Keeping Up Appearances

Good housekeeping and maintenance strategies for aquatic centers and other rec facilities

By Kelli Anderson


No matter what your mother told you, looks matter—at least in the business of running a recreation facility. If things are allowed to become tattered, faded or coated with a grimy film of dust and mystery-goo, patrons will not have much trouble assuming that the cleanliness of the water is questionable as well.

"Housekeeping kills us," says Wally James, president of Con-Serv Associates of Atlanta. "It sure makes our guests wonder if we're really staying on top of things. If the facility isn't clean, I'm going to wonder whether or not the water is clean."

And in the case of an aquatic facility, not keeping up with housekeeping is not only bad for appearances, it's just plain bad business.

Just as with people, the strategy for keeping a facility trim and sparkling is both a mixture of daily diligence combined with periodic dramatic do-overs: kind of a regular fitness routine meets tummy-tuck. With some well-planned effort applied by the right people at the right time and in the right way, your facility could virtually lie about its age year after year after year. Honest.

Water and Pools 101

When it comes to the aquatic industry's hub for useful information, the near-50 year-old National Spa and Pool Institute (NSPI) is an excellent resource. The association has more than 5,300 national and international trade connections with 81 chapters in 11 regions and boasts its sponsorship of the world's largest international trade show in the industry.

With the broad-based help of the NSPI, everything from learning about industry standards and construction practices, obtaining certification in technical/business disciplines for pool and spa builders to having access to latest market research and retail/service companies is at a member's disposal.

For more information about the National Spa and Pool Institute, visit or call 800-323-3996.

Another source to turn to for info on water quality, pool material choices or virtually anything related to the aquatic industry, Alison Osinski, Ph.D., owner of Aquatic Consulting Services in San Diego is pretty much the Queen of All Things Wet.

If you are trying to decide between using the currently popular carbon dioxide or the more traditional muriatic acid in balancing pH, between bromine or chlorine as a sanitizer, or evaluating the everlasting virtues of tile over the various attributes of fiberglass, Osinski's Web page and more than 120 books on answers to your aquatic questions are valuable resources.

For more information, visit

An ounce of prevention

Probably the most common and damaging mistake facilities make is in the area of regular maintenance, especially in the natatorium.

"People wait until things get critical before they fix them," says Mark Basnight, 15-year aquatic coordinator for the City of Chula Vista, Calif.

It is vital to be proactive and to have a preventative maintenance plan, ideally from day one. But even with an older, established facility, it's never too late to start. From regular water testing to systems checks to wiping down the stainless steel, all surfaces and equipment need regularly scheduled attention. Seat-of-the-pants repairs and corrections ultimately take longer and cost more in both money and lost patrons.

Water is a good case in point. When water quality becomes neglected, everything from filtration systems to pool and natatorium surfaces begins to fail. If water is not tested properly and regularly by trained staff who know how to evaluate and counteract (if needed) the various water elements of pH, total alkalinity, total dissolved solids (TDS), temperature and calcium hardness, then disaster akin to the 10 plagues is sure to follow: Surfaces will stain; plaster will peel; tiles will pop off; water will develop algae or grow cloudy; metals will rust; filters will clog; the environment will become irritating to eyes, skin and noses of patrons—you get the idea.

One such nasty culprit is combined chlorine, or chloramine (a free chlorine molecule that attaches itself to a nitrogen- or ammonia-containing compound that can no longer sanitize the water).

"The odor that you smell when you walk into a natatorium is usually caused by chloramines—patrons think the smell indicates excessive chlorine in the water, but that is usually not the case," explains Bob Banker, project manager at Counsilman/Hunsaker and Associates of St. Louis. Banker is well acquainted with the results of poor long-term maintenance. "Chloramines are very aggressive when they become airborne and attack the ferrous metals in the natatorium. For example, if stainless steel in the natatorium is not properly cared for, chloramines will cause pit corrosion and ultimately 'rust' the stainless steel."

Check and Double-Check
Top: Needless damage is done when this pump was improperly installed and seldom, if ever, cleaned. Pumps need to be bolted securely to a poured concrete base and shock pad and regularly cleaned to prevent corrosion. Above left: Plaster stains such as this one are often caused by improper chemical maintenance: pouring into the water too fast, adding them through the heating system or not paying attention to correct water balance, to name a few. Above right: Nip it in the bud: Corrosion of this scale, caused from rebar improperly installed or exposed from pool surfacing damage, should have been dealt with when at the size of a pin-prick.

Checklists are a simple and time-honored way to organize and address all sorts of maintenance issues. Not to mention, completed checklists are also good to keep on file in case of an incident or, of course, to spot trouble before it happens and prevent it efficiently.

While any facility should create its own customized set of checklists, here are some basic topics to cover:

  • Safety inspection areas (weekly, daily, hourly, etc.)
    For example: locker rooms and showers, sinks and toilets, decks and entrances, ladders, drains, pipes, diving boards, slides, lifeguard stands, deck chairs, ropes and floats, pool bottom and sides, signage, lights, hot tubs, beaches, docks.
  • Rescue equipment and first-aid supplies
  • Maintenance tasks (before opening, during operating hours, at closing)
  • Water quality and testing, temperature, pool chemistry, and filtration documentation
  • Chemical and electrical safety issues
  • Staff training
  • Emergency procedures

At the City of Westminster, Colo.,the right
maintenance strategies require constant
attention and effort, all year round.

Knowing when to test water, when to change it out and how to treat it varies greatly depending on the volume of water, the average bather load, and conditions with spray and splash, to name a few. Waterparks, for example, require a great deal more frequent testing of filtration systems, pumps and water quality than your basic recreation facility pool.

Ultimately, having qualified, certified professionals in charge of water quality is essential to aquatic maintenance. However, the tendency is to tack these vital responsibilities onto the job duties of those hired for other positions.

"Basically, lifeguards are not mechanics and they do not belong in the pump room—period," Basnight says of one common mistake. Having a staff person educated as a Certified Pool Operator (CPO), Aquatics Facility Operator (AFO) or pool operator with the YMCA is one way to optimize your chances of getting the right person for the job.

Perhaps the least popular—and therefore most often neglected—maintenance task that can make such an important contribution to the quality of a facility is none other than housekeeping. Their attention to detail not only makes the difference visually but also contributes significantly to the longevity of equipment.

"You really need a team of people devoted to that task," says Gavin Attwood, Apex Center manager in Arvada, Colo. "It's often tagged onto someone's task and it immediately becomes the least popular job—there is a lack of ownership as to who should be doing it."

Transforming this unpopular stepchild of maintenance into royalty takes some intentional effort. At Apex, for example, its team is called the "hospitality crew," demonstrating an insight that "what's in a name?" matters. It is essential that these teams be made to know they are valuable and that the quality of their work is very important. Inclusion in team meetings and recognition for their contribution leads to high esteem and pride in their work.

Check it out

Whether it's a hospitality crew, the pool engineer or the pump crew, having set routines with checklists is the way to ensure everything that needs to be done is actually getting done. Checklists work both for the daily routine as well as for the once-a-year makeovers (more on that to come).

Good maintenance comes from good teamwork,
like at this Life Time Fitness facility.

Checklists are also the ideal format for translating operations and maintenance manual recommendations into the needed schedules that keep facility components looking and operating at their best. According to Alison Osinski, Ph.D., and owner of Aquatic Consulting Services in San Diego, this kind of attention to component care is frequently overlooked and neglected, leading to needless corrosion and costly repairs. Having a clear chain-of-command to oversee all those checklists is a must.

"People from different departments don't work with each other, they don't talk to each other," Dr. Osinski says. "Somebody should be in charge and should receive a weekly summary of what's going on. There should be daily operating procedures and checklists that should be checked off as they're completed and then signed off by a supervisor who is ensuring that these things were done satisfactorily."

Making sure that communication is flowing in all directions and that someone is ultimately at the top who can understand what's being said will keep major maintenance gaps from occurring.


So you've got good people, you've got a plan in place that has assessed, scheduled and checklisted all facility maintenance needs from keeping windows washed to regular checks of TDSs. But nothing lasts forever. For many facilities, an annual shutdown has become the much anticipated makeover that dramatically washes away the signs of wear and tear and causes patrons upon reentry to give a big-eyed "Wow!"

The Margaret W. Carpenter Center
in Thornton, Colo.

Just as with the daily checklists, an annual checklist should be compiled of the various bigger-project needs that are best accomplished during shutdown. Some advocate a year-long monthly walk-through to compile this list, while others recommend meetings with staff that begin at least six months prior to shutdown to come up with project ideas.

"We close down for one week," says Gina Barton, recreation supervisor for the City of Westminister, Colo., a three-time winner of the National Aquatics Award. "We do an assessment—walk-throughs—well before and check everything out from head-to-toe to know what might be done during that maintenance week. You really have to plan ahead, especially the older you get with things like regrouting."

All practitioners of the shutdown, however, usually have a standard list of to-do's that they always observe. Big projects, or small, their objective is the same: to look like new or better-than-ever when the doors reopen.

"We refinish floors, drain the pools, repaint the high-traffic areas and locker rooms, add new equipment, clean up and reevaluate all the signage, pull out the sand filters—we do a lot of work," says Jan van der Sanden, recreation program and facility supervisor of the Margaret W. Carpenter Center in Thornton, Colo. It's an all-out effort to remain looking as close to new as possible. When a reopened facility looks so good, it makes the wait for the patrons worth it.

That same goal is labeled by Basnight as the "Fishbowl Effect."

"Fishbowl Effect is having a high public perception of a facility when they walk in," Basnight says. "I make sure that when people come back they notice what we did."

And those changes can be as simple as making over the bulletin boards and changing the paint and curtains in the locker rooms. Since larger maintenance projects like overhauling the HVAC or changing the sand filters goes unnoticed by the general public, it's important to have visible improvements that show off what a shutdown can do for the public's own benefit.

Pooled Wisdom
From checking and inspecting to cleaning and repairing, staff members perform the wide variety of aquatic maintenance tasks at the Loma Verde Pool in Chula Vista, Calif.

When looking for guru-like wisdom about good maintenance strategies from those who've "been there, done that," there are several ways to go. And finding someone who's been in the industry a long time isn't necessarily the best qualification.

"You have to ask yourself, does my supervisor or manager have 20 years experience—or one-year experience, 20 times?" asks Wally James, president of Con-Serv Associates in Atlanta.

Going to seminars is certainly a good place to start with the added insight from James that it can be the sharing of information in the halls between managers that can be even more helpful than what's spoken from the podium.

Another resource of pooled wisdom can be found at the Recreation Facilities Design and Management School in Denver where experienced professionals make themselves and their knowledge available once a year to a national and international audience wanting to learn more about everything from design methods to maintaining that well-designed facility into the years ahead.

For more information or to request for a brochure about the school, contact:

Gina Barton 303-460-9690 x215 or

Tiffany Harmon 303-814-7448 or

Colorado Parks and Recreation Association 303-231-0943 or visit

Gimme a break
In Westminster, Colo., the
assistant aquatics manager
conducts a routine check of the
ozone system.

Then there's just the benefits of giving the systems and the staff a break. While major changes like carpet replacement or replastering a pool surface take place, a shutdown period gives an opportunity for staff to schedule a vacation, to let their hair down and work together in their grubbies, or to work without the cumbersome hazard concerns that trying to work around patrons can raise.

Although annual shutdowns have their advantages, there are the very real concerns of loss of revenue during that period and the worry that patrons will be too inconvenienced. When possible, shutting down separate systems to do regular maintenance while letting the rest of the facility function is certainly a good thing.

"Some facilities will prefer to do it in phases," Barton acknowledges, "but when we've done it, it's not as effective. We annually resurface our gym floors, which are oil-based, and it causes a lot of fumes and smells— we had a catastrophe one year with a wedding reception when there was a miscommunication."

However, she does know of some facilities that offset the inconvenience to patrons by teaming up and trading off pool usage with another facility in the city or even in a neighboring city.

To help fund the shutdown, it is also essential to budget for it and to have a capital expenditures plan.

"Particularly as a facility gets older," Barton says, "it's one of those things you can plan for in your 10-year capital plan and estimate when this piece of equipment needs to go or when you need to change out water."

As to how long and when a shutdown should occur, it is usually the slowest season that wins the draw, and the duration varies according the level of maintenance needed—as few as two days to a more lengthy two weeks. Facilities try to keep the shutdown time roughly the same each year with additional time added only for bigger once-in-a-while projects like regrouting.

For a 10-year-old fitness facility organization like Life Time Fitness, which has been hitting the market like gangbusters, having an operational plan that includes a faithfully followed maintenance plan helps to keep their facilities unique in the industry.

"We pride ourselves on paying attention to the details," says Mark Brown, senior vice president of operations at corporate headquarters of Life Time Fitness in Eden Prairie, Minn. "How we maintain these facilities is absolutely critical, and it's the people that make the difference."

Tips of the Trade

Veterans in the maintenance wars and those who are still in the trenches can offer up a lot of tips and savvy shortcuts to make the maintenance battle a little less painful for staff and less disruptive for guests. Here's just a sample:

Hire out Contract out big projects like repainting instead of trying to strong-arm an unwilling front-desk staff. Chances are, they won't be happy doing the job, and you won't be happy with the job they do.

Color code Keep the number of colors used in the facility manageable (read: few) and keep track of what colors have been used where. When it comes time to touchup or add a new coat of paint, it'll be easier to match the right color to the right area.

Double-up Whenever possible, double-up on system pumps and materials to keep in reserve for those inevitable times when something breaks or shuts down. Having extra parts on hand saves time in sending out for repairs and keeps system shutdown time minimal.

Plan ahead Do an evaluation of the likely life-span of a material or system and plan to have replacement parts on-hand or to have money set aside for those eventual repairs or replacements.

Schmooze Keep learning about what's happening in the industry and from the successes and especially the mistakes of others.

Copy Cat If you're a municipal facility, pay attention to the kinds of pumps and systems used in other parts of the city—it'll save the pump, HVAC or other crews from having to learn multiple systems, it'll save time and money in stocking identical system parts for repairs and (sometimes) the systems may be an improvement over an industry standard as the City of Chula Vista discovered: The brand of pumps used throughout the city are a self-priming variety, and when they were installed for the pools (as opposed to the industry's turbine pumps normally used), they did not require the usual pump pits or necessitate cutting holes in the ceiling for installation.

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