Puddle-Loving Fun

New Developments in Sprayground Design

By Deborah L. Vence

Spray funnels, rain showers, dumping buckets, inward sprays, ground sprays. You name it. Spraygrounds have it.

You might say that spraygrounds have catapulted parks and recreation into a new dimension, enabling parents to enjoy a sunny day out with the kids without having to immerse themselves in a swimming pool—especially if kids are very young and just learning to swim. The vast assortment of styles, shapes and colors in spraygrounds offers children the chance to explore their imaginations, while making it a little less stressful for parents by not having to worry constantly about their children having a mishap in the pool.

The fact is that spraygrounds are continuing to grow in popularity and value for a number of reasons, offering communities a more cost-effective alternative to large aquatic centers, or as a welcome addition to an existing waterpark.

"Spraygrounds foster community pride. They represent a place for families to gather and to get to know each other again. They encourage people to move to the neighborhood with more family amenities and encourage a staycation concept," said Lisa D'Entremont, international sales coordinator for a Pointe-Claire, Quebec, Canada-based company that specializes in aquatic play and urban landscape solutions. "They build a safe environment for children to play. They are known to be an attraction to parks and cities. They are aesthetically pleasing, [and are] also less expensive than a pool."

Thus, the popularity of spraygrounds continue to spur new designs, better water treatment systems and enhanced safety measures, all while providing a host of benefits to the communities that install these water playgrounds.

Sprayground Design

While the quintessential waterpark today boasts an array of fun and entertaining amenities ranging from curvy waterslides to uniquely shaped swimming pools to sizeable sandboxes, sprayground designs offer up valuable and exciting design elements as well—with unique geometric shapes, water guns, dumping buckets, as well as design themes and customized elements, just to name a few.

"[Sprayground design] is evolving. In Woodridge, we just put in a new facility. It has a large themed interactive play structure. [The sprayground] was part of a larger waterpark," said Tom LaLonde, principal at Williams Architects in Carol Stream, Ill.

LaLonde said that the custom-built sprayground in the Chicago suburb, shaped as a pirate ship, was built without having to add a separate pool. The one big thing that's evolved, he said, has been the move from more traditional pools to spraygrounds that hold water, and that continuously drain.

"There's a big advantage to that. You don't need certified lifeguards. We've gone through the gamut," LaLonde said.

Not to mention that spraygrounds can be "customized to whatever you want. In Lisle [Ill.], they have a sea lion facility with a mermaid. It has a whole kind of aquatic ocean theme," he added. "They will customize it to whatever you want. We did a custom-designed element at Flick Pool in Glenview [Ill.]."

On another sprayground project, LaLonde said, the waterslide was built into a slope of a hill for younger children, with the water draining into a shutdown lane.

"It has a run-out area, a troth where kids can go down the slide and climb out," a better alternative than "spending the dollars to build another pool," LaLonde said. "It's a unique feature without having to build a pool, and it has spray elements."

Meanwhile, a Canadian-based company that specializes in aquatic play and urban landscape solutions boasts a variety of sprayground designs, such as one that resembles a water garden and another that features abstract shapes to help encourage creative play. Additionally, the company's newer sprayground designs have the shape of a spider and scorpion equipped with a jet spray activator.

Phil Moya, recreation programs manager for the city of Greeley Leisure Services Department/Recreation in Greeley, Colo., said he has visited many new spraygrounds locally and found that the most popular areas have interactive features.

"I have also noticed that many communities have utilized art funds to incorporate customized spray features from local artists," Moya said. "Spraygrounds have also been more focused on colorizing their pads by staining the concrete or painting a rubberized surface on the concrete that is textured and comes in many different colors. This allows the owner to provide theming for their facility at minimal cost.

"The one thing that I feel is important to any sprayground is the more interactive it is, the more attractive it is to the older age groups," he said. "This will keep the families coming back throughout the summer. If you are capable of purchasing features that can be switched out with other facilities, that will help with retention."

Besides themes and customized elements, spraygrounds even can perform double duty.

Doug Whiteaker, principal at Water Technology Inc., a design firm based in Beaver Dam, Wis., said spraygrounds not only are popular during the day as a play amenity, but they also are popular during the evening hours—serving the interests of both children and adults.

"That may become what the configuration or designs are; as civic gathering places and social zones. It has a multitude of meetings and design direction that helps provide gateways to parks. They're geared toward families and adults at night. It's a destination that becomes a fun, family time," Whiteaker said.

Added Curtis L. Hancock, project manager for Metro Parks Tacoma in Tacoma, Wash.: "The spaces have become community gathering spots even when the sprayground is not operating. Design needs to take into account other uses as well, such as skateboarding and appearance in the off season."

Also, Whiteaker noted that spraygrounds might even have more natural elements, rather than manufactured components.

"You're seeing more ground sprays and more water features where water sprays out of rocks, with a much more integrated landscape effect," Whiteaker said.

However, Cory Forrest, product manager for a company based in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada, which specializes in aquatic recreation equipment, cautioned that while the integration of large rocks into the pad is popular to create a more natural play area, "this is not recommended without impact attenuation surfacing."

"While it can enhance the aesthetics of the pad, it can result in injury from falls or creating tripping hazards on the pad," Forrest said.

While more theme-based designs and natural elements grow in popularity, Whiteaker noted that it's equally important to have the option of changing sprayground designs from year to year.

"Interchangeability is important because now you can offer one design one year, but change different [features for the next year]. It creates a different and new and fresh effect each year," he added. "It provides the opportunity to [offer] different types of configurations for different years."

Joe Shuttleworth, deputy director of the city of Bridgeport Parks and Recreation in Bridgeport, W.Va., added that having removable features on spraygrounds is a common trend now.

"Many of our features are mounted directly to the concrete and when meeting the required specs can be removed and replaced from year to year. This option allows facilities to change the look and, therefore, the attraction of the sprayground each season ... or as often as one wants. We can change out a feature in about 20 minutes," Shuttleworth said.

Additionally, Ron Lausman, director of architectural services for a manufacturer of waterparks and aquatic attractions in Richmond, British Columbia, Canada, noted that "There is a move toward technology to enhance the experiences of kids and to make the water more interactive. Kids are faced with ever-enhanced media and games (everything from X-box to Internet games) and this is their basis for determining what is 'fun.'

"Water for them needs to have more impact and fun, as the new forms of entertainment are competing for their attention within the recreation umbrella," he added. "It gets harder to engage kids to participate in things that do not give them the same degree of stimulation."

Water Treatment & Energy Conservation

Water, of course, is what keeps a sprayground up and running, which is why the safest and most economical water management system is the all-important element to a sprayground.

Some accessible technology used at waterparks now can be used at spraygrounds, which addresses water and energy sustainability and interactivity in ways never seen before in the sprayground industry.

Mark Williams, president and CEO of an Ashland, Ohio-based company that specializes in commercial indoor and outdoor water play products, said spraygrounds can adapt to the water treatment systems using existing technology.

"Essentially, we have adopted technology that has been used in the larger waterpark industry for years," Williams said. "Recently, due to technology innovations/cost reductions, this technology is now cost-effective to apply to smaller spraygrounds. When I say 'new,' it's existing technology that's proven to be working in the aquatics world, just never been brought to a sprayground. This technology leverages a variable frequency drive [that's been used] in aquatic areas for years."

To explain, the technology has four distinct features that control spraygrounds and that increase sustainability with the ability to remotely access a sprayground. This first computerized sprayground control system is designed to leverage the benefits of variable frequency drives, proportional valves, a Linux-based operating system, Internet, sound and wireless activation.

This technology is different in that the current state of the industry uses printed circuit boards (PCB) and programmable logic controllers (PLC), which are outdated and have limited capacity and functionality. The issue with the current technology is that the feature valves are 100 percent open or 100 percent closed, and the pump either is all the way on or all the way off.

"The controller, which is a PCB or programmable logic controller, acts like a coffee maker, and does what it's told over and over. It's just like a coffee maker. You it turn on and make coffee," Williams explained.

"So, what we've done is leverage today's computer power, a Linux-based operating system that is now running the sprayground. It's running by a computer. And what that allows us to do is to do things we've never been allowed to do before," he said.

He explained that a typical sprayground is started up by a bollard, where you wave your hand in front of a valve and the water pump kicks on.

However, in this case, "Regardless of the number of participants, if there is one feature, then that pump is on or off. It's kicking out all this water. The old technology will turn on four or five features. The problem is that it's not a sustainable [method]. If there is only one child out there [why do you need all those features on]," Williams said.

What mitigates this issue is a variable frequency drive, or VFD, that's being used at large aquatic parks, which is designed to tell the pump only to turn on a little bit of water.

"The way it works is that you put a wireless sensor in front of individual features. It tells the controller, 'Hey, I have a kid,' and it opens the valve. That feature in this product … what I say is the main benefit is this allows the controller and individual spray feature to interact and keep water resources in direct correlation to the number of participants."

With this newer system, three or four features are not running at the same time if only one child is playing.

"You're wasting energy. You are wasting water. We need to be sustainable. We need to use the resources in the right way. It's the right thing to do. This is the right way to treat this resource," Williams added.

The second feature uses proportional control valve technology, which involves a stepper motor that opens a simple ball valve at a level dictated by the controller. The controller can be programmed to barely open the valve, thus providing a short, low-velocity water spray that would provide play value for toddler-aged participants.

"We can put a valve on that you can open up and close in proportion—the controller has brains—it can tell this valve, 'hey, open up a little bit.' One element, one feature can now add to play value to many different kids," Williams said.

"What you can do is tell that valve to turn on a little bit. It's programmed in a sequence—what will you do in the sequence for five minutes? I'll have it opened to 3 percent, and then maybe it turns off for 10 minutes. So, this would be [the way] we program them today, when we ship out a sprayground. We make a sequence of events that happen. So, the second feature of this new controller is now we have the brains to have it tell the valves to have it all the way on or off."

The third feature of the new controller is the number of things it can control—increased input and output capacity.

"So, in the old days, our old controller could control 29 features. The PCB was smart enough to handle 29 different things," Williams said. "The new controller can control [3,472] things. We can bring interactivity in a sprayground, which consists of the fun flow valve, turn water on and turn it off."

Williams explained that for a sprayground that has a helicopter and air traffic controller feature, for example, a child at the base of the aircraft with levers and switches activates features that shoot out water.

"So, throughout the whole park, it has an action and a reaction. Across the park, something happens or it shoots out of rocks," he said. "What this is doing for us is allowing us to really bring interactivity to a place where it's never been seen before."

Finally, the fourth feature involves controller communications and remote accessibility.

"We can access this controller from Ashland. We can turn it on by a smartphone," Williams said.

With the controller-initiated communication and remote accessibility feature, a sprayground can be controlled remotely using e-mail, a streaming webcam or text messaging. This allows for real-time status alerts about water quality, usage, backwash frequency and malfunction reports. Remote accessibility also enables easy access for technicians to fix problems outside of the scope of day-to-day maintenance technicians. The facility must have Internet access, though, in order for this to work.

To further address water treatment design, Forrest added that most aquatic play pad projects are "now using skid-mounted above grade WTS units. Due to confined space issues, ventilation, local regulations, etc., it is more practical to house the WTS within a vented building or kiosk."

"The WTS should be designed so that the programming of the pad can be changed [increase the number of valves (water features) on at once] without replacing pumps, etc. This is especially important to accommodate peak operating hours or special events where the programming is adjusted to suit the client's needs," Forrest said.

Meanwhile, "the use of UV in addition to traditional chlorine disinfection is quickly being adopted as the standard by health departments across North America. UV is the most effective means of killing recreational water-borne illnesses within aquatic play pads. The UV units must also be medium pressure, third part validated to be approved by most health departments," he said.

And, "Adding a diverter and strainer system between the aquatic play pad and the collection tank will greatly reduce the amount of unnecessary filtering, chemical balancing and power use due to water entering the tank during non-operational hours," Forrest added. "These can be operated by the main sequencing controller and will result in lower overall operating expenses."

Safety Measures

Without a doubt, sprayground safety continues to be an ongoing concern for parks and recreation. Whether it's the fear of children slipping and falling on concrete, or the risk of contracting a waterborne illness, parks and recreation departments are doing their best to alleviate such problems.

LaLonde said the industry still is trying to solve the safety surface issue. The problem with a rubberized surface is that, over time, it begins to decompose underneath the surface and falls apart. And, certainly, concrete surfaces solve that problem, but that is unsafe in a sense that if a child slips and falls, the potential to get hurt is higher.

"We're still working through this evolution," LaLonde said.

Moya went on to say that "Even if the facility was built with a pad that is textured properly and the concrete has a nice brushed surface, you will still have slips and falls," he said. "Children like to run and play, and without someone telling them to 'walk, not run,' there will always be a problem."

Nevertheless, "As pour-in-place rubber surfacing is becoming less common, designers are putting more thought into the final surface, especially with concrete. Acid etching, stamping and staining can help to complement a theme while providing excellent traction on wet feet," Forrest added.

Chuck Musgrave, AIA, principal, at Barker Rinker Seacat Architecture in Denver, Colo., also noted that slip resistance can be addressed by choosing the right concrete finish and making sure the contractor pays attention to the quality of the work.

But, besides the risk of falling, waterborne illnesses and even vandalism also are of serious concern.

"The operator must be capable of addressing the many incidents that occur. Blood-borne pathogens and fecal incidents are a couple of the many types of safety items that will happen," Moya said.

"Vandalism is a concern, [too], for most owner/operators during the summer months and even more during the nine months that a facility is not in operation. Our facilities are all fenced and do not see much vandalism. The features that are installed at most spraygrounds are very expensive and, during a poor economy, most owners will not be able to replace that piece of equipment if it is damaged," he said.

Staff Operations

By far, one of the enduring trends in many communities is how they control their operating expenses in an aquatic experience.

"Oftentimes, [communities] want to expand aquatics without expanding staff—for underserved portions of the community. Splashpads offer that opportunity in neighborhood parks, so people could walk, and not travel as much. And so, now we've reached a point where we provide something for underserved communities," Whiteaker said, adding that water sustainability and energy conservation are other ways being looked at to reduce the cost of operations.

In terms of staffing, Hancock said spraygrounds do not require staffing for supervision, but do require about an hour a day of cleaning and servicing the equipment as well as weekly draining the tank and refilling—which helps reduce the cost of operations, an ongoing issue for parks and recreation.

Still, operators need to be aware that maintenance of a sprayground can be labor-intensive.

"Many of the spray features will be clogged up with grass clippings and debris from the area. Spraygrounds must be inspected every day to properly address this issue. Spraygrounds acquire quite a bit of trash, band-aids and other debris from daily use and must be maintained for a clean and safe environment," Moya said.

For example, the city of Greeley operates its spraygrounds with an attendant present during operational hours. This does not follow the trends of stand-alone spraygrounds, though.

"Most cities build spraygrounds as facilities that do not require supervision. These facilities do not typically have bathhouses, offices or fences when they are built. I believe that this cuts down on construction and operational costs," Moya said. "I believe that non-staffed facilities operate with less cost and do not need to focus on items such as rentals, parties and special events. As long as the maintenance and upkeep is being monitored throughout the day, these facilities can see the same amount of attendance and will still be able to operate in a safe and clean environment.

"The one true benefit to having an attendant at the city of Greeley facilities is that they can monitor what is happening at each facility and if a blood-borne pathogen or fecal incident occurs, they can address it according to the state health code requirements," Moya said.

This, of course, cannot be achieved at spraygrounds that are unsupervised.

"Staff is always needed to define how an incident needs to be addressed. Staff can monitor and log the chemicals and make sure that the facility is operating within the parameters set by the state health codes and determine when the facility can be opened again," Moya added. "Cleanup of the facility can be addressed immediately instead of waiting for someone to show up after a report has been made. This goes a long way with our customers and that is what keeps them coming back."

The Benefits

The advantages of spraygrounds are numerous, and speak to the communities that host these facilities.

"The benefits of spraygrounds to the Greeley community are that we can offer free opportunities for the youth to participate in our aquatics programs. These facilities are different than many others because they are renovated pools, complete with all the amenities that pools offer. We still have a bathhouse with men's and women's locker rooms, plenty of storage, an office space and a mechanical room with more than enough room to work in," Moya said.

"The area is fully fenced in to provide year-round security for the spraygrounds. Fencing was kept at these facilities due to hosting rentals and parties before and after the daily free operational hours. This has allowed us to offer a controlled environment for our users and to be able to generate revenue at facilities that were planned to be fully subsidized."

The cost-effectiveness of spraygrounds is priceless, too.

Greeley said that commercial spraygrounds—in comparison to commercial-sized pools—are very cost effective.

"You can take a small 150,000-gallon rectangle competitive style pool and no amenities with an expense budget of $35,000 and revenue of possibly $10,000 would operate at a $25,000 loss," Greeley said.

"A sprayground built on the same layout as the pool can come in with an expense budget anywhere from $20,000 to $10,000 depending on how it is operated. The city of Greeley operates [its] spraygrounds in the ball park of $14,000, which includes one staff member/attendant during operational hours. The amount of revenue generated at these facilities helps recover operational costs," he said.

"Most spraygrounds do not operate with attendants. The reason for our staff is to monitor the mechanical/chemical room and participation at each facility by doing head counts. This person also provides a sense of security for the parents to know that there is someone around to assist with first aid incidents and to provide a safe environment," he said.

Hancock, project manager for Metro Parks Tacoma, said his community opened three spraygrounds about four years ago, and has plans to open up three more over the next couple of years.

"As one of the neighbors said one evening while watching his kids play in the sprayground, 'It's brought this neighborhood together because of its popularity,'" he said. And, "[It is] extremely cost-effective, especially after you factor in the hours that they are open and number of users."

And, Shuttleworth, of Bridgeport Parks and Recreation, also said spraygrounds have brought benefits to the community.

"We added our sprayground as an addition to our 20-year-old outdoor seasonal pool," Shuttleworth said. "We viewed it as an attraction. Being the first of its kind in the state of West Virginia, it has proven to be a big hit. It has reversed the downward trends we had been experiencing in regards to attendance, season pass sales and the increased attendance has led to dramatic increases in concession sales.

"It has provided a great 'curb appeal' to our facility as it is brightly colored and the amount of water (1200 gal/min) we pump to our sprayground is rather impressive when passing the facility. The reaction has been interesting. We have 'zones' in our design that separate younger and older children," Shuttleworth said. "We have some big water features that are very attractive to older ages of children including teenagers. Our toddler section is very popular with small water features. It is very common to see toddlers playing in the area for hours.

"As a recreation professional, I love to see the parent/grandparent/ children interaction. When first installed, I had grandmothers say, 'It looks so fun, I wish I could go in.' I have always told them to go enjoy it with their grandchildren," he added. "The features can be enjoyed by many age groups at the same time. We have had handicap and impaired children utilize the sprayground. It provides an opportunity for all ages and ability levels to interact and enjoy our facility. The city and our department have been very pleased with the end result, and the effects it has had on our bottom line."

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