A Look at Trends in Aquatic Facilities

By Emily Tipping

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, as recently as 2008, swimming was the second most popular sports activity in terms of participation, with 23.7 percent of people engaging in it at least six times per year. The following year, the National Sporting Goods Association pegged swimming as fourth in terms of total participation, surpassed only by exercise walking, exercising with equipment and camping.

Managing the facilities where millions of Americans fit in their water workouts and aquatic fun is no simple task, and the recent economic climate has had an impact, leading to many "pool closed" signs across the American landscape. That said, aquatics are alive and well for our survey respondents.

This year's response saw a slight increase in the number of respondents who report that their facilities include aquatics of some kind. Last year, 51.7 percent of respondents had aquatics. This year, that number has risen to 55.8 percent. (See Figure 34.)

Disinfection Systems

In recent years, innovative technologies for keeping water clean and safe have been gaining in popularity. With concern about chlorine-resistant pathogens at the forefront of many aquatic facility operators' minds, systems that provide extra protection are on the rise. In addition, UV disinfection systems are seeing growing use as concerns about indoor air quality receive more attention.

Of the systems covered by our survey, UV disinfection is the most commonly used, and is also the most common type of system facilities were planning to add.

UV systems were found most often among respondents from parks, where 17.5 percent of respondents have them. They were followed by YMCAs (17 percent), community centers (16 percent), health clubs (14.7 percent) and colleges (11.6 percent).

YMCAs were the most likely to be planning to add UV disinfection. Some 16 percent of aquatic respondents from YMCAs said they had such plans. They were followed by health clubs (14.7 percent) and parks (11 percent).

Saline chlorination systems were most commonly found among health clubs. More than a third (35.3 percent) of aquatic respondents from health clubs said they had saline chlorination systems. They also were the most likely to be planning to add these systems. Ozone systems also were most commonly found in health clubs, where 11.8 percent of aquatic respondents have them. Parks respondents were the most likely to report that they have plans to add ozone systems.

Aquatic Facility Types

The most prevalent type of aquatic facilities was outdoor swimming pools. Nearly three-quarters (74.1 percent) of respondents with aquatics reported that they include outdoor swimming pools in the mix. Another 64.5 percent have indoor pools, and 45.6 percent have splash play areas. Hot tubs, spas and whirlpools can be found among 42.6 percent of aquatic respondents, and nearly a quarter (23.3 percent) have waterparks. (See Figure 35.)

Indoor swimming pools were most prominent among YMCAs, colleges, schools and health clubs. The majority of respondents with aquatics from these types of facilities indicated that they had indoor pools: 86 percent of YMCA respondents, 85.6 percent of college respondents, 85.4 percent of schools respondents and 85.3 percent of health club respondents. Respondents from urban areas were more likely to include indoor pools than those from rural areas. Nearly six in 10 (59.9 percent) urban respondents with aquatics had indoor pools, compared with 46.5 percent of those in rural areas. Regionally, indoor pools were more prevalent in colder regions, including the Northeast, where 58.5 percent of respondents with aquatics had indoor pools, and the Midwest (57.6 percent.)

Outdoor pools were most commonly found in camp facilities, where 95 percent of respondents with aquatics had outdoor pools. They were followed by parks: 78.3 percent of parks respondents with aquatics had outdoor pools. Interestingly, 100 percent of respondents from golf/country clubs indicated that they have an outdoor pool. Outdoor pools were more prevalent in suburban areas, where 65.3 percent of respondents with aquatics had outdoor pools, while they were less prevalent in urban communities, where 58.7 percent of respondents had outdoor pools. And, just as indoor pools were more common in the cooler regions, outdoor pools predominate in the warmer regions, led by the West, where 70.2 percent of respondents with aquatics had outdoor pools, the South Central region (69.2 percent) and the South Atlantic (68.8 percent).

Nearly half (48.5 percent) of parks respondents with aquatic facilities indicated that they have splash play areas. A little more than one-third (34.6 percent) of community center respondents with aquatics included splash play areas. This type of facility was far more common in urban areas, where 41.7 percent of aquatic respondents had splash play, than in rural areas, where just 19.1 percent had them. Regionally, the Midwest and West lead this area, with 35 percent of Midwestern aquatic respondents and 34.5 percent of Western aquatic respondents reporting that they have splash play areas. Regionally, they were least common in the Northeast, where a quarter (25.1 percent) of aquatic respondents said they had splash play areas.

Waterparks were most common among aquatic respondents from parks (21.4 percent) and resorts (21.2 percent). Community-wise, they tend to be found more in suburban areas, where 49.1 percent have waterparks, vs. rural areas, where 46.9 percent have them. Regionally, they are most prevalent in the Northeast. More than half (52.6 percent) of Northeastern aquatic respondents reported that they had waterparks. They were followed by the South Atlantic region, where 49.8 percent of aquatic respondents had waterparks. Waterparks were chosen less often by aquatic respondents from the Midwest, though 45 percent of these respondents indicated that their facilities include a waterpark.

Going Solar

With energy conservation measures a top method of saving money at facilities across the board (see page 17), it should come as no surprise that solar pool heating appears on the list of top planned additions at aquatic facilities.

Currently, solar pool heating is most commonly found among respondents from community centers (10 percent) and parks (7 percent). In the next three years, respondents from camps and YMCAs were most likely to be planning to add solar pool heating.

Regionally, solar pool heating is most likely to be found in the West, where 11.1 percent of aquatic respondents reported that they use solar power to heat their pools. They were followed by the Midwest (5.8 percent).

Respondents from the Northeast were most likely to be planning to add solar pool heating. Around 7 percent of aquatic respondents from this region said they have such plans. They were followed by the West, where 5.5 percent have such plans, and the South Atlantic, where 5.4 percent plan to add solar pool heating.

Hot tubs, spas and whirlpools were a popular choice for health clubs, where more than three-quarters (76.5 percent) of aquatic respondents had them. They were followed by YMCAs (61 percent). Around a third of suburban aquatic respondents (33.2 percent) and urban aquatic respondents 31.1 percent) said they included hot tubs, spas or whirlpools in their facilities, while less than a quarter (24 percent) of aquatic respondents from rural areas had them. Regionally, 37.9 percent of aquatic respondents from the West had hot tubs. This compares with just 22.4 percent of South Central states.

The use of the aquatic facilities covered by the survey was heavily dominated by leisure and recreation. Only 1.3 percent of facilities were used for competition only. More than half (53 percent) were used for a combination of competition and leisure. Another 45.6 percent were used for leisure and recreation only. (See Figure 36.)

Facilities designated for competition only were primarily found among respondents working at colleges and universities, and schools and school districts. At college facilities, just 34.6 percent of aquatic respondents said their pools were meant for leisure and recreation only, while 62.6 percent said their pools are used for a combination of leisure and competition. Another 2.8 percent said their pools were for competition only. At school districts, 4.9 percent of aquatic respondents said their facilities were for leisure and recreation, while 78 percent were for a combination of leisure and competition, and 17.1 percent were for competition only.

Aquatics and Finances

While operating budgets among facilities of all types are still struggling to reach pre-recession levels, aquatic facilities, after seeing a drop in fiscal 2010, are expected to recover this year. In fiscal 2010, aquatic respondents report they saw a drop of 2.3 percent from the average operating budget level reported for fiscal 2009 by last year's survey respondents, from $432,000 in fiscal 2009 to $422,000 in fiscal 2010. However, respondents projected that aquatic operating expenditures would rise by 5.5 percent from 2010 to 2011, and by another 4.5 percent from 2011 to 2012. (See Figure 37.)

Respondents from parks tended to be among those with the highest average operating expenditures for aquatics. This could be because parks respondents were also more likely to be operating multiple facilities. Their average expenditure for fiscal 2010, for example, was $508,000, 20.4 percent higher than the average for all aquatic respondents.

Around a third of respondents with aquatic facilities reported that their revenues had increased from 2009 to 2010. Similar numbers project increases in 2011 and 2012, as well. From 2009 to 2010, 32 percent of respondents said their revenues had grown, while 33.1 percent are expecting to see an increase in 2011, and 32.6 percent expect an increase in 2012. More than half said their revenues would be steady over this same period, with 53.3 percent reporting their revenues for 2010 were the same as 2009, 56.6 percent expecting revenues to hold steady in 2011, and 59.2 percent expecting the same in 2012.

The number of respondents with aquatic facilities who are seeing revenues fall is declining steadily. In last year's survey, 21.1 percent in saw revenues drop from 2008 to 2009, and 14.7 percent this year saw a drop in revenues from 2009 to 2010. Just 10.2 percent expect to see a decrease in 2011, and 8.2 percent projected a decrease in 2012.

On Guard!

The majority of respondents with aquatic facilities indicated that they have a lifeguard on duty during all hours of operation. Some 84.8 percent said they currently have lifeguards working during operating hours.

Respondents from YMCAs were most likely to have lifeguards on staff. Almost every YMCA respondents with aquatics (99 percent) said they have a lifeguard working when the pool is open. They were followed by parks (92.5 percent) and colleges (90.6 percent).

Respondents from health clubs were least likely to have a lifeguard working during all hours of operation, and, just 41.2 percent of aquatic respondents at health clubs said they have a lifeguard working the whole time the pool is open.

Aquatic Programming

A substantial majority of respondents whose facilities include aquatics indicated that they currently offer programs of some kind. Some 93.7 percent currently include programming at their facilities. The top programs include:

  1. Leisure swim (89.9 percent)
  2. Learn-to-swim for children (80.8 percent)
  3. Lap swim (76.3 percent)
  4. Lifeguard training (74.9 percent)
  5. Aquatic exercise programs (69.4 percent)
  6. Learn-to-swim for adults (62.6 percent)
  7. Water safety programs (61.7 percent)
  8. Youth swim teams (55.5 percent)
  9. Swim meets and competitions (52.7 percent)
  10. Special needs aquatic programs (37.6 percent)

Swimming lessons for children as well as adults are most common among YMCAs, where 99 percent of respondents with aquatics reported they offer this type of programming. They were followed by health clubs (88.2 percent), community centers (85.2 percent), parks (84.6 percent) and school (80.5 percent).

Also the domain of YMCAs is lifeguard training offered by 90 percent of these respondents, as well as aquatic exercise, offered by 96 percent. They also lead the way in water safety and special needs programs, with 81 percent offering water safety programs, and 67 percent offering special needs programs.

Health clubs were most likely to offer lap swimming. This type of program can be found at 97.1 percent of health clubs with aquatics. Health clubs also were second most likely to include aquatic exercise (after YMCAs), with 91.2 percent of health clubs with aquatic offering it. In addition, 82.4 percent of health clubs offer learn-to-swim programs for adults.

At schools and school districts, 90.2 percent of respondents with aquatics offer swim teams, and 87.8 percent said they have swim meets and competitions. Swim teams were also common at college aquatic facilities, where 71.3 percent said they have swim teams. Diving teams can be found at 56.1 percent of schools with aquatics, and 35.3 percent of colleges. Water polo can be found at 41.4 percent of colleges, and 19.5 percent of schools.

One program that did not appear in the 10 most common programs, aqua-therapy, was notably popular among health club respondents. More than three-quarters (76.5 percent) of those with aquatic programming said they offer aqua-therapy.

Around one-fifth (20.1 percent) of aquatic respondents reported that they have plans to increase aquatic programming over the next three years. Here are the top 10 planned program additions among these respondents:

  1. Special needs aquatic programs (32.7 percent of respondents who plan to add aquatic programming)
  2. Learn-to-swim for adults (23.5 percent)
  3. Aquatic exercise programs (23.5 percent)
  4. Learn-to-swim for children (22.6 percent)
  5. Water safety programs (19.4 percent)
  6. Aqua-therapy (18.9 percent)
  7. Lifeguard training (17.1 percent)
  8. Adult swim teams (16.6 percent)
  9. Youth swim teams (15.2 percent)
  10. Swim meets and competitions (13.4 percent)

Compliance Questions

While more respondents reported this year that they are in compliance with the Virginia Graeme Baker Act, there is still a substantial percentage who do not know if they are in compliance or not.

Last year, 76.8 percent of respondents indicated that they are in compliance with the act, which aims to prevent entrapment by requiring specific types of drain covers and, in some cases, safety vacuum release systems. This year, that number jumped to 79.1 percent.

At the same time, 20.1 percent of respondents this year indicated that they do not know if they are in compliance. (See Figure 38.)

Tom Lachocki, Ph.D., CEO of the National Swimming Pool Foundation (NSPF), said these results are less surprising when you consider how few states require any type of education for pool operators. "In my role in the foundation, the focus on education is important," he said. "Yet we still live in a country where more than half of the states have no verifiable minimal educational requirement for people operating public pools. It's tragic."

He added, "The question that comes up is, who's letting them know that there's a pool and spa safety act? Who's letting them know there are new ADA requirements? Who's telling them about advances in RWI prevention? Drowning prevention? Reduction in chemical exposure?"

The first module of the new Model Aquatic Health Code (MAHC) is entirely focused on operator training.

"The science is obvious," Lachocki said, "that even a little basic training will help people understand and prevent risks. … The standard of care in our field has evolved to having a basic minimal training for people who take care of pools."

He emphasized that this is not a four-year degree, but a simple two-day class, and many can complete their training online via e-learning.

"Is someone taking a class like this going to become an expert in preventing every type of risk? No. But they'll become more aware of what the risks are to raise issues with management or subordinates operating the pools to make those things go away. We can't expect people to eliminate risks when they don't even know the risks exist."

Outfitting the Pool

Most swimming pools these days are far more than a rectangle with some water. When it comes to added features, aquatics respondents have plenty, from accessibility equipment to water play elements and more.

The top 10 features currently included as part of our aquatics respondents facilities include:

  1. Pool lift/accessibility equipment (52.8 percent)
  2. Diving boards (44.8 percent)
  3. Zero-depth entry (38.6 percent)
  4. Waterslides (38.5 percent)
  5. Water play structures (32.8 percent)
  6. UV disinfection system (15.7 percent)
  7. Saline chlorination system (14.2 percent)
  8. Poolside cabanas (12.8 percent)
  9. Lazy river (11.9 percent)
  10. Ozone system (6.8 percent)

The most common item, pool lifts and accessibility equipment, has the highest penetration among respondents from YMCAs, where 70 percent of aquatic respondents said they have them. They were followed by health clubs, where more than two-thirds (67.6 percent) of aquatic respondents said they have them.

Possibly driven by recent updates to ADA standards that require greater accessibility at aquatic facilities, pool lifts and accessibility equipment were also the most commonly planned addition at aquatic facilities over the next three years. Some 29.3 percent of aquatic respondents said they plan to add to their facilities in the next several years, and 40.4 percent of these indicated that they plan to add pool lifts or accessibility equipment. These plans were most prominent among health club respondents, where 20.6 percent plan to add accessibility equipment. They were followed by camps (15 percent), schools (14.6 percent), YMCAs (14 percent) and community centers (13.6 percent).

Tom Lachocki, Ph.D., CEO of the National Swimming Pool Foundation (NSPF), tied the prevalence of plans to add accessibility equipment with the increasing popularity in our survey of special needs programs, which nearly a third (32.7 percent) of respondents with plans to add programs are anticipating will join their roster of activities.

"It correlates to a focus on accessibility, and it's logical that you're seeing both of those," he said. "They likely are responding to ADA updates and are saying, 'If I have to make it accessible, the next obvious step should be to have programs to better reach the accessibility-challenged populations'."

In addition to complying with new requirements under the law, improving accessibility also can help facilities adapt to an growing population of aging users, Lachocki added.

"When you think of an aging society, as we get more challenged, getting around on our feet, getting exercise in the water takes away substantial risk in terms of falling and hurting yourself," he said.

Balance training and fall prevention are a great way to help the aging population improve the ability to age in place. Lachocki indicated that a speaker at the World Aquatic Health Conference in Seattle, Oct. 12 to 14, will be speaking on this topic. "It's my recollection that exercise helps with balance for elderly citizens," he said, "and the water is a great environment to do that."

In addition to accessibility equipment, respondents indicated they are planning to add the following elements to their facilities over the next three years:

  1. UV disinfection systems
  2. Water play structures
  3. Waterslides
  4. Zero-depth entry
  5. Solar pool heating
  6. Poolside cabanas
  7. Saline chlorination systems
  8. Lazy river
  9. Ozone system


In a trend not covered by our survey, Tom Lachocki, Ph.D., CEO of the National Swimming Pool Foundation (NSPF) noted that the industry has seen an emerging trend of collaboration between entities.

"We're a relatively small organization, and changing the world by ourselves is unrealistic," he said. "But you're seeing groups putting things together that are growing in impact."

In other words, various organizations from across the industry are working together to make a bigger impact on the aquatics industry.

Some examples of these initiatives Lachocki cited include:

  • World's Largest Swim Lesson: On June 14, 2011, a host of organizations, including the World Waterpark Association (WWA), Association of Pool and Spa Professionals (APSP), the International Swimming Hall of Fame, National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA), Swim for Life Foundation and many others are sponsoring an event that will bring thousands of people in countries around the world together to have fun in the water and learn about the importance of teaching children to swim as a drowning prevention measure. (Learn more about the event at:
  • National Water Safety Month takes place in May, and is supported by the APSP, NRPA, WWA and others. Learn more about it at
  • The Model Aquatic Health Code saw its first module released recently. This collaborative effort between the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), NSPF and others, aims to create a model and guide for local and state agencies to help them update or implement standards to govern the design, construction, operation and maintenance of swimming pools and other treated aquatic facilities. Learn more about this effort at
  • RWI Prevention Week is also sponsored by the CDC, and takes place the week before Memorial Day. It aims to educate swimmers and pool operators about simple steps to ensure a healthy, safe swimming experience, Learn more at

"The NSPF has a unique perspective on many future activities because we fund research and are also the primary disseminators and empowerers of people disseminating scientific research," Lachocki said. "For example, the American Chemistry Council is working with NSPF to solicit proposals for disinfection byproduct research. And there is a large spectrum of organizations contributing to research on filtration and removing Crypto from the water."

The World Aquatic Health Conference, taking place in Seattle on Oct. 12 to 14 this year, is a primary venue for hearing about what is emerging from these collaborations, as well as the most recent scientific findings.

"Just 10 years ago, there was no conference and no scientific journal," Lachocki said. "Now we can highlight new advances and focus on what the science is teaching us, vs. whatever story we come up with in a marketing department. The field is moving in a positive direction."

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