Splash Down!

Splashpads Arriving in Style

By Kelli Anderson

Whether jumping through the oscillating fan of a sprinkler, cooling off our friends with a garden hose or experiencing the thrill of an urban geyser gushing from a hydrant, who doesn't remember the summertime fun of splashing in water?

When spray parks and splashpads made their debut over a decade ago, they were clearly tapping into the kid in all of us. But they are also tapping into today's pressing issues of water conservation, parents' heightened concerns for safety, the never-ending search for more revenue and more multipurpose usage for the buck. There is a reason the splash park industry continues to see a steady climb in interest and sales.

Bring in the Crowds

Probably the greatest increase in splashpad and spray park growth is in existing aquatic recreational facilities that see the value of its ability to draw in the crowds while virtually negating the need for additional staffing. For aging community pools needing an infusion of new excitement, splashpads have been a great solution.

"Our splashpad feature is in our zero-entry pool, installed there in the summer of 2011," said Todd Spalding, director of parks and recreation in Belton, Mo., about the latest addition to the Belton Aquatic Center. "We were able to combine a lot of things in a small space. I think where we succeeded is we were pretty in tune with what our community wanted and we listened well."

Apparently, others are listening too. According to Joseph Brusseau, president and owner of Brusseau Design Group LLC in Hoffman Estates, Ill., a lot of clients are trying to make their pools and existing aquatic facilities more exciting, and find that splashpads help in generating more pool pass sales. Not only that, they also help extend the swimming pool season.

"There are times after Labor Day when it's still 90 degrees out, so it gives an opportunity to use an aquatic facility after the pool season without having to staff it," Brusseau explained of the trend he is seeing. "Some communities are building them in open parks and we're doing that too, but the majority are related to an existing aquatic facility."

In many cases, older pools are simply being replaced by spray parks like the Highland Park Splash Pad in Cottage Grove, Minn., that replaced the city's 1963 municipal pool. The former pool's lack of use and declining revenue finally made way for the city's current three-bay splashpad system that provides multiple play features for a wide range of ages and abilities.

And the wide range of people these splashpads and spray parks attract is notable. As the community of Oxford, Mich., discovered at the opening of their park in 2009, the popularity of their spray park has been almost overwhelming.

"We average 15,000 to 20,000 kids a year (not counting parents) at our park from Memorial Day through Labor Day from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m." said Ron Davis, director of parks and recreation since 1995 for the Oxford township parks and recreation department. "In the past, the picnic shelter adjacent to the new park was hardly ever used. Now, since the splashpad, those pavilions are used so often we have to split the time to rent them. It's overwhelming how many want to use it. It's bringing in tremendous amounts of people to our community where people wouldn't normally come—busloads from schools, foster care and day care centers."

But he isn't complaining. Although the attraction is free to residents, it adds revenue ($4/non-resident) and it has also brought new awareness of and increased participation in existing recreation programs. And its many ADA-friendly designs like the wheelchair-activated mechanisms make it enjoyable for almost every age and ability.

According to Mark Reid, general manager at Lakewood Cove Center in Lee's Summit, Mo., when their pool renovation with spray features was installed in 2012, its popularity affected more than just the park district's revenue. "We have been extremely pleased with the high levels of customer satisfaction we have obtained," Reid said of their newest attraction. "And it has enhanced the marketing and value for our new and existing home sales."

Another trend in the past few years for spray parks has been the addition of lights to the parks that can transform their purpose and extend their use into the night. "We're starting to see lots of requests of lighting the spray parks so they are used as a multipurpose facility vs. just during the day," said Chris Thomas, marketing director since 2007 for one company in the industry. "It's park play by day and then sequenced lights for aesthetics without water during the night and the off-season. Facilities are looking to keep a facility open and not dormant during three to five months out of the year."

Counting the Cost

But whether they are bringing in more money for water play (for those that charge fees or attract more people to existing programs) or bringing smiles for their nighttime appeal, these spaces also save money.

Another trend in the past few years for spray parks has been the addition of lights to the parks that can transform their purpose and extend their use into the night.

"From a pool to a spray park, you're saving on staffing and on water," Thomas said. "Everyone is trying to be more innovative with water conservation while also adding play value to make it more entertaining like sequencing the water with on and off jets that pop so that it looks like it's using water all day but it's actually conserving water and adding interactivity."

Other spray effects like misters and small streams in conjunction with entertaining water dances and timed jets add to the ever-evolving, bright eye-candy features and themed designs that can trace their origins to the goal of greater water conservation.

Inherent to the water savings of these recreational spaces are the ways in which they use water. Systems for these parks and pads are either enclosed recycled systems that use a filtration and chemical treatment or they are flow-through (water to waste). There are several advantages to a flow-through system. Not only do they not need to be filtered or treated chemically (eliminating those associated costs, as well as the staff needed to maintain and operate those systems), but they also lend themselves to easy adaptation for reuse, a trend that continues to result in ever-increasing creative applications.

"One trend we are seeing now is reuse of water," said Bill Hachmeister, a national sales manager of 10 years with a splashpad manufacturing company. "Used water is often sent to retention ponds and used for irrigation and even urban gardening." One such visionary idea that is currently being investigated is the use of reclaimed water for aquaponics, a system that creates organic food using fish and water without soil.

In the case of Edson Splash Park, the water system being designed there most definitely has flexibility in mind. "The town decided to use a potable water system in this design with future plans to recapture the water and reuse it for irrigation in the park," said Shelley Robinson, a splash park sales representative working closely with the town on this project. "When deciding on what type of system you will require, first check with local parks departments to discuss their local standards, then meet with a splash park specialist and discuss your vision. In that discussion the overall usage of your splash park design will be considered to determine what type of system will be most effective and best suited your project."

Used water from flow-through systems is seldom wasted (thanks to our current culture's heightened interest in being eco-friendly and financially frugal). As a result, used water is often designed to drain into a percolation system like a leach field where water is directed into an underground gravel pit where it slowly seeps back into the water aquifer. Even for less porous clay soils where they may have to drill several hundred feet to drain the water back into an aquifer, it is still often less expensive than a recirculation system.

However, even with enclosed systems that require filtration and chemical treatment (usually the best choice when high-use situations call for over 150 gallons of water per minute), there is still a cost savings when compared to the costs of the much higher water volume and treatments of running a pool.

To decide on which system is best to use, spray park and splashpad manufacturers can help determine which system is best, but it is essential that a community or facility first talk to local departments about standards and regulations.

Multifunctional Benefits

Although at first glance more water restrictions and regulations demanding that communities do more with less may seem like bad news, the fact is that greater restrictions have actually become a catalyst for creative problem-solving and innovative design.

In the case of the Oxford community in Michigan, their out-of-the-box ingenuity has resulted in a splash park that does far more than entertain. The splash park uses free well water that does not require filtering or treatment. And once it is used in the splash park, it is drained away underground to a water retention pond that in winter is frozen for skating and in summer is used to irrigate the formerly water-starved ballfields. It is even available as a resource for the fire department.

These creative applications were the result of an evolution of ideas that began with local input. "It's crucial, like any project to do your homework and to talk to other professions to recommend specific companies," Davis said about their planning process. "We had a committee driven by people in our community with a lot of input from families and children including those with disabilities who got involved."

With so many invested in the concept, the result was a colorful park tailored to the wants and needs of a variety of children, including those with physical and cognitive disabilities. But whether your approach is a test group or community group or doing a splashpad study (as the Highland's Park Splash Pad project did to review the various vendors, equipment options or cost/usage estimates), probably the most important consideration is location, location, location.

Location Is Key

"We performed a site/location matrix where we prioritized preferred sties," Dockter said of the due-diligence needed to get the project done right. "The ultimate goal was to make sure the splashpad we built had a broad range of usage (no limit on age, ability, etc.), was easily visible and accessible to the public, and would bring the community together." To that end, Dockter said that the design process was fairly intense and advises that anyone considering building a splashpad really take the time necessary to analyze location.

Because splashpads are known to draw a crowd, their location can also help to transform an underperforming recreational area into a hub of social activity, as did the Highland's Park Splash Pad that has since helped to revitalize an existing community park.

"The splashpad in Cottage Grove has turned a fairly underutilized park into a gathering place for the community," Dockter explained. "On any given day, you'll find hundreds of people of all makes and walks of life enjoying not only the splashpad, but the playground, ball fields, courts, picnicking facilities and trails. Residents are making and or/rekindling connections that may not have existed without this recreational feature."

The location of the spray pad also played a key role in the Lee's Summit project. Reid's group found that one way to help determine the best location was doing a placement study of the wind and sun position to ensure minimal water loss and to keep patrons out of wind-driven spray. However, location also needs to take other important factors into account as well. Surrounding trees, for example, may create a problem in spring or fall when falling leaves, seeds or flowers may create a maintenance headache.

But also important, apart from the overall location of the park, is what will be located within and around it. "When planning a splash park I am finding the things that are most often forgotten about—but so important—" Robinson said, "come from the start in location is their parking, shade and seating."

Given that day cares and schools often flock to splashpads for their entertainment value, their exceptionally safe features (read: no standing water and little need to supervise) and relative affordability, it is essential to plan for ample parking, to have enough property to buffer neighbors and to provide important amenities.

Amenities Make the Difference

Because splashpads are known to draw a crowd, their location can also help to transform an under-performing recreational area into a hub of social activity.

"Splashpads alone will draw a crowd, but surrounding the splashpad with other amenities is the difference between good and great," Dockter said, underscoring the importance of considering all the necessary elements of a splash park.

To match the right amenities to the space, designers and planners need to ask such questions as where the park will be located, what demographic will be using it, whether there will be bicycle racks needed, where shade should be provided, how to provide beverages or drinking water, if baby-changing stations or bathrooms are needed, and if concessions are desired, in what form?

According to Brusseau, in his design experience, shade elements, restrooms and changing areas are exceedingly important elements. If there is the opportunity, he also suggests that vending machines added to the space can be a very nice feature, as are picnic tables where people can enjoy their lunches. As with any project, however, it is important to pay attention to good landscaping as well—especially if it is a very visible site—and to provide parking not just for cars but to also install bike racks for cyclists.

For many parks, splash play areas are free of charge but for those who plan to charge admission, fencing the area and staffing the entrance to welcome visitors and to oversee the safety of patrons and of the facility will be a must.

Design for Success

Another important consideration are the age groups who will be using the area and their proximity to any existing aquatic recreational features such a as pool or waterpark. At the Lakewood Cove Center, it was important that the design layout take different age groups into account.

"Our prime objective was to create a safe aquatic experience for our toddlers and small children," Reid explained. "We additionally wanted a fun 'cool off' area for older children and their parents." By placing the toddler and small child features near the back of the spray pad near the sunshade, they were able to allow older children to better enjoy the larger features without any pressure from younger children and their parents. Additionally, by placing the spray pad at a right angle to the main pool, it enhanced security for the younger children.

Of course, splash parks do not have to be limited to designs just for little ones but can be created to appeal to all age groups. When accommodating a wider variety of users, it is important to create delineated zones for optimum safety.

But whether your park is for toddlers or centenarians, being able to visualize your park before it is built can remove a lot of the what-ifs that may linger in the community's mind. Reid said the use of 3-D models was particularly helpful in formulating the layout possibilities for their project. The 3-D models not only helped them to see how the multitude of colors and shapes would blend in with the surroundings, but it assured them that the selections they made would be a hit with their community who were able to envision it before it was installed.

Other considerations should also include designing elements both for those who want to get wet as well as those who don't. "We have soft mists for those less willing to get soaked and then full dumps for those excited about the anticipation of surprise and thrills," Robinson said about the design at Edson Splash Park. "You can play independently or you can interact on some events. Everyone plays."

Plenty of seating for onlookers that is shaded and protected from the spray is also a welcome touch for caregivers.

Aside from creature comforts, these spaces also benefit from periodic changes to keep features fresh and to keep those features in good working order. To that end, designers recommend planning for eventual expansion of these parks, given that their popularity often leads to the demand for more. However, for parks that can't expand, another way to keep interest alive and well is to purchase several extra spray features that can be switched out from year to year.

Another trend that manufacturers and designers are noting these days is a call for more themed designs (particularly in rural areas), and a trend toward more natural looking elements to mimic nature. This latter trend comes as no surprise, given the growing awareness from many studies that show that children need more trees, rocks and animals in their lives for overall well-being. And while incorporating a spray feature into an actual tree may not be possible, designers and communities are happy to create the next best thing.

"In both dry and wet playgrounds we are seeing the nature theme evolve," Brusseau said. "We recently did a splashpad near Bartlett, Ill., near a heron rookery (land basically designated for Great Blue Herons). In the center of the splashpad is a Blue Heron, a natural element that mimics and helps children learn about nature."

Maintaining Your Cool

Another trend that manufacturers and designers are noting these days is a call for more themed designs and a trend towards more natural looking elements to mimic nature.

These parks don't just make the users happy, but also the maintenance staff who care for them. Depending on the water system that is used, maintenance can be particularly easy. For flow-through systems that don't require filtration or water treatment, maintenance may be as simple as hosing down play elements at the end of each day.

"It just takes very little maintenance since flow-through water from the city is safe already so you don't have to monitor it. Be we do recommend daily hosing down with fresh water and maybe some concrete cleaner to keep molds and bacteria from growing," Hachmeister recommended. "Also, we don't like to talk about diapers but elements need to be washed down, so adding some disinfectant to water might be a good idea."

Depending on the quality of water, there may need to be additional attention paid to the needs of the park. "Because we use well water, it's pretty hard," Davis said of the park in Oxford. "So every two to three days we have to wash down apparatus with rust remover."

Even for enclosed recirculating systems however, like the one at Lakewood Cove in Lee's Summit, maintenance has been more than manageable. In their case, however, they found that the manual addition of chemicals was the most efficient way to maintain their water quality and because calcium and lime scale buildup from the water and concrete is an issue, it does require monthly cleaning and waxing of the spray equipment. Still, it's a negligible routine given the scope of the splash park's popularity and boost to the local property values.

Likewise, Oxford's splash park has received glowing reviews from users and managers alike. "If you are struggling with revenue and how to bring people in, this is a great project," Davis said of his experience with the addition of the splash park to their community. "It's been great for us. It's been a great amenity to our park and brought a lot of people to it."

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