Feature Article - January 2010
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Staying Afloat

Operating Aquatics in the Black

By Dawn Klingensmith

In Hot Water

From coast to coast, severe budget shortfalls are forcing public aquatics facilities to pay closer attention to the bottom line or, in dire cases, to cease operating altogether. Many cities with multiple pools have closed some or all of them. Countless other cities have cut hours of operation or shortened the season. For example, faced with a budget decrease of 12 percent over two years for aquatics, the parks and recreation department in Raleigh, N.C., started closing pools at 5 p.m. on weekends instead of 8 p.m.

In addition, "Last year, we looked at certain holidays or days of the year we could get away without being open, like the day after Thanksgiving," said Aquatic Director Terri Stroupe.

In the coming season, the pools might close for all federal holidays. "We want to stay open because schools also are closed on those days, and we want to provide recreation for kids and their families. We just can't," Stroupe said.

Other communities have relied on fundraisers to stay open. For example, Glen Hall Pool in Sacramento, Calif., was slated to be closed this summer for recreational swimming due to budget cuts. A city council member, local church and neighborhood association pitched in to save recreational swim hours, along with residents who organized a carwash fundraiser and made personal donations.

Carwash fundraisers and the like are creative short-term solutions, but for long-term survival, aquatic operators need to make operational, programmatic and philosophical changes.

Operational Cost Savings

Utilities and staffing top the list of operational expenses, so let's start there. "These are two major items to monitor in pool operations. Many people aren't aware of the potential cost savings," said Daryl Matzke, director of aquatics for Ramaker and Associates, a Sauk City, Wis.-based engineering services firm that designs aquatics facilities.

Depending on its location, a facility might be able to shop around for electricity and natural gas providers. But sometimes you have to shell out money to save in the long run.

"From an energy-consumption perspective, certain investments pay off. Water chemistry and air quality you should definitely spend money on. Variable frequency drives (for pool pumps)—spend money on those. They pay for themselves in a short while and can be retrofitted," Matzke added.

Most pool pumps are oversized. VFDs adjust according to usage so as not to waste energy.

The biggest energy hogs for indoor facilities are heating the pool and maintaining air quality, Matzke said. "Poor water quality means poor air quality. Use UV supplementary treatments; don't rely just on chlorine," he advised. "If you keep your water quality in line, you'll have fewer problems with air. If you have fewer problems with air, you don't need to bring in as much air from the outside, so you're using less energy and saving money."

Air-handling units with energy recovery systems and pool covers also make Matzke's list of wise investments. Pool covers can save 50 percent to 70 percent of the pool's energy use, 30 percent to 50 percent of its makeup water, and 35 percent to 60 percent of its chemicals, according to the EPA. Indoor pool covers typically pay for themselves in a year. Covering heated outdoor pools and hot tubs may yield even better savings.

In addition, regenerative media filters save on water consumption by reducing backwash by as much as 90 percent.