Maintenance Series: Spraygrounds

Don't Walk Away
Spraygrounds Require Ongoing Maintenance

By Dawn Klingensmith

There's an old saying in the pool industry that helps explain why splashpads, or "spraygrounds," haven't lived up to their reputation as low-maintenance replacements for swimming pools: "The solution to pollution is dilution."

Compared with pools, "People think they're less maintenance, but I'd say that's actually very false," said Rob Morgan, president of Sunbelt Pools, a Dallas company that constructs splashpads and other commercial aquatic facilities. "A lot of municipalities seem to think you can build a sprayground and then let it sit there without anyone checking on it. But you need a well-trained person who visits preferably several times a day to make sure there are no problems."

The main problem, Morgan said, is too much pollution and insufficient dilution: "There are so many contaminants going into such a small body of water."

That's not insurmountable by any means, but municipalities are often unprepared to deal with the daily maintenance and sanitation requirements of splashpads.

When it comes to supervision and safety, splashpads are cheaper and easier than pools because no lifeguards are needed. But when it comes to sanitation and chemical, mechanical and preventative maintenance, the requirements are comparable. In fact, as far as equipment goes, a splashpad is "pretty much the same" as a swimming pool, with pipes, valves, pumps, filters, strainers and treatment systems that need to be maintained, said aquatic consultant Terry Brannon, The C.T. Brannon Corp., Tyler, Texas.

An exception is splashpads that use drinking-quality water in a flow-through system. Rather than recirculating, the water drains away or is captured and used for irrigation. There is no mechanical equipment per se—just a series of valves to control water flow. This simple approach to water quality is indeed low-maintenance, as it basically amounts to turning on a tap and letting the water run continuously. There should be no issues with water quality, and no need for treatment systems, as long as potable water is used. The obvious disadvantages to this type of system are the waste and the water bill. Many regions cannot afford, let alone justify, wasting this amount of water, so recirculating systems are more often used.

"It's starting to turn around, but there was a period when spraygrounds were seen as the answer to budget problems," Morgan said.

While they are easier on the budget than pools, "The issue is that municipalities don't have the manpower budgeted to do the simplest things," he added, and that leads to poor equipment performance which, in turn, causes unnecessary health hazards.

Trouble arises, in part, because people use splashpads in ways that municipalities don't anticipate. Poor hygiene practices prior to entry are common, for example. And though some state codes require the presence of foot showers, "Kids run through in street clothes after rolling around on the baseball field," Morgan said, "so the sprayground itself becomes a quasi-shower."

Add bike wash to the list. "I've seen kids riding bikes through them because there's no one there to control the misuse," he added.

Motorcycles and even cars have been caught cruising through spraygrounds, but even quotidian maintenance challenges sometimes catch facility owners off-guard. Plenty of facility coordinators end up spending hours cleaning debris out of spray features and responding to other minor but potentially troublesome issues. Dirt and organic load, such as grass clippings, can clog systems if permitted to build up. Indeed, if there is turf nearby, mowing can set off a day or two of near-constant attention to strainer baskets and components, which might otherwise get jammed or stuck open, and possibly stop functioning altogether.

Leaves also can be a problem. "It might seem desirable to nestle the sprayground in some trees for shade, but you'll end up spending a lot of time blowing off the pad," Brannon said.

Daily and routine maintenance involves checking all mechanical equipment to make sure it's operating correctly, and removing debris that catches in filters and strainers. Water quality and levels must also be checked and chemicals measured by a trained individual. There are Web-based monitoring systems that measure chemical levels, pressure on filters, flow rate and other metrics, and then send an e-mail or text message alert when something needs attention. But these remote readings should not replace on-site visits.

"Make sure you have it in your operating budget to have someone trained in water chemistry to physically check each facility at least once and ideally twice a day," Morgan urged.

In addition to water circulation and sanitation, the play elements themselves need to be checked for mechanical function and safety hazards. Splashpad components often are interactive, making use of specialized valves that snap open and closed to control water flow when patrons trigger the device. These valves "create their own nightmare," Brannon said, "because they need to be replaced pretty frequently."

Moreover, programmable electronic elements "can be fried in hot or wet weather," he added.

End-of-season maintenance includes draining the water out of all pipes in preparation for winter freeze-thaw cycles. Galvanized steel components perhaps can withstand winter weather, but others may need to be dismantled and stored.

Certain splashpad features need to be carefully considered in the design phase to avoid or alleviate maintenance headaches down the line. The proposed shape and location could have maintenance implications, as can the number and type of spray features and drains. Topography, the arrangement and location of present and proposed structures, nearby vegetation and even the direction of prevailing winds must be taken into account. Treatment tank volume, flow and filtration rates, and other factors need to be optimized to ensure the system functions as desired as a whole.

Perhaps it should go without saying that splashpads "shall be constructed of materials which are inert, stable, nontoxic, watertight and enduring," as New York state code specifies.

Because there often are no attendants on duty, vandalism of splashpads is rampant. Nearly everyone consulted for this article mentioned the necessity of having components that can handle being hit by a baseball bat, suggesting that such targeted, determined abuse is widespread if not inevitable. Indeed, online news reports abound of splashpads closing for weeks at a stretch to repair severe and costly damage caused by vandals, and many get vandalized even before officially opening to the public.

Reflecting on such destruction, Brannon said, "A hard lesson learned over the years is that the public will willingly destroy something of beauty and value, and yet we see it time and again."

Blogger Alex Cenla offered a more cynical take after his hometown's splashpad was vandalized for a fourth time. Beneath a photo of the Commissioner of Public Safety's sign announcing the closure, he wrote: "Duh!!!!… (You do not put high cost, high maintenance, unsupervised high risk item's in a public park.)"

Cenla's views notwithstanding, consider whether fencing the area and having specified hours of operation might deter vandals. Some state codes require splashpads to be enclosed to prevent after-hours access by people and animals, and some go further to require the splashpad to be off-limits to patrons unless a supervisor is present. Installing cameras is another possible deterrent to misuse and vandalism.

Also in the design phase, "Think long and hard about what surfacing goes down and if the coating you choose is one you can reapply with your own crew and rollers," Brannon said. Otherwise, should certified installers be required, it could be surprisingly costly just to get them to the site.

Be advised that rubberized surfaces, though cushiony, "can build up some nasty bacteria" and are hard to keep free of grit and grime, said Jim Sauer of the landscape architecture and civil engineering firm, J.T. Sauer & Associates, McKees Rocks, Pa.

Concrete surfaces should have a non-slip broom-finish, with the grooves aimed at the drain to help direct water and debris there. Unless a sand-based, non-slip paint is used, you mustn't coat the textured surface because paint fills and defeats the purpose of the grooves, Sauer said.

Where paint is used, don't allow it to get too deteriorated, or it will need to be blasted off entirely before repainting as opposed to simply adding a layer over the existing paint.

Expect to redo coated or painted surfaces every three to five years.

Another thing to budget for is the obsolescence of play features. Though they may remain in good working order, play components will outlive their novelty and cease to attract and amuse patrons. Because manufacturers stand to gain from this, they are making play equipment that interchangeably installs on the same type of mounting plate. However, municipalities with multiple splashpads can revitalize each facility by rotating play elements among the facilities, Sauer pointed out. At a single facility, a good rule of thumb is to plan on making updates at year five; from then on, replace or switch out one-fifth of the equipment each year, Brannon said.

Stepped-up sanitation requirements in some states have added to construction costs and maintenance duties; however, the tradeoff is worth it, Morgan said. The Centers for Disease Control recommends, and certain state codes require, the use of a secondary treatment system such as UV generators to reduce the threat of water-borne illness.

"UV is probably the best thing to come along in the industry in quite a few years. It neutralizes the contaminants that make people sick," Morgan said.

Texas, where his business operates, requires these secondary systems, and other states are expected to do the same. In fact, Sunbelt Pools was in the process of constructing a new spray park in Fort Worth when the stricter requirements went into effect. The park opened on time, in spring 2009, following the previous summer's outbreak of Cryptosporidium, which prompted the local health department to require the additional systems. Satisfying the requirements was not a challenge, but revising plans midway through the project and ensuring an on-time opening gave Sunbelt Pools a chance to shine.

Morgan actually advises clients to plan from the start to use secondary systems. His advice: Water should be "100 percent filtered, 100 percent chlorinated and 100 percent UV-treated," even where not required by code.

Retrofitting a UV treatment system to an existing splashpad is a one-day job for a qualified company, he added.

It's necessary to periodically monitor the intensity of the UV bulbs, but they usually last at least a year. But though these systems don't present any onerous maintenance responsibilities, they can be rendered ineffectual by inattention. "If you put off simple maintenance, you can have problems. The UV can't do its job if you have leaves backed up" in the system, Morgan warned.

Sanitation and safety concerns give rise to other maintenance responsibilities. For example, New York code requires sprayground operators to develop, update and implement a written safety plan including procedures for daily patron supervision. The code requires at least one staff person to provide periodic supervision of the sprayground as specified in the plan. In addition, spraygrounds must be maintained by a qualified swimming pool water treatment operator.

The supervisory staff "is an individual or individuals responsible for supervising and monitoring the sprayground to ensure compliance with regulations for use, is familiar with its equipment and is trained in the operation and maintenance of the spray pad treatment system," the code states. "The facility must have a qualified swimming pool operator to maintain the water treatment system and someone to provide the periodic supervision. These roles can be filled by the same or different individuals."

New York code goes on to state that daily inspections of each facility are necessary to ensure that adequate safety and sanitary conditions are maintained. Any problems such as unsafe water conditions, broken or malfunctioning equipment, loose drain grates and the like are to be reported and immediately corrected.

Daily compliance checks include equipment inspections; cleaning and flushing the splashpad prior to use; ensuring drains aren't blocked; checking disinfectant residual; and checking the UV light intensity meter. Complete daily operation records must be kept for each splashpad. An operation log must also be kept for the UV system.

Cracks in the spray pad or decking should be repaired if they present a tripping hazard or leakage potential, or if they interfere with the ability to properly clean and maintain the splash pad area. The deck should be kept clean and free of water puddles.

Concerning water flow, inlets must be adjusted to produce uniform circulation of water and to facilitate the maintenance of a uniform disinfectant residual throughout the treatment tank. The water level in the tank should be continuously maintained by an automatic control system.

To reduce health risks and maintenance problems, it is recommended that rules be posted prohibiting the use of glass containers on the splashpad and deck areas; prohibiting individuals with diarrhea from using the splashpad; advising patrons not to drink recirculated and chemically treated water; requiring the use of swim diapers and rubber pants; prohibiting patrons from spitting; and barring pets from the facility.

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