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Sensing Water Quality – What Our Eyes, Nose, Mouth, Ears and Skin Tell Us

As is true of most endeavors in which us humans diligently apply ourselves, the art and science of recreational water treatment become more complex and sophisticated as time goes along. Yet, for all of the sanitizing, filtration, balance and testing methods at our disposal these days, you don’t really need to know anything about those technologies to know whether or not things are right.

Truth is, we have all the tools we need to determine there’s some kind or problem. Our eyes, ears, nose, mouth and skin constantly gather data, and they are infinitely more sophisticated than our manmade information-gathering implements. As important, our five senses, to which I would personally add basic human intuition, will tell us when we’re in a wholesome environment, but only if we first get in the habit of paying attention.

That may sound overly simplistic, but in truth I believe one of the obstacles to achieving artisanal water conditions is that it’s in our nature to learn to ignore what our senses tell us. It happens in an infinite number of ways: pushing aside your back pain to get your work done, averting your eyes when you drive by a neighbor’s house who never cleans the piles of trash on the lawn, or learning to ignore unpleasant smells you routinely experience, like the chlorine stench at your community center pool.

As the cliché goes, the first step in fixing a problem is realizing you have one. In the realm of all things aquatic that means first paying attention to your senses. It works when things are awry and also to help confirm when the water is dialed in.


This one is easy. If the pool water is not clear, if it’s cloudy, if there is visible dirt and debris floating in the water or on the pool floor, if there are dead bugs, or live ones in and around the water, if there’s trash on the deck, all are indications of different types of problems. Same is true for visible corrosion, staining, scale or rust on surfaces and components. If you see inhalers all over the pool deck because kids are having trouble breathing and for heaven’s sake, if a pool light is flickering, these are powerful warning signs that something is wrong. Bottom line: don’t ignore what you see.


This is a little tricky. Pool systems are, or at least should be, made to run silently, so when you hear louder than usual mechanical noises coming from the equipment, it’s almost certainly time for a service call with a qualified technician. Some noise is normal so you need to become accustomed to the sounds of the system operating properly.

But there’s another level; that is, hearing what people say about their experience. And that’s where the lost art of listening comes into play. I’m always impressed with the way children pick up on things that us grown-ups sometimes miss. When it comes to conditions in an aquatic facility, indoors or outside, it pays to listen to what young swimmers tell you about the experience. Phrases like “It stinks,” “My eyes burn,” or “My skin itches,” are powerful indicators that should trigger the savvy pool operator or water quality professional to suspect elevated levels of disinfection byproducts, and sanitizer demand that is outrunning the treatment method. Kids are like those canaries in coalmines, especially in pools, because they are very sensory oriented, have less cluttered minds and walk around with less developed social filters, that is, they say what they experience.

Suffice to say, when I hear kids complain, it’s time to break out the test kit.


Right there with sight, this is the easiest to grasp, even though it’s the sense that most of us probably use the least. When you or others get a whiff of the familiar chloramine smell, the water needs help. It could be that the smelly vessel is being refilled with source water that’s treated with monochloramine, or the system simply isn’t keeping up with demand, or a combination of both.

The facility might need a completely revamped treatment system, perhaps turning away from chlorine-only treatment to incorporate ozone and/or UV technology. Or there could be other measures, like paying more attention to kids showering prior to entering the water, or encouraging bathroom breaks. Whatever the type of remediation, staring down that path often first goes through the nose.


Pool water should have no taste, just like drinking water. Another basic indicator, if the water tastes bad, it’s time to look for the issue. It’s not surprising that bad smelling and bad tasting water often go hand in hand.


Pool surfaces and components are created to be smooth and easy on the touch. If you find rough patches on the surface or abrasive edges on components like rails or ladders, something’s not right. Certainly, touch comes into play after you get out of the water. Dry, rough or itchy skin, or red and burning eyes, should never be part of the aquatic experience. If someone feels any level of electrical shock, it’s time to close the pool and carefully inspect the electrical service, bonding and grounding connections.

For those of us who spend our working lives making sure that people who turn to water for health and recreation walk away feeling refreshed, relaxed and rejuvenated, it only makes sense to start in the realm of the senses.

the Water Geek


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A blog about all things water, written by SRK's founder Steve Kenny.