Managing Aquatic Maintenance
Automation Helps Boost Efficiency & Safety
Automation is making aquatics maintenance more efficient and ultimately more cost-effective, but the human element cannot be ignored either, when it comes to pool safety and on-site inspections.
Water quality is key to a good user experience. And to that end, all public swimming pools by law (although those laws vary by states and municipalities) require sanitizing systems to eliminate microbes in the water to provide a healthy swimming environment, said Kevin Post, principal, director of aquatic operations for Counsilman-Hunsaker, an international aquatic facility design company with corporate offices in St. Louis.
Good water quality is more than simply eliminating visibly dirty water. If pool water is not properly maintained, a pool can become a breeding ground for germs, bacteria and algae. Having the proper equipment that dispenses the needed chemicals into the water to prevent such unwanted bacteria is an essential first step in making pool water safe.
"A lot of the big paradigm shift that we are seeing in the business is because of the industry's recent developments with the Model Aquatic Health Code (MAHC)." said Troy McGinty, product manager of commercial products for a New Jersey-based company that manufactures pool equipment.
The MAHC is backed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other organizations, McGinty said. "What this model code is suggesting is how can we become more consistent with the legislation, the requirements or codes as pertains to the operation of a pool?"
Currently, codes covering aquatic facilities vary from one jurisdiction to another, at various levels of government, across the United States. "What we are trying to do in the industry," McGinty explained, "is to gain some sort of consistency that can be followed by all of the local health departments in their jurisdictions. What that does is gives us a better baseline for us to develop and research products to adhere to those requirements."
There are quite a few different products within a commercial pool—everything from sanitization systems, pumps and filters to heaters and lighting.
"The last part" of the equation, McGinty said, "is the IoT [note: the Internet of Things, or IoT, is a system of interrelated computing devices, mechanical and digital machines, objects, animals or people that are provided with unique identifiers (UIDs) and the ability to transfer data over a network without requiring human-to-human or human-to-computer interaction], which is a fairly recent development in the last five years, and how we are integrating everything together so that all the equipment is somehow talking to one another while working simultaneously. At the same time, these functions are controlled remotely."
What McGinty has noticed is that as technology grows, equipment is getting lighter, through the use of different plastics and materials to try to lessen the load of the equipment, as pertains to initial installation. "As for the equipment itself," he said, "the motors are getting smaller and more efficient, and the installation, the wiring and the operation are becoming less expensive. For example, there are better filtration products like bulk system DE, which is reducing things down to less than two or three microns, trying to remove harmful bacteria from the water."
In the industry, you are seeing automated chemical control so that water chemistry stays consistent and is monitored 24/7. This means water—and the bathers in it—are safe as it pertains to the sanitization and pH level, McGinty said.
"You are also seeing things like LED or low-voltage LED lighting as it basically becomes more intrinsically safe, because you are only allowing a 12-volt light in a pool," McGinty explained. "Besides the energy savings, there is the reliability of the product lasting a lot longer than your typical 120-volt incandescent bulb."
We have seen changes in ADA compliance and other regulations, such as the VGB Act, which covers drains to prevent entrapment, McGinty said, "…making sure that drains are either split or that the drains themselves can handle a specific flow rate, a specific velocity, so that it can protect bathers from any type of suction entrapment. That's a new technology that was introduced there as well."
Across the spectrum, McGinty noted, the industry has come forward with innovations such as variable speed pumps, better filtration products, more efficient heating products and more. Sanitization products are not simply chlorine-based; many use secondary or supplementary sanitization, such as UV or ozone. And these products are very helpful in assisting in the removal of water-borne pathogens, and better than your typical chlorine that would be in the pool.
"That additional layer of protection," McGinty said, "is becoming mandatory in certain jurisdictions and states and for certain types of bodies of water like spas, therapy pools or kiddie pools that can be a lot more susceptible to a lot more of those types of challenges."
All in all, he said, "what you are seeing is technology is increasing in the way of safety, and I think that as an industry, as a whole, we are more consistent in how we are operating and designing our pools."
Maintaining Water Quality
Water quality can shut down a pool if it is not kept right, said Mike Fowler, commercial manager of a Cary, N.C.-based manufacturer of pool products and solutions for filtration, water treatment, maintenance and more.
"Bad water quality," he said, "can cause cryptosporidium. It is so vital to keep and maintain proper water chemistry. Not just for the clarity of the water and the performance of the equipment, but the overall look of the pool is more inviting when it is a nice clear and maintained pool. Good water quality adds to the enjoyment of the people using the pool."
"What we consider a balanced pool, from a chemical level," said Mark Lynch, national sales manager for a St. Paul, Minn.-based manufacturer of commercial pool equipment, "would be a pH range from 7.4 to 7.6," as well as the correct balance of free chlorine, alkalinity, total dissolved solids (TDS) and calcium hardness.
One other thing to note, Lynch said, is "depending upon where you are in the country, depending upon your water source, and upon the legislation and guidelines from your local inspectors, every pool is going to be balanced differently, and what we tell people is that once they get a pool balanced manually they can use our equipment to maintain that balance."
"There are many options available today and some common misconceptions regarding what systems are available and their relative merits," Kevin Post said, naming three basic categories of water treatment systems commonly used in swimming pools: sanitizers, supplemental sanitizers, and pH buffers.
All public swimming pools must have a chemical sanitizer, Post said, "as mandated by the local public health code. The function of the sanitizer is to kill microorganisms. This is generally done by adding a chemical sanitizer to the water as it passes through the treatment system in the pool equipment room. This effectively treats the water at the point of injection, but also leaves residual sanitizer in the pool water itself to handle contamination sources in the pool. The following options are available: sodium hypochlorite, calcium hypochlorite, gas chlorine, bromine, and chlorine generation (salt systems)." A common misconception, Post said, is that salt systems provide a chlorine-free pool. "This is incorrect. Chlorine serves as the primary chemical sanitizer in all of the above systems except bromine."
Besides chemical sanitizers, secondary water treatment systems are available to further improve the water quality, Post said. None of these systems are permitted by health codes to serve as a primary source of water treatment. They are only permitted as supplementary systems. This is because they do not result in providing any residual chlorine in the pool itself, where contamination is most likely to occur. Water is only treated in the equipment room.
"The advantage of these supplemental systems is in their effectiveness at reducing chloramines (combined chlorine)," Post said. Chloramines are compounds formed when chlorine combines with other chemicals from human perspiration, body oils and other byproducts. These supplemental sanitizers are also effective as sanitizers, even though not permitted as a primary means. These systems include: ultraviolet light, and ozone.
Finally, Post cautioned that sanitizers have a high pH, raising the pH of the pool water. "For that reason, it is necessary to add pH buffers to lower the pH of the pool. The options available are CO2 and muriatic acid."
For more details on chemistry, check with your preferred pool equipment manufacturer or a pool certified operator.
Systems That Control Maintenance
At the 2019 World Waterpark Association Conference, Post made a presentation on the many cities that have opened leisure pools with waterpark features. "Compared to your neighborhood pool in the 1970s," he said, "these now have six times the number of pumps, and the water is used more. You need better equipment, like automated valves … where you push a button and everything is done for you in sequence. But automated valves are more likely to malfunction, and you have to know how to fix that valve."
Post also pointed to the Amazon Alexa-like phenomena. The industry has moved into automated systems and controlling systems, he said. "You are seeing remote communications, such as automated control systems that are talking to the pump, and the pump is talking to the controller, the controller is talking to the chemical pumps, and the filter is talking to the controller and telling us what the pressure rating is as it pertains to flow rate, as it pertains to backwashing."
In the industry, Fowler noted, "there are several manufacturers that offer controllers. The old days of pouring liquid chlorine or liquid acid into a pool, which I have seen in certain spots still, have largely transitioned to automated systems."
Automation allows for dispersing of chemicals into the pool at preset parameters. Whatever your local standards are, these controllers are set to that. Then, when the chemicals get out of those set points, they are automatically triggered to add the right amount of chemical.
This gives the on-site maintenance staff or pool manager peace of mind because they know they have a controller that will keep the water quality where it needs to be. Fowler's company has what it calls a screen logic interface system, but there are similar controllers offered by other companies, he said. "It is a way to monitor what controllers are doing. It allows you to control the key functions of a pool or spa through controllers" such as a computer, tablet, smart phone, or other mobile digital device. "It gives remote access. Sometimes the main office of a facility is away from the actual pool. Most pool managers will want to walk over to their pool daily, but this does allow you to be somewhere else and alarms are triggered to your smart phone or computer device if there is an issue."
Similar to a thermostat on a wall, Lynch said, with an automated system, "you are not going to have peaks and valleys, as far as too much chemicals or too little chemicals" dispensed into a pool.
"With a controller," Lynch continued, "you flatten the curve of dispensing chemicals. You are not going to over or under feed."
Automation is also very useful for pool professionals responsible for homeowners association or hotel pools, Lynch said, where the pool professional might visit the pool twice a week. "What our equipment does is to monitor the water and dispense chemicals, whether you have two bathers or 200 bathers," he said. "In the summer when you have high heat, an automated system will maintain the proper balance until the pool professional gets back in three or four days. This ensures that the professional doesn't come back to a green pool."
"Many of our competitors currently offer systems that allow you to change your control parameters remotely," added Bardwell, an engineer with Lynch's St. Paul-based company. "We have the ability to do that, but we choose not to, due to safety and liability concerns. We believe that before you make changes to the chemistry or how you are controlling your body of water, you need to have eyes on the water. You need to know what you are getting into. That's one aspect of safety. If you don't know what is going on, you shouldn't make changes."
One other aspect, Bardwell said, is just plain internet security, the ability to secure that website, and prevent hackers from making changes to your pool chemistry.
"These are two things that keep me awake at night, worrying about those bodies of water." Bardwell said. "I don't want somebody to hack in and change the water chemistry. Or somebody who thinks they are doing good making a change when they didn't see some obvious failing in the body of water."
Lynch and Bardwell do, however, believe in remote monitoring of the water. "The advantages you have with a remote monitor is that you are able to look 24/7 at a reading of where the pH level is, for example," Lynch said. "In Florida, we have someone who maintains 40 to 50 pools and he remotely looks at all of them and goes to the one pool or the body of water that has the worst chemistry. He'll pick and choose his route based on the chemical levels he sees on the remote monitor."
Documentation, provided by automated monitoring systems, is also something that can help from a liability standpoint. "The system will record what that body of water's chemistry is at any given time," Lynch said. "If someone came to a waterpark and said that their child got sick on April 15, and they think it was something to do with the pool you can see that the water chemistry that day was good, and there was nothing to suggest that the pool was out of balance, so the child may have gotten sick somewhere else."
In terms of maintenance, Lynch noted, chemical automation will reduce the hourly and daily work involved in maintaining proper balance. "While the equipment is monitoring the water, the staff person is able to do other tasks."
The Cost Factor
The products required to maintain proper water (and air quality at indoor aquatic facilities) have historically been fairly expensive, McGinty explained. But there are different ways of manufacturing equipment, and thus meeting demand. Even meeting demands based on laws and regulations, manufacturers are able to produce larger quantities for less expense.
"We've recognized that we didn't necessarily need some of the expenses incurred with some of the larger UV or ozone systems, or pumps," McGinty said. "Basically, we are able to alter what the existing products were, to be more cost-effective and more affordable for the middle user. So that they can also utilize the technology and get a good ROI on it."
Products are more available and becoming much more affordable, he said, "even as the technology is getting better and we are getting better at what we are doing."
Bottom line, McGinty said, is that "money is always an issue, no matter the size of a municipality or commercial facility. There are always budgets, and stakeholders want to know what is going to happen before it happens. I understand the reasoning behind that. However, you never know how bad things can be until it happens to you."
If someone gets sick because the pool lacked proper filtration or water chemistry, that's when operators say, "Why didn't I spend the extra money?"
What the industry is trying to do, McGinty said, "is be more preventive, more proactive, in making sure we have the right equipment in an aquatic facility, making sure the equipment is all certified to the specifications that are required, and making sure that those running the operation are following the guidelines and operating the equipment properly."
Despite all the advances in technology, specifically automated systems, Fowler said, don't ignore basic maintenance practices done on-site. "It is really important to go into the pump room periodically and make sure your pump baskets are cleaned out," he said. "Loaded pump baskets restrict flow through the pump and puts extra work on the pump, not allowing you to get the proper filtration."
Schedule periodic inspections of the pump itself, and make sure there are no leaks. On the filter side, make sure you are maintaining a proper backwash procedure and schedule. Typically, if you see pressure increase 10 psi through a dirty filter, it is time to backwash. Backwash on an as-needed basis, Fowler said. "Make periodic inspections of heat exchangers. Ventilations should be proper.
"On the chemical side, make sure feeders, your cannisters are filled with tablets," Fowler continued, "and make sure gaskets are in good shape. Keep an eye on your probes. PH probes monitor the pH level in your water; ORP probes measure the sanitization activity of chlorine by measuring its ability to oxidize contaminants in the pool."
If you run a commercial pool, check your handrails, and double check your lifeguard chairs, Fowler said. "That is part of maintenance too. Make sure your brushes are in proper order."
Kevin Post offered even more basic suggestions: Skim off leaves and debris. This is a task that should be done daily. Skimming is the first step of your weekly maintenance routine. Use a long-handled leaf skimmer to gather up leaves, insects and any other debris floating on the surface of the pool. Try to remove debris before it sinks to the bottom of your pool where it becomes difficult to remove and may create stains.
If you have trees surrounding your pool, Post said, "consider trimming them back to reduce the amount of debris that lands on the water. Skimming the surface of your pool takes just a few minutes and keeps water looking crystal clear. More importantly, the debris you skim off the top of the water never has a chance to dirty the bottom of your pool or clog up your filtration system."
Brush sediment from pool walls, Post continued. "Algae and small bits of debris can gather on the walls of your pool, as well as pool fixtures, like ladders and slides. Brush the pool walls and fixtures each week to remove dirt and prevent the spread of algae."
Use a brush to remove dirt that has collected on the sides and bottom of your pool, as well as on ladders, slides and other accessories. Brush sediment toward the main drain, so it can be vacuumed up easily.
A key question for maintenance, Post said, "is what is available to you versus what will you have to outsource? And then work all that into your budget." RM