Three Measures of Sanitizer

Aquatic Maintenance

By Alison Smith

Electronic controllers are becoming more and more prevalent in the pool and spa marketplace. The ability of controllers to continuously monitor and maintain water conditions makes them very popular with health departments, facility managers and municipal organizations. Chemical controllers simplify water maintenance by taking over much of the work involved.

There are many effective controllers available to the general market. Most controllers will measure the levels of sanitizer and pH in a body of water. The three most popular measures of sanitizer available through chemical automation are: ORP, amperometric PPM and colormetric PPM. Understanding the basis of each measure can assist pool operators in managing their pools.


ORP is a measure of the oxidizing properties of any sanitizer present in the body of water. Most controllers will use a bypass system, taking a small sample of water out of the plumbing and directing it to a small container that houses the sensors. An ORP sensor contains two electrodes, generally a platinum electrode in contact with the water and a reference electrode inside an electrolyte chamber. The electrodes are separated from the electrolyte solution by a membrane. This membrane prevents the loss of the electrolyte solution and prevents contaminants from entering the sensor. The sensor acts like a small battery. The output from the sensor is a voltage, typically expressed as millivolts. ORP measures the waters' ability to oxidize and is therefore dependent on pH when the primary sanitizer is chlorine. Cyanuric acid levels can affect the readings taken by an ORP sensor. Salt systems also can affect ORP sensors; often special metals must be used for the electrodes in order to prevent buildup on the sensor.

ORP is probably the most common method used by chemical controllers to measure sanitizer level and the most inexpensive type of system to buy. However, understanding that the measurement is the water's ability to oxidize rather than the actual amount of sanitizer can be misleading for the novice. Some controllers calculate the actual chlorine concentration based on the ORP, pH and temperature measurements. The important thing to remember is that the ORP sensor doesn't measure anything specific; it will not differentiate between ozone and bromine.

Amperometric PPM

PPM measures the total amount of sanitizer in the system. Like ORP, an amperometric PPM measurement is taken by a sensor consisting of copper and a platinum or gold element. These sensors are housed in a small chamber, usually located on a bypass from the main plumbing of the equipment set. A liquid sample is delivered to the annular space between the two fixed electrodes in the sensing cell. A small amount of potential is applied to the working electrode, made of gold wire, and the counter electrode, made of silver. An electrical current is generated by the reduction of HOCL and/or OCL- at the gold electrode. Using a gold and silver electrode, the process consumes the electrons from the oxidation of the silver electrode, creating a small amount of electrical current. This charge is in direct linear proportion to the amount of residual chlorine present in the sample. This charge is sent from the sensors to the controller. The electrical voltage is measured and converted to parts per million. The residual value is displayed on the digital indicator in mg/l (PPM).

PPM is probably the easiest measurement for end-users to understand. The system is simple to set up and maintain. As long as the pH and the flow are relatively stable, the amperometric PPM measurement is accurate. The amperometric sensor also is affected by pH, cyanuric acid and salt systems, but the effect is less than on the ORP measurement because of the linear relationship of the sensor. Amperometric measurements also require flow to operate, when there is no flow, the oxidizer is soon consumed by the measurement, leaving none left to measure.

Colormetric PPM

Colormetric PPM also measures sanitizer level in parts per million, however it takes measurements in a very different way. The term colormetric is used to describe a system of measurement where reaction-based chemical indicators are used to detect the presence of a specified chemical. The indicator reacts with the specified chemical and produces a visible color change in the solution. The stronger the color of the solution, the more compound is in the solution. DPD Test kits, an example of colormetric measuring devices, are very familiar to those in the pool and spa industry. However, studies have shown that there can be significant differences in readings from these kits due to differences in color perception between individual users. However, when the eye that evaluates the test is automated, a DPD test becomes a very accurate measure.

Essentially, a colormetric system is an automated hand-check. The controller is programmed to test the chemical levels in the water at certain times or time intervals each day. When it is time to test, the controller sends a signal to the colormetric unit, which is separate from the controller. This signal starts the testing process. A test chamber is filled with water from the pool or spa. A beam of light goes through the test chamber and is detected on the other side to establish a base for the reading. Reagents are added and mixed with the sample. The beam of light is again measured, and the difference between the amount of light received in the base reading and the reading with reagents is the measure of the amount of sanitizer. Colormetric systems are some of the most accurate automated sanitizer measuring systems available. They are also among the most expensive.

The measurement is not affected by the presence of salt or cyanuric acid in the water. As there are no electrodes to corrode or gather buildup, they also work well on salt systems. Colormetric sensors also require dumping the sample to waste, which can amount to five gallons of water per day.

Choosing systems

The type of measurement system selected for a chemical controller should take all of these factors into account. The cost of any controller is often a hurdle in the decision-making process. ORP measurement will require the lowest investment but will not give as accurate chlorine concentrations compared with a colormetric system. Colormetric systems will require a higher initial investment, as well as the ongoing cost of reagents.

Cost often becomes the focus of a decision-making process, however it is more important to focus on the needs of the system and to then balance those needs with any monetary limitations. The type of measurement chosen should reflect the other equipment on the pool. ORP measurements are the most susceptible to outside effects and are therefore less accurate; cyanuric acid, salt, temperature and pH levels all affect ORP measurements. Amperometric measurements have small pH, temperature and cyanuric effects but are flow-dependent. Colormetric measurements are the least susceptible, affected only by temperature.

ORP will tell you how much of your sanitizer is available for use. Amperometric measurements tell you how much sanitizer is in the water. A controller that measures both can help a pool operator to identify and solve issues when combined chlorine is present in the water. ORP and amperometric PPM both use electrochemical detection, which offers several advantages, including simple instrumentation, ease of use, low cost and low power requirements. Colormetric units will use more water in their testing and require additional power.


Alison Smith holds an MBA and is marketing manager for Acu-Trol Programmable Controllers, a manufacturer of pool and spa automation controllers. She can be reached at More technical information is available at

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