Feature Article - April 2015
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How Refreshing!

Updating Splash Play to Meet New Demands

By Dawn Klingensmith

The sprayground industry is maturing. Some of the earlier splash play areas have already reached their expected lifespan and are being replaced. Others are still fully functional but in need of an update to meet the demands of today's users. In the past two decades of design and use, certain issues have emerged as the main drivers of sprayground renovation, including:

  • Water conservation
  • Water safety
  • A narrower user demographic than previously thought
  • Waning appeal and the need for variety and novelty to keep things fresh
  • Aesthetics
  • Comfort and security

Waterborne diseases have been a concern ever since a 2005 cryptosporidium outbreak in New York sickened nearly 4,000 sprayground users. But lately, as drought conditions persist in parts of the country, water shortages may have overtaken water safety as the most pressing issue for municipal splash play areas.

Water consumption is of such concern that it "may make your single-pass mechanical system outdated or unacceptable to your community," according to a blog post written by Ed Benck, who owns a water play structure design and manufacturing company in Eden Prairie, Minn.

Curbing Water Usage

Some of the most common upgrades have nothing to do with appearance and engagement, but rather the operating system. It used to be that many municipalities opted for a flow-through system (also called a single-pass or drain-to-waste system), partly because the upfront costs are lower than a recirculating system. However, flow-through systems use so much water that cities are now converting to recirculating systems as a conservation measure. As an added bonus, the recirculating systems have higher flow rates, so the kids get wetter. Generally, the conversion can be done keeping the existing pad intact.

As the name suggests, a flow-through system pumps potable water to the pad and then either drains out as waste water or is captured and reused as greywater, usually for irrigation. By contrast, a recirculating system uses chemicals, filters and pumps to treat and reuse the splashpad's water.

Where drought and water shortages persist, splash play areas with flow-through systems have been forced to shut down, sometimes for entire seasons. In Rocklin, Calif., the mayor called the city's three spraygrounds a "pure waste of water," and their closure as part of the city's effort to cut water usage by one-third was reported in December in the Wall Street Journal.

Colleyville, Texas, had to shut its sprayground off last season in compliance with Stage 1 water restrictions, but is looking to add a recirculating water system, which could save the city more than 3 million gallons of water annually.

Though in general, the single-pass system is seen as unsustainable, water reclamation is possible at some locations, meaning the water is captured and reused for irrigation or other greywater applications. When the reclamation tank fills up faster than the water is being used, at least one city Benck knows of shuts off its splashpad until the water is used and the tank is empty. The city posts signs not only to educate the public about its sustainability efforts, but also simply to assure them that the splashpad is temporarily inactive but fully functional; otherwise, too many callers would report that it's broken.

There are relatively easy ways to reduce water use by an existing system. In Henderson, Nev., officials aiming to reduce usage by 20 to 30 percent last season simply made adjustments, such as preventing ground effects from splashing higher than 6 feet and limiting to four the number of fixtures that can be on at a time. The Las Vegas Sun reported a one-month savings of 1.5 million gallons of water.