How enzymes are important in pool and spa maintenance and care

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Since 1990, HydroTher Hot Tubs have been the #1 choice of architects, consultants, designers and facility operators for commercial aquatic applications.

Thousands of industries worldwide are creating strategies to invest more in sustainable programs and products. With just as much capacity to embrace some of these eco-friendly practices, the pool and spa industry is no different to this idea. Due to their extraordinary abilities to break down many types of contaminants, the industry constantly examines ways to expand its range of specialty products utilizing enzymes and surfactants.

For many veteran pool operators, the use of these technologies is not new. For pool professionals, more potential tools can be recommended to customers to help keep pools looking and operating at their full potential. Not all pool problems are a result of inadequate sanitizer residuals. Some water quality issues might require a prescription of a polymeric or chitosan-based clarifier for hazy water, or other creative solutions beyond oxidizing. Chemicals used to clean or maintain pools do not need to have killing properties to be effective. Since many water quality issues stem from organic contaminants rather than biological ones, products containing specialized enzymes can work wonders.

The importance of cleanliness

Swimmers and bathers bring all kinds of organic nuisances to the water from their suntanning products, bather wastes, makeup, body lotions, and sweat. Environmental factors, such as animals and weather events, bring other unpleasant materials to the water as well. It is a commonly accepted standard in the pool and spa industry that each bather leaves behind about 473 mL (16 oz) of organic waste in a single hour-long session. Pool enjoyers want to relax in their peaceful aquatic oases but remaining on top of efforts to keep them clean is essential. If pool owners do not allow sticks or leaves to linger in their pool, they should not allow unseen material to accumulate either.

Most organic waste goes mostly unnoticed as it floats along at the surface, which results in unappealing scum lines along the waterline or skimmer. Dirt and debris become trapped in these oils and greases, which can pass through the skimmer, collect on the filter, and can foul and clog the filter rapidly. Not only will cleaning improve the esthetics of the water, employing proper cleaning habits can also protect the pool’s surface or skimmer from needing expensive repairs or replacements. Sanitizers are consumed as they destroy most of those contaminants, leading to a demand in chlorine. Supplemental products are more appropriate to reduce these contaminants into more manageable forms, allowing the sanitizer to focus on killing bacteria.

What are enzymes and how do they work?

Enzymes have been used for many years in household cleaners and laundry products to treat specific types of stains. The human body require them to digest food or medications. They can even be used to clean up after industrial oil spills. Considering the variety of uses for enzymes, there is no reason they should not be used in pools and spas. While enzymes are certainly not new to the industry, they unfortunately are not recommended as often as they should be.

Enzymes are proteins which catalyze the chemical breakdown of other substances, without being destroyed or altered. They are highly specialized and only seek out certain targets, or “substrates,” which eventually transform into a new form, or “product.” Their complex structures have amino acids chains which break down their substrates with little energy expense. When enzymes move throughout water and collide with non-living compounds, the formed complex is broken down into smaller, more manageable pieces. These more manageable forms of the substrate can be removed by the filter, while the remaining enzyme is able to move on to its next target.

Proteins, starches, oils, and greases from bather waste are often harder for chlorine to break down. Chlorine alone can break down most of these waste products through oxidation; however, it is also consumed in those reactions and, therefore, becomes less effective at killing bacteria. Using supplemental compounds with enzymes reduces this burden on chlorine, allowing it to focus more on getting rid of harmful bacteria and nitrogenous compounds.

How are enzymes selected?

Choosing the right enzyme package in new product development is an important and complex process for performance optimization. Enzymes chosen for the product should be based on the environment to which it will be introduced to, and the organic materials intended for removal. They can be naturally occurring through controlled biological processes, or they can be synthetically produced as well. Regardless of how they are made, enzymes are highly selective and only target specific structures. This specificity is a result of the relationship between the shape of the target, the substrate, and the active site where the “target” latches onto for the reaction to occur. Active sites are shaped specifically for unique substrates to merge with, much like puzzle pieces.

Pool products offering broad ranges of enzymes are more effective than just one or two types of enzymes. Naturally, wastes dwelling in pools might differ from those in spas. In pools, the enzymes selected should treat a variety of waste coming from biological or environmental sources. Amylases break down starches released during the degradation of algae or leaf debris, while proteases can help breakdown waste left behind from animals or swimmers. The same package used in swimming pools could be ineffective if used in spas. With spas, much of the waste matter comes from biological sources. Enzymes, such as lipase or mannanase, target fatty and oily residues left behind in spas from lotions, hair products, or body oils amplified by the warmer water temperature. The enzyme packages used in commercial pools and spas would also differ from products used in recreational pools. Commercial pool operators adopt automatic feeders to constantly supply metered doses of enzymes. This supplementation can help avoid inconvenient downtime of the pool, often accompanied by high chlorine residuals following a remediation treatment.

What affects enzymatic activity?

Enzyme functionality can be affected by many conditions, many of which occur routinely in pool water. Temperature can be a major factor with enzymatic activity. In laundry, enzymes in detergents are often selected to remove specific types of stains using the more energy-efficient colder water temperatures. Spa water is much warmer and requires more heat-tolerant enzymes since high heat denatures most enzyme activity. In most enzyme pool and spa products, the broad selection of enzymes is buffered to prevent denaturation due to temperature and pH imbalance. High sanitizer residuals also hinder enzyme functionality, which is why traditional chlorine and salt users should verify whether the free chlorine (FC) is below five parts per million (ppm) before adding a certain enzyme-based product. It is always important to read and follow label directions to maximize product effectiveness.

Getting more out of filters by using enzymes

Filter upkeep is exceptionally important in maintaining a healthy pool. As contaminants interact with enzymes, the products of the reactions are often trapped and removed by the pool’s filtration system. Dirt and debris trap themselves in oils and greases and eventually form layers in the filter, resulting in tedious clogs which must be physically removed to allow adequate filtration cycles. The use of enzyme-based products are often overlooked. Since enzymes function even after attacking one target, they can move on to the next one, which includes working inside the filter. Regular use of enzymes in the filter can prevent contaminants from building up, which will allow for less cartridge cleaning or sand backwashing.

Cleaners with enzymes and surfactants

Enzymatic cleaners typically contain a mixture of enzymes and surfactants. When combined in the same formula, these products are highly effective in reducing and treating organic accumulations. Enzyme-based pool and spa products use enzymes commonly buffered with surfactants to break down the organic material accumulating along the waterline, in the skimmer, and on the filters of most pools and spas to reduce physical maintenance.


Surfactants are large molecules with a hydrophilic or “water loving” head, and a hydrophobic or “water hating” tail. The hydrophilic head is water soluble, and combined with the surfactant, alters the surface tension of the water. The hydrophobic tail, which is repelled by water, attracts oils and greases, and removes them from surfaces in the water. The combination of the enzymes and surfactant power makes them powerhouse cleaners in pools for controlling waterline and optimizing filter efficiency.

How to bring enzymes into a pool or spa care regiment

Products containing enzymes or surfactants, or in more successful formulas which contain both, should be considered at weekly maintenance, after a major pool party, and even at pool openings/closings. Enzymes do not exclusively need to be added as a treatment; the burden on the sanitizer is alleviated when enzymes are allowed to breakdown the organic contaminants such as starches, oils, and greases first. If these materials are no longer present, the sanitizer can focus on destroying harmful bacteria or inhibiting algae growth. Therefore, enzymes can and should be added regularly to mitigate waste buildup. In fact, most enzyme products should be added weekly. They work even when swimmers or bathers are enjoying the water.

Enzymes will immediately begin seeking out substrates as they are introduced. As with most of pool and spa care, preventative maintenance is always going to be more effective and less costly than allowing problems to fester and worsen. Enzymes are not just useful in traditional chlorine, salt, or bromine pools. They are versatile, even in pools using biguanide as a sanitizer.

During winter months when pool users begin closing their pools for the off-season and sanitizer residuals are reduced, stagnant water can provide an enticing environment for substrates to buildup and adhere to walls of the pool, leaving pool owners to be potentially unimpressed with the unsightly stains at the water when they re-open their pools. Just before closing at the end of the season, enzymes and surfactants can be applied to protect pool surfaces from this buildup, thereby better sparing these surfaces from potential organic stains. Enzymes can still be applied during the off-season, and again when it is time to re-open. At pool openings, there might be algae or leaves present in the water which leave behind starches and other unwanted organic waste. An enzyme-containing product at openings can help reduce these compounds first, instead of just applying high quantities of oxidizers straight away.

Keep enzymes in mind when buying products

Products with enzymes are a successful supplement to help keep pools and spas clean. As the cost of pool care routine increases along with other materials needed, preventative use of enzyme products will still save consumers from having to spend even more on equipment repair or replacement, energy-using filter cleaning, and oxidizer treatments. Pool visitors can now swim and soak comfortably knowing there are options which will continuously work just as they are enjoying themselves.

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