Maintenance & Operations: Spraygrounds

Playing With Water
Sprayground Operations

By Tammy York

One of the ongoing trends in public aquatic recreation facilities is to amplify the opportunities for younger children while decreasing the risks to both the children and the managing organization responsible for the facility. At the same time, older pools either need to be replaced or have major repairs.

Pool facilities have an inherent liability problem and must address the safety of the pool-goers through various means, including trained lifeguards to supervise the activities and staff members knowledgeable about maintaining water quality. Facilities running on government dollars and under continual budget cuts may not have the money to hire the staff needed, and in some cases there simply aren't enough qualified professionals to keep the pool open. This leaves management with no alternative but to close the pool facilities.

This intersection of events has led many facilities across the United States to opt for water playground installations, also known as spraygrounds, spray parks, splashpads and splash play areas. These elements are installed on a flat non-slippery surface and spray the water into the air. "With no standing water you don't have the water depth, therefore, you don't need as much supervision," said Wyeth Tracey, president of a Markham, Ontario-based manufacturer of splash play and other aquatic play equipment. The primary benefit of a water playground is there is no standing water and, therefore, no risk of drowning.

"There are a lot of requests for spray park additions next to pools because it is a feature that they can keep open during longer times," said Chris Thomas, marketing and advertising manager with a San Marcos, Texas-based spray park manufacturer. "Clients want to be water-wise and water-conscious, and splashpads has been an answer to that."

The elements included in water playgrounds vary dramatically, as do the various approaches to creating the water playground. What initially started out as stainless steel pipes drilled with holes has morphed into an extremely diverse industry where creative masterminds are only limited by budget and the size of the site.

Vivid Variety

Some water playgrounds are not much more than a flat concrete surface with a few drains and a few simple water spray elements, such as a mushroom in which the water bubbles out of the top and over the sides creating a long sheet of water for the children to duck through, an arch that has several nozzles that spray the water under the arch, or a geyser that shoots the water up from the ground.

"We started with pipe structures, colorful coatings and simple shapes," Thomas said. "We hired creative people with skilled backgrounds in theme-park style attractions and now we offer faux rocks, stainless steel and hand-carved foam, which is covered in a specialty coating system."

Simply due to the size and scope of the sprayground business, facilities can pick and choose who to work with. In deciding to add a water playground, you will need to choose elements that target your demographic and determine where it is to be installed, who is installing it, how many gallons of water are needed for the system to operate properly, what kind of sanitization and filtration system is needed, and if you are going to install water- and energy-saving devices.

Upgraded Pool Amenities

Many older aquatic facilities are undergoing redesign to increase their revenues by adding a splash play area.

"The main trend is facilities are including water playgrounds where before there was just a conventional pool," Tracey said. "In waterparks, they kind of forgot about the little ones, and now they are realizing the little ones are the ones who bring the family to the waterpark."

The primary benefit of a water playground is there is no standing water and, therefore, no risk of drowning.

Most vendors of splash play equipment offer the elements in a rainbow-candy-colored array of choices. These bright reds, greens, yellows, purples and oranges are highly visible and are a beacon to anyone under the age of 10. Additional features such as enormous tipping buckets, two-story tall blue herons and themed water playgrounds are also huge draws.

"You can have features that are geared toward toddlers and features geared toward tweens," said Patricia Rotschild, marketing and design specialist with a Pointe-Claire, Quebec-based splashpad manufacturer. Different components attract different audiences, all within the same water playground.

"There was such a glut of wading pools to address small children. The pools are an expensive amenity and upkeep is problematic," said Greg Stoks, principal with a Minneapolis-based manufacturer of splash play equipment. Several locations with wading pools needing repairs are changing over to a water playground because it is usually most feasible economically to retrofit the area with a new sprayground system rather than a new wading pool.

"Wading pools are easily converted to splashpads because the dimensions can remain the same and the maintenance costs with a splashpad are much lower than with any kind of pool," said Rotschild. "There is no standing water so it is much safer for all children than a swimming pool, so you don't need a lifeguard present."

Water playground structures that are colorful and exciting are a lot more attractive than a wading pool with just standing water. And the addition of a water playground provides young children a safe place to play, explore and learn on their own under the supervision of their parents. "The secret is that the parents can relax and have a more enjoyable day because they aren't on the whole time. They can take a break on the sidelines or take part in the play," Tracey said.


Just like a theme park, themed water playgrounds are designed to capture the child's imagination. "Theming appeals to kids because there is a general theme, whether it is turtles and crabs, fire engines and trains, pirate ships or treehouses," Thomas said.

Each theme has different features kids can interact with.

"Aquatic centers want a theme to reaffirm their brand," said Thomas. A good example is Wolf Lodge water playgrounds. Wolf Mountain rises out of a shallow pool to a towering height of about 30 feet. The rocky mountain terrain has a wolf guarding the top and when the wolf howls a sheet of water cascades onto the kids below.

With customized themes, a water playground is changed from the perception of a fancy sprinkler system to a destination location for families to come and enjoy time together and appreciate the park's amenities.

Water Quality

"Clients often think that they can use their existing filtration system, but generally the regulations for filtration for a spray park are different from a pool because you have a lot of trafficking in and out from the kids, and you might have animals during the nighttime," said Tracey.

There are two choices on water sources for a water playground. The greenest is to recirculate the water. The other is called a domestic system, also referred to as a single path. This system pulls water from the water provider, the water sprays through the features of the water playground, and drains to a collection pond or underground holding tanks. From there, reenters the atmosphere through evaporation or the aquifer. Most ponds will not have the capacity to handle the amount of water coming off of the water playground and overflows will occur and go to a stormwater outlet.

The water held in the underground tanks can be used to irrigate the surrounding landscapes. What most people fail to realize, or simply don't know, is that an average water playground will produce about 40,000 to 50,000 gallons a day. That is a lot of water to capture and reuse in a day, every day of the week.

Sprayground element providers across the board warn that while the domestic water system is cheaper on the front end than a recirculating system, the costs can quickly add up when you factor in the expense of water over the life of the system. "The first and foremost important green decision is to analyze the actual water usage, which might be 10 to 15 million gallons during the summer time, and at .002 cents a gallon that is $30,000 dollars a year in water," said Stoks.

"If the size warrants reusing the water or the area has water restrictions, then a recirculating system that cleans and sanitizes the water needs to be installed," Rotschild said.

Plus, as people become more conscious of water usage there is a growing trend away from single flow use and to a system that filters and sanitizes the water before recirculating it through the water playground features.

"Environmentally you really should recirculate the water because water is a precious commodity," said Tracey. "You can put a controller on the facilities, which limits the amount of water used. That is one way of limiting the water usage."

As a sprayground manager, you likely want to conserve the amount of energy and water expended. For example, if there is no one playing in an area you wouldn't want the water flowing. By adding controllers, you can manage the system activation by motion sensors or user activations.

Motion sensors detect motion and allow the water to flow into the feature for a set amount of time. User-activated typically feature a button that the children depress, which allows for the water to flow from the water element for a set amount of time.

"The customer has a lot of control over how much water is used," Thomas said. There is also the option of water-conserving nozzles that reduce the amount of water used without diminishing the effect.

"Water cannons and tipping buckets don't use that much water and are big structure for visual impact," said Tracey. Finer spray nozzles and ground jets set at lower levels so they don't spray as high will result in less water usage.

Water playgrounds can also use a limiter on how many gallons of water per minute is being used at any given time. This means that when the activation devices are started, only some devices that will work at one time.

Another way to reduce water flow and to keep kids moving about the water playground is the sequencer. This sequences the water flow through the water playground to create water venues that have a few moments of water flow before the water flow moves to the next area.

"It is a small computer that runs a solenoid valve that opens and closes elements at certain times so you don't have everything on at once. It can be quite animated so you can make it fun while you are also limiting the amount of water used," said Tracey. "Kids love to turn things on and they will line up behind activation posts." The system will run for a set time period and stop automatically.

Materials and Design

Structures made from stainless steel are durable but costly. Fiberglass structures are less expensive but can be damaged by vandalism. "About 70 percent of our clients would rather go with a fiberglass structure than stainless steel because they aren't worried about it being vandalized," said Stoks.

"We do use fiberglass for manufacturing vaults and buckets, but typically we don't manufacture things out of fiberglass that can come into contact with kids or be easily vandalized," said Thomas.

Artisans with sculpting backgrounds hand-carve the foam into the sculptural pieces which are then specialty coated in bright attractive colors that hold up to chemicals and ultraviolet light, and makes them fun and safe for aquatic play.

"With fiberglass there is no metal that can rust. In the heat of summer, the plastic doesn't heat up as much as steel and it doesn't attract electricity," said Tracey. Chlorinated water is caustic to metals and will turn them brown. Fiberglass is a space age material that is very durable and won't get brittle for 20 years. However, the fiberglass must be thick enough to handle the daily beating of the crowd.

Be aware of who will be using the water playground and design it to meet their needs. You can incorporate several venues within one water playground by developing appropriate play zones.

"Most everyone has a demographic of toddlers to tweens," said Stoks. Create a toddler island area with low, calm soothing-type effects 12 to 18 inches in height, well out of the pathway of older kids. The older kids need robust, dynamic zones that are interactive and that they can influence without interfering with the younger audience. Robust features include tumble buckets, spray guns, water cannons and multi-play climb structures.

"Intensively interactive play structures empower the kids to make different things happen. By turning a wheel they can vary the outcome. It is an education tool, and they learn about pressure and about water flow. The kids are in charge," said Tracey. Throughout your water playground add interactive activities on each element.

With smaller cities and parks looking to add amenities without breaking their budgets, adding a sprayground next to a standard playground is becoming popular. These smaller water playgrounds have a handful of features typically on a concrete pad or a specialty designed pad. Small water playgrounds are becoming so popular and in demand they are showing up at aquariums and zoos as well as condos and malls.

"Use a local engineer and a local pool contractor to make decisions," said Tracey. Splash play manufacturers typically create only the features and controllers, and it is up to you to assemble a team, starting with your aquatic consultant, that can help you figure out your local regulations for water usage, filtration and sanitization, as well as assemble the team to handle the excavation, substructure and installation.

Before you begin your project, consider the size and usage. "If you put in a water playground that is too small and it is overcrowded, then that's a problem," said Tracey. "Proper water quality is crucial, and there must be fail-safes, so if the water quality isn't what it should be, the system is shut down."

Plus, a water playground isn't maintenance-free. Regular scheduled maintenance and ongoing monitoring are important to keeping the system up and operational. Many of your headaches can be prevented later by selecting a high-quality product that is going to withstand high usage and exposure to UV and chlorine.

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