In the Swim

The Best Strategies for Aquatic Center Peak Performance

By Kim Tobin

In the commercial aquatics industry, it's sink or swim when it comes to managing all the elements of your facility successfully. Without effective design for your patrons, the right risk management practices, regular and preventative maintenance, a variety of programming, and qualified staff to get it all done, decision makers can quickly find themselves or the future of their aquatics center in deep trouble. The following guide navigates options in each of these key areas to help keep a facility running swimmingly, today and tomorrow.

Design for the masses

Swimming remains one of America's favorite pastimes. In 2002, it ranked number three on the National Sporting Goods Association's survey list of most popular sports among Americans. While the old swimmin' hole has morphed into everything from municipal mega-centers to indoor waterpark resorts, the way to keep revenue from drying up remains clear: offer something for everyone in your design. In some cases, that design is becoming more architecturally interesting as well.

"The trend is more fun, more family, all ages and abilities," says Dave Schwartz, P.E., a licensed engineer and owner of Water's Edge Aquatic Design, an aquatic facility master planning firm in Lenexa, Kan. "Facilities are no longer limited to a purely athletic swimming approach."

Many facilities also are moving to a shallow water emphasis to highlight the play features for all ages. Others minimize the lap lanes for competition swimming, or just provide fewer of them. But it's important to preserve the competitive aspect of the pool because there is still a segment of the population that wants that feature. It should not, however, be the only feature.

"If you do provide competition, because those types of swimmers are a very vocal group, you have to provide the other venues, such as zero-depth entry and slides, or else you're going to lose attendance like crazy," adds Bill Yarger, president of Yarger Design Group, a St. Louis-based architectural and planning firm. "If you have an older pool, you need to figure out how to bring your citizens back. Because if they're not swimming in yours, they're swimming somewhere else."

Many in the industry agree that there are key features to keep bathers flocking to your waters. If there's a large budget and renovating or rebuilding are options, these features include: zero-depth or beach entry, which offers a very graduated entry for splashing the feet or easy entry into the water for the youngest children; zero-depth interactive splash play areas, also for younger children; and a variety of water-based play elements that can offer amusement or relaxation. These elements can range from different types of slides to vortexes and therapy couches. Other popular design features include lazy rivers for inner tubes and floating, as well as dry areas like shaded pavilions or grass for observing the action, hosting events or just socializing.

If you're not blessed with a large budget, there are plenty of installable accessories that can refresh a facility's look, expand activity options and boost the fun factor without breaking the bank. Components include everything from water-based climbing walls and floating volleyball games to water teeter-totters. Depending on the type of component, each can range from about $600 for water teeter-totters up to about $7,000 for climbing walls.

Taking a cue from waterparks, municipal or institutional pools also can take advantage of the variety of modular components to help theme a facility. Themes can help unify overall design and can be easily expanded and changed with renovations. Slides, rides and splash play features are on the market to provide mining, Caribbean, surfing, animal or nautical themes, to name just a few.

Beachwood's Big Rebuild

A case in point where rebuilding made better sense is the city pool in Beachwood, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland. The original pool site held a 50-meter Olympic-sized box pool built in 1968.

After an audit in winter 2001, it was determined that infrastructure problems underneath the main pool's concrete deck were failing. Initially, the city was faced with two basic choices: either patch things up for around $20,000 or renovate from between $3 million to 4 million. Ultimately, however, the wants of the community and the right monetary resources led the city to back a much more dramatic rebuilding solution. The result: a $5.2 million family-focused aquatic center that in many ways is more waterpark than pool.

"They decided to move beyond just creating a new pool by really stepping up to the plate and invest in programming as well," says Scot Hunsaker of St. Louis-based Counsilman/Hunsaker and Associates, Inc., architects and designers for the project. "They decided to really do it right."

The city's residents benefited from this big recreational payoff. The long list of family-focused features includes three large water slides that cascade off a 40-foot main slide tower, an 8-foot-wide family slide (which is wide enough to accommodate up to four people sliding together), two splash play areas, an infant/tot pool, an 8-foot-wide current channel, a 25-meter competition pool with eight lap lanes, two diving boards, hydrotherapy water benches, a water vortex, about 6,000 square feet of bathhouse and lifeguard facilities, landscaping within the swim space, and plentiful in-pool shaded areas

and benches.

The facility also went the distance when catering to its very youngest. The baby pool area includes a zero- to 6-inch depth for infants up to 12 months old as well as an area that goes from zero to 8 inches for toddlers. A simple slide also was included in the 8-inch-deep area that cascades onto a safety pad. Fencing separates the baby pool from a splash play area.

"We wanted to have a focus on toddlers and preschoolers to really make sure we had something for everyone," says Recreation Supervisor Pete Conces, who acknowledges that plenty of residents who aren't kids are making full use of the center as well.

"When the facility was first built, I had residents tell me they thought that they'd have nothing to do here because they thought everything was for young kids," Conces says. "But whether it was grandmothers who wanted to float in our current channel or seniors who sat on the benches in the water and relaxed, we really have all ages enjoy it."

After its first summer in business, the center's popularity among residents is evident. In its inaugural season, it drew almost 50,000 visitors, sold nearly 3,000 season passes and averaged about $1,000 in drop-in fees each day.

Keeping a pool profitable:
renovate vs. replace

If an older pool is not bringing enough people through the doors, the decision to renovate what exists or to build a new one from scratch often depends on what lies beneath.

"The tough choice is, yes, you can cover up and add to anything but will it last even 10 years?" Schwartz says. "Where there are issues with recirculation or water quality, [renovating is] going to mask problems. If you'll still be paying off the funding as the structure is falling apart, the choice is obvious. You can add play features as enhancements, but only where the pool structure is in good condition."

Other communities may have a historic commitment to a project and want to preserve the character of a site with the structural elements. It's important to balance the need to retain historical integrity with what the costs of updates will entail.

"It comes down to goals," Schwartz says. "If a community is willing to invest in fixing a facility that has outlived its physical life because of wanting to preserve its history, then they have to make sure that it ends up being safe and functional as well."

Design defined

In addition to fun in the sun, adding more aesthetic touches or architectural elements to a facility's design can help enhance its image in a community, potentially boosting usage and providing a pleasing view even when not open.

"We're also seeing more elegant and refined design in the facilities we're working with," says Scot Hunsaker of St. Louis-based Counsilman/Hunsaker and Associates, Inc. "People are not just looking for a basic water playland."

In Addison, Texas, an area of Dallas, the city-owned Athletic Club was looking to add an outdoor pool that would make a strong statement architecturally. Although not used year-round, the pool would continue to be viewed throughout the year by the adjacent club's patrons both day and night.

"They wanted an aquatic center with a strong visual presence…as in, a fountain they could swim in, as opposed to a pool that looked nice," adds Hunsaker, who designed and engineered the project.

Although Addison has a mix of age groups, including a strong young adult and growing senior population, the pool was also built to attract families with young children as well.

The leisure pool that resulted, which opened in June 2003, packs a punch with visual impact as well as the play features that so many communities are demanding.

The pool sits on three levels. An upper pool features a 12-foot-high waterfall connected to an aqueduct that can be turned on and off at will. Designed with adults in mind as a place to relax, it also includes therapy benches and bubble couches.

From the upper pool, water then cascades over another waterfall to a middle level, which accommodates both kids and adults and features a vortex.

The lowest level of the pool, designed for younger children, has a zero-depth entry and several spray features.

Although the pool closes at 8 p.m., its view keeps people happy even when its not in operation, according to Addison's recreation manager Randy Rogers.

"At night, if you're working out at the upper level of the club, the lighting is very impressive," Rogers says. "From the inside of the building, as you walk up the stairs and round a corner, you see this unbelievable view of the pool, so whether there's summer activity or not, there's always something to look at."

As city and institutional aquatic facilities add more interesting features and components to increase visitor draw, the differentiation between their offerings and those of local waterparks can begin to blur.

"While municipalities are not in the business to compete with waterparks, they're learning that they need to operate their facilities more like a business and create attractions that bring people back year after year," says Ken Ward, vice president and engineer with Water Technology Inc., aquatic designers, planners and engineers based in Beaver Dam, Wis. "People are not going to settle for flat water any more."

As municipalities and institutions expand their venues while still keeping their admission rates low, waterparks are undergoing their own changes to stay competitive. They're targeting different age groups with age-appropriate activities and moving indoors to bring a year-round tourism boost.

"Waterparks are starting to identify themselves with niche markets," says Judith Leblein, operations analyst for Water Technology Inc. "For example, to cater more to the extreme-sports/Gen-X crowd, a waterpark can get features like a wave-in-a-box—basically it's surfing on a hard board or Boogie Board. It provides a very low participation rate but a high spectator rate."

At Wet 'n Wild in Orlando, Fla., the waterpark is targeting both its youngest visitors with mini-versions of big-kid aquatic activities and older kids with thrill rides. Its Kids' Park area, which is restricted to kids 48 inches tall and under, offers mini-slides, a mini-lazy river that uses smaller inner tubes with enclosed bottoms and a mini-wave pool. For the older set, the park also introduced The Blast last spring, a 400-foot-long, teen-focused, one-to-two passenger tube slide as well as wake boarding, which was introduced in 2002, where riders are towed on the board via a cable on the park's lake.

Spurred by the great success stories of indoor waterpark mega-plexes like those in the Wisconsin Dells, more waterparks and resorts are picking up on the indoor aquatic center trend. In parts of the country that are not major metropolitan resort areas, second-tier-sized cities are using the indoor waterpark model, often linking it with resorts, as a draw to increase tourism to their area, year-round.

At Splash Lagoon in Erie, Pa., which opened last March, owner and developer Scott Enterprises expects around 300,000 attendees for its first year of operation. The 77,000-square-foot, $17 million indoor waterpark is a self-contained resort and sits nestled at the intersection of six hotels and three restaurants, also owned by Scott Enterprises.

"We have some unique synergies with our situation," says Nick Scott Jr., Scott Enterprises' vice president. "We're able to cross-market and offer good values with our hotel packages. We tried to make sure we provided something for the entire family within a unique environment."

The South Pacific-themed waterpark caters from toddlers to teens, including two thrill slide rides for the older set, the ProBowl and the Cannon Bowl. A highlight of the park includes a five-story interactive Tree House, which includes 12 levels of water amusement activities.

Other amenities include a tube slide that runs outside the park. When it re-enters the building, the riders experience a blackout as the ride turns completely dark for a final twisting turn. Riders are then emptied into a 300-foot lazy river. The park also includes an 80,000-gallon activity pool with eight water basketball hoops, two 25-person whirlpools and Monkey Shines Island—a toddler area with zero-depth entry, mini-water slides and other water activities.

Pool Design Components
to Help You Stay Competitive

BEACH ENTRY: Also called zero-depth, this type of sloping entry allows bathers to wade gradually into the water. This appeals to swimmers who don't like to jump in and to families with small children.

SPLASH PLAY AREAS: These water wonderlands are a design must-have to appeal to the younger set. The most popular contain a variety of sprays, fountains, dumping buckets and water cannons. Many are available in themed and architecturally interesting forms, as well as modular components, which can be expanded.

SLIDES: Most often a center's focal point of fun, slides that have an interesting activity incorporated with them can help a facility really stand out. Elements such as bowls, double occupancy, inner tubes, vertical drops, mini or kiddie designs, or flumes can help add variety and interest.

SPRAYS: From in-ground sprays that bubble or gush in low-velocity flowering or bending patterns, to higher force jet sprays and interactive water cannons, these play elements can cater to all different age sets. Consider installing a variety of types that are age-appropriate for the groups you want to target.

LAZY RIVERS AND CURRENT CHANNELS: A leisurely river provides bathers the opportunity to float down it with or without an inner tube. Current channels are most often connected to pools of water, while lazy rivers are usually continuous loops (which may also be connected to a pool). Both may have a slight current, though lazy rivers are usually wider, deeper and can accommodate inner tubes.

VORTEXES: A water element with a rotational flow that provides swimmers with the thrill of spinning in a circle, giving the appearance of a whirlpool. It can be stand-alone or adjacent to slides.

THERAPY COUCHES AND BUBBLE COUCHES: Underwater benches with bubble or therapy jets that either provide massage effects or just the cool sensation of hovering over a "mattress" of bubbles. Therapy couches provide similar effects to hot tub jets, with the therapy jets in distinct locations to provide therapeutic effects.

ENTERTAINMENT VENUE: Whether it's a pavilion, shaded area or stage, it's important to have space at a facility for dry-time fun, from birthday parties to concerts.

Safety firsts

While great design helps keep attendance rates in the swim, without the right risk management practices, the lives of your patrons and the future of your facility could be in jeopardy.

On the big risk level, drowning, water quality, diving, and electrocution are crucial areas of any facility's safety program.

Factors that can affect the drowning potential at a facility can vary from staff training to water clarity to pool markings.

Because it's vital to have the right safety staff, it would seem common sense to ensure that lifeguard staff is up to date with certification. However, different states advocate different certification standards and what is acceptable for a waterpark may not fly at a municipal pool. The correct approach is determining the standards accepted by state and local health departments for your type of facility.

"In some states, the state health department will accept all standards for lifeguards," says Arthur Mittelstaedt Jr., Ed.D., executive director of The Recreation Safety Institute, a safety and risk management advocacy organization based in Ronkonkoma, N.Y. "In others, they're very particular about who the certifying body is. So, it's incumbent upon the facility manager to make sure he knows the state and local health codes that regulate the pool."

Regulatory Update:
Aquatic Play Equipment and Splash Play Areas

With the explosive growth of splash play areas and water play equipment in the past decade, these water wonderlands have spawned much fun for the kiddies—as well as much misinformation regarding their design, use and regulation. Currently, local and state agencies provide little or no guidance for these facilities or equipment, in either design or operation.

New regulations are in the works for these areas, both at the individual state and national levels. Nationwide, ASTM International currently has a committee working on a comprehensive set of baseline safety standards for aquatic play equipment, whether that equipment is for a splash play area or a pool. Although they may be published sometime in 2004, no clear date has been set for the standards. When they do appear, the guidelines will address aspects ranging from equipment operation to water quality and other water safety issues.

With a staff that's certified by the right organization, maximizing lifeguard vigilance is also another important strategy for safeguarding a pool. Because of the fact that sitting down can promote attention lags, lifeguarding is being looked at more closely for ways to improve effective surveillance.

A way to counter this decline in vigilance and increase alertness is for staff to periodically change their postures and scanning strategy (for example, scan the pool counterclockwise instead of clockwise). The five-minute scanning strategy, a technique developed by Tom Griffiths, director of aquatics and safety officer at Penn State University, uses the basic tenet that every five minutes, a lifeguard should make a significant change in their scanning posture, from sitting to standing, or from standing to strolling.

Newer lifeguard stations also have been designed with a lower profile than a traditional "high chair" style lifeguard chair, to help a guard change positions more effectively. The station, which has a bigger platform, resembles a high-railed, one-person bleacher and provides the opportunity to sit or stand and easily move in or out of the station.

Other aids to decrease drowning risk include underwater safety monitoring systems. While some systems include underwater cameras that provide images of the pool bottom for staff to monitor, others use motion detection, which sets off an alarm if a swimmer is on the bottom for too long. The systems are good adjuncts to help ensure protection against drowning incidents, but they should never replace qualified, vigilant staff.

"It's definitely an enhancement to reduce risk, but if you have a camera, and no one uses it, it's useless," Schwartz says. "It may give a false sense of security or risk reduction. You also have to have a system working right so you know what area it's in. If there are multiple pools, you have seconds to look for someone, and if you have to spend minutes deciding where they are, that's obviously an issue. Like any other device, you've got to use it correctly."

Entrapment is also a looming safety issue and has been implicated in many injuries and drownings (which are often reported only as drownings not entrapments because there are no requirements to specify a death as an entrapment). The risk of entrapment, which occurs when parts of the body or hair can get trapped in a suction fitting or drain cover, can be lessened by taking a few precautions, according to industry experts.

Four layers of protection are currently recommended to protect against entrapment. They include: 1) Installing at least two hydraulically balanced main drains per pump. 2) Installing an approved ANSI/NSF-50 drain cover. 3) Installing a safety vacuum release system that reads for sudden increases in vacuum suction (which will happen as soon as an entrapment occurs) and shuts off a pump when an increase registers. 4) Installing an emergency shutoff button or kill switch for the pumps nearby.

Additionally, posting signs that help heighten consumer awareness of the entrapment problem is available. For more information, visit the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission at and the National Spa and Pool Institute at

Another key to helping decrease drowning accidents is water quality.

"Having clear water is absolutely critical so lifeguards can do their job," Schwartz says. "The right-sized filters, pump systems, good recirculation and gutter systems are crucial to making that all work. It's also a problem when paint coating dissolves and clouds the water. It can settle out overnight, but when people are in the pool using it, they can stir it up and decrease visibility. Most of the time, the right way to do it is not painting over the coating that exists but to drain the pool, take the bad coating off and put good coating on, for safety's sake."

In addition to clear water, swimmers need to see clear, defined depth markings and the unit in which the depth is measured, as well as pool bottom lines to help them better judge a pool's depth.

Diving clearances are another focal point when it comes to safety. While there are no universal standards, many states have their own regulations, as well as organizations that have developed their own standards. It's a matter of research and due diligence to arrive at the right answer for a facility's standards. Often, diving competence and the type of facility will also be a factor.

"In recreational facilities, clearances need to be deeper than competitive swimming facilities' standards because competitive swimmers and divers are trained and coached," Schwartz says. "The injury profile is of someone who hasn't been at a pool before, who is generally enjoying themselves too much and showing off."

It's crucial to stay current with local regulations and what a state allows as well.

"There should be no diving, no matter how deep, unless a depth is recognized and accepted by your state health department," Mittelstaedt adds. "The manager needs to find out what's appropriate in the areas in accordance with the governing jurisdiction."

Also on the competitive swimming side, pools may be constructed to accommodate starting blocks at the shallow end of the pool, which can be exceedingly dangerous for a non-trained diver. Dive standards from several national and many high-school interscholastic associations recently changed, moving from a 3.5-foot standard to an 8-foot-depth recommendation.

In many instances, facility managers have responded by moving blocks from their shallow ends to their deep ends. It should not be a permanent solution, however. In older pools, the deep end may not even be deep enough for diving boards. Costs can move up if timing systems, diving boards or other structural changes outside of the pool need to be upgraded along with moving the blocks.

"Moving dive blocks are only an interim measure until a new pool is built or the program is eliminated," Mittelstaedt says.

Other industry experts say part of the issue surrounding diving dangers lies in teaching correct diving techniques.

"The Red Cross recommends not teaching diving unless a facility has nine feet of water," says Robert Clayton, Ed.D., president of Aquatic Partners, a risk management consulting and education firm in Ft. Collins, Colo. "It's a great idea, but most pools don't have that depth. So, people then take out their diving boards. That doesn't solve the problem because people will still dive. If we don't teach people to dive correctly, we're still going to have the accidents."

Clayton explains that the answer to improving diving techniques lies in what happens after a swimmer hits the water. Keeping your arms out in front of the head, or "steering up" as the technique is called, can help lessen injury potential.

"People go under water, and as soon as they hit the water, they pull their hands back," he says. "It exposes their heads and leaves them vulnerable to injury. Anywhere diving is allowed, you'll find that about 75 percent of people dive that way. The safer way is to teach you to keep your hands straight out in front of you, over your ears, until you start your ascent. In the pools I'd run, I'd permit diving only if it was done that way."

In addition to drowning and diving, the mix of water and electricity at pools is another potentially deadly hazard that warrants key precautions.

"Electrocution is still a huge concern," Schwartz says. To combat it, he recommends the use of low voltage lights, UL-listed fixtures and correct bonding procedures.

Bonding (which is the connecting of all metal parts in a pool facility to a common copper wire buried in the ground, that is in turn connected to reinforcing steel in a structure) is essential, according to Schwartz. It reduces voltage gradience throughout the facility, which reduces the risk of being shocked.

"At any aquatic facility, there are a lot of metal parts people touch," Schwartz says. "Everything needs to be connected to a bonding system to keep it safe. Some facilities can become lax and not pay as much attention to doing it properly (especially if repair work is being done or during the construction phase), but it's crucial to safety."

Following is a list of procedures to follow for developing a risk management policies, compiled from recommendations from organizations and safety experts.

    In the area of risk, it's crucial to use lists that best match a facility's needs in regard to hazards and safety procedures. Various national associations that offer checklist guidance include the National Aquatic Coalition (, USA Swimming (, USA Diving, (, the National Federation of State High School Associations (, FINA (, NSPI (National Spa and Pool Institute) ( and ASTM International ( Various equipment manufacturers may also have their own recommended checklists.


    Beyond checklists, it's key to clarify what the appropriate guidelines are for a facility. To make the right choices, check laws and regulations mandated by state or local governments, as well as recommendations from various industry organizations like the ones mentioned above.


    An appointed safety officer should create a committee made up of critical staff, such as the maintenance superintendent, the municipality's or agency's legal counsel, insurance representative, a representative from purchasing and any other staff who may be making decisions that would influence risk.


    Common critical hazardous areas include the following:

    • POOL DEPTH: There should be no diving unless a depth is recognized and accepted by a state's health department.
    • DIVING: Follow new dive-block depth recommendations (at least eight feet) and implement structural changes to accommodate them, such as modifications to diving boards or timing systems.
    • SIGNAGE: Have enough of it and provide direction on what visitors should and should not do as well as point out hazards. Essentials include: "No Diving" signs where necessary, pool capacity signs, emergency signs, proper CPR instructions and pool rules.
    • DIVING BOARD MAINTENANCE: Check that the board has enough "grit" to make it nonslip and that bolts and side rails are intact. Also make sure stairs are cleaned regularly and are not slippery.
    • DECKING: Install "No Running" signs on deck. The deck should have a splash or wet area. For zero-depth pools, ASTM is now in the process of developing safety standards, which will include decking specifications (see sidebar on page 14). In addition, the widespread use of sunscreens, applied frequently and often haphazardly, can result in slick spots from their oils. Stay aware of what areas can become slippery from oils and lotions and place appropriate signage in those areas, which are often the steps into the pool, gutter systems and outside showers.
    • LOCKER ROOMS: Display slip caution signs. Many people don't realize that water on the floor creates slip hazards.
    • Also, the advent of camera cell phones has introduced a new privacy issue with regard to locker rooms and images being taken. Signs that state no cameras or cell phones in locker rooms prevents the possibility of any in appropriate (or illegal) picture-taking.

    • LIFESAVING EQUIPMENT: Have the appropriate equipment in accordance with the certifying health departmental agency. Regularly check first-aid kits, back boards, head immobilizers, CPR masks, neck braces, safety hooks, reaching poles, life rings and rescue tubes.
    • RESUSCITATION EQUIPMENT: Have the appropriate equipment in accordance with the certifying health departmental agency and the American Red Cross.
    • NIGHT BARRIERS AROUND POOL: Install them. Failure to provide a fence or cover to secure a pool and prevent access when it's officially closed tempts improper or unscheduled use. Many accidents have happened, including drownings, from swimming and diving at night.

    Encourage all staff to become part of the effort to be safety conscious.

  6. AUDIT.

    Periodic auditing, or employing an outside safety expert to check for and advise about risk factors, should be part of a facility's policy.

Must-have maintenance strategies

When it comes to keeping an aquatics center's operations flowing smoothly, facilities can be divided into the haves and have-nots. Among what successful facilities have are: funds in reserve to cover maintenance issues, regular checklists, regular preventive maintenance practices and well-qualified operations staff. Facilities that don't possess these important resources can jeopardize the life of their pool and equipment.

One of the biggest challenges facing a facility is not setting aside yearly funds to cover maintenance costs, even in relatively new structures.

"In a new facility, it's easy to assume that you won't have to do anything for a long time, but you can't rely on that," Schwartz says. "We encourage people to accumulate a reserve, even if it's a few thousand dollars a year. They may need things like paint or replacement of pumps and other equipment.

Staffing continuity is also important to keep a consistent knowledge level of all maintenance aspects.

"People are smart and understand their job, but then they leave, and someone new has to start over again," Schwartz says. "There are things that may slip through the cracks, like winterizing not being240ne properly and pump maintenance."

There is also the question of people who may be fully competent, but that competence may not extend beyond the job that they were first hired to do. If thrust into the role of managing a facility from a prior role that required less responsibility or different abilities, they may not be able to pick up the slack.

"People may hire the person who was a lifeguard last year and who did a good job, but the skills required for managing a pool and lifeguarding are not the same," Clayton says. "I estimate that 75 percent of all pool managers in the U.S. are new to the job each year because most pools are seasonal and their managers are hired only for a few months. The newly hired person seldom has any managerial experience in any situation, much less at a pool. Certification programs are extremely important because it indicates that the person has achieved a certain standard of knowledge."

Clayton runs two certification programs—one for pool managers and one for aquatic managers through Aquatic Partners. The Certified Pool Manager (CPM) course is designed for the beginning manager and includes information on both managerial and operational aspects. The Certified Aquatic Manager (CAM) course is designed for administrators or supervisors of a year-round pool.

"The number-one person impacting the life cycle of a facility is the facility operator," Hunsaker adds. "It requires a much more skilled operator to keep an indoor facility going because the parameters for success are much more narrow. Having a well-skilled operator who has the resources they need is the biggest thing."

Pool maintenance: a primer

Information courtesy of Mark Warshaw of Bel-Aqua Pool Supply, Inc. in New Rochelle, N.Y.

Beyond the right monetary resources and properly qualified staff, a baseline knowledge of the principles of proper pool maintenance is crucial to the life of a facility. Preventive maintenance, through regular checkups, remains the only way to ensure that a pool is clean, clear and safe—whether it's seasonal or year-round, indoor or outdoor. The following guide provides the basics across the two broad areas necessary for effective maintenance: water chemistry and everything besides water, including pool equipment, the surrounding area and surface maintenance.

Water quality—life in the balance

To keep water clean and clear, and hence, visitors flocking to your pool, it takes a precise blend of proper water chemistry, filtration and circulation. Water chemistry involves maintaining proper levels of sanitizers to kill bacteria and oxidize organic matter (like algae) and sustaining proper water balance. And it all needs to be done regularly. This improves water quality and swimmer comfort, reduces cloudiness and scaling, and helps prevent corrosion.

Water testing

Check with your local health department to find out which test kit is approved for your area. Things to be aware of include color comparators fading when left in sunlight, which can compromise test accuracy. Test frequently and from several spots around the pool to insure accuracy.

Chemical automation is on the rise for use in testing water and maintaining proper sanitizer levels and water balance. Automatic controllers use ORP (Oxidation Reduction Potential), which unlike standard test kits, can measure the sanitizer activity of the water along with the concentration of sanitizer in the water. ORP and pH electrodes are placed in a sampling of the water. Following user-defined set points, the controller can activate the appropriate automatic chemical feed device.


When it comes to sanitizers, chlorine is not the only option for keeping a pool clean and clear. Bromine has been available since the early 1980s as an alternative that provides several benefits, including less irritation potential for eyes and skin, low odor, and a wider pH range.

From a bather comfort standpoint, when bromine is used, there does not seem to be as much of a problem with eye and skin irritation, according to industry reports. A properly maintained chlorine-treated pool usually will not create problems, either. However, if the chlorine is improperly added, the chloramines that form from the combined chlorine can cause stinging skin and eyes for some swimmers.

Also, because it does not form chloramines, which can create a very strong odor in indoor pool environments, bromine has a less intense smell for sensitive noses.

Another advantage of bromine is that it has a wider range of pH activity than chlorine. As pH levels go up, chlorine loses its effectiveness more quickly, so it's not as forgiving as bromine.

Both chlorine and bromine are easy to feed and control. However, some forms of chlorine, such as calcium hypochloride, require more frequent feeder cleaning, whereas bromine often will require less frequent feeder cleaning. Additionally, when coupled with ozone used as an oxidizer, bromine's sanitizing power is re-charged by the ozone, enhancing its effectiveness.

While there are many positives, perhaps the biggest drawback of bromine is that it is not sunlight stable. If used for outdoor facilities, it requires more frequent feeding and is not as cost effective as it would be for indoor use. So, the advantages are greatest for indoor aquatic centers.

Cleaning—where, when and how

Although algae and dirt may not be visible, it's probably there—and growing. This procedure should be done daily:

  • Brush pool walls top to bottom with a nylon-bristle brush, which will send dirt to the bottom to be vacuumed out. Use a stainless-steel brush on tough algae deposits, making sure not to damage the pool surface.
  • Clean tile line using a tile brush. Clean with nonabrasive tile cleaner or mild acid cleaner made specifically for tile lines.
  • Make sure your skimmer net fits your debris needs.
Manual vacuums
  • If provided, use a separate suction line for the vacuum to connect to, or use the pool's existing skimmer. If using a skimmer, it may be necessary to divert extra suction to it by use of switching valves or plugging other open skimmers.
  • The heavier the vacuum head, the easier it is to keep on the pool floor. Check the condition of the vacuum head periodically. If wheels are worn down, the head will not move freely on the pool surface. If the hose has a swivel end, make sure it's placed on the vacuum head side. Often when a hose has a small air leak, it's difficult to see, but it can affect performance.
Automatic vacuums
  • Many newer models offer infrared sensors to help the unit adjust to different depths, remote controls for steering and automatic shut-offs to allow units to run overnight.
  • Portable, self-contained systems can be used poolside for maximum suction. Many contain their own filter to prevent debris from entering the main filter system.
Equipment Upkeep: Caring for your Pool's Workhorses

The three basic types of pool filters include Hi-Rate Sand, DE (Diatomaceous Earth) and Cartridge. Routinely, sand and DE filters need to be backwashed to ensure proper filtration and flow rate; cartridge filters need to be cleaned. The following cleaning and maintenance practices should be done at least once annually.

Sand filters, the most common type, usually use a combination of gravel and silica sand. A new filter media, zeolites, which is a mineral rock material, can also be used in sand filters (see sidebar on page 29). Although both types of sand filter media are cleaned and reused by backwashing, it's often necessary to change the filter media over time. Inspect all interior parts—areas under drains and laterals can become cracked even when not fully broken off.

DE filters contain filter grids that can become clogged annually. Although backwashing removes most of the DE and dirt, additional maintenance is often necessary. DE filters should be taken apart a minimum of once a year. The filter grids/elements should first be soaked in a filter cleaner and degreaser to remove body oils and grease and then acid-washed to remove organics.

Cartridge filters have removable cartridges that require routine cleaning. They should be cleaned with a high-pressure hose, then soaked in a filter cleaner degreaser, and then acid washed to remove algae, organics and bacteria.

Zeolites: Everything Old Is New Again...For Sand Filtration

The zeolite, a mineral rock product formed from volcanic ash over millions of years, was first discovered and used by the Romans several thousand years ago in water filtration and building materials. Now suppliers are betting on its success for pool filtration.

Those who sing the praises of these ancient rocks claim that the media can extend filter run time, decrease chloramine problems and even offer potential antimicrobial filtration capability.

The zeolite, which is being marketed primarily for sand filters, offers microporous filtration capability. That structure allows it to capture particles internally as well as on its surface. This increased surface area can be an advantage over sand, which typically filters particles from 20 microns to 40 microns. With more surface area, zeolites have the ability to grab particles down to three microns to five microns, according to manufacturers. This can help provide better water clarity.

Because water is filtering deeper into the bed of the zeolite vs. just the surface filtration that sand offers, filters with zeolites also can run longer without having to backwash a system (flushing once a filter loads up with particles), manufacturers report. Typically, with zeolites, a filter can run about four times longer than with sand. Like sand, it is also a permanent type of media, meaning it doesn't wash out. However, it is recommended that it be changed out every five years.

Filtration capability is also being taken a step further with the application of antimicrobial chemicals to the zeolite's surface . One supplier has introduced patent-pending antimicrobial zeolites, which can inactivate and remove microbes like viruses, bacteria, algae and cryptosporidium.

Another benefit of using zeolites, suppliers say, are their unique ability to absorb and bond with ammonia ions, which can help disrupt the formation of chloramines. Chloramines are generated when a chlorine molecule that attaches itself to a nitrogen- or ammonia-containing compound that can no longer sanitize the water.

Zeolites can reportedly help decrease the odor that chloramines can generate at indoor facilities. To accomplish this, the zeolites load up with ammonia ions. When they reach a certain capacity for holding the ions, that capacity can be refreshed by introducing a saltwater bath to the media. With the bathing process, the ammonia ions are released and sodium ions are captured in their place. The zeolites then become free to capture more ammonia. The frequency of this process will have a direct correlation to the bather load at a facility and the number of organic compounds introduced into the water.

Because of production methods involved in manufacturing zeolites (they are mined, blasted and crushed), they are approximately three times more expensive than sand. However, it's important to weigh the benefits to system efficiency and filtration capability the media provides, according to suppliers.


Commercial pump metal baskets can rust and corrode over the years from improper water balance. This allows debris into the pump and can potentially damage the impeller and diffuser. Routinely make sure your pump's strainer basket is c eaned out and in good condition and that all o-rings and gaskets are lubricated and serviceable. Be sure your pump is airtight to prevent loss of prime or decreasing circulation. If operations are seasonal, take the pump apart in the off-season, inspect it and replace the shaft seal if necessary.

Skimmers, main drains and return inlets

A pool's circulation system relies on surface skimmers or overflow gutters, main drains and return inlets to remove debris and provide uniform water and chemical distribution. Skimmer baskets should be regularly cleaned. Skimmer weirs or floats need to work properly to control the flow of surface water into the skimmer to facilitate the removal of surface debris. Make sure skimmer covers are securely attached to prevent tampering and ensure the safety of walkers on deck.

Main drain covers should be checked regularly for their condition and also should be securely fastened to prevent entrapment and keep large debris from entering the main drain line. Main drains often have a hydrostatic relief valve to relieve ground-water pressure. They should be checked to make sure they're properly working and should be replaced as needed.

Return inlets are often adjustable. Adjust the flow of the inlets to prevent pockets of stagnant water. If your pool is winterized, these procedures for securing the main drains and return inlets are of paramount importance.

Chemical feeders

If feeders are not working properly, they can upset the water-treatment balance by limiting the amount of chemicals in the mix. Since liquid chemical feeders may be exposed to corrosive chemicals, you may want to completely overhaul your feeder annually.

Lighting fixtures

Loose-fitting lights can be hazardous to swimmers and can be banged around, causing the bulb to burn out. When changing a bulb, check the gasket as well, and change it if necessary. A simple light wedge can help firmly secure the light in the housing.

Other equipment checks

DECK EQUIPMENT: Check ladders frequently to make sure steps are not broken and that nuts and bolts are tight. To prevent corrosion on stainless-steel railings, use warm water and a nonabrasive gentle detergent with a soft cloth regularly. Also be sure ladder, handrails and grab rails are securely fastened into anchor sockets and anchor wedges are tight.

DIVING EQUIPMENT: Make sure diving boards and stands are securely fastened. Check to ensure fulcrums are in good condition. Check nonskid diving board surface for wear and tear.

SAFETY EQUIPMENT: Set up a regular schedule to inspect safety equipment. You should be notified by your local board of health if any regulations change and if you need to make any additions or modifications to your safety equipment list.

ROPES AND FLOATS: Constantly check their condition. Floats crack; ropes fray. Hooks should be in good condition and tight on the end of the rope.

MANUALS ONLINE: Many major manufacturers have made their equipment manuals available on the Internet. Refer to your individual manufacturers' manuals or contact your supplier.

Taking care of what's out of the water
Expansion joints and tile grout

Expansion joints should be checked annually for failure. While replacing old, non-watertight expansion joints is time-consuming, it is relatively inexpensive and can prevent major masonry repairs to coping and tile.

Coping prevents pool water from splashing on the deck and also provides a level nonskid surface on top of a pool wall to join it to the deck. Tile enhances appearance, and it is also relatively easy to clean the staining that usually occurs around a pool's waterline.

Painted pool surfaces

Painting pools is usually done every few years for appearance and to provide a protective coating. In many seasonal climates, it is done yearly. Whether a pool is concrete or fiberglass, painting can provide a UV-, chemical- and water-resistant finish. Each paint manufacturer provides specific guidelines on how to paint a pool and paint compatibility. For existing painted pools, many manufacturers also offer chip analysis that can check a paint's durability and compatibility. Surface preparation is also extremely important in ensuring that any paint adheres well.


The right staff often comes in the form of hiring certified professionals who are well-educated in a variety of pool management and operational aspects. Staff that can bring the correct skill sets to the job include professionals with designations like: certified pool operator, certified pool manager, certified aquatic manager, professional pool and spa operator, aquatic facility operator, or pool operator on location. Various groups and associations, including the National Swimming Pool Foundation (NSPF), the National Recreation and Parks Association (NRPA), the YMCA, and Aquatic Partners offer certification programs for pool managers and/or operators.


National Swimming Pool Foundation:

National Recreation and Parks Association:


Aquatic Partners:

Programming for maximum use

Staying in business at the municipal or institutional level, where admission and user fees have to be kept affordable, can be a tricky balancing act. The key is providing enough recreational programs to keep regular users happy, while providing programming time and space to outside clients to keep the cash flowing.

"You have to have a combination of both types of programming," says Kathy LaTerza, aquatic and community services coordinator for the city of Clearwater, Fla. "You can't forget the bread-and-butter types of programs, like camp recreation, lessons and swim team programs—those are what the community needs. But we also have rentals and other activities from outside groups. They can't replace programs at the expense of what those in our community want, however."

Because the needs of visitors and the community change, successful programming often means being flexible.

"We're open to any type of new programming," LaTerza adds. "Of course, a big issue is that everyone wants the pool at the same time. We're going to stick with the programs that are successful. It's a business—we have to determine what's best for the community and the city—we may have to move or stop a program that's waning in interest. There are new things happening all the time."

The right mix of in-house programs vs. renting to outside clients will often depend on who's using it.

"In aquatics, it costs so much money to run a facility that you have to bring in other sources to keep revenue going," adds Caryn Murray, recreation facilities manager for the aquatics center at San Jose State University in San Jose, Calif. "Our pool is open for lap swimming and recreational swim, and that's about it—there's not much in-house programming at all. When the facility first opened, our priority was recreation for students and then the outside clients, however the administration discovered that it was so costly to run the facility, we had to have people rent space from us."

Because many of the students are commuters and don't spend a lot of time on site for recreation, Murray estimates that close to half of her programming activities at the university's pool involve outside groups that rent space.

Programming to Please

Whether offering activities for a core group of residents and students or outside groups who rent space, program choices regularly evolve, and it's crucial to stay attuned to what your users want and need. The following program examples help show the breadth of available options that can help populate your pool and include newer entrants to the mix, like underwater hockey and therapeutic offerings.


Swim lessons

Summer camps or community group recreational swim and water safety programs

Lifeguard training, CPR and first-aid classes


Scuba diving

Skin diving

Synchronized swimming


Underwater hockey (Not for any pool, this sport is most successful with a tile-bottomed pool that has a large, unsloped bottom space on which to play.)

Inner-tube water polo

Water basketball

Water volleyball


Beyond tried-and-true water aerobics, offerings include deep-water exercise, water-based tai chi, water yoga, water treadmill classes, pre- and post-natal aquatic fitness, water jogging, and pool Spinning (featuring special submerged exercise bikes).


Helping the ill, injured or disabled feel better, therapy pools can be an asset to a facility's programming and are growing in popularity. Having a separate pool used primarily for therapy has helped spawn contractual relationships with healthcare providers to enhance treatment for their patients and provide an opportunity for them to explore potential therapeutic options for their own facilities. Depending on the type of program, it may be run by a licensed therapist or an unlicensed trainer who is trained in a specific program by an organization (for example, the Arthritis Foundation conducts training courses for arthritis-patient therapy).

Therapy pools are usually kept at a water temperature above 90ºF and may include special structural adaptations like wheelchair-access ramps that lead into the water.


Arthritis-patient therapy

Adaptive swim lessons for developmentally disabled swimmers

Stroke-victim therapy

Therapeutic massage

Traction Techniques

WATSU (taking its name from "WATer shiatSU," a floating therapeutic massage that can be used for both injuries or wellness)

AICHI (an eastern-based sequential program of water movement that is beneficial for range of motion, muscular stretching and flexibility)

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