Special Supplement: A Complete Guide to Aquatic Centers

Just Add Water

By Kelli Anderson

The basic ingredients for any good aquatic center may be design, maintenance, programming and safety, but as any great cook will tell you, a dish is only as good as the quality of its ingredients. Shortchange any one of them, and you end up with a poor product. Choose your ingredients wisely, and even the most ordinary dish becomes superb.


For aquatic centers—the recreational darlings of an American population always clamoring for more—size and age do not necessarily determine popularity or success. Attention to detail, from the very beginning, however, does.


Good design comes from plans and ideas derived from users, staff and reputable designers with a proven track record. Developing a theme for that overall design is one effective way to create a memorable identity with the community.

Sources for a theme can come from just about anywhere your imagination can take you—animals, nautical, fantasy, local iconic features, geographical regions, historical landmarks or ethnic heritage, to name a few.

Whether from the excitement of a treasured pirate cove to the feel-good roots of North-Woods-rustic, themes can corral facility design ideas into a unified whole. Signage, names of concession items, colors, aquatic features, programming choices, landscaping and staff uniforms all can become extensions of a themed design and really help a facility standout.


Good design also incorporates good flow. Louder areas of a natatorium filled with squeals and screams from thrill-rides should be designated to be a good distance away from areas where more leisurely users congregate—decks, lounge areas, whirlpools and lazy rivers. The challenge is to also provide layouts that allow caregivers to keep track of children with plenty of seating and views around the action.


For many facilities, good design also requires planning for multiple use. Although studies have shown that greater amounts of recreational use provide greater monetary returns (which increase recovery costs of construction, reduce subsidy rates and increase revenues), aquatic centers should not ignore the need to accommodate lap swimmers and competitive users.

In an ideal situation (read: healthy budget), aquatic centers can plan for multiple pools designated for around-the-clock recreational activity, lessons, competitive use and rentals for parties. With multiple pools, there are many obvious advantages. Revenue-producing recreation can continue without interruption, special-event rentals can be relegated to a portion of the facility instead of requiring a complete shutdown, and even repairs of these separate systems can be done without having to inconvenience all the users.

If budgets won't budge, however, or if expanding an existing facility is not an option, there are some modest and creative ways to design for multiple use. Recreational features like water slides with separate run-outs are a great solution to a multitasking dilemma. They don't take up much additional space, are relatively affordable and allow some recreational activity to continue while other programming takes place.

Swim-in-place systems for lap swimmers are another way to add a lap-lane element to your facility when space is a premium. For the DesPeres Community Center in St. Louis, the wave pool was designed to change into a lap pool with the flip of a switch. Depending on what elements your users want most will determine how much space and how many elements you will need to take into consideration.


Swabbing the deck, a task relegated to some unlucky yeoman in many a Hollywood film, is alive and well in today's aquatic centers. In the war against waterborne illnesses, properly disinfecting and cleaning pool decks is a first line of defense.

Regular cleaning and disinfecting regimens not only will prevent the spread of disease but also will keep deck surfaces from getting slippery from biofilm growth. Think: liability prevention 101.

How to clean deck surfaces will vary, obviously, according to type of material and manufacturer's instructions. For very large areas, commercial steam cleaning systems may be in order, especially as cleaning and disinfecting by hand would take far too long.

However, in smaller facilities, dirt, grease and scum can be cleaned effectively with a stiff brush and nonabrasive and eco-friendly cleaning solutions. (Check with the distributor for recommendations and to be sure the cleanser will not harm pool water in the event any gets into the pool).

Making your own cleaning and disinfecting solutions can be a great cost-saving alternative. Check with an aquatic consultant for full instructions. Such "homemade" solutions can be applied to the deck with a garden hose or hardware-store-variety air-pressure sprayer. After a thorough rinsing with fresh water and a high-pressure washer or nozzle, bacteria and pathogens should be gone.


Design should take into account all the senses—sight, smell, touch, taste and hearing. For indoor pools, air-quality probably tops the list of sensory concerns.

For the enclosed facility, HVAC systems, and competent maintenance staff to go with them, are a fresh-air must. HVACs should be included with the initial design of the facility to ensure that ductwork is properly positioned. Chlorine gasses, heavier than air, hover above pool water and are most effectively removed by ducts placed at ground level.

As any aquatic center manager knows, enclosed facilities fight a constant battle of humidity and chlorine-induced corrosion. Regulating air quality is essential to keeping clients comfortable and surfaces free of rust and costly maintenance headaches.

"The importance of air quality for indoor aquatic facilities can't be over emphasized," says Chris Stuart, director of aquatics and corporate safety director for the Great Wolf Lodge in Williamsburg, Va. "You have to have proper ventilation—it's probably the biggest indoor issue."

The air purging system used by the Great Wolf Lodge facility is controlled by the touch of a button and can purge the building's air within minutes. According to Stuart, the system was used successfully several times during the facility's first summer of operation this past year.

For facilities looking for the temperature control of the great indoors but without all the air-quality issues that come with it, natatoriums with clear-panel, retractable roofs are another good solution.

Letting the bad air literally "go through the roof" can be a much cheaper way to regulate the air quality of an essentially indoor pool. In addition, it also adds the sun's natural ability to break down chlorine to the manager's arsenal of chloramine-fighting weapons.

For warm climates, cooling systems can be aided by the insulating properties of large-pane polycarbonate. For seasonal climates, clear-panel roofing systems allow HVAC systems to operate only a portion of the year. In both scenarios, facilities can see a significant HVAC-system savings in both monthly utility bills and in maintenance costs.

Enclosed pools also have the advantage of creating a year-round swimming season—a real boon to areas where climates become either oppressively hot or too cold. Increased revenues from year-round use and expanded programming usually will more than cover the initial investment of enclosing a pool.

Although not permanent, an inflatable dome, which usually lasts about 10 years, is another enclosure option that may also give a community the programming and year-round revenue-building power to eventually consider a more permanent enclosure solution.


Concessions have become a basic expectation of most pool patrons, and if done well, can be a bountiful source of revenue. Here are a few tips of culinary wisdom to help you make the most of this booming attraction:

1. Less is more manageable. Keep your menu to a reasonable size—20 items or less is a good, general rule.

2. Make sure you offer some healthy choices on the menu.

3. Select food items that are fast/prepackaged, taste good and profitable (such as juice or water).

4. Offer some brand names to take advantage of their loyal following.

5. Pay attention to trendy items appealing to the younger crowds.

6. Price carefully—ingredients or menu items should only be 30 percent of the selling price. Price too high and items won't sell. Mid-range is usually a safe bet.

7. Don't sell anything for under a $1.

8. Make your managing presence known often—especially with inexperienced or young employees.

9. Even if a full-range concession is not an option, coffeehouse-style gathering spaces and beverages are a very popular alternative.

10. Stay ahead of popular item orders—make ahead to anticipate the lunch-crunch and keep lines down.



In any case, enclosed pools, whether crystal palaces, brick and mortar, or rising like a bubble on the landscape, all provide a marketing advantage—they're visible.

It helps if being visible also includes looking good.

"To look good is to feel good," a piece of comic wisdom à la Billy Crystal, apparently holds true for buildings as well as people. Designing an aquatic facility that looks good can translate into client's feeling good about coming back. It also can work as built-in marketing for your aquatic programs.

Paying attention to the color scheme, quality and variety of lighting elements, landscaping both indoors and out, and finishing materials (touches of wood, stone or steel, to name a few) will provide effective eye-candy even if used sparingly. In all these elements, consistency to create a cohesive look and good placement will more than make up for quantity.


Making a good impression also means putting a lot of emphasis and design energy into the entrance and changing areas. Whether installing a striking reception desk or check-in counter with drop-pendant lighting or just hiding clutter with a colorful band of cloth from a hanging banner, paying attention to what your clients perceive at the beginning of their aquatic experience is thoughtful planning time and money well spent.

Changing areas, often a budgetary afterthought, actually can be the space where aquatic centers separate the proverbial men from the boys, so to speak. If glass tile, multiple showerheads and spa-like amenities are part of the parting experience, clients are sure to notice, appreciate and return.

Even if upscale is not in your budget, there's nothing to keep a facility from considering the atmospheric effects of up lighting, well-placed plants, or creative and colorful textured flooring. Add family changing areas with roomier grooming spaces, enlarged lockers, and private rooms with a toilet, sink and shower stall for family users or those with special needs like the elderly, and you'll create long-term devotees.

It's no secret that changing areas, shower areas and restrooms can be challenging spaces. They must be designed to withstand the harsh, waterlogging environment and stand up to heavy use—all while looking good and staying clean. Choosing elements that are durable, bacteria-resistant and easy to maintain will help make this intimate environment a comfortable and attractive one.


Starting from the bottom, flooring choices need to take slip-resistance, bacteria-resistance and comfort into account. Textured cement floors, for example, can look good with an infinite variety of staining and integral color choices and be easy to clean with a hose. Epoxy coatings can add a splash of color as well as a bacteria-resistant factor.

Tiled floors, an attractive and durable choice, also can clean up well, especially if walls are coved, and grout is sealed properly to resist stains. Bacteria-resistant floor mats can go anywhere, making a more comfortable choice especially in shower areas, whereas even shorter-lived but comfy carpets designed for pool environments are great for dryer (read: not-so-squishy) changing or grooming areas.


Sinks, lockers and toilet partitions also need to be selected based on durability, design and, of course, cost. But choosing basic and durable materials doesn't have to be institutional. Adding amenities such as suit dryers, hair dryers, and dispensers of shampoos and soaps along with attention to service-oriented details like efficient towel supplies will help users feel well cared for. This is especially true when the environment is kept clean and clear of debris.


Increasingly, recreational water illnesses (RWIs) have taken center stage as hard-to-kill pathogens like cryptosporidium (crypto) or giardia make outbreak headlines.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), disinfecting agents like chlorine or bromine kill most RWI germs in less than an hour. However, pathogens like crypto or giardia, notorious bad-boys of the pathogen lineup, survive much longer in disinfected water—long enough even to spread their ill-effects in well-maintained pools.

Aquatic centers and facilities are discovering the advantages, however, of introducing the pathogen-fighting properties of ultra-violet (UV) light and ozonation systems (some methods of which also use UV light in the creation of ozone) that can disinfect pools and remove organic and inorganic contaminants thousands of times faster than traditional chemical treatments alone.

Ozonation, a system of water treatment that dates back almost 200 years, uses two common methods to produce on-site ozone. If properly calibrated to the needs of each specific pool to ensure that the correct contact time with and concentration of ozone is in the water, ozonation is not only effective against pathogens but also acts as a coagulant. In combining with contaminants, ozonation makes unwanted elements larger and thereby easier to filter out.

Ozonation and UV systems also have the ability to reduce the formation of chloramines, the highly-corrosive, tissue-aggravating, smelly scourge of the chlorinated pool. Chloramines have less chance to form when the concentration of chlorine is significantly reduced (up to 50 percent) by the addition of ozonation and UV systems. Not a bad cost savings, either.

However, UV systems, in addition to reducing the need for chlorine, also fight chloramines by breaking them down into more harmless components of nitrogen, carbon dioxide and chloride.

Touted benefits even include the claim of faster swim times for competitive swimmers for those who use ozonated water, while UV system fans will rave about the ease of use, affordable cost and resulting ultra-clear, sparkling qualities of water treated with UV light.

First and foremost, however, these systems are growing in popularity thanks to their abilities to fight pathogens and improve recreational water. Although experts will differ on what system is best, depending on factors of use, kinds of systems already in place and specific needs being addressed, the advantages these microbial technologies offer in public health and facility benefits are worth noting.


The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, www.cdc.gov/healthyswimming

The National Swimming Pool Foundation, www.nspf.org

The National Spa and Pool Institute, www.nspi.org


The International Ultraviolet Association, www.iuva.org

Aquatic Consulting Services, www.alisonosinski.com/pdf/pool_tip_54.pdf


The visual impact of an aquatic center—both outside and inside—acts much like the appetizer before a good meal. It builds the anticipation for the rest of the patron's experience. When so much energy, time and money go into creating an aquatic facility, it makes sense that keeping it in top form becomes a top priority.

Maintenance strategies, especially proactive ones, will not only save the day but save money in the long run, as well. For some managers, proactive planning is a natural byproduct of a detail-oriented personality. For others, it is a matter of sheer discipline.


When the Great Wolf Lodge in Williamsburg, Va., opened its doors for the first time to its expectant public this past April, planners made sure they got at least two things right: a great HVAC system to provide clean, fresh air and an efficient, effective filtration system to provide clean and clear water.

"The most important thing is to have a properly designed system to give crystal clear water," says Chris Stuart, director of aquatics and a 29-year-veteran in the industry. "The second most important factor is efficiency since water is now a precious commodity. We now have the best system I've ever had."

Thanks to the ongoing perfecting of filtration materials, systems like the one installed by Great Wolf Lodge are using more cost-efficient and environmentally safer systems. Sand and diatomaceous earth (DE) filters, longtime industry standards, are now joined by new comers like biodegradable DE products and zeolite.

With the many choices of filtration materials, system designs and sizes, the best place for any aquatic center project to start is with professional input from those who make it their business to know—pool consultants. When a system can potentially last upward of 40 years or more, time and money invested in the design process will be rewarded with long-term performance, ease of operation and life-cycle costs.

An 8-to-10-year replacement is an expensive and unnecessary result you want to avoid. Be sure to verify that the ultimate choice of a filtration system currently is listed for public pool use by the National Sanitation Foundation (NSF).

When selecting the right system, many factors come into play including bather load, pool type, temperature, size and location. These variables will determine the size of the system and the rate of turnover needed to keep water clean, clear and safe for users. Most states have guidelines for turnover rates, but few have guidelines strict enough to satisfy responsible aquatic managers.

"With waterparks—especially indoors—we exceed turnover rates," Stuart says. "For us, it's one hour and our kiddie pools are every 20 minutes. In many states it's six hours, but with waterborne pathogens, we need to exceed that."

The sparkling results say it all.


First steps for good maintenance include an effective inspection and evaluation process followed by workload cost tracking to formulate accurate budgeting forecasting for needed upkeep and replacement costs. Gathering information on the condition and status of your aquatic facility involves developing an inspection program that includes input from customers and especially the oft-neglected staff.

Surveys of customers, hourly pool checks, daily walkabouts, and following manufacturer's guidelines for inspections and treatments of the HVAC or filtration systems should be part of the calendar schedule. Resulting information should culminate in an annual evaluation to measure successes and determine which areas need to be addressed or improved.


Once a standard has been determined at which the facility needs to be kept to everyone's satisfaction, costs associated with that standard need to be calculated. Enter workload cost tracking, an invaluable tool no facility manager should be without.

By understanding and putting on paper the costs associated with regular maintenance upkeep as well as eventual larger maintenance costs of repair and replacement, workload cost tracking enables the manager to create a realistic budget that maintains and forecasts for rainy-day eventualities. And remember, maintenance costs need to include man-hours as well as equipment use and supplies in order to develop an all-encompassing maintenance plan.

Another essential component of the proactive approach to maintenance also involves goal-setting. Having goals enables managers to set priorities to know which maintenance needs must be addressed first if push comes to shove. Obviously, safety is the first priority.


Checklists, certified and well-chosen staff, good equipment, and attention to detail are yet more invaluable components of maintenance done right. Good communication to ensure that nothing is falling between the gaps is what makes it all possible.

According to Alison Osinski, Ph.D., owner of Aquatic consulting Services in San Diego, having a point-person to confirm that weekly duties are being performed via checklists and that daily operating procedures are being followed are vital to a good maintenance operation.

Checklists should be used for every job, ranging from housekeeping duties of restroom attendants to hourly water checks. Checklists also should be used for the annual maintenance events that are determined by the monthly walk-throughs and staff meetings.


Even if all maintenance duties are performed like clockwork, no materials last forever. Eventual replacements and an industrial-sized "spring cleaning" are a given. For many facilities, these big jobs are best tackled with an annual shutdown makeover.

Although some annual jobs are routine, such as draining the pools, other maintenance projects (like replacing worn-out carpeting, resurfacing deteriorating decks, and repairing or renovating aging pool surfaces) are ideal for this once-a-year, patron-less opportunity. And when the doors reopen, be sure to have included projects the patrons will be sure to notice and admire.


When the time comes to replace or repair a pool surface, several considerations need to be taken into account before making that final decision. Leaks can be patched only for so long before resurfacing becomes necessary. Some pools can be sandblasted, resurfaced with tile or painted with epoxy to address needs.

Concrete, of course, is very durable but can expand and crack over time. Tile, one of the more expensive and beautiful options, will require regrouting every 10 to 20 years. Plaster, also a very traditional choice, requires patching after about 10 years and creates sediment as the surface wears away. Fiberglass, a more affordable material in the short-term and which cleans easily, is not typically as durable and may not perform well in colder climates. New pool liners are also a viable option.

When it came time for the competitive, Olympic-size pool at Oklahoma Community College (host of the NCAA Mountain West Conference) to be resurfaced, several key considerations went into the surfacing selection process. Among those criteria were a long warranty and more comfortable surface to eliminate foot injuries caused by a rough-textured pool bottom.

"We started with an Olympic, plaster pool that we've had 14 years; even with the best of care, it was 10 years before we were patching," says Gary Belcher, building maintenance operations supervisor with the college. "It came down to longevity, money, ease of cleaning, algae-resistance and comfortable surface texture. We got a PVC membrane. It took 10 days to do it, they adhered it to the surface, and we got a 25-year warranty. It's really nice."


No matter the surfacing material of your pool, there's no substitute for good maintenance practices, the result of dedicated staff plus solid teamwork. Valuing maintenance staff appropriately with a team-building approach will communicate respect and result in greater effectiveness and pride of work. If skills are valued and input is asked for, staff members will respond with professionalism—they generally rise to the level at which they are treated.

Be on a first-name basis and do lunch from time to time with those who take care of your building. Managers who do, like Jeff Walter, assistant director at McLane Student Life Center of Baylor University in Waco, Texas, will tell you it's one of the best things a manager can do.


When it comes to water-quality control, staff members need to be ever vigilant.

"We have an engineer constantly on the job—looking at motors, valves, oiling—they're always on it," says Perry Kanelos, director of aquatics at Timber Ridge Lodge and Waterpark at Grand Geneva's Moose Mountain Falls in Lake Geneva, Wis. "They have to be A.F.O.- and C.P.O.-certified."

Water-quality maintenance, central to preventing corrosion from wreaking havoc on everything from stainless-steel rails to filtration systems, must be handled by those who know how to control it. Veterans will tell you that even with today's automated systems, checking pool samples by hand is still a fail-safe way to ensure all systems are go. Only trained staff can know how to evaluate and treat the complexities of ph, total alkalinity, total dissolved solids, temperature and calcium hardness.


Another essential staffing choice is in the area of safety—lifeguards. With the safety of patrons a paramount responsibility, it remains a surprising fact, based on reports of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), that even where required, about one in four operators do not have proper training. Certified, well-trained lifeguards are assets every public aquatic center should not be without.

Although certification differs depending on the type of aquatic facility, with waterparks often using Ellis & Associates, municipal pools using the American Red Cross, or agencies using the YMCA, principles of practice and evaluation are very similar.

"We use Ellis & Associates for our training program," Stuart says. "We have to meet the 10/20 rule where our lifeguards see if they can see the problem in 10 seconds and get to the zone in 20." Zones, areas patrolled by a lifeguard, are determined by whether staff can see the top and bottom of a zone and their ability to get potential victims out of the water in 30 seconds.

Because light and glare changes during the day and with the seasons, zones should be evaluated continually for line of sight.

"We have zone validation every month," Stuart says. "It changes. Glare changes. Are there few people in the park? Lots? It's an ongoing evaluation to make sure you have good protection."


Aquatic centers these days have become all things to all people, not only offering water options but expanding to include community services of all shapes and sizes.

One water facility in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., a 50-year-old industry veteran, the Jack Nelson Swim School, has expanded its safety training for children beyond water and surf.

"We wanted to reach out to the community," says Dan Vawter, head coach and marketing director of the facility. "If you can have kids interact with police officers and those involved with safety, it makes a lot of difference."

Drawing in both parents and children to learn about everything from stranger danger to drugs, the swim school is drawing in those who might not otherwise darken its doorway and equipping them with invaluable knowledge beyond water issues. It's a win-win situation. In deciding what kinds of courses to offer, however, Vawter recommends a tailored approach.

"You've got to regionalize it," Vawter explains. "Here in south Florida, water is all around, and boating is huge. In Colorado, you might want to do something about hiking. Focus on what kids are doing—we do more than just swim."

But not all children in a community can afford to attend safety classes—especially those who need it most, minority and underprivileged populations. According to the most recent statistics from 2002, 40 percent of children who die from drowning were minority children.

Factors of race, class, culture, privilege and poverty all add up to a population who's access to aquatic facilities and lessons is the most limited. In short, children from underprivileged and minority groups can't afford swim lessons and drown in disproportionate numbers because of it.

"We just realized recently that minority drownings are huge," Vawter says. "We are offering scholarships to fund kids who can't go and think other aquatic facilities can do the same—open a fund for water safety for underprivileged kids to reach inner cities. A lot of municipalities forget about that."

Diversity of kids and diversity of classes are what aquatic facilities can strive for to make the biggest positive impact on their communities. Although the following list reflects what safety classes best serve those in south Florida, many safety issues are universal:

  • Swimming Safety—water safety, water play
  • Stranger Danger—including the growing awareness of the need for Internet safety
  • Fire Safety
  • Bicycle Safety—including pedestrian, inline and skateboard safety
  • D.A.R.E—drug prevention
  • CPR Training
  • Beach Safety
  • Child-Seat Safety
  • Fingerprint Documentation
  • Boating Safety

For more information on minority drowning statistics and water safety training for children, visit the United States Swim Schools Association: www.usswimschools.org.


Good staff also requires good evaluation with an auditing system. Lifeguards should be assessed regularly for qualities like good head motion, walking their routes and watching their water. Although Ellis & Associates audits three or four times per year, Stuart audits his lifeguards even more frequently, believing that more audits and four hours of service training every month will ensure even higher quality work.

"It all comes down to watching their water," Stuart says. "With lifeguarding there's never slack time. Anything can happen at any time, so we have to be ready all the time."

At Moose Mountain Falls, Kanelos makes sure they know what can happen by showing training videos and daily reviews of CPR. Like the Great Wolf Lodge, staff members are audited frequently with various incognito methods, including the use of video cameras.

To stay in top form, lifeguards should have ongoing evaluation and training. They also must keep on the move. The Five-Minute Scanning Strategy, which teaches that lifeguards should adjust their posture or change their scanning pattern every five minutes, helps them stay alert.


In instances where it is difficult to see underwater, such as in lazy rivers obscured by inner tubes or glare from glass structures, some facilities are finding the use of underwater surveillance cameras to be a helpful solution. Although these systems are not intended to replace lifeguards, they can be valuable tools in the prevention of drowning.

According to latest statistics, minorities and underprivileged children have a 40 percent higher rate of drowning, with Native Americans ranking the highest, closely followed by African-Americans. The most common denominator in the many factors contributing to this inequity is lack of funds to pay for swimming lessons.

Some facilities, such as the Jack Nelson Swim School in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., are taking on the challenge by offering scholarships to minority or underprivileged children to help put an end to this alarming trend. Education—swim instruction—is certainly the best prevention for these drowning tragedies.

In fact, drowning is at the top of the list when it comes to safety issues, followed closely by electrocution, recreational water illness (RWI), entrapment, diving injuries, and slips and falls, all of which demand careful planning and preventative measures.


In the case of electricity, extreme caution should be taken around the pool and wet areas. Even extension poles, when being used to help a swimmer or for maintenance use, can become deadly if they come into contact with any electrical equipment near the water.

For the safest bet, radios, fans, light fixtures, televisions or any electrically powered appliances, unless approved for poolside use, should be far removed from a pool area. Nearest electrical outlets should be at a recommended minimum of 10 feet from a pool and should be protected by ground fault circuit interrupters in the event that a cord is damaged.


Entrapment—which occurs when a body part or hair gets caught in the forceful suction of a pool drain causing injury, evisceration or drowning—is another safety hazard that can be prevented easily. Drain-cover inspection should be part of a daily checklist regimen to ensure that drain covers are secure. At the first sign of a crack, deterioration or discoloration, a drain cover should be replaced immediately.

Mike Low, an educator and expert on entrapment prevention, also recommends cleaning out the skimmers and hair lint traps regularly. If blocked with debris, skimmers and traps increase suction on the drain to dangerous levels. Keeping people away from drains through signage and vigilant lifeguards provides yet another layer of protection.

Measures such as education, daily drain and trap inspections, and signage are all part-and-parcel of an effective entrapment-prevention plan. However, in the event that entrapment occurs, two other measures also are essential—emergency shut-off buttons and vacuum-release systems.

Nearby shut-off buttons certainly make a lot of sense in order to manually shut down pumps when entrapment occurs. However, many deaths and injuries occur because potential rescuers are not nearby or are unaware that there is a problem until it is too late. A vacuum-release system stops a pump as soon as it detects an increase in vacuum suction, in essence stopping entrapment in its tracks.

For more information, visit the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission at www.cpsc.gov and the National Spa and Pool Institute at www.nspi.org.


Another area that demands vigilance by both lifeguards and management is the prevention of diving accidents. Clearly visible information and markings like pool-bottom lines, depth markings and signage are vital to alert swimmers of diving conditions or prohibitions.

Changes in diving regulations by many high-school interscholastic associations from 3.5-foot depths to 8-foot depths have prompted facility managers to move starting blocks to the deep ends of their pools. For older pools where depths may not reach 8 feet, diving has been prohibited all together to avoid injuries or costly litigation.

Underscoring the diving dangers, some agencies are even more stringent, such as the American Red Cross that insists that diving should not be taught except in depths of 9 feet.

However, it is not only the depths posing a danger but also the diving methods that create the problem.

"Steering up" is a diving technique that counters the traditional diving method where arms are pulled back after entering the water, exposing the head to potential collision. Instead, steering up teaches divers to keep arms forward until the beginning of the ascent.


In June 2002, a graduation party made national headlines when the celebration turned to tragedy. The entrapment drowning of the 7-year-old granddaughter of James A. Baker, former Secretary of State, occurred when the powerful suction of a whirlpool's drain pulled the child underwater. After requiring two adults to dislodge the child, following attempts to revive her failed.

What continues to be a large factor in entrapment-related injuries and deaths more than three years later is, sadly, ignorance of the dangers—not only in the private sector but with those in commercial management, as well. Awareness is compounded by incomplete or limited data when, for example, deaths resulting from entrapment only are recorded as "drowning" on official death certificates, thereby skewing data for research on the subject.

"Probably the biggest lack of knowledge is that it happens," says Mike Low, a leading expert on entrapment education and prevention. "Obviously there hasn't been enough education on it. Unfortunately, many facility managers—especially those that have been in the industry a long time—tend to think that if nothing has happened before, nothing's going to happen now."

However, the relative ease of which people can be found with first- or second-hand knowledge of entrapment-related experiences is an indication that it is a prevalent and urgent problem. Like seat belts for cars, once thought of as a nuisance but now considered a safety must-have, safety mechanisms in pools are a common-sense precaution worth taking.

Some states now are taking action by adopting single-source code books—books used by architects to ensure that all safety codes are being addressed in a building project. It's a good start.

The following are some of the most important steps aquatic managers can take to prevent needless entrapment injuries and deaths from occurring on their watch:

  • Drain covers should be checked daily for damage and to ensure they are properly secured with 304 or 316 stainless screws.

  • Single or multi-outlets should have a safety vacuum-release system (SVRS) or a gravity drain system to stop pumps from operating if an increase in vacuum pressure is detected. An automated SVRS shuts down pumps automatically in the event that no one is nearby to assist a victim.
  • Installation of an easily accessible emergency stop button.
  • Make sure all skimmers and hair lint baskets are frequently checked and cleaned. A clogged skimmer puts more suction on the drain, which creates an unseen problem.
  • Tell all lifeguards about the dangers of drain suction. A lifeguard recently lost his own life in an entrapment-related incident.
  • Educate your public. Post signs warning children not to play around drains.

For more information about safety codes in your state, visit www.iccsafe.org.


Education, whether involving diving skills, swimming lessons or water safety, is central to aquatic center programming. And although education remains key, programming is taking on a whole new look with the addition of leisure-centered activities and even non-water related events. In short, programming is shifting toward an emphasis on entertainment. Make it fun, and they will come.

Leading the cheering section on programming-turned-entertainment, is Judith Leblein-Josephs, operations analyst at Water Technology Inc. in Wayne, N.J., who reasons that just as resorts and cruise ships gather in the crowds like a modern-day pied-piper, so too can aquatic facilities. Education doesn't have to mean boring, and it doesn't have to be limited to water.

"The goal is to entertain guests," Leblein-Josephs says. "Consider yourself as a resort where people go to be entertained."

Think: Anything a cruise ship can do, aquatic centers can do too—and even make a little money while doing it. Chair massages around the poolside can provide a welcomed moment of relaxation for a tired parent. Face-painting elicits giggles and provides colorful fun for the kids. Specialty beverage areas can replicate a coffeehouse coziness or an exotic tropical oasis.

Partnering with local businesses can add to the aquatic repertoire. Bringing in a bookstore selection of latest top-selling books and magazines to sell, having a lending library program or offering an area for a book exchange can provide poolside reading options.

And who needs to stop there? Programming can create communities of like interest: book clubs, child play groups and gardening clubs. You name it. Activities can go well beyond the boundaries of the pool. Story hours and videos can be included in the fun.

At Moose Mountain Falls, an obsolete workout space near the natatorium was converted to a movie room where daily film listings and craft activities for kids provided an additional option for aquatic visitors.

"You have to keep them busy," Kanelos says. "Activities—always have more and not all necessarily in the water. It helps."


Although it may just be a matter of time, the American's with Disabilities Act (ADA) is not law—yet. Nevertheless, aquatic centers, like the Republic Aquatic Center in Republic, Mo., which just opened last year, are being built with several access points in order to accommodate disabled users according to the two-minimum entry-point guidelines specified by the ADA.

The list of choices for pool entries to accommodate the various abilities and needs of users include chair lifts, ramping, zero-depth entries, stairs and ladders. Each system comes with its own benefits and uses.

Pool lifts, probably one of the first ADA-compliant-friendly choices that come to mind, are certainly popular, and for good reason. Some designs, such as ones well-received by the seniors living at the largest single-site retirement community in the country, are operable by one person.

"This means more than I can tell you," says David George, facility engineer of the 30-plus pools in the community. "They can sit themselves in and turn a valve to lower the lift into the water."

However, a chair-lift mechanism is usually used for the most immobilized—a small percentage of the community's population—and is only part of the access equation. There is no one-size-fits-all solution for the variety of those struggling with mobility.

Ramping is an additional way to provide pool access. And for those who can navigate them, stairs with side rails are an easier choice than ladders. These options often provide a much-desired independent and discrete means of entering and exiting a pool.

A popular aquatic feature in-and-of-itself, zero-depth entry is yet another access option for those with disabilities and was included as a secondary access point for disabled patrons at the Republic Aquatic Center.

A recent trend, however, giving rise to more heavy-duty designs for all access products is America's growing (literally) population.

"Americans are six inches taller than the last generation, hips are wider, and obesity is a national problem," says Liz Waters, company spokesperson for a pool-lift manufacturer. "That's the trend we're responding to. Public pools have to accommodate those people."


Performances and demonstrations also can bring 'em in. Fashion shows, martial-arts demonstrations and classes, and even little theater productions all can be part of the poolside offerings. Bringing in experts from the community to show off their talents and promote their organizations and businesses is a great way to get a broad range of selections.

Drawing from the skills of your employees provides yet another resource. Gardening tips or teaching the art of good time management to a population desperate to get their schedules under control are just some of the how-tos many aquatic centers can offer.

Schools of thought on successful programming may seem to differ. Some say "entertain." Some say "educate." Fun education might be the successful sum total of both. Similarly, some say

"specialize" while others say "diversify," when in fact, successful programming is the combination of both—teach to a very specific audience and teach to all audiences. It's a tall order, but it works.


If a senior retirement community is nearby, senior programs are bound to be a sure thing. If neighborhoods surround you, family programs for parents and kids will fly. If you're near a college town or bustling urban center, programs for young fitness- and socially minded singles may be a good bet.

Programs that target specific groups while offering something for every group have proven to be a winning strategy for many aquatic centers. Good programming is so vital, in fact, that when programming works, expensive bells and whistles may not necessarily have to. That's good news for facilities struggling to compete with less-than-updated designs and challenging news for facilities hoping to rely on just the latest thrill ride.


There's no doubt that one of the hottest trends in aquatic fun is a wave pool feature. Although one of the most expensive elements in the lineup of thrills, it is also one of the most popular and a surefire attraction to those in the community and even beyond.

"We have a zero-depth entry, a splash structure, therapy area, jet tub with seating areas for parents, a great floatable walk, a speed slide, floatables, water basketball, and low and high dives," says Jared Keeling, director of parks and recreation for the city of Republic, Mo., about the newly opened Republic Aquatic Center. "We also have a wave feature for surfing and body-boarding, and it gets the most attention."

The Huna, as the wave ride is known at the Republic Aquatic Center, is one of only three rides in the United States where riders actually can surf standing up and, thanks to a summer competition held in August, drew participants from as far away as Georgia.

A successful aquatic facility in this day and age is a jack-of-all-trades—providing lessons to instruct, therapy to heal, fitness to promote health and entertainment for all. Wave features, often a star attraction on the entertainment marquee, are an elements of fun that come in many forms and sizes and can either fly as a solo attraction or be added to enhance existing features.

Systems are designed to produce a variety of wave patterns, heights and osculation (frequency rates) that determine their use as a surfing and boogie-boarding feature or as a gentler element of fun. Lazy rivers, for example, with added wave elements give riders an out-of-the-ordinary thrill during their journey, while shallow areas for younger users can be equipped with gentle waves for children to chase or just lap around their feet.

Although no one element can stand alone to make an aquatic facility a success, wave features are certainly one element that stands out.


Good programming begins with good radar. Managers need to know what the community wants, where interests lie and what trends are hot. It's a good idea to be talking to customers, to take regular surveys and to pay attention to comment cards to learn what's on people's minds. It's also a good idea to see what's working for other facilities.

Make program scouting a part of your mindset—wherever you go, stop in at other clubs and facilities and check out their schedules and class descriptions for new ideas. Take continuing education courses, attend industry events and read up on the latest industry developments.

After taking the pulse of the community, taking stock of trends and then deciding to develop a particular class, there still remains the problem of communication. What do you call it? How do you get the word out that it exists?


"What's in a name?" is no idle question. Facilities often find that certain words trigger negative reactions from customers or cause confusion over whom the class is for or what it's about. Being specific helps, but sometimes it's just a matter of trial and error. For example, if the word "therapy" is used to name a warm-water exercise class for seniors, some might not think the class pertains to them because they are not in need of "therapy"—nor do they consider themselves "senior." Some bristle at such labels.

Other program names may imply a problem people do not want to be associated with—even the word "fit" in a class name can imply that suitable participants must be "unfit" or overweight and deter potential customers. Aged-based classes for middle-aged groups are a surefire miss if words like "40 and over" are used to describe this demographic reluctant to embrace their middle-child status in the aging lineup.

Conversely, some facilities have had success in selecting names people do want to be associated with such as designating a children's swim class as a "team" even when it is not about competition. Adjust as necessary. Be a mind-reader if you can.


Juggling a full programming load is yet another challenge. Prioritizing is a good place to start, with classes usually coming in first. Club teams and special requests can be accommodated beyond that. For aquatic centers with multiple pools, scheduling without interrupting recreational time—a major breadwinner—is ideal. However, if one pool is required to be all things to all people, multitasking is the next best thing.

"We divided our pool into six zones," says Jared Keeling, director of parks and recreation for Republic, Mo., of the newly opened Republic Aquatic Center. "We have splash time at the same time as aerobics and lap swim. The only thing you'd think is a problem is the sound level—but we've had no complaints."

With open hours from 1 p.m. to 9 p.m. and evenings several nights per week, the Republic Aquatic Center has multitasked its mornings with a combination of lap swims, aerobics classes and splash play. During lessons, the pool is sectioned off into four or five zones to let different skill levels learn at the same time in different depths of water.

Efficiency in the water—helping more people use lap lanes while staying out of other people's way—is another approach to maximize your programming space and time. Although it takes a little training and some clearly understood signage to teach swimmers to practice the rules of lap-lane etiquette, the rewards are well worth it.

"Just a few shared conventions—observed by everyone—can go a long way towards making lap swimming safer, more pleasant and more efficient for all," says Art Hutchinson, author of "Lap Swimming Etiquette 101," a Web site (www.cartegic.com/pooletiquette.htm) dedicated to the improvement of the lap-swim experience. When techniques and rules are understood and practiced, lap swim becomes a smooth and well-synchronized operation.

When it comes to choosing from the virtual smorgasbord of programming options, ranging from swim lessons to fitness to therapy, the choices are dizzying. Age groups, special needs and seasons of life, such as pregnancy or parenting of young children and teens, determine the purpose. Finding enthusiastic, equipped staff for a particular class or program determines the practical feasibility.


Checklists, friends or foes (depending on your penchant for detail), are tools that if handled well, prevent oversights, keep things running smoothly and provide accountability. Developing them to be as effective as possible, however, is an art in itself.

  • Good checklists always are changing. Include a comment space on checklists to allow staff to report problems. If a problem—such as running out of clean towels—continues to occur, evaluate what elements of the checklist need to be revised to help correct it.
  • Checklists are ideal for translating operations and maintenance manual recommendations into the needed schedules to keep facility components looking and operating at their best.
  • Checklists should include maintenance schedule recommendations from the manufacturers of all equipment—from slides and railings to filtration and HVAC systems.
  • Checklists should be checked off and signed off by a supervisor who is ensuring that all things are being performed satisfactorily.
  • Annual checklists can be compiled for shutdown projects by monthly walk-throughs and/or staff meetings.
  • Make sure annual shutdown maintenance checklists include projects that will get noticed by returning patrons (like a paint job) who might not otherwise be aware of the less-than-glamorous maintenance details such as drain cleaning.
  • Have a clear chain of command to oversee all checklists to avoid any confusion or gaps in communication.
  • Checklists, especially for housekeeping, should detail the expected outcome (for example, floor cleared of debris, all surfaces disinfected) rather than enumerate specific tasks. This method can create greater ownership of a project and counter the tendency in a task-oriented process to overlook a need because it is not specifically mentioned.


Probably the most difficult group to reach is the teen scene. With hormones in flux affecting everything from cognitive reasoning to a search for identity, this is a fickle lot who's hard to please and even harder to figure out.

One thing we do know is that is that they're looking for a social experience. Typically, teens want a place they can claim as their own, off and away from parents and younger children. A different but visually accessible area is preferred.

Because teens gravitate to all-things-adrenaline, finding them near deep water, wave pools and speed slides is a pretty good bet. A well-designed natatorium will strive to separate these high-excitement areas from the shallower, low-key tot areas and adult-beckoning lounge spaces.

Such an intentional separation of activity levels has the additional benefit of appealing to teens who want a space less frequented by adults and small children. Likewise, social spaces for teens like sunning decks also need to be set apart from kiddie-locales but still be supervised, however inconspicuously.

Trying to engineer social activities or special events for teens, however, is a hit-or-miss endeavor. "Teen nights" are by no means a sure thing with some facilities throwing in the towel after several unsuccessful attempts while others, with persistent tweaking, do manage to strike it rich.

The addition of live music has been known to help. Whether a battle-of-the-bands attraction or just a local band playing at a teen-focused special event, live music has, at times, made a positive difference. For others, it's the addition of a big-screen TV or waterproof video-game system. Add to those the usual offerings of food, beverages and the option to swim, and the rate of success may be turned in your favor.


Another group eager to socialize—and thankfully more easily understood—are the seniors. Unlike teens, seniors tend to look for less noise and avoid commotion. Classes for age-related ailments like arthritis and stroke or classes to keep age at bay and retain range of motion like water aerobics and warm-water fitness are well-suited to a new senior population who has paid attention to fitness all their lives.

In a recent publication of research findings by the American Council on Exercise (ACE), ACE predicts an increase in specialized fitness programming for older adults in 2006. Such programming, the report contends, will "help fight osteoarthritis and osteoporosis, keeping the body more limber, stabilizing joints and lowering the risk of everyday injury." Water-based fitness, of course, is one of the healthiest modes of reaching those goals.


Staying ahead of the curve in the aquatics industry is sometimes about paying attention to the details and knowing the tricks of the crowd-pleasing trade. Here are just a few tried-and-tested tips that might help your facility:

  • Use unique themes to dress up everything from overall aesthetic design to concession menu items to create a memorable identity and increase your attraction potential.
  • Keep thrills, splash, speed, drops and interactive play at the forefront of your water feature selections—ideally, an addition every two years keeps interest alive and well.
  • Don't forget the candles. Birthday party packages are a revenue-creating crowd-pleaser that often include admission, lunches, drinks and party favors.
  • To give is better than to receive. Create community goodwill by offering the use of your facility to groups like firefighters, scouting groups or police officers to assist in their training.
  • Manage the munchies. Concessions, even if only prepackaged and bottled, can be a great asset to any aquatic center venue.
  • Comfort is key. Patrons spend more time and money if shady spaces for lounging are available for outdoor pools. Likewise, comfortable temperatures with clean air for indoor natatoriums will keep patrons staying longer. Itchy skin or chemically irritated eyes are lasting impressions you can do without.
  • Climb the walls. Climbing walls or other climbing elements like floatables or rope ladders are a popular feature for kids on the go. The fun of climbing is coupled with the fun and safety of falling back into the water.
  • Even municipal aquatic centers are getting on the gift-shop bandwagon. Providing basics from diapers and sun-lotion to keepsake items are a great way to help patrons in the lurch or provide yet another attraction for a population with a one-stop-shopping mentality.
  • Service with a smile may be cliché, but it's effective—and cheap. Good customer service—employees with a helpful attitude and a smile—are among the small details that make a big difference in how patrons evaluate their overall aquatic experience.
  • Remember to invest in good first and last impressions—the entrance and changing areas of your aquatic center. Welcoming entrances and clean, easy-to-navigate changing rooms are a must-do for the successful aquatic facility.


As the population also continues to report record-high obesity levels and risk for diseases like diabetes, families, too, are getting on the aquatic fitness wagon. However, programming to suit such multigenerational needs can be tricky.

Thinking outside the box, management at J.E. Mabee Memorial Aquatic Center in Midland, Texas, tried offering a one-stop shopping model to parents who's children ordinarily would be at several different activities at once like gymnastics and swimming. Another similar program was developed to offer cross-training classes of swimming, weightlifting and running. Results were initially marginal, but sensing that they were on to a good thing, the staff continued to adjust the programming, looking for just the right combination.

Offering good child care as well as swim classes and activities that involve both parent and child are other ways to keep families from balking at fitness opportunities. Creative pairings of popular parent-and-child workouts (like StrollerFit or yoga) with pool activities offered as a relaxing chaser give busy families an all-in-one experience and give moms, eager to shed baby-weight, a chance to get fit without leaving baby behind.


Creating programming that reaches out to women often involves much more than just exercise. Classes not only should cover physical fitness but can be designed to meet social, psychological and emotional needs as well. Add to that the season-of-life issues of pregnancy, postpartum and menopause, and programming options are virtually limitless.

Pregnancy, the physical changes and effects of which women once tried to disguise, has had a particularly noticeable "coming out" as highly visible celebrity pregnancies have become standard front-page news.

This celebration of pregnancy provides plenty of programming fodder on which aquatic facilities can feed. Combining aquatic sessions with the opportunity for women to discuss their pregnancy-related challenges through informative classes in a supportive environment with others like themselves is appealing to women who normally easily can become isolated during this time of life.

Following the lead of women-only fitness facilities who have tapped into what women want, programs can be developed that offer socialization and moral support during exercise or integrate aquatic fitness with elements of nutrition, psychology, beauty and fashion. A one-stop lifestyle shop is ideal for a generation of women with busy schedules.

However, be sure not to overlook child-care options and family changing rooms, which, if neglected, are a deal-breaker for most women who crave the opportunity to be fit but who need child-friendly environments to accomplish it.


Programming for patrons with special needs is another consideration. Whereas classes for the severely disabled may be first to come to mind and probably would constitute a small percentage of the community requiring only one or a few classes, don't forget the opportunity to reach out to the growing and larger percentage of those with less visible but very real disabilities as well.

Special-needs programming can be successful not only in regular class scheduling but as part of less-frequent special events programming too, for example, when special-needs day camps include occasional activities at the pool.

But not all kids or their parents want to be placed in groups for special needs. In fact, with inclusion or mainstreaming as the law, combined with the fact that 80 percent of children choose inclusion if given a choice, embracing inclusion just makes sense.

But it's not always easy.

Getting beyond a separate-but-equal mentality of years past may be difficult, but to truly incorporate special-needs patrons into programs, it is necessary. Facilities that have been recognized for their outstanding achievements in the area of inclusion have learned that the entire staff needs to develop an inclusive mindset—one that does not expect special needs only to be handled by a select few.

Training can come from many sources, from the school-of-hard-knocks observations of other facilities to attending courses like the annual National Recreation and Parks Association's National Institute on Recreation Inclusion (NIRI). Private consultants also can be used to teach similar materials, while some universities offer courses on inclusion.

Ultimately, if the ingredients of design, maintenance, staffing and programming are well-chosen and well-executed, together they should combine to create an aquatic center recipe for success.


For aquatic options in steamy climates like Florida, conserving water isn't just about being eco-conscious—it's also about saving money. As water becomes more of a precious resource, aquatic facilities and the water recreation industry in general are eager to find ways to offer wet entertainment without letting water—and money—go down the drain.

Splash play areas, one would think, would be a great way to use a little water for a lot of fun. However, as myopic creatures that often look at the initial price tag and not the big picture, some splash play areas continue to be installed with potable systems—systems that let water go to waste in an effort to save a little money upfront on a filtration system.

It can be a big mistake on several counts.

"People aren't informed," says Tom Lilly, an employee of a splash play component manufacturer. "Potable water systems are a safety/sanitation issue, and they restrict water flow."

Recirculated systems conserve water by recycling it through the splash play area, and they filter and sanitize it. Potable systems, just like garden hoses mothers now warn their children not to drink from, contain biofilms inside municipal plumbing that then pour out onto the children who play in them.

Furthermore, potable systems become a killjoy by restricting the amount of flow available to splash play features, creating an anemic shower instead of the drenching kids crave.

"No kid wants to be spit on," Lilly reasons. "They want to be doused. Kids are there to be soaked."

For Lion Country Safari in Loxahatachee, Fla., adding a splash play area with a recirculating system to its park last year was part of its successful strategy to attract more visitors.

Recirculated water systems are just one of the ways those in the water recreation industry are cutting down on waste and saving big bucks.

Here are a few more ideas that might work for you:

  • Xeroscaping—landscape your aquatic facility using native plants that require little water or are drought-resistant.
  • Use reclaimed water to irrigate your landscape.
  • Serve chilled bottled water, juice or soft drinks instead of beverages over ice.
  • Install splashguards to prevent water loss around water attractions.
  • Irrigate at night to reduce water loss from evaporation.
  • Irrigate using a satellite system that factors rainfall into the watering equation to reduce expensive watering redundancy.
  • Install motion-sensor faucets in restrooms to eliminate wasteful water use.
  • Install coin-operated showers but be sure to include polite signage explaining the environmental importance of conserving water. Such explanations to justify the coin-system usually result in an appreciative user.

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