Supplement Feature - February 2010
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Raging Waters

Economy's Tumult Drives Aquatic Facility Plans

By Daniel P. Smith

An Eye on Energy and Safety

In more inspiring economic times, aquatic managers and architects were far more likely to take ambitious design steps. Today, practicality and the bottom line reign, propelling energy efficiency into the forefront. Many pools are performing energy audits to assess consumption and are looking for solutions for reducing energy use. Exciting, perhaps costly, design features are taking a backseat to less visible, even unseen operational components that offer true cost savings.

"There's no question that facilities are looking hard at operational costs and taking a fine-tooth comb to the numbers, including energy," LaLonde said.

Flooded suction pumps, which sit below the static water level, provide 20 to 30 percent better motor efficiency to spur electrical cost savings while a slower-spinning motor results in greater durability. Automatic filtration systems, meanwhile, filter backwater only when necessary, eliminating the need to rely on a human maintenance routine.

Keeping water warm comes at a substantial cost, leading many pool managers to investigate new heating options. In a typical 50-meter pool, Mendioroz estimates that $250,000 to $300,000 is spent on utilities, predominantly gas. Heaters running at up to 98 percent thermal efficiency and even solar panels can retain a pool's temperature while reducing gas consumption.

"If you've got the room for the solar panels, then this is a no-brainer," Mendioroz said. "The panels pay for themselves in four to six years and, particularly in warmer climates where the sun's shining, pools can save up to 40 percent on their natural gas costs."

Thermal blankets are also gaining increased use. Costing approximately $3.50 per square foot, the thermal blankets provide an additional 40 percent energy savings and generate a six-month payback, Mendioroz said.

"Among all the energy-saving measures, thermal blankets offer the best bang for the buck," he said. "The biggest issue is having the labor to take them off and put them on each day."

From high-performance design that gives consideration to the placement and removal of thermal covers to mechanical systems operating at peak efficiency, the energy-efficient elements provide aquatic facilities a socially conscious quality that resonates with many patrons while simultaneously reducing operating expenses.

"The environmental and economic impact these features have reach out to the social groupings that come to the facility and that's a real benefit for all involved," Whiteaker said.

Health and safety, meanwhile, remain at the forefront.

The recent Virginia Graeme Baker Act caught many aquatic facilities flat-footed. Passed in December 2008, the legislation, aimed at reducing suction entrapment incidents, continues to challenge many facilities with the correct product installation for compliance—this, at a time when money's already tight. Still, compliance is the sole option.

"This legislation has a lot of pools scrambling to get their facility updated," LaLonde said. "There are significant concerns about reaching the expectations, so that the facility can stay open and avoid fines."

In recreational venues such as the pool, illness is a major concern among users. While public health codes have rarely addressed the issue, many facility managers and designers are investing in solutions to combat the spread of communicable diseases.

Effective filtration is the first line of defense against illness, so designers seek as high a turnover as possible. Combating bacteria, viruses and other infectious elements, automatic chemical controls measure the water and maintain the necessary equilibrium. Finally, ultraviolet sterilization or ozone generators work to kill anything not hydrogen or oxygen.

"When you have these three elements together, you can substantially reduce the risk of [recreational water illnesses]," Mendioroz said. "This focus on sanitation is another way in which pools can be responsive to their patrons and give them faith in the facility's management and operations."