The Spray's the Thing
The Latest Trends in Splash Play Areas
Wyeth Tracy, president of a Markham, Ontario-based manufacturer of splash play and waterpark equipment, was in Brazil to bid on a project when a man told him a story that encapsulated the main reason his company does well putting spraygrounds in resorts and hotels.
The man described his attempt to drive past the resort the family had visited the year before. The kids had loved the resort's splash pad, and when they realized he was not turning in there, they flipped out. The man turned back.
"If you can get the little ones interested in your facility, they're the ones that drag the whole family there," said Tracy. "It's what we call Pester Power."
The tale also highlights a limitation of splash pads; the age of the target audience tops out at 12. The point is, for families with kids younger than that, splash pads on flat ground, with no standing water, allow mom and dad some time to relax while their kids play safely needing little supervision.
It's one of the reasons Tracy sees a bright future for the installation of new spraygrounds and refurbishment of old ones.
"The secret of a water playground is that the parents can relax. They don't have to be in the water. They don't have to worry about the kids falling in," said Tracy. "You have to be on guard all the time with a deep pool. Slowly these facilities, whether it's zoos or aquariums, YMCAs, eventually they'll start realizing these are great safe facilities to put in, and the insurance companies love them because there's no danger there."
Know Your Options
There are two general types of splash play areas: those in zero-depth beach entry type environments, and those on dry surfaces. The zero-depth spraygrounds have the advantage of not needing a reservoir of water, using the pool water they are in. On dry surfaces, three systems are available: single pass, where the potable water from the city main simply drains away; a recirculation setup, in which the water drains and is re-used; and retain and reuse, when used water is repurposed by other segments of a community.
The secret of a water playground is that the parents can relax. They don't have to be in the water. They don't have to worry about the kids falling in.
The one-pass system is cheaper to install, while the recirculation
system is more expensive—a separate filtration system is necessary—and obviously more environmentally friendly, which is no small factor in areas of the country for which water is a rationed resource. Yes, there are splash pads in California, where a drought has persisted for five years and government has mandatory water usage restrictions.
"We are big advocates of recirc because we look at water as being a very precious resource," said Ed Benck, director of administration and engineering at an Eden Prairie, Minn.-based splash pad and waterpark company.
"In California and Texas, they shut off all the single-pass systems. They allow the recirc systems to run and operate. They do a very good job with educating the public. Just like any municipality, if you're told you can't water your lawn or wash your car while down the street in the park there's a splash pad that's going to use 10 million gallons of water this summer, people have a hard time with that."
Benck said despite his company's advocacy of recirculation systems, seven out of every 10 of its clients choose domestic single pass, mainly because of the affordability. Not only does the recirc system cost more itself, but it needs more staffing. Benck said when a client chooses a single-pass system, his company has one more suggestion.
"We'll try to direct them toward some way to repurpose the water," he said. "Rather than just having it go down a drain, let's bury a 10,000-gallon concrete tank in the ground. You can use all that water for your site landscaping.
"We did one splash pad last year that was in a very water-sensitive environment and they wanted to buy a recirc system, but didn't have the funds, so they agreed that repurposing was the answer. They came up with the greatest idea. We'll take a 10,000-gallon tank, bury it in the ground and when that tank is full, the splash pad shuts off until we can repurpose that water for landscape or irrigation."
The community made the operation clear with a lot of signage, Benck said, and the community was fine with the compromise. The single-pass system with repurposing restrictions allows areas with budget issues to have some of a splash pad instead of no splash pad.
"The education of the public is so important. The public knew, 'It's 95 degrees, my kid went to the splash pad and pushed the button for the water to run but it didn't run because the tank's full of water. We're OK with that. They'll have to find some other way to cool off that day.'"
Benck said the days of mere sprinkler-type structures on a concrete pad are long gone.
"The whole splash pad market has really matured over the past 15 years," he said. "The companies that make the products are more reputable, more educated. Your average purchaser can go to a city 50 miles away and look at their splash pad and talk to their people. It's matured a lot, and people now have a much better understanding about A, what does it take to build a splash pad, and B, what can you expect for duration for the splash pad."
In addition to the types of systems, there are innovations in water treatment, with ultraviolet lighting adding muscle to the traditional chlorine approach. UV light will attack bacteria like cryptosporidium, something not done by traditional chemical systems that rely on chlorine. Benck said some municipalities mandate the use of UV systems on their splash pads.
This can be bolstered by automatic chemical controllers accessible remotely via the internet. Real-time data logging shows parameters of water chemistry and some come with alarms so when something does happen to the water chemistry, these controllers are able to send out an e-mail or text so the staff can immediately address it. This also helps the city mitigate any liability that could be associated with the water, said Benck.
More fun, the industry has embraced style and form and design of splash pad equipment. Shanley Hutchinson, marketing and communications manager for a splash play manufacturer based in Kelowna, British Columbia, said nature and nautical consistently have been big themes in the industry, a trend that should continue.
"Beyond that, industry trends are pushing towards smooth lines, beautiful and vibrant colors that evoke thought and emotion, and the ability to tell a unique story through the overall design, one that identifies with the local culture, flora and fauna," Hutchinson said.
"It's an exciting time for the aquatic play industry in terms of pushing the boundaries of aquatic play technology, design and mechanics. What's really pushing innovation in the industry are the stories being told through the design of the play features: meandering streams packed full of playful weirs complete with a spring that spurts water and an ocean that drains the water away."
Tracy said his company tries to create "aquatecture," an architectural presentation of water. Every feature has an architectural aspect to it, he said, but it also has an architectural aspect to the water itself and that adds to the visual.
"Then we add color to that, and we end up with features that carry a similar design element throughout," said Tracy. "So if you put them all together, they're all different shapes, different architectural visuals and the water presentation on each one is a little different. So the sensation from the water will be different from each one as well.
"We try to develop a number of different types of sprays, a mixture. Ground jets, which are low level. Midlevel, which are not too high and the kids can interact with the nozzles and the sprays. Then you have the higher features like the tipping buckets."
Tracy said his company bases all its designs on geometry for its timeless nature. When it does themes, it will do so geometrically.
"We will add colors and graphics that will be suggestive of say, animals," he said. "It's there, but it's not a literal animal, it's sort of a graphic representation of, it goes in that direction and looks like that animal, using our design vocabulary. It creates an interesting visual."
Benck said theming is a tricky element because a splash pad can be over-themed if a company is not careful
"It can be dated very fast," said Benck. "We've seen splash pads that have been themed with Angry Birds. Kids don't do Angry Birds anymore. The phrase I always use is 'theming lite.' Keep it light, use colors, use plastic panels to give it a feel, say a nautical feel, you can do that quite easily.
"With the naturalistic structures you run a real fine line between structures that are too cartoonish in nature to structures that are trying to replicate the exact species of plant or animal to the nth degree, which is heavier theming. We shoot for something in between, more of an abstract—'I understand that looks like a dragonfly. It doesn't have all the attributes of a dragonfly but I get that's what it's supposed to be.'"
No matter the theme, interactivity is a common thread. As technology and materials have evolved, so has the ability of splash pads to teach children, to boost socialization, and to simply increase thrills.
Hutchinson said features that eject water from the nearest ground spray when pushed and even features that play a sound when the water nozzle is covered tell a story beyond a typical play experience, and they tell that story through theming, intelligent design that promotes action-reaction play outcomes, and discovery.
"This propels the user to a heightened level of interactivity and play," she said.
Some manufacturers are incorporating interesting elements into the design of splash pads, said Hutchinson, by combining water, color and translucency to create an arresting water effect that is playful and beautiful. When used on dumping buckets, for example, such a material creates an effect where kids can see the water building up in the tipping bucket before it spills, creating anticipation and value-added play.
Hutchinson said new ways to activate water are heightening experiences, too.
"Three hundred and sixty degree rotating features that allow users to spin and spray anywhere, water redirection initiated by plugging nozzles, activators that work by having the user perform an action to initiate water rather than only pushing a button," she said. "Interactivity and discovery-style play encourages kids of all ages to explore and, subsequently, get more value from their play experiences."
Tracy believes in the artistic potential of splash pads, that they should look attractive at different times of the day, and when not in use. Lighting displays can be designed to work in combination with higher-end splash pads, he said.
"When you shine light on these features they become different architectural pieces even if there's no water running," Tracy said.
For those who have older splash pads, refurbishing is becoming a niche market for splash pad companies. Whether the issue is safety, inefficiency or simply wanting the latest and greatest, entities with splash pads have plenty of options for replacement and upgrading. Benck said a fresh look and more exciting features are popular but practicality sometimes makes the deal.
"We're also converting what were once high-volume splash pads to recirc," he said. "A lot of times it's not uncommon for a client to want a drain away splash pad, they know how many gallons per minute they're going to use, but they get that bill the first month and they're on the phone going, 'Wow, I guess I had no idea I was going to see a water bill or a disposal bill of this amount, what can I do to save water, how can I adjust my system to use less water?'"
In 2013, the University of Georgia did a study on best practices for splash pad development, management and operation. The study focused on seven public splash pads in Georgia and Florida, and using phone interviews, the report came up with best practices and lessons learned.
From its learnings, the report recommended that during the development phase, "public officials define project goals, consider different funding options, plan for expansion and new features, explore opportunities to develop a splash pad in close proximity to other public amenities, and ensure adequate seating and shade for adults supervising splash pad users."
Its recommendations for management included: provide adequate time to pilot operation of the splash pad before opening it to the public; explore options for supervision of the splash pad; set aside a percentage of splash pad revenue to pay for maintenance, upgrades and expansions; allow private rentals of the facility to increase revenue; and foster continued interest in the splash pad by changing spray patterns, swapping aboveground water features, adding lights and sound.
Tracy said that above all the budget, theming, utility costs, water conservation, operation, programming and maintenance worries, there is Pester Power.
"The whole secret," said Tracy, "is to allow the parents to relax."