Feature Article - April 2022
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In the Know

Discovering Best Aquatic Maintenance Practices

By Kelli Ra Anderson

Aquatic facility managers and operators wear a lot of hats. On any given day they may be called on to be an electrician, plumber, accountant, custodian, chemist or mechanic—just to name a few. While maintaining an aquatic facility is undeniably complex, many successful operators and directors will tell you that at its core, it boils down to one thing: good training, which comes from certification, the hard knocks of experience, relentless curiosity about how to do things better, and regularly accessing shared knowledge from those in the industry.

"Getting the right training for people who know how to work all the new technology on a daily basis is critical these days," said Paul David Morgan, aquatics recreation supervisor for Parks and Recreation in Denton, Texas, and Certified Pool Operator (CPO) trainer. "A lot of us are the boots on the ground and are mechanical ourselves, but training people is critical. You have to know how to inspire and empower your people-explain why things work the way they do, and not just what to do."

Morgan, who has been doing this work and training others in aquatic maintenance for more than 30 years, observed that while many newer people coming to pool and facility management positions have graduate and college degrees, many lack mechanical knowledge. "They find themselves in positions as new supervisors for a city and don't know how to do mechanical things," he explained. "They need to be trained, and they need to train their team if they have one. That's a big part of maintenance."

Lifeguards, Maintenance Naturals

Some of the most perfectly suited staffers for maintenance training are head or lead lifeguards. These built-in assets are often ideal because their consistent presence makes them naturally familiar with the sights, sounds and smells of an aquatic space, easily able to notice when something is "off." A few proactive moments spent investigating an odd mechanical sound or strange odor thanks to the observations of a well-trained staffer is clearly better than losing thousands of dollars in a reactive emergency shutdown.

"Even if I can't be there," said Brad Jasinski, aquatics facility coordinator and CPO for four Beacon Health and Fitness Centers around Elkhart, Ind., "the lifeguards get there each morning, they go to the pump room and note if there is anything out of the norm—water on the floors, doors open, unusual noises—the same people go in each pump room each day and around the pool to have eyes on and use a checklist with a clipboard with initials so we know who has been in the pump room every morning and evening."

Trained well, employees can do far more than just routine checks. "We just won an international award, but we don't have a pool tech," confessed Rachael Arroyo, CPRP, recreation superintendent of the Farmers Branch Aquatic Center in Farmers Branch, Texas. "I can't be in all the time so we have head staff and head guards in there checking values and readouts. We take them through several trainings so they know how to change out values, backwash, how to switch in and out various safety precautions and are hands-on most things. The management side comes in with the pump room. (Anything extreme, we handle.) And biannual assessments that need to be done are by management. But daily, weekly, monthly, it's the head guards and management together. We get all of our head guards CPO and AFO (aquatics facility operator) certified and invest in updating them."

Get Certified

The very first step (and many will argue, the most important) in acquiring maintenance and safety know-how will come as no surprise. "In my mind, the main thing is education and certification," said Craig Sears, president of Sears Pool Management out of Atlanta, Ga., a pool management servicing company overseeing maintenance of more than 200 private, municipal and commercial pools. "There's been huge strides forward to bring instruction online, but despite that, there's been a drop off in enrollment. It's a little frustrating as an aquatic professional that, while most require a CPO certification in their codes, enforcement is weak."

Instead, he said, people doing the day-to-day are not certifiably trained and therefore run a greater risk of not adequately maintaining their pools. And while a majority (86.8%) of the 500 respondents to the latest Recreation Management Aquatic Trends Report said someone at their facility is certified in aquatic management, this number is down from 2020, confirming the reduction that Sears has also observed.

"The biggest hindrances to certification for many facilities is time, cost and distance to a class," said Lauren Broom, educational consultant with Space Coast Pool School in Palm Bay, Fla. Broom, who is also a Certified Pool Operator Instructor, is sympathetic to the challenges of understaffed, tight-budgeted facilities. She is hopeful the improvements in virtual training will help. "Although not every state allows virtual training for certification, there should be more people getting certified if travel were the problem. It's one less hindrance for some."

Of course, budgeting is easier said than done these days. Tighter budgets and staff shortages were cited in the Aquatic Survey as the top two concerns for respondents, but some have found some work-around solutions. In Illinois where a minimum of one CPO is required to be personally present at all times, Nanette Johnson, aquatic specialist with the Salvation Army Kroc Center in Quincy, has been creative.

"If you are struggling financially, try giving a CPO a room for free to do the training in your facility, and they might give you a discount. We gave one of our fitness rooms to a CPO guy for free, and it worked out great." And for others, certification is simply a non-negotiable priority that, relative to other larger expenses, is affordable enough and important enough to always make the yearly budget.