Keeping Pools in Tiptop Shape

Automation and More to Boost Pool Maintenance

By Deborah L. Vence

The first thing Ron Richards does every morning at 6 a.m. is check his board for the latest information on any of the 25 pool properties his company manages in Michigan.

"The board actually is a listing of all the properties we manage and has real-time information on it. I have an application on my laptop where I can go into that and then make physical adjustments from there," said Richards, a managing partner with Aqua Guard Pool Services LLC in Walled Lake, Mich. "We can see if there is something red and go right into the property and go right into the unit. We set parameters for the ORP [oxygen reduction potential] or chlorine [levels]."

Alerts are set up that can send an immediate message to Richards on his smartphone, letting him know if any of the pools need modifications, such as to ensure that the water is chemically stable.

A special pool chemical controller product, designed to automate the chemical balancing activity within a commercial aquatic environment, "takes the readings of the pool and sends it to our [data] server [every 15 minutes], and our server has limits and guidelines on the piece of equipment. If it wanders out of proper balance, it sends us an alert on our smartphones," he explained. "Whenever anything gets out of whack, I can drill down and see exactly what's going on. Then, "I can get online and make physical adjustments. I can monitor them."

As an example, if Richards received an alert that the pH was high at one of the pools, he would be able to go on his smartphone and take a look at the pump run times on that property.

"If the pH is high, it's not getting enough muriatic acid, and I look at the pump run times. It recognizes the imbalance and tries to fix it. The pH in a pool needs to be between 7.4 or 7.6," he added. "It's a tremendous amount better than any manual system. If you're manually adjusting chemicals, you are peaking and valleying all over the place. You can misread it."

As swimming pool maintenance becomes more automated, pools also have become safer and more likely to stay in working order regularly, as industry experts discuss in the following article—along with the importance of human intervention in ongoing maintenance.

Automated Superintendent

As water balance continuously changes, the need for automation is essential due to problems associated with chemical imbalances in pools. A common complaint from customers includes bathing suit color fading, which can happen if the chlorine level is too high.

Thus, aquatic facilities that automate have a greater opportunity to survive and prosper.

"Automatic sensors and feeders have been available for decades, and they continue to become better. In addition, web interfaces and data tracking is common," said Thomas M. Lachocki, Ph.D., CEO of the National Swimming Pool Foundation in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Generally speaking, "Large bodies of water have inherent risks," Lachocki said. "People can't breathe in water. Water harbors disease-causing germs that can grow and make people ill. Chemicals used to keep disease-causing germs out of the water are hazardous. Pumps and other electrical devices used to monitor, circulate and treat water place electricity near water, creating an electrical hazard. Pumps also create a suction entrapment hazard within a pool. In time, wet and humid facilities can corrode or deteriorate.

As water balance continuously changes, the need for automation is essential due to problems associated with chemical imbalances in pools.

"These are all challenges that can be circumvented with proper training and execution at the facility," he added.

White explained that if the sanitation system in a public pool, which requires chlorine delivery and adjustments of the pH, had an employee standing there all the time, chlorine would have to be distributed into the water manually.

And, "You can never put chemicals in while swimmers are in the pool," White said. "It has to be injected well away from the people … mixing in with the water."

Furthermore, Mike Fowler, a commercial marketing manager with a Sanford, N.C.-based manufacturer and supplier of commercial pool products, pointed out that depending on how water is sent to a pool, "a lot of water is not good quality, thus prompting the need for proper maintenance.

"Also, bather load affects the chemical balance of the pool tremendously as does rain water," he added. "A hot day in the summer with a fully loaded pool can cause much stress on a pool, and chemicals during times like these may need to be raised to higher levels for proper balancing."

Innovations in automated pool maintenance have enabled pool operators to address such problems more quickly or avoid them altogether.

"Advancements in chemical controllers, salt chlorine generation systems and automatic pool cleaners have made swimming pool maintenance a lot easier than in years past," Fowler added.

The chemical controller product that Aqua Guard uses, for example, enables pool operators to regularly check the status of their pools remotely.

Installed at each property, the chemical controller has an Ethernet option that includes Internet access, enabling a pool operator to view the status of the chemical controller online at any time, day or night. Pool operators then can check the pH, ORP, temperature and water flow from any location with an Internet connection as well as graphs of past data with time stamps. Data also can be sent to a remote server that operators can log into to view past data. Wi-Fi also allows a connection directly to the chemical controller to view current readings and settings and edit operational parameters.

Richards noted an example of a larger resort area in Michigan that Aqua Guard manages that has one person who is responsible for all the pools there.

"They have one guy who is responsible for their pool. The guy on the phone can check all five pools … check, monitor and manage the pool. He's going to get information sent to his smartphone. He gets an alert and pulls out his PC or laptop and makes adjustments from a remote area," he explained.

Undeniably, sanitation systems are essential in order for a pool to be maintained properly and ensure its longevity.

"We can automate chlorine by way of electronic equipment. The ORP measures electricity in the water, the amount of chlorine," said Steven R. White, certified service professional, education director, Region IX, Association of Pool & Spa Professionals, NSPF, CPO Instructor, and president of Underwater Pool Masters Inc., a full-service swimming pool company in Central Massachusetts that specializes in preventing, diagnosing or solving problems with residential and commercial swimming pools.

The amount of chlorine that's in a pool can be regulated much like a thermostat. "When the chlorine demand increases in a pool," he said, "the chlorine—instead of being depleted—is injected by automation. That automation program depends upon the equipment that can make a momentary judgment on the need for increased sanitation by the reading that the device gets."

White went on to say that the reading is done in millivolts (mV). "The control device reads and, typically, we set chlorine levels with standards that we have in Massachusetts—1 to 3 parts per million. In any case, if I set it at 2 parts per million, it might be like 650 to 800 millivolts," he explained. "We set it for that program."

But, when chlorine demand increases, and the number drops down to 600, for example, the automatic pumping device then opens and adds new sanitation levels in to raise it back to 700. "It is the best way of keeping up with the sudden demand in a public pool," White explained. "It frees up somebody from testing the water all the time."

Intervention and Training

Sure enough, while automation has many benefits in keeping pools clean and updated, having employees involved in regular maintenance still is a must.

"The whole issue with automation vs. humans is that it is necessary in the facility no matter what," White said, adding that it is important to have a Certified Pool Operator with a pool and that the system should run 24/7.

In this way, education is mandatory, though not every state or facility demands that pool staff be certified.

However, with the Model Aquatic Health Code put out by the CDC, "the effort right now is just to try to set standards, including safety and equipment, so that every state in the union is adopting this thing, and would have similar control of facilities. That will bring even consistency," White explained.

The CDC is working with public health and industry representatives across the United States to prevent drowning, injuries and the spread of recreational water illnesses at public swimming pools and spas by building a Model Aquatic Health Code (MAHC), as stated on the CDC website.

The MAHC will be a guidance document that can help local and state authorities make swimming and other water activities healthier and safer, and will serve as a model and guide for local and state agencies needing to update or implement swimming pool and spa code, rules, regulations, guidance, law or standards governing the design, construction, operation and maintenance of swimming pools, spas, hot tubs and other treated or disinfected aquatic facilities.

"Two things almost every human values more than anything else is family and health. We place these two things above everything else. When we go to a pool with family, the experience creates memories that last a lifetime—and beyond," Lachocki said. "Some of my warmest memories involve family water activities. When a person brings their children and family to a public pool, they expect that the pool is maintained by staff trained to the most current standards. When my kids ride a school bus, I expect the driver has a current driver's license."

Yet, so often, many pools are short on having operators seven days per week who have verifiable, minimal training to a national standard.

"How would we feel if our kids got hurt on a bus and the driver did not have verifiable training?" Lachocki noted. "Every public pool should have trained and certified operators."

The degree to which operators are trained often depends on the facility they are operating.

"All individuals who care for a pool at some point should meet a minimum training standard. The most common standard is for individuals who care for a pool, a Certified Pool/Spa Operator (CPO) certification or a similar certification," he said. "It takes two days to complete a CPO certification training classes, or the courses can be done one day online and one day in class. This minimal training helps individuals understand the many risks to users, the facility and staff associated with pools and spas, like drowning, recreational water illness, chemical safety, suction entrapment, slips and falls.

"The training also improves operational efficiency," Lachocki added. "The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are working with industry, academia and government to build a Model Aquatic Health Code that is based on science. It is obvious that basic training for operators makes sense. The science documented in the MAHC verifies this belief. There are fewer public health violations when operators are trained and certified. As a result, the MAHC includes operator training."

Fowler agreed. "If you've had someone go through training on the systems that are actually installed on the pool, then there's minimal chance for human error in the maintenance of that pool.

"Continuous training and review of systems can only lead to better maintenance practices," he added. "Training is needed on chemical automation controllers, proper chemical levels and salt chlorine systems to ensure that proper pool maintenance is achieved, as well as understanding filtration systems and their proper workings is a must as well so you know you're getting proper filtration of the water in the pool."

The Price Tag

Costs associated with automated pool maintenance can vary, experts say. But, on average, when an aquatic facility enters into a monthly pool service arrangement, the cost could be between $400 and $500 a month.

And, costs range depending upon the system involved and the size and type of body of water. "Systems range from the basic pH/ORP only controllers to those that cover pH/ORP and backwash control and other functions," Fowler said. "And, then there are the salt chlorine generation systems that do save on chlorine costs."

White added that cost depends on the products you choose, too, as well as the size of the pool. "Cost would be dependent on what you are trying to do," he said, adding that, for example, "a 100,000- to 200,000-gallon pool might cost anywhere in the range of $4,500 to $6,500 a month [to maintain]."

On the whole, though, it costs to automate and not to automate.

"Having automated pumps, controllers and feeders allows manual labor operating a facility," Lachocki said. "For example, a variable speed pump can be programmed and not require operators making adjustments to conserve energy. Probes, controllers and automatic feeders reduce overfeeding and save on chemical cost. From an aquatic facility's perspective, where would you rather spend your money—paying utility companies—or paying programming staff that attract more customers and revenue to support your facility? The answer seems obvious."

Valuable Tips

"Take a fresh look at today's options. The industry facts suggest that manual operation of a pool is unstable and more costly. The fact is that there is a 25 percent to 30 percent reduction in chemical cost to a properly managed pool."

Ensuring first-rate pool maintenance requires some tips to keep in mind, too.

"There are a few simple goals an operator should work to achieve to minimize risk," Lachocki said.

  • Encourage people to learn to swim.
  • Make sure your staff is trained and certified so you have eyes and minds to minimize risk, improve efficiency and improve the experience.
  • Establish engineering controls to limit access to unsupervised children.
  • Make sure water always is crystal clear, has proper disinfectant levels and is balanced.
  • Make sure all equipment is maintained and operating as directed by the manufacturer.
  • Handle all chemicals as directed by the manufacturer.
  • Make sure all main drains are secured and comply with the Pool & Spa Safety Act to minimize entrapment risk.
  • Make sure your staff and management is trained and certified.

Fowler stressed that "Having a regular inspection of the pool and regular monitoring of the chemical controllers or testing of the water is a must to stay away from problems. Also, make sure the filter system is properly maintained and backwashed on a needed basis."

No matter what, facilities should get a system, any system that has structural or empirical structural steps and procedures. What do you do? When do you do it? Richards noted.

And, lastly, Richards added, "… Take a fresh look at today's options. The industry facts suggest that manual operation of a pool is unstable and more costly," he added. The fact is that there is a "25 percent to 30 percent reduction in chemical cost to a properly managed pool."

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