Testing the Waters
Tips on Running a Safe & Cost-Effective Aquatic Facility
During these tight economic times, when every line item in a budget is under scrutiny, aquatic facility managers are looking for ways to reduce their operating expenses, while still providing the cleanest, safest and most efficient environment for swimmers.
Water quality and swimmer safety, of course, are always of paramount importance, particularly in light of how social media can affect your business. If swimmers think your pool water is unhealthy or if the chlorine level creates that distinctive, pungent odor, customers will stay away and text others about it. So, perform the basics: "Begin by walking around and doing a daily inspection of the water and the physical components of the system, the pumps and the filters," suggested Brian Bokowy, business manager of a Gainesville, Fla.-based distributor of chemical products, specializing in water treatment.
"I would include with that checking safety hand rails, and looking for algae on the pool deck," Bokowy said. "Water typically does not turn cloudy overnight. A circulation pump typically doesn't just stop working overnight. These types of things you will notice if you are paying attention."
Another example of what to watch for, he said, is when you see water getting a "little bit dull looking, or lacking a little bit of sparkle." Ignore that, and eventually the water will turn cloudy where you can't see the bottom. At that point you should absolutely have safety concerns for your swimmers.
With pumps and filters, Bokowy continued, "you can usually see leaks or hear the motors making a funny noise. Don't ignore a motor that is getting louder all the time or eventually starts spraying water at a faster rate." These problems develop slowly, and by paying attention, you can avoid greater issues. Have someone on your staff walk around the facility when they first come on shift in the morning, or do the walk-around as the last thing before going home in the evening. See what the water looks like every single day.
If you walk into the pump room and the motor and pump are making a funny noise that it wasn't making yesterday, "you can embark on some preventive maintenance, correcting a potential problem before it becomes an actual problem, Bokowy said.
Preventive maintenance is one of the keys to running a safe and cost-efficient facility. With a swimming pool you have chemical components, which maintain proper water clarity, and water balance parameter, the pH, a measure of how acidic or basic the water is in the pool.
"Other basics to watch for," Bokowy said, "include the chemical feed equipment, which will have parts that wear out and parts that need to be replaced, maybe on an annual basis, or every six months so that they continue to operate properly before they fail."
The circulation pump, the filter, the UV units—those physical components also are going to have a preventive maintenance schedule laid out by the manufacturer of that equipment. It may be as simple as replacing O rings, or something more complicated, but there is going to be a maintenance program spelled out by those manufacturers to keep that equipment in proper working condition.
"I would add," he said, "that a lot of people don't realize spending a small amount of money on maintenance tasks that need to be taken care of is really much more cost-effective than waiting until a piece of equipment completely fails. Then you are faced with a shutdown of the facility. You're stuck with parts to fix or replace, if they are even available before a weekend or a holiday. You might have to pay a freight surcharge on things that are not available locally. It is much more cost-effective to have a preventive maintenance plan in place than to repair things on a crisis basis."
The Chlorine Conundrum
Sanitizing the pool is a big deal. At the same time, the best way to do it is a controversial issue: What is toxic and what is non-toxic? Chlorine, according to the American Chemical Council, kills harmful microorganisms that can cause health-related problems in swimming pools. Chlorine-based swimming pool disinfectants help prevent swimmers' ear, athlete's foot, skin rashes and other water-borne illnesses. Legionnaires' Disease and Pontiac Fever also can be prevented with proper chlorination, particularly in the spa environment. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) calls chlorine and proper pH, "the first defense against germs that can make swimmers sick."
"But chemicals such as chlorine," said Gary Gripp, commercial service manager for a building, design and service company for commercial and residential swimming pools in Wilsonville, Ore., "react with organic and mineral compounds, such as sweat, and body oils, and can result in harmful and smelly by-products, among which is nitrogen tri-chloride—or what people commonly call 'chloramines'—which not only smell, but are harmful gases to swimmers' lungs."
What you need to do, suggested Steve Pearce, owner and co-founder of a Norcross, Ga., company that excels in on-site chlorine generation, is make a product that is easier for the operator to keep his water clear and keep free and available chlorine in the water at all times to protect the bathers.
As operators, what you are looking for is a system that is not only better and safer for an operator to use, but also better for the swimmers in general to be swimming in.
"The storing of bulk chlorine on site at any aquatic facility is becoming more and more of a problem," Pearce said. "A lot of states and local authorities are starting to limit the amount and type of chemicals that can be stored on site, the oxidizing content of the chemicals. I know Long Island has virtually completely banned the delivery of sodium hypochloride. And so with all of these safety issues coming into place, people are trying to work out how they can safely and effectively sanitize the water."
An on-site generation technology of some type, where you are making the product on site instead of making it, storing it and delivering it, is a solution, Pearce said. "It's better for workers because they are no longer exposed and touching toxic chemicals," he said. "They just have a machine doing it for them, which is insulated so they are not subject to touching it or messing with it. And it is better for bathers because when you make any type of chlorine off site, you have to add ingredients into it to try and stabilize it to keep its shelf life as long as possible."
When you add all those ingredients in you are now putting them into the pool as part of the chlorine you are pumping into the pool. "If any chemical engineer had the option they wouldn't put them in because they add cost to the product and it's just not something you want in the pool water," Pearce said. "But to stabilize the chlorine and keep the chlorine's shelf life, they have to add these things. When you do it on site you don't have to worry about all those additives. You are just making the hypochloric acid, which is the good part of the chlorine."
UV Technology Can Help
"We have found that technology is the best way to get it better for bathers and better for the operators," Pearce said. "And the more that you can add technology and take it out of the hands of an 18-year-old lifeguard, who has very little experience with what they are doing with chemicals, the better it is."
In fact, technology—via automatic chemical feeders, on-site chlorine generation and more—can help maintain more consistent water quality while keeping workers safer. Technology, properly employed, can be the leader in sanitizing your water properly and keeping the air in your facility clear. Lifeguards should be lifeguarding, rather than worrying about balancing water and chemicals and making sure equipment is working properly.
UV light technology can be an extra help in keeping water safe from water-borne pathogens and eliminating chloramines to maintain consistent air quality.
UV light technology is growing in interest and acceptance on a daily basis, Gripp said. And Pearce agreed. UV light provides an extra line of defense against harmful pathogens, and you can combine it with chlorine generation to provide a higher level of protection for swimmers and your staff.
UV light provides a germicidal function, and can often be found in hospitals, said Jeff Boynton, general manager for an ultraviolet systems company, based in Gardena, Ga.
What the UV light does to microorganisms is to scramble their DNA, so they cannot replicate. Take Cryptosporidium, for example. Crypto outbreaks are responsible for closing swimming pools every season. Most times when manufacturers talk about water-borne pathogens that is what people are talking about.
UV light (a form of UV light) is 99.9 percent effective against all waterborne pathogens that go through the light chamber; but it is only effective in the light chamber. Even so, it is a very good supplemental method (used with chlorine, for example) to treat and sanitize water. The goal is to use less chemicals while having the chlorine being more effective.
Feel the Heat
If you operate commercial or municipal aquatic facilities that heat their pools and spas, you know higher energy bills at this time of year. "So, whether you are considering a complete renovation or are simply maintaining the pool but want to spend less on operating costs, look at upgrading your heater for savings," explained Mike Fowler, a commercial marketing and sales manager of a Sanford, N.C., manufacturer of pool equipment and systems.
The buzzwords these days are all about saving costs and being "green" or energy efficient. And with heaters, it's a no-brainer. The older-model heaters of seven to 10 years ago might have started out being about 78 percent efficient. But over time, those same heaters grow less efficient—as heat exchanger tubes fill with buildup and even the burners get clogged.
Now is the time to bring up the subject of upgrading those old heaters—after seeing those high energy bills from this past season. Upgrading a heater is the perfect place to lower operating costs so you can re-invest your savings in other areas of your facility.
"The pool pump circulates the pool's water and is drawn from the pool then passes through a filter and into the heater," Fowler explained. "The heater's combustion chamber ignites the gas, heating copper tubes arranged above the burner tray. As the water passes through, the heat from these copper tubes is conducted to the water, increasing the water temperature. The water then returns to the pool and recirculates for consistent heating. This simple process provides quick, controlled heat."
Most heaters start losing efficiency over time just from basic operation. But new heater models have much higher efficiencies (85 percent to 90 percent) than older models (60 percent to 78 percent) and use less energy (new heaters will immediately lower energy bills). They also have lower emissions today than years ago, Fowler said, "for better air quality, which is better for the environment."
The Cost-Saving Benefits of LED
One of the fastest, easiest ways to reduce energy consumption is to replace old incandescent pool lighting with improved light-emitting diode (LED) lighting.
LEDs, Fowler explained, are small semiconductor devices used to convert electrical energy directly into light. By combining these digital light sources with microprocessor intelligence, aquatic facility operators can control numerous aspects of illumination. The results are an amazingly crisp and bright, yet dense saturation of light.
"Besides precise control," he noted, "another benefit to using LED lighting is its lifespan, which is generally 10 to 15 times longer than traditional incandescent bulbs. LEDs also create light without reaching the high-heat extremes created by traditional light bulbs. With less heat, they require less energy to operate, and less energy is wasted. Even though incandescent light may seem cheaper initially, LED pool lights offer increased user benefits and reduce energy costs."
The return on investment from energy savings for LED bulb only is slightly more than 1.5 years, depending on the facility. When a facility uses 12 to 30 bulbs in their swimming pools, these savings are multiplied. This also eliminates facility staff having to continuously replace light bulbs as part of their routine maintenance schedule, Fowler said.
Besides lower monthly energy bills, many aquatic facilities are also taking advantage of rebates offered by utility companies for converting from incandescent bulbs to LED lights. Some municipalities and states offer rebates to motivate facilities to reduce energy consumption. "If more facility managers and operators took the time to document these potential savings as well as factor in the available rebates, which help to provide a quick ROI," Fowler said, "the change to LED lighting would be a no-brainer."
Save Money, Install a VFD
Variable frequency drives (VFD) also offer a significant return on investment for pool owners, especially semi-commercial or commercial aquatic operations. These drives allow the pump to run at its most efficient point on the curve, which means preventive maintenance costs drop due to motor protection, motor soft start and a significant decrease in water hammer, protecting the shaft and impeller. Just by installing a VFD to your pump, you can save as much as 5 percent to 10 percent in energy costs by simply dialing in the pump where it actually needs to be and cleaning the power being sent to the motor. Using a VFD, Fowler said, can save you up to 60 percent or more on a pump's electricity usage.
The greatest long-term benefit of the VFD, however, is that it helps to lengthen the life of the pump motor so the maintenance and motor replacement is significantly increased. "Pump motors last longer by having a VFD installed not only because of the 'Soft Start' two-step ramp-up feature, but also because of the overload trip protection, which protects motor and drive from voltage spikes and phase unbalance," Fowler explained. Installing a VFD not only saves you on energy usage costs, but also keeps motors working better, longer, so motor replacement is far less frequent.