In the Know
Discovering Best Aquatic Maintenance Practices
Aquatic facility managers and operators wear a lot of hats. On any given day they may be called on to be an electrician, plumber, accountant, custodian, chemist or mechanic—just to name a few. While maintaining an aquatic facility is undeniably complex, many successful operators and directors will tell you that at its core, it boils down to one thing: good training, which comes from certification, the hard knocks of experience, relentless curiosity about how to do things better, and regularly accessing shared knowledge from those in the industry.
"Getting the right training for people who know how to work all the new technology on a daily basis is critical these days," said Paul David Morgan, aquatics recreation supervisor for Parks and Recreation in Denton, Texas, and Certified Pool Operator (CPO) trainer. "A lot of us are the boots on the ground and are mechanical ourselves, but training people is critical. You have to know how to inspire and empower your people-explain why things work the way they do, and not just what to do."
Morgan, who has been doing this work and training others in aquatic maintenance for more than 30 years, observed that while many newer people coming to pool and facility management positions have graduate and college degrees, many lack mechanical knowledge. "They find themselves in positions as new supervisors for a city and don't know how to do mechanical things," he explained. "They need to be trained, and they need to train their team if they have one. That's a big part of maintenance."
Lifeguards, Maintenance Naturals
Some of the most perfectly suited staffers for maintenance training are head or lead lifeguards. These built-in assets are often ideal because their consistent presence makes them naturally familiar with the sights, sounds and smells of an aquatic space, easily able to notice when something is "off." A few proactive moments spent investigating an odd mechanical sound or strange odor thanks to the observations of a well-trained staffer is clearly better than losing thousands of dollars in a reactive emergency shutdown.
"Even if I can't be there," said Brad Jasinski, aquatics facility coordinator and CPO for four Beacon Health and Fitness Centers around Elkhart, Ind., "the lifeguards get there each morning, they go to the pump room and note if there is anything out of the norm—water on the floors, doors open, unusual noises—the same people go in each pump room each day and around the pool to have eyes on and use a checklist with a clipboard with initials so we know who has been in the pump room every morning and evening."
Trained well, employees can do far more than just routine checks. "We just won an international award, but we don't have a pool tech," confessed Rachael Arroyo, CPRP, recreation superintendent of the Farmers Branch Aquatic Center in Farmers Branch, Texas. "I can't be in all the time so we have head staff and head guards in there checking values and readouts. We take them through several trainings so they know how to change out values, backwash, how to switch in and out various safety precautions and are hands-on most things. The management side comes in with the pump room. (Anything extreme, we handle.) And biannual assessments that need to be done are by management. But daily, weekly, monthly, it's the head guards and management together. We get all of our head guards CPO and AFO (aquatics facility operator) certified and invest in updating them."
The very first step (and many will argue, the most important) in acquiring maintenance and safety know-how will come as no surprise. "In my mind, the main thing is education and certification," said Craig Sears, president of Sears Pool Management out of Atlanta, Ga., a pool management servicing company overseeing maintenance of more than 200 private, municipal and commercial pools. "There's been huge strides forward to bring instruction online, but despite that, there's been a drop off in enrollment. It's a little frustrating as an aquatic professional that, while most require a CPO certification in their codes, enforcement is weak."
Instead, he said, people doing the day-to-day are not certifiably trained and therefore run a greater risk of not adequately maintaining their pools. And while a majority (86.8%) of the 500 respondents to the latest Recreation Management Aquatic Trends Report said someone at their facility is certified in aquatic management, this number is down from 2020, confirming the reduction that Sears has also observed.
"The biggest hindrances to certification for many facilities is time, cost and distance to a class," said Lauren Broom, educational consultant with Space Coast Pool School in Palm Bay, Fla. Broom, who is also a Certified Pool Operator Instructor, is sympathetic to the challenges of understaffed, tight-budgeted facilities. She is hopeful the improvements in virtual training will help. "Although not every state allows virtual training for certification, there should be more people getting certified if travel were the problem. It's one less hindrance for some."
Of course, budgeting is easier said than done these days. Tighter budgets and staff shortages were cited in the Aquatic Survey as the top two concerns for respondents, but some have found some work-around solutions. In Illinois where a minimum of one CPO is required to be personally present at all times, Nanette Johnson, aquatic specialist with the Salvation Army Kroc Center in Quincy, has been creative.
"If you are struggling financially, try giving a CPO a room for free to do the training in your facility, and they might give you a discount. We gave one of our fitness rooms to a CPO guy for free, and it worked out great." And for others, certification is simply a non-negotiable priority that, relative to other larger expenses, is affordable enough and important enough to always make the yearly budget.
Retaining Maintenance Staff
There are, however, several key ingredients needed to keep quality employees on board in an industry struggling right now to keep fully staffed. "We really have to be very mindful of our culture with our staff," said Sears. "It's a really hard environment right now. The industry itself is underpaid. We need to be paid more, but we are also hamstrung in most facilities operating on blood-out-of-a-turnip budgets, so the best way to combat that is create an effective culture of positivity. Find ways to create a positive work environment so people are drawn to work there."
Johnson's secret sauce? "Respect and honor," she said. "I don't want young people to be afraid to come to me. If they aren't sure they did something right, you need open communication from all sides so they aren't likely to push things under the rug. You can't instill an honor code if they're terrified of you."
Communication with her staff, she said, is key. "Staff pour into you. And you learn from them as much as they learn from you. It's about leading with confidence and kindness. That's how we roll." Employees whose ideas and input are valued, and whose skills are invested in by managers willing to roll up their own sleeves and get dirty, are characteristics of positive work environments that can help retain staff and prevent a revolving door. "I'll do anything I have to. If we have algae in wells, I'll jump in and brush by hand, "Jasinski said. "How can I ask somebody to do something I'm not willing to do?"
The School of Hard Knocks
Passing on the kind of maintenance know-how that comes with certification is certainly invaluable, but there's also plenty to learn from the school of hard knocks. Some knowledge and skills just take time. For those with the willingness to ask questions, the world of social media is golden. Thanks to sites like Facebook, answers to maintenance questions can often be found in the many online forums, podcasts and webinars for aquatic managers.
"On social media there are groups for aquatic directors and managers on Facebook, and I'm part of one for women professionals," Broom said, citing her own podcast, "Let's Talk About Pools" and her company's YouTube channel as additional examples. "Use social media. Get into groups and you can post questions people all over the country will answer."
Jasinski attributes his ability to learn so much in such a short time to his own willingness to ask questions about the mechanics, protocols and maintenance needs of differing systems ranging from brand-new facilities to older ones in his region. Curiosity is a key ingredient to developing good maintenance practices. Always be asking, how can we do this better?
"You do need problem-solving skills and to be somewhat mechanically inclined, but I think you also have to be humble enough to ask for help. Being completely new (six years is the entire time I've had), I've talked to manufacturers especially, like a sales rep guy on Facebook every other week during my 45-minute drive to my house. You don't have to be a superstar and figure it out on your own. A lot of people know a lot of things. I talk to different guys about the same problem to get different points of view and solutions. It's been very eye-opening."
Another piece of advice? Learn everything you can about equipment maintenance needs from manufacturer manuals as well as from their installation and repair staff. During times of unprecedented delays and backorders for replacement parts or new equipment and accessories, it is more important than ever to be able to do as much preventive maintenance and repairs in-house as possible.
And while maintenance codes vary (even county to county in some states), there is no need to reinvent the wheel. The exhaustive practices outlined in the Model Aquatic Health Code (MAHC) are more rigorous than most, and if followed, can provide better maintenance results than many local code requirements. "For us the MAHC has the science and details that operate at a higher level than state and national," Arroyo said. "If I follow that I know I'm covered."
Maintenance Scheduling Practices
Creating a detailed maintenance schedule ranging from hourly, daily tasks to a five-year plan for replacement schedules, is critical, and these days there are a myriad of tools to stay on top of maintenance routines and processes. A great place to start is in the equipment manual or catalog, where recommended maintenance tips and schedules can be found, explaining when to change things out and when to budget for replacements.
But even the most diligent, out-of-the-box thinkers can miss some things. Let's face it, there's a lot to maintain beyond just a pool and pumproom systems. Paying to have a reserve study done of your entire facility and re-upping it every few years to stay current will almost guarantee a more comprehensive maintenance schedule.
Similarly, there is no shame in bringing in the pros. "We also have ongoing contracts for all the preventive maintenance of our systems (pumps, chemical control, filters, heaters)," said Cory Hildebrand, community services manager with the City of Irvine, Calif., and president of the Association of Aquatic Professionals. "These preventive measures save a tremendous amount of money and staffing time in the long run."
And whether you use old-school visuals (walls covered in colorful calendars and sticky notes), spreadsheets or the latest gee-whiz phone apps and software (with screen interfaces to input testing data, or receive automated reminders for scheduled maintenance checks while it calculates the chemical adjustments based on your latest pH test), the method really doesn't matter. Whatever works. An ounce of maintenance prevention is worth a pound of cure.
Proactive Not Reactive
Being proactive instead of reactive is always better. Frequently checking and accurately recording chemical readings to identify early warning signs of trouble or replacing wearable parts before they fail, like feeder tubes in all chemical pumps twice a year, is recommended standard practice.
"We double- and triple-check everything daily," said Dave Smith, aquatics manager for North County Aquatic Center in Sebastien, Fla., about maintenance routines which, among other things, have extended the estimated 10-year life of their pool liner to 20 years. "Being proactive versus reactive in maintenance practices can be a cost saver. We change out skimmer pumps that help pump chlorine in our systems every year. We know the bather load is high, so replacing all wearable parts is important."
Julie Saldiva, senior assistant director of programs safety and communication with the Department of Campus Recreation at Texas State University in San Marcos, agreed, likening pools and pool equipment to cars. "A well-oiled and cared-for machine will last a lot longer than one that has had the 'check oil' light on for months," she said. "We have had the same pool vacuum since we opened 14 years ago because we clean and change out the filters constantly, clean up any rusting we encounter and generally take care of it," adding that coating stainless-steel with turtle wax has done a good job preventing unsightly rust.
Other better-safe-than-sorry practices that save money and headaches in the long run include keeping things on hand that have to be changed out quickly. Thanks to COVID's impact on supply-chain disruptions causing shipment delays and backorders, many facilities are buying and storing more things than usual in the event they won't be able to access them in times of emergency.
"I keep an extra pump on hand to service our pools, any moving parts in chlorine feeders, and I have learned how to fix them. Any time our companies come on site to replace something, I was standing next to the guy asking questions. That's a big thing," Jasinski said. "Now I can fix about 90% of that stuff in the pump room versus five years ago. Now I have extra pipe fittings, pumps, chlorine sensor—all the moving parts.
Just having knowledge and parts is invaluable." Johnson agreed, adding that in today's uncertain times, you "really have to plan ahead now. It's hard to get people to come and service things, so it's good we can do so much of that in house."
More Than One Pair of Eyes
No matter how mechanically inclined or trained you are, however, it is always a good idea to have more than one pair of eyes to catch something that has become too familiar. It helps to have fresh eyes on everything, especially when doing a regular self-audit. Even getting feedback from a regular trusted customer is an additional way to help to identify debris or dirt in a pool corner that has gone unnoticed. The more fresh eyes to observe potential problem spots, the better, including the safeguards inherent in independent water sample testing.
But ultimately, the proverbial buck stops here. "You can only delegate so much," Johnson said. "It's my responsibility to still follow up. Some say it's micromanaging, but when the safety of others—including staff, not just patrons—is at stake, you read every review sheet and then periodically check to see if something's been done. That's on you. There's follow-through even with delegation."
In the end, Johnson concluded, whether it's good stewardship of finances and budgets, managing mechanical repairs or staff training, "You just have to put experience together over time, learn from it and share it. We have to be curious about what's new and how to do things better. It's our job to see everything through responsibly." RM