Swimming Pool Energy Efficiency: Page 3 of 3


Inside this Article

Shading your pool to prevent overheating
In hot climates, shading your pool to prevent overheating from solar gain can be an effective passive strategy.
Siting the pool to receive as much sunshine as possible
In cooler climates, siting the pool to receive as much sunshine as possible will help maintain a more comfortable water temperature.
Above-ground pools may incur more heat loss
In cooler climates, above-ground pools may incur more heat loss through the pool walls compared to their in-ground counterparts.
Opaque pool cover
Opaque covers reduce heat loss and algae growth, but can reduce or eliminate solar heat gain.
Translucent solar pool cover
Translucent solar pool covers have bubble insulation to reduce heat loss, but can still admit solar gain.
Solar rings
Solar rings are touted as being easier to handle than a blanket cover, but can leave 25% to 30% of the pool’s surface uncovered.
Liquid pool cover
Liquid pool covers provide a very thin layer of solution that floats on the water’s surface to reduce evaporation.
Variable-speed pump
Variable-speed pumps are very energy-efficient and have built-in controllers for ease of function.
Shading your pool to prevent overheating
Siting the pool to receive as much sunshine as possible
Above-ground pools may incur more heat loss
Opaque pool cover
Translucent solar pool cover
Solar rings
Liquid pool cover
Variable-speed pump

Pool Covers

Opaque cover. For large pools, an opaque blanket with a thin layer (roughly 1/8-inch thick) of polyethylene insulation is sometimes used. Uninsulated, opaque covers are also commonly used with certain automated pool reels or as a safety cover to prevent children or animals from falling into the pool. Opaque covers minimize evaporation—but they also reduce or eliminate passive solar gain. This may be preferable in some climates, such as Phoenix, Arizona, in the summer, but detrimental in others. More robust insulated covers are used with spas and hot tubs due to the high temperature difference between the water and the outside air. Uninsulated vinyl covers cost from $0.20 to $0.40 per square foot, while insulated polyethylene covers may cost $2 to $4 per square foot.

Solar pool cover. A solar pool cover minimizes evaporation without fully sacrificing passive solar gain. These bubble-type covers may reduce the passive solar gain by 5% to 15%, but they also limit the heat lost from the pool’s surface due to evaporation and radiation. When the pool is in use, the solar pool cover is stored on a manual or automatic reel. The polyethylene used for solar pool covers is treated to protect it from UV degradation. Solar pool covers vary in price from $0.20 to $2 per square foot. Since the durability of the cover can vary significantly by manufacturer, it is important to consider the warranty duration.

Solar rings. For those who are less inclined to handle a single large pool cover between uses or with irregularly shaped pools that don’t lend themselves to a standard pool cover, several smaller pool rings can be used. The 5-foot-diameter discs are made from UV-resistant vinyl and contain magnets along the perimeter to link the individual rings together. The rings contain two layers of vinyl and are slightly inflated to provide additional insulation. Since they are circular, these rings are able to cover up to 75% of the pool surface, thus reducing a majority of the evaporation. Each sun ring costs approximately $30 to $40.

Liquid pool covers. There are a number of alcohol-based liquid pool covers that are applied to a pool through apparatuses that slowly release the liquid. For residential pools, these devices may be placed directly into the pool or in the filter basket. The liquid is biodegradable and specific brands have been deemed nontoxic for pool occupants. Liquid pool covers disperse across the pool’s surface, creating a thin film and inhibiting evaporation of the water below. A liquid pool cover costs about $10 to $15 per month for a 20- by 40-foot residential pool.

Pump It Better

Residential pools require mechanical systems to maintain water quality. A pump sends pool water through a filter before returning the water to the pool. The pump is a significant energy user, and can be as large as 2 horsepower and may run for 10 or more hours per day—possibly requiring 20 kWh or more of electricity per day. At $0.15 per kWh, that adds up to more than $3 per day.

Though it may seem counterintuitive, it is best to use a pump that has to run longer to filter the contents of the pool. Let’s look at a 20- by 40-foot pool that holds 24,000 gallons of water. The pool’s mechanical system should be set up to filter the entire contents of a pool each day. If we wanted to run the pump for only four hours, it would require a flow rate of 100 gpm and a 2 hp pump. A relatively expensive filter and larger-diameter piping are required to accommodate this high flow. A 0.5 hp pump could be used instead that would provide a flow rate of roughly 50 gpm. Though this would double the required pump run time (to eight hours), it would cut the total electricity consumption in half. In addition, the pump would cost about $200 less and the filter would cost about $300 less.

Some states, like Arizona, California, and Florida, actively promote energy-efficient pool pumps. In Florida, a pool pump with a capacity greater than 1 hp must be multi- or variable-speed. The lower speed(s) are used for standard filtration, and the higher speed(s) can be used if an SPH system requires higher lift to the collector array. In addition, the code stipulates that the pump must operate at a speed that requires six or more hours to filter the volume of the pool.

A variable-speed pump integrates well with an SPH system, and pump speed can be preprogrammed. During the day, when solar energy is available, the flow can be increased. In the evening, when the pump is needed only for filtration, the flow can be decreased. Compared to standard single-speed pumps, these pumps can reduce electrical consumption by up to 90%. Unfortunately, variable-drive motors have not yet found their way into the aboveground pool pumps market.

A multiple-speed pump has a manual switch for selecting between two or more pump settings, but is less efficient than a variable-speed pump. The lowest speed uses the least energy, which allows extended filtration time to improve filtering and reduce total energy use. Two basic strategies can be used in conjunction with multi- and variable-speed pumps.

Appropriately size the filter and keep it clean. A filter that is undersized or excessively dirty will restrict the pump’s flow, which increases run time needed to adequately filter the water. The filter manufacturer can provide pressure loss and flow rate specifications for sizing. The pool owner can determine whether the filter needs cleaning by monitoring the pressure gauge on the filter.

Properly size the piping. PVC pipe is used in pool systems. The larger the pipe diameter, the less the flow restriction. Typically, 1.5- to 2-inch PVC is used. The farther away the pump and filter are from the pool, the larger the pipe that is needed. This is not usually a consideration with unheated pools but can be with systems that require long runs to an SPH.

Jeff Simons, manager at Sandollar Spa & Pool, a swimming pool and sauna company in Brewer, Maine, says that the efficiency measure most pool owners overlook is a pump timer. “Most pools with conventional pumps can be maintained by running the pump for 10 to 12 hours a day,” says Simons. “However, without a timer, the owner may forget to turn the pump on or off, either of which quickly increases the operational cost and energy use.”


Vaughan Woodruff is a contractor, engineer, and educator. He owns Insource Renewables, a design/build and consulting firm. His pool energy strategy is to relax at his generous neighbors’ pool in his hometown of Pittsfield, Maine. 

Conserving Energy and Heating Your Swimming Pool with Solar Energy • NREL • bit.ly/NRELpool

Pump efficiency info • bit.ly/PoolPumpEff

Comments (6)

Fred Golden's picture

By installing 3" supply and return lines to the pump instead of 1.5" or 2" lines, you can reduce the friction loss in the piping, and thus get the same flow with less feet of head pressure loss. Also increasing the filter square feet of surface area, the pressure drop across the filter becomes less and flow will increase.

To maintain water flow through a solar pool heater, it is more energy efficient to install a small pressure booster pump to run only in the daylight hours, instead of sizing the pool filter pump larger and then pushing water thought the heater when it might be colder than the pool water.

Changing from a 100 watt incandescent light to a low voltage LED pool light will also offer savings you can count on.

Jason Szumlanski's picture

"In Florida, a pool pump with a capacity greater than 1 hp must be multi- or variable-speed."

Per the Florida Building Code: Energy Efficiency, it is actually pumps greater than 0.75 HP that must be multi- or variable speed, and they must have controls that are capable of operating the pump at multiple speeds. We see a lot of pool builders designing pools to have very efficient flow now so they can get away with a 3/4 HP pump and reduce their proposed prices. That's great, but in some cases it makes solar pool heating a bit less efficient if the flow isn't sufficient. That's exactly why we switched to a very low resistance panel that works better with smaller and variable speed pumps.

Also, it was mentioned that variable speed pumps are more efficient than multi-speed pumps. It's important to note that this is not only because of the much more granular control over pump speed, but the inherently more efficient brushless motors found in pumps with variable frequency drives. This alone accounts for about 30% energy savings at the same flow rate as a single speed or two-speed pump. Sometimes pool features and heating sources require a certain flow rate for effective operation, so slowing the pump down is not a great option, but using an inherently more efficient pump is.

Fred Golden's picture

Tom M

Most of the heat loss is actually from water evaporation. Wind blowing across the pool can cause significant heat loss. Each pound of water lost through evaporation is 1,088 Btu's of heat loss.

Heat loss into the ground with little delta T is not nearly as much. If your local ground temperature is 55F, that is only 20F to 30F delta T. The ground next to the pool will eventually warm to about 70F, further dropping the delta T. When in a northern climate, where local ground temperatures can be below 45, that can increase the heat loss into the ground a bit.

Tom M's picture

Though the article mentions heat loss through the earth it does not mention that insulating this area is a big plus for keeping heat in a pool especially since this is 4/5 of the surface area through which heat can be loss and is usually the most overlooked.

Jason Szumlanski's picture

Your math is a little off. The surface area of a pool exposed to ground (the walls of the pool) is closer to 2/3 of the area. For example, for a 15x30 pool that is 5 feet average depth, the surface exposed to air is 450 sq ft and the surface exposed to ground is 900 sq ft.

But that doesn't really matter. Even though the ground exposure is double the air exposure, the evaporation will have a far, far greater effect on heat loss. The air will conduct a lot more heat away than the ground, especially in windy conditions. Ground loss is effectively ignored when sizing a solar pool heater. Sizing rules of thumb are done using the surface area without much respect to the volume of water or relative exposure to the ground.

Fred Golden's picture

Several municipal pools have started replacing the standard 1,000,000 Btu gas fired boilers with heat pumps. Heat pumps can be very cost effective in cooling the building as well as heating the pool. Some dedicated heat pumps look like the outside unit of a split heat pump, and only are used to warm the pool water, not providing cooling to the building. Others are combination heat pump and dehumidifier that both can cool the building as well as heat the water.

A 2-3 ton capacity heat pump can provide heat at a very cost competitive rate compared to a gas fired boiler - with todays high fuel costs. If the cool air from the heat pump can be used to cool a building, all the better!

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