Change Is in the Air

Managing Healthy Air & Water in Your Aquatic Facility

By Kelli Ra Anderson

Change is in the air—and in the water. Today's aquatic managers can wield significant game-changing weapons in the battle for healthier natatorium environments. Thanks to the Center for Disease Control's (CDC) guidelines released this year (the Model Aquatic Health Code, or MAHC), combined with several advances in information and technology, managing air and water quality has never been more possible. And more help is on the way.

"Advances in filtration will continue for both water and air since the need to conserve water and protect equipment costs keep rising," predicted Rich DeMoss, a marketing director with a leading water systems manufacturer. "More supplemental devices such as ozone and UV will likely be installed to reduce effects on equipment and air quality."

"The changes I see in knowledge regarding quality control in aquatic facilities are drastic from year to year, due to the increased availability in shared online information and ideas, so not only is the maintenance person typically well informed, but the onsite managers and operators are as well, said Torell Lebron Jr. an experienced installer with Chrystal Clear Pool and Spa.

And, in fact, improvements in air and water quality are only as effective as those who run the systems and understand the equipment. Just this year, a study conducted by the National Association of County and City Health Officials surveyed health officials around the country and the pool operators they inspect. The results were sobering. According to the study, 75 percent of health departments reported shutting down at least one pool in the past two years due to problems of turbidity, pH imbalance and inadequate chlorine.

Of those most likely to suffer pool closure under their supervision, the study noted several contributing factors. Most had inadequate training and education (were not certified), most were in positions with a high turnover rate, and 50 percent of those surveyed said they had never even heard of the MAHC. Without the right people at the helm, technological advances can only take aquatic air and water improvement so far.

"We still have a long way to go in our educational efforts when it comes to everyday consistent water quality practices," concluded Frank Schiffman, senior marketing manager with the study's partnering water treatment company.

"The entire scope of maintaining healthy air and water quality starts with the proper design and the proper equipment," said Ron George, aquatics manager for a water filtration and disinfection company based in Coventry, R.I. "However, there is not one product that is the silver bullet. The success in achieving it is understanding the basic operation of all the equipment in the pool plant room and maintaining it on a consistent daily basis. Training or lack of is the biggest hurdle that facility directors have in achieving healthy air and water quality."

For those committed to learning and implementing advances in chemical treatments, sanitization, HVAC systems and best practices, one undergirding fact is essential to understand: Air and water quality are inextricably linked. One simply cannot be improved without the other. "I believe that this issue has come to the forefront of aquatic operations," said Juliene Hefter, executive director/CEO of the Association of Aquatic Professionals. "Without proper air circulation, it is next to impossible to keep water and air quality high."

Up in the Air

The latest air handling systems in newer indoor facilities certainly reflect this symbiotic reality and typically use larger fans for better circulation, direct the flow of air across pool surfaces and have systems to purge and use fresh-sourced air as part of the necessary process to maintain healthy water quality.

"We no longer look at the issue in isolation," explained Shawn DeRosa, director of aquatics at Penn State University, CPO and former regional director for the National Recreation and Park Association. "We better understand how bather controls, chemical treatment, supplemental sanitation and air handling all work together to create a healthy pool environment."

Achieving healthier indoor air is affected by several factors: outdoor air ventilation, exhaust air, air change rates and water chemistry. Good designers know that properly spaced and adequately sized venting systems and good filtration are a necessary part of creating healthier water, as well as helping to reduce costs associated with damaging chloramine corrosion and its related health risks to patrons.

Greener ventilation designs are certainly another way to reduce long-term energy costs (although usually requiring more upfront) while improving water quality and keeping damaging, costly chloramines at bay.

Savvy management systems can also kill two birds with one stone, saving money while improving air quality at the same time. After swim meets, for example, DeRosa suggests using the following down time to extend purge time and to thereby require a lesser amount of fresh outdoor air. Another energy-saving ventilation trend has been capturing heat from the air before contaminated air is exhausted from a facility.

"The solution is not always to throw more money at a facility. Facility management should budget to convert to variable speed bumps, LED lighting, pool covers—even indoors—and other energy-saving measures," said Thomas M. Lachocki, CEO of the National Swimming Pool Foundation. "When you save energy, you save money. Then, those savings can be reinvested into ways to improve demand and improve water and air quality."

Saving money in one area to put money toward the purchase of newer systems, training and equipment needed to improve air and water quality is often a must-do for facilities whose budgets typically don't make room for such improvements.

Improving air and water is also about improving practices. Having qualified air conditioning and heating professionals regularly review current air handling to check for compliance with current ASHRAE standards will help ensure air exchange and flow is at its greatest efficiency and energy-saving optimum. Knowing when something needs to be replaced, too, before it can cause unnecessary damage is also an investment worth making. Installing monitoring devices, for example, to measure pressure differentials, can help indicate when it's time for a filter replacement.

The Third Pillar: Supplemental Disinfectant

No matter how well air is vented, heated and replaced, water chemistry is an essential part of the aquatic environmental equation. "Reducing the amount of contaminants in the water is critical to maintaining healthy water quality, which then affects air quality," DeRosa said.

In the old days, chlorine was pretty much considered the answer to everything, but today's professionals know better. "We are entering a time where aquatic facilities have moved away from two treatment systems: disinfection and filtration," Lachocki observed, noting that enhanced filtration is still a major factor in removing dangerous contaminants like Cryptosporidium. "Today and into the future, a third system, a supplemental disinfectant like ultraviolet (UV) light or ozone will be used to improve water and air quality."

Recognizing such systems' powerful role in reducing airborne chloramines, some health codes now require supplemental or secondary sanitizers like ultraviolet light and ozone as standard, not optional equipment. However, a common problem with this relatively new technology is improper understanding and measure of their effectiveness in various applications. For example, in UV applications, if poorly installed or badly explained, pool operators may miss a key concept that flow rate must be correct if disinfection systems are to work at the proper rate or else jeopardize efficiency.

"Too many times I will see a cookie-cutter install used on multiple jobs, regardless of the application," Lebron explained. "I recommend the use of a seasoned installer to handle the equipment room portion of the job separately. The pool builder may not prioritize sanitation options and techniques the way a specialist would, although it is becoming more and more common for savvy pool builders to hire specialists to upsell the equipment aspect of the job, which adds value and ensures that water and air quality are shown to be a priority to the client."

Taking Control

Different controllers and testers now on the market that can measure and help manage water and air quality data are one response to the growing complexity of managing commercial pools, and more are on the way.

Digital photometers for water testing, for example, are making testing less of an art and more of a science. "They measure parameters without relying on color matching," said Mike McBride, marketing manager of an industry leader in water testing. "They give an exact digital reading without guessing."

According to Jeff Boynton, director of a leading secondary disinfection systems manufacturer, many more companies are now involved in the reading of more types of controls for determining air and water quality data. Different controls (what they do and how to use them), he said, are a current buzz in the field.

To that end, the NSF has certified systems and equipment to help ensure achieved results, going above and beyond top standards. They also plan to certify water testing devices in the near future to identify those devices that have reached expected levels of precision.

Using a chemical controller tied into a feed pump, for example, to monitor pH and sanitizer levels can make an enormous difference in allowing for small chemical adjustments throughout the day. Using a chlorine test kit to determine if newly purchased chlorine or old chlorine is as potent as required can save a lot of time and money wasted on an ineffective product. Chlorine analysis and water testing is especially important, given that some pool operators have been known to assume clear water means all is well when in fact, TDS levels and other properties are at corrosive levels, or they might assume water is fine based on pH controller values alone. It's a complex business.

Taking the P out of 'Pool'

What isn't complex, however, and what hasn't changed is the main culprit behind many pools' contamination problems: urine and human byproducts. Once thought as relatively benign, albeit undesirable, research now shows that urine contains organic nitrogen compounds that, in combination with disinfectants in pools, create irritating chlorine-like chemicals in the water and the air.

The solution to this age-old problem is similarly simple and straightforward. "I did a huge report for the YMCA eight years ago in Canada, and I told them there is one key and one key only to look at," said Ron Ford, now retired, and author of the NSPF CPO handbook. "Showers. You have to make sure bathers take showers. There's your number-one load going into that environmental system."

Showers and, some would add, bathroom breaks.

But how? Unlike the adage that you can lead a horse to water but you can't make them drink, there are ways of making bathers bathe and take more frequent restroom breaks. According to Lachocki, it starts with staff, ensuring they are trained and know how to adjust operations to discourage what is discretely termed, "voluntary contamination."

He suggests, for example, short adult swim time to encourage kids to take restroom breaks, and having coaches build in 3-minute bathroom breaks 45 minutes into each workout. Policies, too, that prohibit diapered children from accessing areas in or near the pool, and keeping children's pool areas distinctly separate and away from adult swimming areas can minimize unwanted contamination or at least contain it to smaller areas. It is also important to provide lots of signage to direct bathers to bathrooms, which should be conveniently located for their use.

Design goes a long way toward helping, too. Patrons cite too few showers and not enough privacy as major reasons for skipping that vital step. Designing showers that must be entered to access the pool and that provide lots of privacy will certainly encourage bathers to shower more effectively.

Newer facilities include diaper changing areas in a convenient location for caregivers, designed with enough room for additional children and even providing diapers to help deter a frazzled adult from ignoring a child in need of a diaper change.

Certifiably Better

The ultimate game-changer in the battle to create a healthy air and water environment, however, is not only great design or the best equipment. It is the professionalism and training of the staff in charge. "I truly believe that a lot of problems come from individuals that are not properly trained in the operations of aquatic facilities," Hefter explained. "This includes not having the appropriate training in pool water balance and how air quality can affect it."

Citing a common problem that pool operators are often put in a position of "this is how we've always done it", Hefter said such attitudes limit an understanding of how many options actually exist to improve air and water quality.

DeRosa agrees that aquatic supervisors would be wise to complete certification by a nationally recognized program with in-class components (like Certified Pool Operator, CPO; Aquatic Facility Operator, AFO; and Practical Pool Management PLUS, PPM+).

Pool operators, however, aren't the only ones who need more training for the complexity of pool chemistry. According to McBride, lifeguards are often responsible for water testing and need to understand what testing results mean and what corrective action needs to be taken.

The good news, however, is overall the tide is changing in the effort to improve air and water quality. Change is in the air.

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