Creating a Splash Play Area
Important issues to consider
By Ron George
Zero-depth spray and splash play areas have been around now for more than a decade. Located just about everywhere recreation is provided, both in the public and private sector, they were intended to create water fun for kids of all ages, as well as energizing children's imaginations and learning. Today, splash play areas are growing in popularity at a phenomenal rate, yet there are widespread concerns and misinformation regarding their design, use and regulation. In much of the country, local and state agencies have either little or no knowledge of what these facilities are, how they should be designed and who should regulate them. Many are scrambling to catch up with this rapid growth.
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The original concept was probably spawned from combining certain aspects of a decorative fountain and that of a traditional dry playground. The result was a hybrid of a wet playground. As time went on, and more and more knowledge was acquired, the scope and designs changed dramatically. The idea of installing a few decorative water fountain nozzles in the ground or in dry playground structural components and tapping in to the city or private water supply has become much more sophisticated.
If you are considering building a splash play area, there are many important points to consider. New regulations are in the works at both the state and national level that you need to know, especially from a liability standpoint.
Whether you are an owner or an operator developing a splash play area, you should think of this new aquatic facility as just that: an aquatic facility with no standing water. It is definitely not—as I have heard often—merely a wet playground instead of a dry playground. These facilities have the same issues as that of a pool. If you fail to recognize that important concept, you will be creating serious problems during the entire process of design, construction and operation. The use of water to create activity involves totally different considerations than erecting a playground structure. Infrastructure will be more important and costly than first perceived. It may involve more than 50 percent of the total cost of the project. It should be considered in a sense a fixed cost regardless of how many water features you want to design into the area.
The water system should be designed to be filtered, chlorinated and recycled. The use of potable water, sending it to waste or collecting it for irrigation, is no longer acceptable by almost all health and safety organizations. In fact at this time, a new ASTM, NSPI Standard is being finalized for adoption addressing this issue and several others. The notion that chlorinated water is unsafe because children may drink from the sprays is unfounded. In many water systems, the water we drink is chlorinated. The risk of bacteria and sickness from potable water left standing is a proven fact. The water chemistry controller should be provided with a modem to connect the system to a qualified operator at some other location. This operator can then monitor the chemistry at a typical splash area that is unmanned. The chemistry controller should also be wired to shut off the activation system at unmanned locations when chemistry goes above safe levels to prevent children from activating the system and possibly come in contact with over-chlorinated water. These are not expensive costs, and equipment is readily available today to implement these added safety features.
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The surface area is an extremely important factor. The use of pour-in-place safety surfaces that were originally designed for reducing impact in dry areas, such as playgrounds or running tracks, has created serious issues to consider in zero-depth or even shallow-depth pools. Water, especially chlorinated water, is a bleaching agent; it often causes the pour-in-place surfaces to breakdown and deteriorate in a short period of time, a costly repair problem. In addition, these surfaces are often absorbent. They trap water, creating problems with water returning fast enough to the reservoir to be filtered and disinfected before it returns to the spray area. They can trap debris that could be sharp and cause injury. They are more time-consuming to clean daily, as is often the case where splash play areas are in open settings.
In the vast majority of splash play areas, the features that create water fun are not designed to elevate the user above the surface. Impact from falling from a height is not an issue. A nonskid surface is much more important than a soft surface. Although the widespread majority of splash play areas being built today are using a broom or brushed concrete surface often with color mixed into the concrete, there are nonabsorbent materials that can be applied over the concrete base that prevent slipping and can be used to add aesthetic designs to the play area. They are relatively inexpensive both initially and down the road when they wear. One major mistake when applying a concrete surface is sealing or painting the surface. The sealer makes even the broom finish slippery as the water rushes across it to the drains. The painted or stained surface creates the same issue.
In laying out the various spray features, design for age-appropriate play and for bather load. Younger children like to play in water features that will not overwhelm them, features that make them inquisitive. Older children want more activity, more action, more water, features they can control to spray others. In your designs, separate the play areas for younger and older children to prevent older children from crowding out younger children. In fact, if you are designing an area for only a certain age group, choose the spray features accordingly.
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Spray or splash play areas are zero-depth pools. In your design, take into consideration what you would do in a pool area. You need a deck around the perimeter of the "splash pad" itself. Do not attempt to have the children go from grass or bark or sand directly on to this wet surface itself. You would not build a pool and not put a deck around it. The same issues of keeping the area clean and maintained overall will create a serious problem with whoever is responsible for maintaining the facility. Trees and their impact on maintenance and operation are major concerns often overlooked in the context of creating a park-like setting. They can be incorporated, but the design of your system and maintenance issues must be addressed.
Consider a decorative fence around the entire area. This controls traffic flow and often eliminates issues with unwanted vehicles, bikes or animals in the facility when not in operation.
Vandalism is always a concern. Look at designs that can reduce the risk either through the choice of features or external assistance such as lighting. Most vandalism occurs when no one is around. Some equipment and features are designed to be easily removed in the off-season. Safely out of sight, there is no opportunity for vandalism.
Maintenance considerations and plans should be addressed in the original design. Yes, lifeguards are not required, but maintenance is. The degree of maintenance required is dependent on the complexity and size of the splash play area. Filters will need to be back-flushed or, if a cartridge system is used, cleaned. Chlorination systems must be monitored and maintained. The area needs to be cleaned of any debris both for safety and to prevent it from clogging up the system. Depending on the location and the surrounding environment, certain types of drains, strainers or traps can be utilized to keep debris from getting into the electrical control valves that are used to control the flow of water to each of the features. Time spent reviewing these issues will be time saved by your maintenance people in keeping the facility operating correctly.
Winterization in many areas is an important consideration in design. When possible, all piping should drain by gravity back to the manifold assembly. A drain box can be incorporated in the design to drain the manifold. Water that accumulates on the splash pad area and flows into the drains can be directed in the off-season by valving to local sewer systems rather than letting it fill the reservoir and activate the overflow valve. This keeps chlorinated water left in the reservoir from mixing with rainwater. A storm sewer instead of a sanitary sewer can then be used in most cases. Check local codes to be sure.
A little time investigating and planning will insure that your new splash play area will provide years of trouble-free fun.
Ron George is a member of the ASTM/NSPI committee that is presently finalizing a standard for Aquatic Recreation Facilities and the Task Group developing a Standard Practice for the Manufacture, Construction, Operation, Maintenance and Water Quality of Interactive Water Attractions and Devices. He is also president of Rain Drop Products and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.