inPRACTICE / AQUATICS: Safer Air for Swimmers

Levine Center for Wellness & Recreation at Queens University in Charlotte, N.C.

One of the nation's winningest college swim coaches raised a few eyebrows at the nationally attended Ultimate Pool Conference last January in Charlotte, N.C., when he attributed some of his teams' success to his natatorium's indoor air quality (IAQ).

Jeffrey Dugdale, associate athletic director, head swim and aquatic director, and head swimming coach at Queens University (QU), was the keynote speaker at the conference. His presentation dwelled on his institution's goals and methods of designing what's arguably one of the nation's best indoor pools in terms of IAQ. QU also won the event's "Ultimate Pool" award, an emerging pool design criteria similar to the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) or the WELL Building Standard.


Dugdale founded the small private school's swim team in 2010. By 2011, the QU architectural design team had broken ground on the $30 million, 144,000-square-foot Levine Center for Wellness and Recreation. Cramped for campus acreage, the facility's efficient design positions the 7,500-square-foot sub-level natatorium and its 33-meter stretch pool 15 feet below the ground-level 2,500-seat basketball arena.

IAQ may appear as a trivial factor in choosing a swim team, but visiting parents of recruit candidates notice QU's superior IAQ and great water within 10 minutes inside the pool area, according to Dugdale. The recruiting results are in Dugdale's record. Both the men's and women's swim teams have won the NCAA Division II National Championships the past five years. If the Bluegrass Mountain Conference school competed in NCAA Division I, Dugdale estimates they would be a Top 20 ranked school, which is impressive for a 2,300-student university. An estimated 60 percent of team members were recruited by the best Division I schools, but they chose QU for the IAQ and because of Dugdale's 28 years of experience and reputation for training competitive swimmers.

There are literally thousands of indoor pools across North America with a lack of proper IAQ, and unfortunately some are on QU's swim team schedule, so inhalers are packed as regular equipment, but rarely needed at QU. There's a growing legion of QU rival school swimmers that even prefer away games at QU versus competing at their own school's pools.

Successful natatorium designs combine the perfect synergy of building envelope materials, mechanical dehumidification, supply and return air distribution and water chemistry.

The main culprit that degrades IAQ is chloramines, the heavy toxic gas that stratifies above the water surface and is created by the chemical attachment of chlorine molecules to contaminants, such as ammonia, urine and other human body byproducts. Swimmers obviously inhale just above the water surface, therefore chloramines irritate and many times permanently damage the respiratory system after prolonged exposures.

The environment and chloramines at QU are handled with two types of mechanical equipment: the mechanical dehumidifier and a source capture exhaust system. The mechanical equipment consists of two 24-ton dehumidifiers that are piggybacked in a small equipment room for space constraints and energy-efficient staging. Besides dehumidifying the space to 54% relative humidity, it uses heat recovery to provide free pool water heating to 80°F, and cools or heats the space to 76°F. Although ASHRAE recommends a two-degree differential between water and space temperature to limit evaporation rates, the set points were dictated during the design phase to properly size the mechanical equipment and maintain a space comfortable for both swimmers and spectators. Dugdale said he could coach in a suit and tie and not feel uncomfortable. The two units easily handle large competitions with spectators, but can efficiently ramp down during unoccupied hours or swim practices.

While other parts of the building were value-engineered in the design and budgeting phase, Dugdale made sure there were no trade-offs with the pool environment and IAQ. His pre-design IAQ research convinced him that any value-engineered compromises would most likely negatively affect the pool environment and would not accomplish the success he expected for the facility.


Dugdale also did due diligence on what state-of-the-art equipment was available for IAQ. For example, a source capture exhaust system is built into one of the pool's gutter walls. It draws chloramines and other gases off the water surface and evacuates them outdoors via ductwork under the pool deck.

Dugdale calls the current pool "incredible" because the environment is perfect and the door hardware, ductwork, bulkhead and other metal objects have minimal corrosion issues. Furthermore, there are no chemical odors in the natatorium or in other recreation center areas.

IAQ helps Dugdale recruit elite swimmers, but the adage "practice makes perfect" also applies to the success. Dugdale has never cancelled a practice because the pool wasn't working properly. QU's maintenance department routinely monitors more than 60 operating parameters of the dehumidifier via a web browser-based software program and receives alarms within minutes if a malfunction occurs. While other colleges in his conference spend thousands of dollars annually on maintenance, Dugdale reports that total maintenance costs on the facility have been minimal, which he attributes to investing in IAQ from the beginning.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) have shown an interest in QU's pool. Last fall Dugdale met with the lead counsel of the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, who is interested in the impact of poor IAQ on human health and facilities maintenance. He also met with other congressional committees concerned with furthering the EPA's commitment to helping create an awareness campaign that establishes a new industry standard of care.

Dugdale told the Ultimate Pool Conference audience that his dream pool environment came true at QU. The pool provides a pristine environment where spectators and swimmers can attend an event or extreme training without experiencing respiratory irritation, itchy eyes and all the other health risks associated with so many other indoor pools. RM



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Ralph Kittler | P.E.