left of its original structure or contents.
Why the shortage?
The current shortage was the result of a multi-system collapse that was caused by a perfect storm—an ongoing trade war, a global pandemic and, yes, an ACTUAL storm.
Here’s a quick recap of a few major events for Trichlor over the last few years: September 2018: Tariffs The U.S. Trade Representative announces an additional $200 billion in tariffs on Chinese goods. The list of affected products includes sodium hydroxide, a critical component for Trichlor production. American distributors and manufacturers race to stock up on supplies at pre-tariff prices before the new regulations take effect.
March 2020: Lockdown
U.S. state governments announce the first mandatory stay-at-home orders, in hopes of slowing the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic. Searching for a new source of entertainment at home, many families look to building or renovating backyard pools. By the end of the pool season, national news sources will report record consumer demand. The alreadydepleted supply of Trichlor is stretched even further to accommodate the spike.
August 2020: Hurricane
Hurricane Laura, the strongest hurricane to hit Louisiana since 1856, makes landfall. The storm causes a fire to break out in the Westlake production facility of BioLab, the Trichlor manufacturer responsible for producing nearly 40 percent of the nation’s supply. The fire burns for three days and vaporizes an estimated 125 tons of chlorine pellets, forcing local residents within miles of the plant to stay indoors in order to avoid breathing the harmful fumes.
September 2020: Panic
Fearing the worst, buyers scramble to find out every remaining Trichlor source they can find, and distributors begin rationing sales to prevent hoarding. Reports circulate of Trichlor prices skyrocketing, with some outlets finding that the unit price has nearly doubled within a week. Market analysts worry about prices for the coming pool season, with one expert predicting that “2021 will be long remembered as the year the Industry survived without dry chemicals.”
January 2021: Entanglement
Despite almost a year of a soft truce in trade negotiations between Washington and Beijing, the Trump administration offers no exemptions to standing tariffs for the Trichlor market (despite numerous appeals from industry leaders). In the first few days of the incoming Biden administration, the U.S. Treasury department signals no immediate intention to reverse or ease the existing policies. Expecting little change before the start of the 2021 pool season, pool professionals begin searching for chlorine alternatives in earnest.
And there you have it. A condensed history of the Trichlor shortage. But that still leaves the big question: what do we do now?
Luckily, you’ve got options. Here’s a quick rundown the other options on the table to get you through the year’s expected barrage of demand spikes and price hikes.
Let’s start with the simplest option. In terms of pure science, chlorinators like Hayward’s AquaRite S3 Salt System rely on pretty basic chemistry principles to do their work. Combine table salt (NaCl) with pool water (H2O), add low-voltage electrical current and voilà: you’ve got chlorinated water.
That electrical process (electrolysis) is provided by the system as pool water passes through its salt conversion cell. When the current is introduced, that small amount of energy shuffles around the saltwater’s molecular pairings to create hypochlorous acid (HClO, waterdissolved chlorine) and sodium hydroxide (NaOH, a common ingredient in soap).
Maintaining a sanitized pool with a salt system is often as easy as adding a bag of salt to the pool now and then.
The salt system takes care of the rest. Better still: as the chlorine does its thing and the oxygen breaks off of hypochlorous acid to oxidize contaminants, some of the chlorine ions rejoin with sodium to reform salt!
Translation: salt systems are basically perpetual-sanitization machines. Yes, you’ll still need to add salt to compensate for backwashes and natural salt loss over time, but that’s about it.
Another common option for achieving the same type of pool chlorination as salt is to use sodium hypochlorite (NaClO, bleach).
For those of you who have been pausing to read the chemical symbols (you stalwart chemistry champions, you!), you may have noticed how adding bleach to water puts all the same elements in play as saltwater does (Na, Cl, H, O). But rather than breaking those atoms apart with an electrical reaction, hypochlorites use a chemical reaction instead.
Calcium hypochlorite CaClO,
“Cal Hypo”) works similarly, substituting sodium for calcium—another element that naturally likes to bind with chlorine and oxygen molecules. Yes, there are other subtle differences (usage, price, odor, water softness, etc.), but the highlevel view makes Cal Hypo and Sodium Hypo pretty tough to distinguish in any meaningful way.
Are Hypos the right option for you? Depends on the amount of time and effort you’re willing to put into sanitization. While the idea of bypassing the cost of a salt conversion system may seem initially appealing, hypochlorite-sanitized pools need to be frequently monitored and adjusted (and occasionally stabilized with products like cyanuric acid).
The answer for you will probably be the result of where the pool owner falls on the convenience-to-price continuum.
Be warned, though: if Trichlor has taught us anything, it’s that making definitive price forecasts on chemicals too far into the future can be a fool’s gambit.
UV, Ozone & AOP
These three techniques could easily be covered individually, but the most advanced systems (like Hayward’s leading HydraPure Sanitization System) combine them to maximize their individual benefits. With that in mind, here’s a quick overview of each:
• UV systems sanitize the water using shortwave light to neutralize organic contaminants like bacteria, viruses and other nasty germs.
• Ozone systems use trioxide (O3) to destroy chlorine-resistant microorganisms, along with chemicals like chloramines and nitrogen compounds.
• Advanced Oxidation Process (AOP) systems combine UV and ozone to produce hydroxyl radicals (•OH) that sanitize faster than ozone and quickly evaporate without lingering smells or harmful residuals.
You may have noticed that the only elements listed above were hydrogen (H) and some form of oxygen (O). That’s what makes 3-in-1 sanitizers so powerful. Not only do they use complimentary systems to maximize the sanitization potential— they do it all without even needing to bring chlorine or metals (like calcium and sodium) into the equation.
Rather than creating an alphabet soup of chemical elements in the pool, 3-in-1 sanitizers keep H2O full of only more Hs and Os. Impressive, right?
The Trichlor situation is very, very messy. It’s the result of multiple interlocking things all going wrong at the same time, so it’s impossible to say what the future holds. Maybe current trade restrictions will change. Maybe U.S. manufacturers can pick up the slack before pool season. Maybe this shortage only lasts for a few months. Maybe it doesn’t.
At some point, the market will return to relative normal. It’s a matter of when, not if. The realquestion is whether or not you want to risk riding out the uncertainty in the meantime, and whether you want to open yourself up to the potential that it happens again in the future.
The last year has handed us a whole lot of new challenges, whether we’ve liked them or not.
And through it all, the people and businesses who have fared the best are the ones who have rolled with the punches, turned challenge into opportunity and found a new way forward.
That’s as true for business as it is for sanitization.
There’s never been a more unpredictable time for our industry than right now. But that also means that there’s never been a more perfect time to make a change for the better.