The Deep End

A Look at Trends in Aquatic Facilities

The past couple of decades have seen aquatic facilities move from lap swimming and traditional rectangular pools to more leisure-focused facilities, and this year's survey reflected that the trend is continuing, with more facilities planning to add fun amenities like waterslides, splash play areas and water play structures, and with leisure swim time being the most popular program provided at aquatic facilities across the board.

More than half (51.6 percent) of respondents indicated that their facilities included an aquatic component of some type. (See Figure 34.) These respondents were asked to answer additional questions on the survey dealing specifically with the aquatic components of their facilities. We are including that information within this section.

Of the respondents who said their facilities included an aquatic component, more than three out of five (61.4 percent) said they included outdoor aquatic facilities, while just over half (54.3 percent) included indoor aquatics. Nearly a quarter (22.7 percent) said they had a splash playground, and 10.6 percent indicated that they included a waterpark.

Indoor and outdoor aquatic centers, pools and splash playgrounds were found in facilities of all types, with nearly 45 percent of respondents with aquatic facilities reporting that they represent a parks and recreation department. Another 14.9 percent said they represented a college or university, and nearly 10 percent worked for a health, fitness or sports club. YMCAs, YWCAs and JCCs were also represented by nearly 10 percent of respondents who indicated their facilities included aquatics. (See Figure 35.)

Very few respondents with aquatic facilities—just 0.8 percent—indicated that their facilities are used for competition alone. The vast majority of aquatic facilities—99.2 percent—included some kind of leisure component, with more than half (54.9 percent) combining leisure and competition in the same facility. (See Figure 36.)

This tendency toward leisure pools was reflected in the amenities our respondents were planning to add. The most commonly planned additions included splash play areas, water play structures and waterslides.

Other leisure-related amenities that have been growing in popularity were also among some of the amenities facilities included or were planning to add, including zero-depth entry (included by 28.6 percent of aquatic respondents, and planned for addition by 7.8 percent), poolside cabanas (included by 9 percent and planned for addition by 6.9 percent), lazy rivers (included by 8.8 percent, planned for addition by 5 percent) and wave pools (included by 2 percent, planned for addition by another 2.2 percent).

In fact, one aquatics manager with a parks and recreation department in Utah said the current growth of multi-use aquatic facilities was a top concern facing his department: "Water slides, zero depth, splash pads, interactive features—the biggest challenge will be to keep up with the current new facilities being built and renovated."

The addition of so many leisure-related amenities and activities to pools is considered by many to be reflective of the growing challenge of financing aquatic facilities. With rising energy costs, and shrinking budgets, waterpark-like amenities represent just one way many cities and other entities have attempted to reduce the difference between operating costs and revenues for their aquatic facilities. And in fact, aquatic facilities are more likely to charge fees for usage than facilities across the board. While among all facilities, some 62.4 percent said they charged a fee for membership or usage, for those with aquatic facilities this number jumps to 77.4 percent.

Safety First
New Legislation Requires Protection from Dangerous Drains

The recently passed Virginia Graeme Baker Pool and Spa Safety Act of 2007 is named for the granddaughter of former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, who in 2002 at the age of 7 died in a spa after being entrapped by the powerful suction from a drain. Among other requirements, the legislation provides incentives for states to adopt pool safety laws to protect children from similar accidents and life-threatening injuries from dangerous pool and spa drains.

"The future is going to be less tolerant of ignorance and apathy, and the reason I say that is we have seen legislation passed for the first time with the Baker Act, and that's encouraging additional legislation," said Tom Lachocki, Ph.D., CEO of the National Swimming Pool Foundation (NSPF). "When legislators start enacting laws, that's a bad thing. When we have to have outside organizations—government organizations that aren't experts in our field—implementing laws, that's saying we're not doing a good enough job from a safety standpoint."

As a result of the recently passed legislation, and the threat of more legislation of aquatic problems to come, Lachocki said he believes more people in the industry will make the more difficult—and correct—decision to meet higher standards, rather than being required to do so by government organizations that don't have expertise in the industry.

"I think the other thing that will fall under this is we're going to realize it's less expensive to train our staff to meet and exceed safety standards than to hire lobbyists to impact governmental decisions. Those training and engineering investments we make benefit our customers, while lobbying for lower standards or trying to reduce legislation actually hurts our customers," Lachocki said.

Another new development that will enter the picture along with increasing legislation, Lachocki said, is criminal penalties. "There have been two major points of control from the legal system nudging us to higher standards—one is health departments and their authority, and the second is liability law," he said. "New criminal penalties will mean it's not longer a money thing—it's a jail-time thing. As people make the wrong choice and we start hearing about people serving jail time, it's going to influence us to move to higher standards."

Perhaps reflective of this, those with aquatic facilities were also more likely to have seen an increase in their revenues from 2006 to 2007, and they also were more likely to project an increase from 2007 to 2008 and from 2008 to 2009, though the differences were not large. While 38.7 percent of all respondents said their revenues had increased from 2006 to 2007, 41.6 percent of those with aquatic facilities said their revenues had increased in that same time period. And while 42.5 percent of all respondents project an increase from 2008 to 2009, 46.6 percent of those with aquatic facilities were projecting an increase.

Respondents were also asked to report on their operating expenditures for their aquatic facilities for fiscal 2007, as well as projecting their expectations for those costs through fiscal 2009. Respondents with aquatic facilities were expecting a slightly higher increase in their costs over the next couple of years compared to respondents across the board. While the average respondent reporting on their entire operating budget projected an increase of 12.1 percent from nearly $1.4 million in fiscal 2007 to just over $1.5 million in fiscal 2009, those reporting on their aquatic operating expenditures projected a jump of 15.4 percent from $383,700 in fiscal 2007 to $442,600 in fiscal 2009. (See Figure 37.)

The highest annual operating expenditures for aquatic facilities are seen in the Western and South Atlantic states, which reported an average of $437,800 and $436,800, respectively, for fiscal 2007. This compares to the lowest average costs, seen in the Northeast at $321,700. That said, the most rapid increases are expected in the Northeast, where respondents projected a 20.7 percent increase between 2007 and 2009.

One executive director of a Massachusetts fitness club with both indoor and outdoor pools placed the blame on constantly rising utility costs. "It cost us over $200,000 more in 2007 versus 2006," he said. "We are looking at another erosion of the bottom line in 2008 due to utility costs."

"Energy and resources are not going to get cheaper—and that means energy as well as water," said Tom Lachocki, Ph.D., CEO of the National Swimming Pool Foundation (NSPF). "A lot of it doesn't have anything to do with the United States. Our country has such homogeneity throughout the country that we don't realize that a lot of things in the world are impacting us. Growing demand for energy in China, India, the Middle East and other parts of the world are contributing to growing demand and higher prices in the U.S. No one can predict the future, but the likelihood is that energy costs are not going to go down in the next decades."

He added that concerns about droughts and water utilization also have an impact on aquatic facilities, and all of this pressure will lead to the aquatic industry focusing more on using resources effectively, perhaps by building more environmentally friendly facilities, but also by taking other measures to help conserve.

"Clearly we're a water industry. The amount used is relatively small compared to other industries, but that doesn't mean there won't be pressure on us to make sure we're using that resource effectively," Lachocki said. "That might mean using pool covers to conserve heat, using more efficient heating, reducing transport of chemicals, or changing the way we manage facilities, such as by using variable speed pumps or even allowing pumps to be turned off when water quality is adequate."

In fact, while just 4.3 percent of aquatic respondents indicated that their facilities relied on solar pool heating, 5.8 percent more are planning to add solar heating for their pools. Likewise, chlorination and disinfection systems that reduce the amount of chemicals being shipped and added to the water were among our respondents plans. More than 11 percent said they currently use saline chlorination, while 7.7 percent use UV disinfection and 5.5 percent use an ozone system. In the next three years, another 8.8 percent plan to add UV disinfection, while 4 percent plan to add saline chlorination, and 3 percent plan to add ozone.

At Your Leisure
Water Play Features, Splash Playgrounds Among Most Popular Planned Additions

According to the recently published Aquatic Play Feature Handbook from the National Swimming Pool Foundation (NSPF), more than 1,000 facilities in the United States alone currently include aquatic play features like waterslides, wave pools, play features, spray pads and lazy rivers. The NSPF also asserts that this is the fastest-growing segment of the aquatic industry, as traditional pools adopt the lessons learned from the success of waterparks and incorporate more thrilling aquatic elements into their facilities.

Our survey reinforced this assertion, revealing that these types of amenities are the most commonly planned additions at aquatic facilities across the United States. Within the next three years:

  • 13.6 percent of aquatics respondents plan to add a splash playground.
  • 13.2 percent of aquatics respondents plan to add a water play feature.
  • 10.2 percent of aquatics respondents plan to add a waterslide.
  • 5 percent of aquatics respondents plan to add a lazy river.
  • 2.2 percent of aquatics respondents plan to add a wave pool.

Other aquatic play features identified in the handbook, but not measured by our survey, include activity pools, action rivers, vortex pools, continuous surfing pools and others. The handbook defines these features and also deals in depth with the specific water quality and risk management issues that arise when you include such features in your facility.

"Due to the high number of bathers, complicated designs, high exposure to sunlight and large areas, it is more difficult to effectively circulate, filter and chemically treat the water and wet surfaces," the handbook states.

As more complicated aquatic play features are introduced into your pool's environment, be sure to stay up to date on the latest science and suggestions for operating your facility properly.

Staffing and Seasonability

Staffing can be a big challenge for aquatic facilities—especially for those that are open only for the summer months. While aquatic respondents employed 25.6 percent fewer full-time workers than the average general respondent, they employed 45.9 percent more part-timers, and 46.2 percent more seasonal workers. They also projected greater increases in the number of seasonal employees working at their facilities, an increase of 68.9 percent over the next three years, compared to an industry-wide average of 62.9 percent.

One facility/program supervisor for a park district in Colorado cited staffing the city's seasonal waterpark with lifeguards as a top concern. "We hire approximately 125 lifeguards, and the difficulty is maintaining that number at the end of the season," he said.

This concern was echoed in other respondents' comments. One aquatic operations manager working at a Virginia resort said the facility was challenged by staffing due to its rural location. "We live in a rural area and need 170-plus aquatics staff during the school year and 250-plus during the summer season," he explained.

While not all aquatic respondents indicated a lifeguard was on duty during all hours of operation, the vast majority indicated that they do require certification for their staff members. A large percentage (81.5 percent) said they do have a lifeguard on duty during all hours of operation. (See Figure 38.)

Respondents from aquatic facilities were more likely than the average respondent across all facility types to require certifications. A full 95.8 percent indicated that they currently require some kind of certification for staff members, compared to 90.1 percent of all facilities. Of those who do not currently require certification, 21.4 percent said they plan to require certification in the future.

Understandably, those respondents whose facilities include aquatic components were more likely than the average respondent to require aquatic management or pool operations certification. Nearly 60 percent of those with aquatics require such certification, compared to just 37.5 percent overall. They also were more likely to require lifeguard certification (87.2 percent of those with aquatics, compared to 60.6 percent of all respondents), and CPR, AED or First Aid certification (87.3 percent of those with aquatics, compared to 82.3 percent overall).

Building Plans

Nearly three quarters (73.5 percent) of respondents with aquatic facilities said they have plans to either build new, add to their existing facilities or renovate their existing facilities. The average amount these respondents plan to spend on these facilities is $5,013,100—13.9 percent more than the overall average of $4,400,200.

One facility owner explained the reasoning behind the spending on new facilities: attendance. "That is why we are building a wave pool for the 2009 season," he said. "Construction will be started this spring. Our attendance is lower compared to other parks our size in the area we are in. …We have had a lot of requests for a wave pool."

The top 10 amenities or systems aquatic facility managers surveyed are planning to add within the next three years include:

  1. Splash play areas
  2. Water play structures
  3. Waterslides
  4. Concession areas
  5. UV disinfection
  6. Zero-depth entry
  7. Pool lift or accessibility equipment
  8. Locker rooms
  9. Poolside cabanas
  10. Indoor pools

Setting New, Science-Based Standards
Nearly 9 Percent of Respondents Plan to Add UV Sytems

Standards based on scientific research are growing, according to Tom Lachocki, Ph.D., CEO of the National Swimming Pool Foundation (NSPF). And from the science, business practices follow.

"Science gives us the numbers, and the numbers empower us to make better decisions," Lachocki explained. "In the modern aquatic recreational water field, it's really been only in the last four years that we've had a scientific conference (the World Aquatic Health Conference, taking place this year on Oct. 15 to 17 in Colorado Springs—visit for more information), and really only the last year that we had a scholarly journal. We're starting to see real tangible learning and wisdom."

As an example, Lachocki said that many lifeguarding tactics in use today are not based on science. "The research being done by the Red Cross, YMCA and U.S. Lifesaving is showing what's based on science and what isn't," Lachocki explained. "Those results will show up in a big way this fall."

He added, "Until a year ago, we didn't have an exact way to verify the chemicals people are smelling at indoor pools." But Purdue is taking advantage of some extremely powerful techniques that have never been applied in the field, allowing them to "instantaneously identify the chemicals in the air above the pool as well as the chemicals in the water. …The work is going to help us understand why certain chemicals are in the air, what they are, how to eliminate them and, more importantly, how to prevent them."

With the scientific light shining on all of these important problems in the field of aquatics, Lachocki said facility managers will be enabled to find solutions using the most recent data. As another example, he cited the work going on in the area of UV systems. "For many, the primary focus is the public health benefit of reducing bacteria, parasites and water-borne illnesses, but the parallel benefit of these technologies is their positive impact on indoor air quality," Lachocki said.

As those studies verify all of these benefits of UV systems, more facilities may plan to add them to their facilities. According to the study, while 7.7 percent of aquatic facilities currently use a UV system, another 8.8 percent of respondents have plans to add a UV system over the next three years.

These systems treat 100 percent of the water returned to the pool, helping control chloramines (responsible for that smelly indoor pool air) as well as disinfecting chlorine-resistant pathogens, like the bothersome cryptosporidium. In fact, after last summer's crypto outbreak in Utah, all of Salt Lake City's public pools were required to install UV systems. The state of New York mandates this technology for all splash playgrounds. The extra benefit of UV systems is that they represent a non-chemical, more environmentally friendly treatment option.

The systems also help address indoor air quality, reducing chloramines, and as more aquatic recreational facilities build enclosures to improve their reach and value year-round, as well as growing their cash flow and improving employee retention and skill development, indoor air quality will be a top concern. "As more facilities go indoors, it's important that they minimize any negative exposures," Lachocki said. "When you walk in and it smells bad, there's an obvious problem that needs to be taken care of."


The other tried-and-true method for getting more aquatics patrons in he door—innovative programming—is also reflected among our aquatic respondents. The top programs aquatic facilities currently include were leisure swim, learn-to-swim programs for children, lap swimming, lifeguard training and aquatic exercise programs.

Most facilities seem to be planning more of the same over the next three years, but some innovative programs are planned, in addition to the fun new waterslides and play structures many facilities plan to add.

The top programs planned for addition include: aquatic programs designed to reach special-needs populations; aquatic therapy programs, aquatic exercise programs and swim teams for adults. (See Figure 39.)

Figure 39: Aquatic Programming
Leisure Swim86.4%1.8%
Learn-to-Swim for Children77.7%2.6%
Lap Swim74.2%2.5%
Lifeguard Training69.0%4.5%
Aquatic Exercise Programs68.3%5.8%
Learn-to-Swim for Adults56.4%4.0%
Water Safety Programs52.7%4.1%
Youth Swim Teams50.8%3.1%
Swim Meets & Competitions47.7%3.9%
Special Needs Aquatic Programs35.6%7.3%
School/Collegiate Swim Teams31.8%3.0%
Diving/Diving Teams21.8%2.0%
Adult Swim Teams19.1%5.8%
Water Polo16.8%4.7%

Keep it Going

Aquatic facilities are poised to take on a larger role in society—"as long as we don't mess it up," Lachocki said.

"When I say, 'so long as we don't mess it up,' I'm referring to the forces in favor of bringing more people to the water and the forces opposed to it," Lachocki explained. "Air quality and water quality are important. If we have continuing increases in recreational water illnesses where thousands of people are affected, that's a force that's moving people away from using aquatic facilities. If we continue to have drownings, that drives people away. Suction entrapment, diving accidents, chemical exposures—these things are all pushing people away."

So what force is working against these negatives to draw people to the water?

"The things drawing people to our facilities are mega-trends like an aging population, a growingly sedentary population, the need for our country to make sure people are exercising more and eating right," Lachocki said. "We are certainly in the field of being able to give people a fun, healthy exercise avenue to live a healthier life."

The good news, Lachocki added, is that people are drawn to the water in an instinctive way, and aquatic facilities can take advantage of that attraction.

"Civilization was founded on the water, and all you need to do is watch children to see water's instinctive draw," he said. "When you look at the aquatic recreational facility today compared to 20 years ago—what a fun experience it is! There's lazy rivers, slides, wave pools—it's unbelievable, the things that are available. We should see tremendous growth, but there are forces pushing away from that.

"The good news is that we have the ability to make sure that those negative forces are minimized," Lachocki added. "The question is, will we step up and do it, or will we wait for the legislators to tell us we have to do it? And really, there's only one intelligent way to go. There's no one with more knowledge and awareness of how things need to be done than the people in our field. So we need to make sure lifeguards, management and operators are trained and certified. We need to make sure we're aware of the latest science. We need to diversify how we program our facilities to attract a larger audience and give them what they're looking for. It's just a matter of learning what winning strategies are out there and implementing them."

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