Staying on Top of Aquatic Maintenance
Like many industries, the aquatics industry was significantly impacted by closures brought on by the pandemic. But when some facilities were allowed to reopen, patrons seemed willing to return to the pool, with many facilities reporting that new, limited capacities were often met. Part of the allure seemed to be that visitors understood that pool water was a safer option than some other forms of fitness or entertainment, due to the water chemistry. In fact, the CDC said that they are "unaware of any scientific reports of the virus that causes COVID-19 spreading to people through the water in… treated aquatic venues."
This underscored the importance of proper maintenance at aquatic facilities, from small community indoor pools to large outdoor waterparks. The process to keep the water safe involves constant diligence and knowledge in chemicals, sanitization methods, air handling, mechanical systems and more. And beyond the water there are many other maintenance considerations including the physical pool itself, decks, locker rooms and pool amenities and attractions.
"Too often, maintenance issues arise from budgetary issues, or operators who are not trained to properly run and operate a facility," said Juliene Hefter, executive director of the nonprofit Association of Aquatic Professionals (AOAP), which promotes and advocates policies, practices and procedures that contribute to safer and improved aquatic education, aquatic recreation activities, programs and facilities. One of their offerings is an Aquatic Facility Operator course, which covers all aspects of facility operations, according to Hefter. With regard to maintenance, the course covers such areas as developing equipment lists and setting up the pool system, maintaining the equipment and developing maintenance procedures and protocol.
"Operators must develop daily, weekly and monthly inspection sheets in order to ensure that they're checking all aspects of the facility and equipment based on a schedule, and keeping proper documentation," said Hefter. She pointed out that by visually and physically inspecting all systems regularly, items can be immediately serviced or replaced if there's an issue.
And what about areas where facilities might be maintenance-deficient? "Common areas we see are equipment-based items: stairs, railings, diving boards, lane lines, safety equipment, filters, pumps, chemical feed systems, controllers etc., just to name a few," said Hefter.
Counsilman-Hunsaker is an aquatic planning, design and operations firm. Kevin Post is a principal there, and director of aquatic operations. He suggests that utilizing part-time help can be beneficial for facilities. "There's limited amount of budget as well as personnel associated with maintenance. Some of these big waterparks might only have one maintenance person. Some school facilities have a maintenance guy who maintains the entire school, and he spends one hour a day checking the pool. So how about we use that part-time staff to aid that maintenance person, recognizing for instance that the lifeguards are there all the time, and they're going to be a good set of eyes and ears, and the more you empower them, the more they can help you enhance what you're doing and being more efficient."
In a presentation on Effective Maintenance Management, Post examines why staff might fail at maintenance tasks, explaining that orientation, training, mentoring and motivation are key aspects of success. Maintenance orientation should include new employees of course, but should also occur for everyone at the start of each season. Reviews and weekly and monthly training sessions are important, as is monitoring staff—checking up on work done as well as offering evaluations, recognition and acknowledgement.
Post also stresses the importance of following daily and seasonal inspection schedules, as well as performing preventive maintenance. Daily tasks might include water testing; chemical dosing; backwashing; changing chemical tubing; vacuuming pool; checking and tightening inlet and outlet covers; cleaning skimmer baskets; vacuuming filters and surfaces such as benches and tables; maintaining deck, storage and pump room cleanliness; making sure ladders, steps and lifts are operational. Daily inspection items might include water level; chemical controller readings and system functions; flowmeter; filter pressures; check for chemical feeder leaks and other leaks. It's also important to learn the steps for winterizing and de-winterizing pools.
Preventive maintenance prevents long-term deterioration of equipment and facilities. Depending on the task, this might be done weekly, monthly, quarterly, annually or even longer. Some tasks mentioned in Post's presentation include cleaning sensors; cleaning chemical feeders; cleaning amenities such as slides and other play structures; cleaning flowmeter; greasing motor and checking motor gauges. Chemical pumps should be checked weekly to make sure there are no leaks in the feeding tube. Replace the feeder tube in all chemical pumps at least twice a year. If supply lines are hard and brittle or full of chemical deposits, they should be replaced. If the chlorine feeder is full of calcium deposits (about every two months), it should be taken apart and cleaned with acid.
Post's firm offers pool operator training, as well as audit services. "The service is a physical assessment of an existing facility," said Post. "Often we're looking at old facilities and what it takes to bring them up to current code."
A physical audit might include looking at pool structure and finishes; recirculation systems, pipes, fittings and valves; filtration and overflow recovery systems; water chemistry treatment systems; pumps, flowmeters, gauges and all controls; deck equipment and code compliance. Post explained that COVID shutdowns presented opportunities for facilities to examine maintenance issues. "It's a great time to do an audit and do some of this long-term maintenance and plan for the future, since you have time. And now that facilities have been shut down, restarting is a whole different situation, so you might need an audit to check up on your systems."
When quarantines began, the first thought was to shut things down, turn everything off and save energy, according to Post. "But none of this equipment was meant to be left stagnant, especially with pool water. Indoor facilities typically run year-round, so that staff is not used to winterizing; when you shut down a pool you need to totally clean out all the water." Otherwise, if HVAC systems aren't running, humidity can start to deteriorate the building. If the water's not circulating, it can start to erode equipment. And lack of water treatment is dangerous. "Any pools that were left idle and not properly chlorinated developed many issues including testing positive for Legionella," added Hefter.
"If you're going to shut down, you need to fully winterize," said Post. "If not, you need to keep it operational. You can dial down (systems), but keep chemicals in there, keep it heated, keep the HVAC system running and basically keep it ready to open back up."
Brad Anderson is the recreation manager of aquatics for the city of Englewood, Colo., overseeing their eight-lane indoor rec center pool as well as the Pirates Cove waterpark. He described some of their regular maintenance procedures, including inspecting the media in the filters at season's end at the waterpark and once a year at the indoor pool, to make sure there isn't channeling or "mudballs." "It allows us to inspect the sand to make sure the grains are irregular-shaped and have that sharp edge. Often there will be some debris on the top, which we can easily rake off."
Chemical injection points are checked and cleaned monthly and chemical feed pumps are checked monthly, according to Anderson. "We have each piece of equipment cataloged on a spread sheet and we write down each preventive maintenance item that is done and when a part is replaced. This allows us to change out a peristaltic pump tube before it fails. We're currently using calcium hypochlorite as the sanitizer at both facilities and do a monthly cleaning of feeders." During the off-season at the waterpark they turn the pumps over by hand or a quick pump to prevent them from sticking or freezing.
Backwashing—the method used to clean the filter—is important, according to Anderson, who explained that if a filter becomes too dirty, the flow rate on the pool will diminish, leading to a turbid pool. But it's also important to not over-backwash. "Operators should… follow the filter manufacturer recommendations on the differential pressure and when to backwash, but also wait for the flow on the system to decline before placing the filter in backwash mode. For pumps we follow the manufacturer recommendations when to grease the pump, usually quarterly," said Anderson.
"All of the slides and diving board are checked on a daily basis, which includes a dry walk-through on the slide and a wet test," continued Anderson. "The sprayground at the waterpark is checked daily. The safety checklist also includes the pools, main drain covers and ladders, etc., along with all the walkways and decking."
Hefter said it's crucial for pool water to be balanced and chemical readings to be within acceptable ranges, not only for safety reasons but to extend the life of equipment and surfaces. "The requirement for the number of daily times each reading should be taken is dependent on local, county, state or federal requirements. Chlorine levels, pH and alkalinity should be checked prior to the pool opening and at least two to four times throughout the day."
Anderson's staff take readings four times a day at the indoor pool and hourly at the waterpark, allowing for adjustments if needed. "Testing should be done on the conditions and how fast they change. The three big detractors of the sanitizer are pH, nitrogen introduction and cyanuric acid levels." Water balance is a check to see if water is corrosive or scaling, which can prolong the life expectancy of most pool components, and Anderson said it's important to check it at least weekly. "Total alkalinity, calcium hardness and total dissolved solids don't change as quickly as the sanitizer level and pH levels."
Air quality is always an issue with indoor pools. "For my indoor facility, I had a medium-pressure UV unit installed, which has done a great job on the eradication of chloramines," said Anderson. "We're continually in communication with our building maintenance department on the HVAC system to achieve the proper air temp to be two to three degrees above the water temp and a humidity level around 50%."
"Cleaning is an ongoing task that occurs throughout the day and after the facility closes," said Anderson. "We have cleaning checklists that outline the duties to be done which includes—on a daily basis—decks, ladders, slides, portions of the windows and the party room. The pool is vacuumed daily with an auto vac, which is placed in the pool nightly and removed prior to opening."
He added that the COVID shutdown allowed them to do some deep cleaning and other projects at their indoor facility, and at the waterpark they initiated new disinfecting protocols between sessions. "Staff did an excellent job and focused on disinfecting the facility during the downtime. This has led me to institute a better cleaning protocol for future years."
As far as pool products on the mechanical side, Post said that the use of regenerative media filters continues to pick up traction. "One of those items that was more expensive so people were questioning it, but now they're seeing the value so it's definitely becoming more common." He also said the use of variable frequency drives (VFD) is becoming more common, with regard to pool pumps.
Troy McGinty is global product manager of commercial products for a Rockville, Md.-headquartered manufacturer of products for pool professionals. He described their new line of VFDs that provide variable-speed functionality and benefits to single-speed pumps.
Pool mechanical systems continue to evolve and become more sustainable. McGinty shared that the U.S. Department of Energy has developed new energy-efficient standards for pool pump manufacturers effective July 19, 2021, and he thinks this is a win-win. "The products required to satisfy the eco-friendly laws tend to be products that will ultimately allow the pool to run better, longer and more optimally."
There are three types of pool filters commonly utilized: sand, cartridge and DE (diatomaceous earth), with sand being the most common and least expensive. McGinty pointed out that cartridge filtration uses less water as a result of not having to backwash. "Ergo, you save on water, energy and chemicals by using these types of filters. Not to mention the added benefit of better clarity and particle reduction versus sand."
"Secondary sanitization is growing rapidly in the industry as a result of awareness to waterborne pathogens as well as the influence of the Model Aquatic Health Code," McGinty added. "Systems such as UV and ozone are more commonly being added to commercial spas, splash pads and indoor facilities." He also explained that the trend of salt chlorine generators—or salt chlorination—is also growing as a result of chlorine cost, storage and availability.
"White" goods—skimmers, grates, valves, chemical feeders, etc.—shouldn't be overlooked, according to McGinty. "Products that are NSF/ANSI 50 and VGB-compliant are providing the industry with better operating and safer pools. The technology is fairly simple and hasn't changed dramatically, however they are being more heavily monitored for the safety of swimmers."
Technology is growing rapidly, both with equipment and on the application side, said McGinty. His company offers chemistry controllers that can be adapted into any pool/spa application. The Wi-Fi and cellular-enabled controllers communicate with a central website that "helps manage and log pool operations and chemical data as well as provide the ability to control the chemistry right from any internet-compatible device."
In Colorado, Anderson utilizes an app developed by Post's firm. "The aquatic management software is a great tool to have access to in order to keep all the safety checklists, water chemistry records and reports in one location and to be able to track and distribute to the proper person to resolve issues," said Anderson.
Post explained how these apps assist with daily checklists, maintenance checklists, task items with due dates and persons accountable. Due to COVID concerns, they added enhanced cleaning checklists and schedules. This was also beneficial during shutdowns as facilities needed to keep up with pool chemistry. "Having the remote log allowed one person to go to the facility, do the measurements and check the pool, but anyone could check the logs and monitor what's going on and make recommendations in terms of adjustments and balancing," said Post, adding that there's transparency involved. "There's an external user feature, which allows the public to actually log in to check your water chemistry, see that you have chlorine in the pool, check your cleaning protocols, etc."
Choosing an appropriate pool finish is an important decision, and Hefter pointed out that for those painting their pools, it's best to do it after closing for the season. "Paint needs to have a certain number of days above a certain temperature to cure, and too many facilities paint their pools in the spring and end up with issues."
Post said that less expensive finishes—like paint—will require more maintenance, and that more investment in finishes up front will translate to less maintenance. "Generally speaking, a well-done paint finish where it's applied properly and cured will last three years, but we also have facilities where it's an annual maintenance issue." He mentioned that a cementitious finish like plaster or an exposed aggregate might have a 10- or 15-year life, while a tile finish might last around 25 years. Whatever the finish, it's important to regularly scrub, or acid wash if appropriate, to prolong the life.
"For our lazy river, which has a painted surface, we prep and paint it every three to four years, and the other surfaces when the product begins to get rough we'll address it prior to it becoming a safety hazard," said Anderson.
Maintenance regimens and facility inspections are a crucial part of ensuring patron safety, and Hefter stressed that facility managers "must have pool operator training of some sort to ensure that they're properly trained in safely operating their facilities. We want to make sure that all aspects of the facility and equipment are safe for use and won't cause a safety issue when individuals are in or around our facilities." RM