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New Ways to Save

Improving Efficiency in Pool Operations

By Chris Gelbach

In recreation facilities nationwide, swimming pools often play an essential role in boosting membership and member satisfaction. They can also hog a big chunk of the budget. So finding ways to operate them more efficiently and effectively is critical.

"Swimming pools are not cheap, but they are loved," said Tina Dittmar, president of the Association of Aquatic Professionals (AOAP) and aquatic supervisor of the Crown Valley Community Pool in Laguna Niguel, Calif. "Somebody will join a gym or a YMCA, or attend a parks and recreation department more readily if a pool is available. Will they use it all the time? Probably not. But they like to know that there's a pool there."

Reducing Energy Expenditures

When targeting reduced costs in operating a pool, technologies that reduce energy expenditures often represent low-hanging fruit for facilities that have not implemented them already.

"The two biggest things you look at when you want to save energy in the pool is the pump and the lighting," said Mike Fowler, who is based in Sanford, N.C., as commercial marketing manager/sales for a major global producer of water quality systems.

For facilities still using incandescent lighting, a switch to LED pool lights within the pool and throughout the aquatic facility alone can add up to thousands of dollars a year in savings.

"There's clearly a little bit more of an initial startup cost when you move to LED, but the energy consumption gives you a payback time that will increase efficiencies long-term. The ability to not have to replace those bulbs as frequently gives you a savings as well," said Shawn DeRosa, director of aquatics and safety officer for campus recreation at Penn State University.

Fowler's company, for instance, produces an LED pool light that uses only 37 watts to create the same light output as the company's halogen pool light does using 161 watts. The LED lights can also last up to 10 times longer than equivalent incandescent bulbs.

An older pump and filtration system can also be a source of significant energy waste, according to Fowler, as the impellers start to erode over time from chemical damage. "When that happens, your pump designed to flow 400 gallons when it was put in is now really only producing 250 to 300 gallons a minute. So you're going to have to run it longer or do other things to make sure you're getting the proper filtration," Fowler said.

As a result, when you start to see rust, the pump is starting to look corroded or you start having to replace motors more often, it might make sense to replace the pump. The decision is made easier by new higher-efficiency models. "A newer pump that we make is maybe 25 to 30 percent more efficient out of the box than the older version that we're still making today," Fowler said.

Recreation facilities that can't currently afford to replace their pump may still be able to experience significant savings by replacing an old open drift proof (ODP) motor with a totally enclosed fan-cooled (TEFC) one. "The implementation of TEFC motors has increased the efficiency factors in a lot of these pumps, and those are also designed to last a lot longer than the old traditional ones," Fowler said.

Likewise, variable frequency drives (VFDs) represent the new standard for energy conservation. "Things like a VFD are important. And if you don't have one in your pool system, you're wasting money," Dittmar said. "This is a good long-term investment." VFDs are also an option that, like a new motor, can be added to an existing pump or as part of a new construction.

At one YMCA client Fowler worked with, the installation of a VFD allowed the facility, which was running too much pump when the facility was closed, to slow down the pump during those overnight hours. They could then ramp the pump back up again an hour before the facility opened to patrons. "They were able to save about $3,700 a year on their energy bill just by streamlining how their pump was working. It almost paid for the drive unit in a year," Fowler said.

Potential savings can also be found in moving to a more efficient heating system, since options available today can be far more efficient than those typically available 15 or 20 years ago. But the potential payback may be longer. "It's through the lighting and the pumps where you're going to see the biggest savings in your facility, because the heaters aren't necessarily running all the time," Fowler said. "In a commercial facility, you're pretty much running the pump 24/7 and the lighting most of the time, as well."

Because of the many technologies available that offer the promise of energy savings, Fowler recommends that aquatic facility managers have a professional come in to conduct an energy audit, particularly if they need their equipment serviced for another reason.

"If they're going to have someone come out and look at a pump, they might as well have them look at everything just to make sure that there isn't a way to make the whole system run more efficiently than it is currently," Fowler said.

The auditor will gather basic information on things like your cost per kilowatt hour and how many hours a day you're running your pool. With this information and a look at your current facility, the auditor can provide information on the monthly savings that you could realize by making particular changes so that you can weigh the return on investment on various options.

Far rarer in practice, but offering the potential for tremendous energy savings, are innovative engineering decisions during the construction-planning phase that offer the potential to leverage the potential of other nearby facilities.

Such was the case at the Crown Valley Community Pool, which was built near a wastewater treatment plant. A heat exchange system was implemented that sends superheated water through pipes from the treatment plant to warm the pool water. It also sends cool water from the pool to the plant to mitigate issues with excess heat when the plant's pumps are operating.

"It's a one-in-a-million situation, but it's been wonderful for us," said Dittmar. "I spend in a year in gas to heat my pool what some other 50-meter pools in southern California will pay in a month in December, January or February." And while the pool does pay fees to contribute to the upkeep and maintenance of the heat exchange system, it's very inexpensive compared to the costs of always using a gas heater to heat the pool.

The Pros and Cons of Pool Covers

Pool covers are another great way for facilities to save money. At Penn State, the university's outdoor 50-meter pool can cost more than $12,000 in heating costs in months like April or October. "With pool covers on we can drop that to $5,000 or $6,000, depending on how cold it is outside," said DeRosa. "So in one year alone in just two or three months, we can see a $10,000 to $15,000 energy savings, which over two years covers the cost of purchasing the blankets." The pool also experiences more modest savings by using the covers in May and June before typically putting them away for the hotter months of July and August.

The covers are not without their detractors, however, a group that may include pretty much anyone who has ever put one on. "We know that pool blankets have proven themselves," said Dittmar. "But pool blankets are awful to put on. It's horrible. It's difficult. It's heavy." Dittmar has even had staff members come to her and tell her that they can't work closing shifts anymore because they can't handle putting on the pool covers.

It's less of an issue with the morning shift, because the facility has an automatic pool cover winder that can do all of the heavy lifting in getting the pool covers off. "So we're halfway to having some innovation for pool covers," Dittmar said. "We know that they're great [in terms of cost savings]. We have something that will take them off. But putting them on is the hardest job. And no one has come up with a better way to do it yet."

Filtration Considerations

The pool's filtration system can offer another significant opportunity for savings through options that offer the potential for water conservation and for reduced staff activity. Opting for a regenerative, diatomaceous earth (DE) filter over a traditional sand filter can create significant water savings by reducing the need for backwashes and accompanying water that's discharged to waste. Additional energy savings can be realized by not having to heat and treat the water that replaces the discharged water.

According to DeRosa, additional benefits of a DE filter can include increased filtration capabilities, including the ability to capture germs such as Cryptosporidium in the filter media, and the ability to filter a finer particulate than a sand filter can, potentially resulting in clearer water. DE filters also typically require a smaller footprint in the facility than traditional sand filters do. They can also help facilities gain points toward LEED certification. But they're expensive.

"I think your budget determines what you can afford," DeRosa said. "Some would argue that DEs are a better filtration media, that they're more environmentally friendly and give you cleaner and clearer water. That said, at our indoor pools at Penn State, we're still on sand, and our water is crystal clear and we maintain it properly. Sand filtration is a good standby, but we do discharge water to waste."

In existing facilities, DeRosa sees recreation managers opting for in-kind replacement of the filtration system because of budget considerations. "That said, any new waterpark that's being built will almost exclusively run with this new [DE] technology," he said.

Automation Options for Efficiency

While automation systems to control the backwash for the filtration system exist, Fowler doesn't see them employed often in commercial applications. According to DeRosa and Dittmar, the embrace of chemical controllers is significantly more widespread.

Benefits of chemical automation include more consistent application of chemicals, reduced risk of disease transmission in the water, and reduced staff requirements for chemical application and monitoring. In addition to allowing for online control capabilities, automation also enables more precise adjustment of chemicals to prevent chloramine buildups that require pool closure and negatively affect revenue.

At Penn State, DeRosa and staff monitor the water of the outdoor pool using a controller that handles both PPM (parts per million of chlorine) and ORP (oxidation reduction potential) sensors. "I think that most pools can get by with either, and for the average pool operator, PPM might be the better choice, because it measures quantity [of chlorine] and that's what they're interested in," DeRosa said. "But someone who really wants to understand what's going in their water might be interested in having both."

Fowler also recommends that facilities weigh the pros and cons of a UV or ozone system for secondary disinfection. "They can reduce the amount of chlorine usage by as much as 50 percent," Fowler said. "It's going to be more expensive, but you get the peace of mind that you're only putting in the amount of chemicals that you need to, and in the long run, it's going to save you money."

The Importance of Maintenance

Another potent contributor to a more efficient aquatic operation is staying on top of manufacturer-recommended maintenance schedules. "When you don't do your routine preventive maintenance, that's when things start to go wrong and cost more to fix, particularly if something breaks during your operational season," DeRosa said.

At Penn State, DeRosa has also found standard operating procedures to be helpful in boosting operational efficiency. This includes opening checklists, daily checklists and closing procedures in addition to things like regular cleaning schedules. Creating these processes has, in turn, created the opportunity for unexpected additional efficiencies. One example occurred when the aquatic staff undertook the manufacturer-recommended monthly scrub of the diving board.

"In doing that, we noticed that we also have to tighten down the bolts," DeRosa said. "So there's a lot of operational benefit by following standard practices, because you can identify things on the preventive side before it becomes a long-term replacement issue."

Efficiency Through Education

Paying to have your pool operators certified is one sure way to potentially increase operational efficiency at minimal expense—often $350 or less, depending on the program. It can make your facility better-prepared to address risk management and operational concerns that can contribute to overall operational efficiency.

"If you have someone who really understands how the pool runs and what they can do to be more efficient, you're going to realize long-term savings," said DeRosa. He teaches a program called Practical Pool Management Plus, but also views the NSPF's Certified Pool/Spa Operator (CPO) Certification, the Aquatic Facility Operator (AFO) Certification from the National Recreation and Park Association and the AquaTech certification from Starfish Aquatics Institute as viable alternatives.

"Those are probably the four primary swimming pool operator certification programs, and I would say that they're all excellent programs," DeRosa said. "I'll often tell operators to rotate between classes. That way they just get a different view from a different provider. They'll all cover the same material, but some might have a slightly different spin on it."

Because the information changes over time with new technology advances, it's also worth revisiting the educational opportunity. Dittmar, for instance, retakes the CPO course every few years. "I learn something every time I go to the class," she said.

While it's important to have a certified pool manager on the premises or immediately available, the training is affordable enough that it can also be helpful to get more staff certified. Penn State, for instance, currently employs two full-time pool operators.

"You want some depth so if someone is sick or on vacation, you have other people there who are knowledgeable," DeRosa said. For this reason, Penn State is now training six additional staff to be certified. "That way, anyone who has anything to do with chemical handling, chemical transport, or pool testing—they know what they're doing."


Bang for Your Buck

As recreation managers face budget difficulties, options such as certification and other efficiencies such as LED lighting can often be the easiest to implement given their low cost and quick potential payback. But big-ticket items that have tremendous long-term benefits remain a difficult sell.

"We get stuck in a position where we're unable to do some long-term financial planning," Dittmar said. "The money isn't always available. It sometimes can be difficult to convince your organization to spend the money to get some expensive item."

"To convince people to think long-term is a difficult task, because they want to see a quick payback," Dittmar added. "But quick paybacks are rare — and they're usually not part of a good long-term plan."



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