Feature Article - November 2020
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Safer Swimming, Safer Breathing

Managing Water & Air Quality

By Joe Bush


Craig Markey can attest to the effectiveness of new technology and its impact on the air and water quality of an indoor aquatic facility.

Markey, the associate director of recreation and aquatics at Penn State Harrisburg, oversees the operations of a six-lane, 25-yard pool that hosts students, faculty, staff and the community for lap swim and open rec swim. The school offers kinesiology classes as well as learn-to-swim, and lifeguard and water safety instructor classes.

Like every indoor pool environment, PSH's facility needs to manage water and air quality for the safety of swimmers, staff and spectators. The daily project cannot be seen as two tasks, as water quality affects air quality. The chemical reaction that occurs when free chlorine meets byproducts from bathers—sweat, urine, feces, lotion—produces chloramines that can cause harm to lungs and skin.

The toxic output is inevitable, so even the finest management of water chemistry will result in chloramines rising into the air. Circulation of that air—replacing the old with the fresh—is crucial to ensuring safe breathing. Markey said the recent installation of a new system for water quality has improved both water and air at his facility.

"Since the installation, the air quality has been much better than with the previous unit," said Markey. "The water is balanced and chlorine maintained at a level high enough to oxidize, while minimizing the chloramines in the facility. The balancing and ensuring a negative pressure is important as it relates to the other connected parts of the facility.

"Adding a UV light, while not critical when everything is balanced, definitely has helped and provides a secondary disinfection system as the water circulates."

Markey's story illustrates the interconnected nature of pool facility management by hardware, software, operator education, swimmer policy and regulations. Coronavirus has introduced an obstacle; the virus itself can be degraded by regular pool and pool area disinfection, but the public health safeguards limiting gathering gut fitness facilities the same as the travel and hospitality industries. The very nature of the facility is to gather people for activities.

That said, everything pools did pre-pandemic—water chemistry management, air turnover, deck disinfecting—is effective at degrading the virus.

Steve Pearce, co-founder and executive vice president of an Atlanta-based provider of water treatment solutions for pools, said COVID puts increased importance on a facility's air quality. But in a twist, air quality should be better with fewer bathers, because there is less contaminant to turn chlorine into chloramines.

"Being in the water is no problem because there's constant chlorine—the CDC reviewed it and said chlorine kills the virus—but you have parents and bathers that are afraid to be in indoor facilities because there's recirculated air and they're breathing what everybody else is breathing," Pearce said.

Outdoor pools aren't as dangerous, said Pearce, but in most of the country outdoor pool weather is over for 2020.

"It's a big worry for the aquatics industry, what's going to happen this fall and this winter because if you can't get bathers to come inside, whether you're a swim school or a competition facility or a resort with an indoor pool, you can't survive," he said. "The focus for the past few years in the pool industry has been water and air quality, and now it's how to keep the doors open."

Juliene Hefter is executive director and CEO of the Association of Aquatic Professionals. She also teaches classes in water and air quality management. Hefter believes pools are more than revenue generators and should be maintained as true assets to communities.

"It's a lifesaving facility," she said. "You can be in the pool from cradle to grave. Babies to 100 years old. Those pools are teaching people lifesaving skills and swim lessons. The cost of saving lives is a lot less than not saving lives."

Hefter's point is that any amount of money and time spent to ensure the best water and air quality is worthwhile. But all the best technology is blunted by the lack of one thing, she said.

"You can purchase equipment that can help ensure (air and water quality), but it still comes down to operators knowing what they're doing," she said.

"People get thrown into running and operating an aquatic facility, the technical side of it, without much training. We see that a lot. It's getting better. People are starting to understand the importance of training and educational opportunities. Our facilities aren't cheap, and we want to protect the investment. I still get people coming into our classes who have never done anything with a pool and they're in charge of one and it's scary for them."

Pearce agreed.

"Education is 99% of this business," he said. "There's a lot they don't know, opportunities for something better they aren't aware of. If there's a guy running a facility for 30 years and he's been doing it one way, it's very difficult to change that. He knows it may not be the best way, but he's used to doing it that way and that's the way he likes it."