How Refreshing!

Updating Splash Play to Meet New Demands

By Dawn Klingensmith

The sprayground industry is maturing. Some of the earlier splash play areas have already reached their expected lifespan and are being replaced. Others are still fully functional but in need of an update to meet the demands of today's users. In the past two decades of design and use, certain issues have emerged as the main drivers of sprayground renovation, including:

  • Water conservation
  • Water safety
  • A narrower user demographic than previously thought
  • Waning appeal and the need for variety and novelty to keep things fresh
  • Aesthetics
  • Comfort and security

Waterborne diseases have been a concern ever since a 2005 cryptosporidium outbreak in New York sickened nearly 4,000 sprayground users. But lately, as drought conditions persist in parts of the country, water shortages may have overtaken water safety as the most pressing issue for municipal splash play areas.

Water consumption is of such concern that it "may make your single-pass mechanical system outdated or unacceptable to your community," according to a blog post written by Ed Benck, who owns a water play structure design and manufacturing company in Eden Prairie, Minn.

Curbing Water Usage

Some of the most common upgrades have nothing to do with appearance and engagement, but rather the operating system. It used to be that many municipalities opted for a flow-through system (also called a single-pass or drain-to-waste system), partly because the upfront costs are lower than a recirculating system. However, flow-through systems use so much water that cities are now converting to recirculating systems as a conservation measure. As an added bonus, the recirculating systems have higher flow rates, so the kids get wetter. Generally, the conversion can be done keeping the existing pad intact.

As the name suggests, a flow-through system pumps potable water to the pad and then either drains out as waste water or is captured and reused as greywater, usually for irrigation. By contrast, a recirculating system uses chemicals, filters and pumps to treat and reuse the splashpad's water.

Where drought and water shortages persist, splash play areas with flow-through systems have been forced to shut down, sometimes for entire seasons. In Rocklin, Calif., the mayor called the city's three spraygrounds a "pure waste of water," and their closure as part of the city's effort to cut water usage by one-third was reported in December in the Wall Street Journal.

Colleyville, Texas, had to shut its sprayground off last season in compliance with Stage 1 water restrictions, but is looking to add a recirculating water system, which could save the city more than 3 million gallons of water annually.

Though in general, the single-pass system is seen as unsustainable, water reclamation is possible at some locations, meaning the water is captured and reused for irrigation or other greywater applications. When the reclamation tank fills up faster than the water is being used, at least one city Benck knows of shuts off its splashpad until the water is used and the tank is empty. The city posts signs not only to educate the public about its sustainability efforts, but also simply to assure them that the splashpad is temporarily inactive but fully functional; otherwise, too many callers would report that it's broken.

There are relatively easy ways to reduce water use by an existing system. In Henderson, Nev., officials aiming to reduce usage by 20 to 30 percent last season simply made adjustments, such as preventing ground effects from splashing higher than 6 feet and limiting to four the number of fixtures that can be on at a time. The Las Vegas Sun reported a one-month savings of 1.5 million gallons of water.

One drawback of recirculating systems is the maintenance required. Some jurisdictions have it worse than others. Although automated systems have long been available to check chemical levels, the state of Ohio decided that's not good enough given the risk of waterborne illnesses. State regulations that took effect in 2011 require in-person tests of the chlorination systems, which initially cost the city of Middletown almost $500 a week in overtime to keep its sprayground open throughout the summer. The sprayground was equipped with a recirculating water system to chlorinate the water, and the law that took effect after it was installed requires such systems to be tested in person every six hours, even if it is automated.

The automated systems aren't foolproof. In 2013 in Sapulpa, Okla., 17 sprayground users reported rashes and sores consistent with a chemical burn. It was later determined that the automated system broke. There have also been complaints that over-chlorinated splash play areas bleach children's clothing.

Because recirculating systems have their own set of challenges and flow-through systems are now being designed and installed with sustainability in mind, some municipalities are converting their recirculating systems into single-pass systems. "People think recirculation is the only responsible way to go, but there are ways to use a single-pass system responsibly, including low-flow nozzles, activators and sequencing designed to minimize water consumption while maximizing fun," said Stephen Hamelin, president of an aquatic structure manufacturer based in Quebec.

Overdone Themes

Municipalities used to rely heavily on themes to attract people to splash play areas, sustain their interest and keep them coming back. Water play products were, and are, available in a range of themes including animal kingdom, garden and, of course, nautical.

Looking back, some cities may have overdone it. "I think they felt compelled to mimic waterparks or theme parks," Hamelin said. "Sometimes, as adults, we tend to focus too much on a theme at the expense of playability."

While theming can be effective, heavily themed spraygrounds may start to appear dated sooner than the ones designed with aesthetics as a secondary consideration, behind play value. Focus groups and observation have shown that kids tend to get overwhelmed, not excited, by heavy overall theming. As for the water toys themselves, kids care more about fun and function than looks. That said, themes can be an effective way to market and expand appeal for your facility. Talk to your sprayground manufacturers about how best to meet your needs.

When it comes to sprayground renovation, some things are difficult to undo. Overzealous theming is one of them. "Usually if you've committed to a heavy theme, if you get tired of it you have to tear it out" Hamelin said.

That's why "communities that do a heavily themed splashpad usually regret it," Benck said.

Benck does not think new spraygrounds should be devoid of a theme, but said theming should be subtle (or "elegant," as Hamelin describes it). For example, colors can be used to suggest a theme. Instead of a big centerpiece, "just use nautical colors throughout, like red, white and the different shades of blue to suggest the ocean and a boat and the seashore," Benck suggested.

It's not necessary to have a theme at all; a "nice design that complements the environment will stand the test of time," Hamelin said.

When water structures start to show a little wear or could benefit from a purely cosmetic makeover, it is possible to refurbish them and paint them a different color. "Color makes a huge difference. We took all the structures off the pad for a municipality here in Minnesota, sanded them down, repainted them and changed all the colors," Benck said. For about $5,000, they achieved a whole new look, he added.

Splash play areas that are relatively new can capitalize on water-toy anchoring systems to create fresh configurations each season without destroying the existing framework.

"Having an anchoring system allows us to interchange or replace products without affecting the infrastructure. We've been doing that for over 10 years," Hamelin said.

With advance planning, you can add products atop existing base plates in subsequent years as the budget allows. Communities with several spraygrounds can swap features among them, constantly rejuvenating each of the pads. And it's not time-consuming or difficult: The Bridgeport Parks and Recreation Department in Bridgeport, W.Va., is able to change out a feature in as little as 20 minutes.

If interchangeability is made possible at the start, "It's like rearranging furniture in your home," said JC Jackson, operations manager of the pools department at H3O Water Systems, a pool, splashpad and drip irrigation design and installation firm in San Antonio, Texas.

While it may be possible to mix and match different manufacturers' products onto the same anchoring system, Hamelin suggests that park departments carefully vet, choose and stick with one manufacturer for the life of the pad. Connecting to another manufacturer's anchors may be a liability issue if the connection fails.

In addition to or instead of switching out large water features, "you can convert ground sprays to change the direction and sequencing of the event," Benck said.

Spray nozzles can be interchanged or replaced "to really catch the kids by surprise," Jackson said. "Just something as simple as getting sprayed in the face—if it didn't happen in that spot last year, it's new and exciting."

At some locations, you may be able to add lights and sound, and some of the detachable water play systems "allow for seasonal activities that keep the community active even in the cold months, for example by removing the play features and creating an ice skating rink in the winter," said Shanley Hutchinson, marketing and communications manager for a Canadian manufacturer of aquatic recreation equipment based in Kelowna, British Columbia.

Whatever you install or add, you have to respect the surrounding environment. "If it's an urban area, you don't necessarily want cartoon characters. If it's a park setting with vegetation, you may want to draw your inspiration from nature instead of a cartoon television show," Hamelin said. "You want the splashpad to blend in and be more subtle while providing a valuable play experience."

Little Squirts

Designing age-appropriate sprayground "zones" is now considered a best practice; however, the toddler-to-teens target demographic may be too broad.

Many communities have found out that kids who play at splash play areas "are probably younger than people think," said Benck, adding that kids tend to lose interest past age 10.

Bigger, wetter attractions could possibly help with retention, but those do nothing for the young children who dominate splash play areas, if only in numbers. "Teens are the minority of users, partly because they don't want to be in that environment, with little kids in swim pants," Benck said. And the swim-pants set prefers gentler sprays and sensory experiences made possible by different textures of water, from soft to pleasantly prickly.

"Everyone makes the big dumping buckets, but if you ever look at pictures of people standing underneath those things, there aren't very many young kids," Benck said.

That doesn't mean older kids should not be provided for. Besides dumping vessels and water cannons, "older kids like things that require a physical challenge," said Hamelin, citing as an example his company's product that consists of a pattern of water jets that kids use hands and feet to cover "sort of like Twister."

The preponderance of babies and toddlers sometimes comes as a surprise, but once it's apparent how young regular users are, it becomes clear as well that parents are always nearby. If there is not enough seating or shade, you might find that providing for their comfort with a little splashpad makeover is enough to reverse a decline in attendance.

Restrooms are another addition or upgrade to consider not only for comfort but also to reduce health risks as much as possible.

Splash play area improvements should also address any security problems and vulnerabilities. Perhaps a fence is needed to prevent access by skaters and cyclists. Maybe something can be done to deter vandals.

In Federalsburg, Md., a vandal destroyed a foot pedal controlling the sprayground, which left the water running nonstop and shortened the season as officials had no choice but to shut the sprayground down. The community pulled together to raise money to repair the switch and add a security camera.

These sorts of practical additions won't make the same splash as a new water feature; however, they will make for a more positive experience that guests will want to repeat.

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