Free and combined chlorine – understand the difference

Understanding the difference between free and combined chlorine is crucial to understanding water quality after chlorination. Testing the water for both free and combined chlorine allows you to know whether the water you’ve chlorinated is of sufficient quality to drink or disinfect your process, depending upon your application.

What is the difference between free and combined chlorine?

Pure chlorine exists as a molecule as a gas (Cl2 ) and when dissolved in water it will react with water to form mostly hypochlorous acid (HOCl):

Cl+ H2O ↔ HCl + HOCl

Depending on the pH of the water (see image right), the hypochlorous acid (HOCl) will partially dissociate to the hypochlorite ion (OCl). Both hypochlorous acid and hypochlorite disinfect water but hypochlorous is acid is a more effective disinfectant.

By definition, free chlorine refers to all chlorine present in the water as Cl2(g), HOCl(aq) and OCl(aq).

Portable water testing methods such as DPD do not distinguish between these three species, and they are all termed free chlorine, with the capability to disinfect microorganisms in the same way as Cl2. Free chlorine will often be denoted as Cl2 in water treatment applications and literature, but can refer to any of the three forms.

When free chlorine is initially added to water it can undergo a very quick reaction with other contaminants in the water, mostly ammonia, NH3. This will result in the formation of chloramines, and the ‘free’ chlorine is converted to ‘combined’ chlorine:

NH→ NH2Cl → NHCl→ NCl3

That is; ammonia → monochloramine → dichloramine → nitrogen trichloride (trichloramine)

How to test free and total chlorine?

For the most effective monitoring of free and total chlorine, we recommend Kemio™ Disinfection. The latest multiparameter platform from Palintest, the Kemio™ Disinfection tests for bromine, free chlorine, total chlorine, chlorine dioxide, chlorite and peracetic acid (PAA).

Giving repeatable and reliable results for free chlorine in 60 seconds, Kemio™ guides the user and prompts action when concentration levels fall outside of your defined limits. To find out more about how Kemio™ Disinfection can help you, click here. 


Kemio™ Now With Free Chlorine Up To 100 Mg/L
find out now
Watch our Kemio™ instructional videos on YouTube
visit palintest youtube
Webinar: Understanding the science behind Kemio™ Technology
view webinar recording

    To contact our team please fill out the enquiry form below. Please note we aim to respond to all enquiries within 2 working days.

    Explore our content hub