Keep Your Head Above Water
Proper Pool Maintenance Procedures
A swimming pool full of clean, sparkling water is a beautiful thing to behold. It looks pristine, serene and, best of all if you're a pool operator, it looks inviting. But there's very little margin for error when it comes to keeping that pool looking inviting and operating flawlessly. Mechanical systems, chemical and water levels and cleaning protocol are all factors that need to work in tandem, and staying on top of these things is a never-ending job, even when the pool is closed.
"Routine maintenance helps keep equipment operating safely. Regular inspection and servicing of pool equipment can help prevent equipment failure, which could otherwise cause injury. Failing to maintain a strong maintenance program can also result in higher financial exposure, such as with increased equipment repair or replacement costs, lost income from facility closures and expenses incurred because of injuries sustained," said Shawn DeRosa, former aquatics director at Penn State. He's also a water safety expert and owner of DeRosa Aquatic Consulting, a Florida-based company specializing in customized training for aquatic professionals and lifeguards.
Commercial pools must adopt strict maintenance agendas to keep things running smoothly and to head off major problems before they happen. Kevin Post, a former aquatics director and a principal at Counsilman-Hunsaker, said there are three main goals of a pool maintenance plan. "These goals include preventing breakdowns, identifying the cause of any problems and establishing corrective measures or procedures to minimize or prevent those issues from happening in the future."
Post said that while many facilities do have proper maintenance plans, others are lacking. "Pools should have a daily, weekly, monthly, annual and seasonal maintenance list."
"Facilities should carefully follow the manufacturers' recommended maintenance and operations procedures, which often explain the steps needed to keep equipment working properly," Derosa said. He agrees that well-run aquatic facilities need regular maintenance routines, and suggested some of the things that should be addressed daily: brush or vacuum the pool; monitor chemicals and adjust as needed; monitor flow rate and filter pressures and consider whether filters should be cleaned or backwashed to avoid issues with water clarity; replace water lost by splashout or evaporation; rinse and dry all stainless steel at the end of the day; conduct any required attraction inspections, such as daily slide inspections.
To keep pool water safe, it should be properly circulated and filtered. Therefore, the pump and filter are of utmost importance.
Some weekly routines that DeRosa suggested include: calculate water balance (Langlier Saturation Index) and adjust calcium hardness and total alkalinity levels as needed to keep water "in balance"; test cyanuric acid levels; inspect peripheral deck equipment and secure any loose bolts; conduct any required bacteriological testing.
Facilities follow their own seasonal opening and closing procedures, and should also have annual routines, such as annual filter cleaning. DeRosa explained how oils and organic matter can accumulate in filter media, negatively impacting filtration. "An annual cleanse, such as by soaking sand in a chemical designed to remove oils, should be incorporated into the maintenance regimen."
He also said that pump impellers should be inspected annually for damage. "Worn impellers result in decreased flow rates, which will impact turnover times and could contribute to cloudy water. Motors should be serviced annually to ensure they operate at peak performance."
The Apex Centre in McKinney, Texas, includes four pools: an indoor leisure pool with play structures and a river channel; an indoor competition pool; an outdoor kiddie pool; and an outdoor leisure pool with many extra amenities. This means there are four separate filtration systems. Ryan Mullins, assistant director of Parks and Recreation for the city of McKinney, described a few things on their regular maintenance checklist: "All slides are inspected before opening to the public. Filters are monitored daily. Safety equipment is inspected daily. HVAC, pool heaters, UV systems and other equipment is maintained per manufacturer's specifications, to include preventive maintenance and annual maintenance."
At the Homewood Community Center in Homewood, Ala., there's an eight-lane, 25-yard outdoor competition and leisure pool, as well as a play pool with spray features. Jakob Stephens, athletic coordinator for Homewood Parks and Recreation, said they check chemicals, filters, motors and water levels daily. Lifeguards also have a daily checklist, as well as certain tasks that are performed every three or four days. Some of their duties include backwashing, vacuuming, cleaning scum lines on tile and cleaning the hair catcher.
"During the season, I personally check pumps, filters and chemicals at least once a day myself," Stephens said. "During the off-season I'll check things a few times a week and one of our part-time employees will check them daily. During the winter months we continue to treat our water because it's cheaper than letting it turn green and having to start over each year with new water."
What's In the Water?
To keep pool water safe, it should be properly circulated and filtered. Therefore, the pump and filter are of utmost importance. The pump strainer should be regularly cleaned out, and worn gaskets and seals replaced. A flowmeter can be used to ensure that the gallons-per-minute are correct.
There are three common types of filters: sand, cartridge, and D.E. (diatomaceous earth). Post said that each type has its own pros and cons. "Sand is still the most common for commercial applications," he said. "It's fairly simple and inexpensive to operate, but does not have the best filtration ability. The newest technology is regenerative media (new style D.E.). This has the best filtration ability, but is more costly and does require a more sophisticated operator to deal with the automation."
Whichever type of filter is used, regular maintenance and cleaning of the filter and media are crucial. Cartridges and D.E. grids should be inspected to make sure they're intact with no holes to allow debris to escape. Sand filters should be backwashed and the sand checked periodically for channeling. Since filters screen out debris and particles from pool water, if the filters aren't working properly then the water quality is compromised. Worn or broken filter parts must be addressed, and replacing valves, gaskets and gauges can head off bigger future problems.
Each pool at the Apex Centre uses regenerative media filter systems. "All systems are monitored daily and maintained per the manufacturer's specifications," said Mullins.
Sand filters are used at the Homewood Pool, which Stephens said are easy to work with once you learn them. "The filters we have actually have a Plexiglas viewing area that I love because I'm able to see the sand turning inside during backwash."
Pool water makeup can change quickly. Therefore, it's critical for operators to test water quality frequently.
Pool water makeup can change quickly. Therefore, it's critical for operators to test water quality frequently. "As a general rule, chlorine and pH levels should be checked before opening the facility and then regularly throughout the day, including at peak usage times," said DeRosa. "The Model Aquatic Health Code (MAHC) recommends testing every two hours if chemical levels are not monitored by a chemical controller and testing every four hours if an automatic disinfectant feed system is in use. Some jurisdictions may require hourly testing."
DeRosa said that some codes only require testing two times a day, but added that these are outdated and far outside generally accepted industry practices. "Infrequent testing could result in diminished water quality and/or clarity, contributing to illness or injury."
Post agrees. "Small outdoor pools may need to be checked every hour. Other chemicals like alkalinity and calcium hardness can be done on a daily or weekly basis."
"Although the Apex Centre has automatic controllers on each pool, water chemistry is still checked every hour during operations to ensure water quality," said Mullins. "Also, each pool's chemicals are checked prior to opening each body of water."
Over in Homewood, Stephens said he personally checks the water once a day at a random time, but the lifeguards on duty are scheduled every two hours to check the water. "It's very important because things like bather load, weather or maintenance issues can make your levels change quickly."
Chemical automation systems simplify the maintenance of pool sanitizer levels. Depending on the system, you can measure pH, ORP (oxidation reduction potential) and sanitizer levels and automatically dispense the correct amount of chemicals to balance the pool.
"Automation of chemical feed system is now standard," DeRosa said. "It is atypical to see a commercial facility operated without automated chemical systems."
Post echoed this, adding "There's a new controller on the market that can also control alkalinity, but other water balance factors still have to be done manually."
The Apex Centre uses automated controllers, and Mullins said they're equipped with chlorine ppm probes as well as ORP and pH probes. "With the addition of the ppm probe, the controller is able to automatically compute the Langelier Saturation Index and Ryzner Saturation Index for each pool."
He explained that each controller is connected to their city network, allowing staff to monitor pool chemistry conditions for each pool in real time on a monitor from their office. "This does not eliminate the need for manual chemical tests, but helps staff to spot trends in water chemistry before they become an issue."
Mullins added that they also utilize a water chemistry photometer, which is a more accurate way to test water chemistry over a regular titration test kit.
Keep It Clean
One of the most fundamental parts of routine maintenance is regular pool cleaning, which aside from the obvious benefits, will also help keep mechanical components working properly and sanitizer levels easier to manage.
"A clean pool will increase the life of the equipment and ultimately save money on long-term maintenance," said Post. "This is especially true with water balance. While it's important to keep proper disinfection levels to keep swimmers safe, it's equally important to keep the water balanced to protect the equipment."
Daily or frequent cleaning tasks include manual skimming—using a long-handled leaf skimmer to gather leaves, insects and other debris on the surface. It's much easier to retrieve these items before they sink to the bottom. Skimmers and skimmer baskets should be regularly cleaned, which will keep pool skimmers running at maximum efficiency. If the pool sees high traffic, vacuuming should be done daily to remove dirt and debris from the floor. A commercial pool vacuum attached to a telepole is commonly used, and some pools also use a robotic cleaner. These can be programmed to "learn" a particular pool and develop an appropriate cleaning pattern. Some are able to climb the walls and scrub those as well.
One of the most fundamental parts of routine maintenance is regular pool cleaning.
"If algae may be a concern, brushing outdoor pool walls and floor should be part of the daily maintenance program," said DeRosa. Pool brushes can attach to a telepole, and they're typically steel or nylon, depending on the type of pool surface.
Stephens said a part of their pool doesn't get much sun, so they find they need to scrub those surface areas even more frequently.
Post explained how in recent years there's been more research on biofilm and its effects on chlorine and chlorine byproducts. "Scrubbing the pool surfaces will slow down the growth of biofilm. Also, pool decks should be cleaned (disinfected) weekly and deep-cleaned (acid washed) every couple of years."
As far as other cleaning concerns, DeRosa said that diving boards and starting blocks should be cleaned to manufacturer's guidelines. "Typically, this includes a daily rinse down as well as a monthly scrub to ensure the surface remains slip-free. Diving board grease fittings of the roller block should be lubricated every two weeks. Hinges that hold the board to the stand should be lightly oiled every two weeks."
"No one likes swimming in a dirty pool or a dirty facility," said Mullins. "Pool decks need to be cleaned daily, especially if food is allowed on the pool deck. Tile lines around the pool must be scrubbed on a routine basis. Stainless steel is a common material for lifeguard stands, hand rails and pool ladders. Staff must clean all stainless steel surfaces on a routine basis to prevent corrosion."
A Fine Finish
When it comes to swimming pool finishes, tile will last the longest, followed by pool plaster. Pool paint is the least expensive option, but facilities need to address repainting typically every one to five years, depending on paint type and environment, though some higher-grade epoxy paints might last up to eight years.
"Painting is a cost-effective means of preserving the life of a pool. With proper maintenance, a pool will be fresh, clean and pristine, and provide the experience people expect when anticipating the enjoyment of a pool," said Rebecca Spencer, marketing manager for a New Jersey-based manufacturer of pool, deck and fountain coatings.
So when should a facility repaint their pool? "The finish or coatings may fade, or areas such as steps and floor may be worn down to the bare surface," said Spencer. "Visible signs of cracks, bubbles or peeling paint will indicate the need for the pool to be repaired, cleaned and painted."
Before painting, Spencer said surface preparation is paramount. "A pool surface must be repaired of any cracks or divots. Peeling, bubbles or blisters must be sanded. The surface must be thoroughly cleaned to remove oil, dirt, debris or any substance that could prevent a coating from adhering. The final step is to be sure the surface is completely dry before painting."
Painting is a cost-effective means of preserving the life of a pool.
There are three types of pool coatings: acrylic, synthetic rubber, and epoxy. Most options can be applied to a bare surface, though an epoxy or chlorinated rubber is usually suggested for its durability and service life, according to Spencer. Not all coatings are compatible with one another, so once a coating is selected—or if the pool has been previously painted—it's best to continue to use the same type of coating. If you don't know what type of paint has been used on your pool previously, Spencer's company can provide an analysis of chips acquired from the surface to find out which type of coating was used. Recommendations are then made for what type of coating to use, as well as surface preparation tips to remedy any existing issues.
Deck paint, which Spencer said is different than pool paint, is formulated to shield against UV rays that can cause blistering, cracking and fading. "Deck paint is designed to withstand direct foot traffic and, most importantly, must remain cool and not absorb the heat of the sun which makes it difficult to walk on with bare feet."
Dealing With Challenges
Indoor and outdoor pools face different sets of maintenance challenges. Mullins pointed out that without the sun's warmth, indoor pools must be heated, requiring a boiler that must be maintained. And when operating a heated indoor pool, humidity becomes a big concern.
The Apex Centre has a dehumidification system for each of its indoor pools, which Mullins said keeps the humidity in the pool enclosure to a manageable level. "Under normal operations, the humidity can be maintained around 50 percent. Without the units the humidity could jump as high as 90 percent."
High levels of humidity indoors will increase the amount of corrosion on everything made of metal.
Each pool at the Apex Centre also has a UV system, which helps prevent RWIs (recreational water illnesses), removing pathogens in both the indoor and outdoor pools.
"For the indoor pool environment, they also dramatically reduce the chloramines," Mullins said. "Chloramines are the culprits behind obnoxious chlorine smells and eye burn."
Outdoor pools come with their own challenges, including being open to the elements and to animals, according to Mullins. "Each outdoor pool is visually inspected before it's opened to the public. The wind could have blown deck equipment into the pool. There could be rocks or glass thrown over the fence."
He said the pools also must be winterized even for the mild Texas winters, since cold temperatures can still burst water pipes. "We have amenity pumps for water slides, a play structure and a current channel that are located outside in the elements. Each pump must be winterized to prevent damage from freezing temperatures."
Some facilities prefer to hire outside pool service companies to handle pool openings and closings, as well as other maintenance. "In many commercial or municipal settings, in-house technicians or pool operators will handle routine maintenance tasks, and service companies may only be called to handle more complex equipment servicing and repairs," said DeRosa.
Back in Homewood, Stephens said if he's out of town he hires an outside tech to come by each day and check on things, and they call the same company if there's a complex maintenance issue.
Mullins said they handle the bulk of their maintenance in-house, but a pool service company is used to work on specific equipment if their Building Operations Department can't resolve the issue.
One service that DeRosa's company offers is facility inspections, and he explained that oftentimes a non-biased third party will see things that managers or operators miss or have grown accustomed to. "Things such as surface corrosion of stainless steel, loss of tread on diving boards and starting platforms, improperly stored chemicals and lack of appropriate chemical safety practices are things that an outside consultant experienced in pool operations may observe."
Post said he observes that preventive maintenance is often not planned. "Many facilities wait for something to break."
Of course, other areas aside from the pool must be regularly maintained as well, from support areas to fences and gates.
DeRosa said it's recommended that pools be inspected for proper grounding and bonding to avoid electrocution from a stray current. "A recent survey of 249 pool operators revealed that over 40 percent of pools surveyed did not conduct electrical inspections and that nearly 60 percent of operators did not know when the last electrical inspection of the swimming pool was performed."
"Locker room maintenance is also important," said Post, "not only from a health standpoint but from a customer satisfaction standpoint, too."
Stephens mentioned that their restrooms and eating areas are constantly having to be checked and cleaned. "So much that we schedule one lifeguard per day who is only responsible for keeping those areas clean and performing First Aid."
"The operation of swimming pools is a 24-hour, seven-days-a-week operation," said Mullins. "No one likes to close a pool due to mechanical or operational issues. The best way to prevent that is to constantly monitor your pools to ensure their continual operation."