Smooth Sailing

Best Practices in Pool Maintenance and Renovation

By Joe Bush

There are many crucial reasons for maintaining and renovating an aquatics facility: health of the public that uses it and the staff that works in it is, of course, most important, followed by efficient use of energy and money, adhering to federal, state and local regulations, and attracting new users to boost revenue and help improve the well-being of a community.

In addition, the Center for Disease Control's Model Aquatic Health Code (MAHC), an attempt to standardize practices and policies throughout the nation, is gaining notice and support. Its goal is to help operators establish and follow scientifically-backed methods to keep their facilities healthy in a sustainable way. It hopes, in part, to inform maintenance and renovations and upgrades in a way that will clarify any confusion caused by myriad codes.

Counsilman-Hunsaker was a founding sponsor of the MAHC, and head of operations Kevin Post said the MAHC will be flexible and fluid, keeping operators on their toes.

"One of the nice things about this code is they developed a committee for the MAHC and every other year they meet and allow public input for modifications to the MAHC," Post said. "The idea is, now that it's written it's not done, new research may need to be done, new technologies will come out, new information available. It's been built into the process that the code will be continually updated.

"Generally, for equipment we've found most people aren't spending enough on maintenance and preventive maintenance areas, or not budgeting for capital improvements. It was specifically true in the (economic) downturn—that was where budgets were being cut. They wanted to keep their pool open and operational, and now it's starting to catch up and hurt. A $5,000 item at the time is now a $50,000 item."

Everyone from operators to facility staff to manufacturers to service companies to distributors is affected by facility oversight, preventive maintenance and budget planning for replacement costs.

Terri Smith, a project designer with Water Design Inc., said she sees trends in aquatic facility management, and they either involve money or energy savings.

"It seems more and more facilities are choosing to phase upgrades, not replacing everything all at once, but piece by piece, focusing on the most critical parts first," Smith said, "then, as more money becomes available, moving forward with other upgrades. We are also seeing the addition of equipment to prolong the life and reduce the operational cost of other pieces of equipment. For instance, adding variable frequency drives to pumps not only conserves energy, but can help prolong the life of the pump.

"Replacing equipment with more energy-efficient parts has become very popular, like replacing incandescent light with LED lights. And, with longer warranties and the attractiveness of a maintenance-free surface, many facilities are choosing to add a PVC liner instead of re-plastering their pools. There are also a lot of facilities that are choosing to renovate rather than replace equipment and structures."

Tina Dittmar, supervisor of aquatics for the city of Laguna Niguel, Calif., and president of the Association of Aquatic Professionals, said there may not be a more pervasive subject for AAP membership, including herself.

"This is a huge topic because everything ages and there's always new things," she said. "We're in a constant upgrade. Everyone talks about preventive maintenance. It's what we do every day other than protect people, and it starts from the ground up."

Dittmar has been in the pool operating business for a quarter century, and knows firsthand that even the best maintenance plan run by the most disciplined staff can't prevent every crisis. Operators can understand their building, their equipment, their water chemistry and their accessories; they can train their staff in what to look and listen for; they can keep everything running and safe with TLC, and acquire the latest and greatest that their budgets allow, but…

"Things happen because pools are living, breathing animals," Dittmar said. "We had a major pipe leak underground a few years ago, a two- or three-inch freshwater line had a pinhole leak, and the pinhole leak over several years was spraying against a 10-inch line. It finally broke through the PVC pipe. It was such an intense spray for so long that it literally burned a hole through the pipe and we wound up getting gravel in our pipe.

"How we found out was maintenance, cleaning out the hair trap. 'Hey, this is building grade gravel.' We had to shut everything down and had a leak detecting company come in a few hours later, and they found a huge hole the size of a Nerf football. Freak things happen. We were amazed at the damage it did."

So even though the leak couldn't be prevented, it was routine maintenance that discovered it.

Mark Basnight ran the aquatics department for the city of Chula Vista, Calif., for 20 years and now is a sales manager for a manufacturer of a Concord, Calif.-based national distributor of commercial swimming pool equipment, chemicals and supplies. He said before any technical details are seen to, every operator has to have a place in his or her heart for the aquatic facility.

"The most important thing for an owner is to take ownership of your facility, get to know your facility really, really well and treat it as if it's a gem because funds might not be available," Basnight said. "If there's cracks, why? Is your pool shifting? Is there leaking water underneath? You need to be aware if there's a crack, why it's cracking.

"You can't just open the pool up every day and let it go. You have to be on top of things. Stainless steel isn't like it used to be. You've got to keep wax on your stainless steel because it will rust. You've got to check your diving boards on a regular basis, bolts do come loose. You've got to look at your dive stand steps and your lifeguard towers, and you've got to check your starting platforms. All the little stuff that makes a big difference."

Well, what about that little stuff? It can lead to bigger stuff.

Because water is the lifeblood of any aquatic facility, be it recreational or competitive pools, spas, waterparks or spraygrounds, it has a circulation system that not only has to run smoothly for itself, but for the other aspects of the facility it affects.

The chemicals in the water must serve two masters: the pool users and the equipment. The pH and chlorine have to be at the right levels to eradicate water-borne pathogens while also minimizing the water's corrosive effects on everything it touches, from bathers to pumps and pipes to shells and the deck.

Jeff Boynton, general manager of a Gardena, Calif.-based manufacturer of UV light water treatment systems, said that having a supplementary or secondary sanitation system can not only strengthen a facility's battle with water-borne pathogens like cholera, E. coli, Cryptosporidium and green algae, it can save in equipment wear and chemical use.

Operators can decrease the levels of chlorine and acids used to kill the bugs because the UV light will eradicate what the chemicals did not. Less chemical use means fewer byproducts, or chloramines (they give a facility the smell associated with pools); for indoor pools the UV light backup will also improve the quality of the air for users and staff by cutting down on and eliminating those byproducts.

Boynton said the bather load and flow rate of a pool determines the size of the light, either small or medium. As a bonus to all the savings of chemical use and equipment wear and improvement of air quality, the use of UV light for sanitation meshes with today's attitudes toward ingredients that are hard to pronounce.

"People are more and more aware of using less chemicals," Boynton said. "There's organic food, there's bottled water. People are consciously making a decision toward less chemicals."

Dan Lenz, vice president of All Seasons Pools & Spas in Orland Park, Ill., recommends the use of chemical automation, especially for heavily used facilities. Programmed monitoring and adjustment of chemicals can give peace of mind, as well as make efficient use of chemicals, Lenz said. Operators can get notifications on mobile devices and make adjustments from those devices as well. Lenz said that his company and others are now or will in the future offer monitoring of facility equipment.

"The fluctuation of usage of a commercial pool is so huge, this is where you get these imbalances with the water (chemistry)," Lenz said. "When middle-of-the-summer pool use is crazy and chlorine demand is super high, the feeders are adjusted to keep that chlorine level proper based on what's going on, but then we get maybe a week of rain and cold weather, and no one goes out to the pool.

"The demand is much less, but there's still a ton of chlorine being pumped into the pool at higher levels that become damaging. By having an automation system in place for those ebbs and flows, it adjusts automatically."

Jenny Wilson, aquatics director for Club Sport Oregon, said that in the past five years, all the upgrades at her 16-year-old, three-pool facility involve the circulation system. In 2012, the indoor filtration system was updated to a UV system, and a CO2 system and system control panel were updated. Also, the facility is in the final phase of replacing its pools' sand filters; the three indoor filters are complete, as well as one for the outdoor pools. The last filter replacement is due for completion prior to this year's outdoor pool season.

"Water, especially chemically treated water, is not a gentle substance and is a sneaky destroyer of equipment," Wilson said. "If there's an undetectable or invisible issue, the piece of equipment can deteriorate quickly."

Wilson said that not only does she have full-time maintenance staff, but the lifeguard crew has been trained to look for and listen for anything amiss. She recommends having a partnership with a trusted service company for regular visits, as well as updates on the latest industry technology and methods. Wilson said that while training and certifications are a must for operators, they are not the end of an operator's education.

"Certifications like the Certified Pool Operator help, but they can't actually prepare you for your specific facility," she said. "A lot of those courses involve things like testing chemicals, basic upkeep and the like, but really only teach you how to tell if something is wrong, which then lets you bring in someone with the knowledge to fix the problem. It's still a valuable tool, but too many people come away from those courses thinking that they now know everything that they need to.

"You need to know the equipment that you're specifically working with: Read the manuals and talk to the people installing it. Ensure you know your state's health code requirements and the Model Aquatic Health Code, as the MAHC can have additional requirements that you will want to follow. You can't be a safe facility without knowledgeable people."

A key part of that wisdom involves knowing who should maintain and service equipment and if there are in-house technicians, what they should take care of and what a third party should service. The same caution should be used when fixing is no longer an option and new equipment must be purchased.

Lenz and Basnight each emphasize the harm that can be done by poor maintenance work, corner-cutting repairs and bottom-dollar equipment vendors. Lenz can think of bad situations off the top of his head: changing the sizes of manifolds affects the water flow which affects the pump and filters; bypassing thermal switches on pumps, leading to motor burnouts and pool shutdowns.

"Now, you're needing at least a new motor or worse, you could actually end up with an electrical fire," Lenz said. "Inexperienced repairs can lead to other failures down the road that cause outages or significant cost in correcting. At bare minimum facilities should bring in a pro once a year to go over their system and do an evaluation.

"I know you've got your own guy, but who's checking what he's doing to make sure he's right?"

Basnight said he has seen others learn similarly hard lessons trying to save a few dollars on equipment and service. His advice is: Do your homework, and don't always go for the lowest bid on service and equipment because you'll get what you pay for.

"In a commercial setting, there are commercial certified service techs that know the industry, that know your heaters, that know your equipment, that can get the parts," said Basnight. "There's so many people in our industry right now that we call 'B Market' people that are trying to make their way into commercial, but they're not really certified or qualified to come in and do a lot of the work required in a commercial facility. Sometimes they get a little over their head trying to get into commercial clientele when they've been servicing the backyard pools for a long time.

"Stay with certified qualified companies."

Basnight said that when he operated facilities, he had a checklist of regular maintenance and checkups, some safe for trained operators and their staffs to handle, some for third-party technicians:

  • Have the pool vacuum serviced. "A lot of people buy an automatic vacuum and think it's going to work forever. They're not built to last forever. They save thousands and thousands of dollars in staff costs, but I think it's so important to budget yourself $800 to $1,000 to have your automatic vacuum serviced every single year by a certified technician."
  • Chemical probes used with chemical automation systems should be cleaned monthly.
  • Rake sand filter beds once a year, "… so you don't have the channeling in your filters. Keep the sand mixed up and it filters better."
  • Service heaters once a year. "Some people say you only get seven years out of a heater, but when I serviced mine on a regular basis, I got 20 years out of mine."
  • Clean the inside of chlorine and acid tanks annually because the residue has a tendency to clog injectors.
  • Change out your injection lines on a regular basis to avoid ruptures and spills. "That's huge. If you get a rupture and spill and leak out into your environment, the fines associated with that are huge."

Lenz has a few of his own best practices. Because he works in a four-season climate, he knows a few things about what the freeze-thaw cycle can do to an outdoor pool shut down for the off season. Cracks in the pool deck caused by the cycle must be corrected, but the interior of the pool is also a victim of the changes.

"I'm a proponent of covering a pool during the winter and leaving it full of water and trying to reuse that water whenever that's practical," Lenz said. "Draining and chemically washing the pool causes a great deal of wear and tear. If operators were to invest in a cover for the winter and start back up in the spring and treat that water, the longevity of the interior of the pool is lengthened. A mesh cover might be thousands of dollars of expense but if you're pushing off refinishing a handful of years by doing it, there's money to be gained."

Jason Mart, founder and CEO of an Indianapolis-based renovator of pools and pool decks using commercial-grade PVC thermoplastic membranes, hopes that when it is finally time for refinishing, operators choose products like his as pool surface. Mart said the membrane can prevent damage caused by the elements in outdoor pools, but also the damage caused by chemical degradation in indoor pools. It is thick, non-porous, offers good traction and is reinforced to resist tears. It can prevent damage and also correct it, Mart said, as it can be applied in patches as well as an entire pool. Mart said three-quarters of his business is in renovation, but that new construction projects have been rising. Though the warranty is 10 years, life expectancy is 15 to 25 years.

"The beauty of the membrane is that it's not dependent on a bond with the existing substrate and so as a result you can go over, cover and patch badly spalled and damaged areas and give a light new finish over the old finish, so from the perspective of the user it's like a new pool," said Mart.

An alternative to the membrane is paint specially designed for underwater use. Rebecca Spencer, marketing manager of a Rockaway, N.J.-based manufacturer of swimming pool paint and deck coatings, said there are various types: acrylic, chlorinated rubber or epoxy.

"An acrylic can go over just about any surface, is easy to apply and can be applied to a damp surface," Spencer said. "However, it only lasts about two years. That is acceptable to many aquatic facilities because they routinely want to refresh the paint to maintain a clean, fresh look.

"Chlorinated rubber or epoxy must be applied over existing surface of the same type. Chlorinated or synthetic rubber will last up to four years. A high build epoxy will last eight years or more. Typically, epoxy is used on waterslides and lazy rivers because of its glossy finish and film thickness."

Operators looking to save money on repairs or by trying to extend the lifespan of equipment should also be interested in saving money through use of energy- and water-efficient ideas like variable frequency drives (VFDs) on their pumps, regenerative media filters (RMFs) instead of sand filters, and LED lighting.

Mike Fowler, commercial marketing manager/sales, with a manufacturer of a variety of commercial pool products that work together to streamline and improve pool operations, said his company's VFDs—which adjust a pump's output to what is needed instead of one speed all the time—can work with existing pumps as well as new installs.

Emmett Jorgensen, head of marketing at a Coventry, R.I.-based industry leader in water filtration and disinfection, said RMFs can save on water consumption. Sand filters are gravity fed and they filter the water down to a sand bed at the bottom of the tank. RMFs use a vertical tank that takes up a lot less space than a sand filter. But because it's sucking the water up through a series of hoses, it has a significant amount of surface area so it can filter as much water as a larger sand tank because water is going through the hoses and the hoses are coated with a substance called perlite. It filters more efficiently and doesn't require backwash for cleaning, which is why RMFs are better on water consumption than sand filters.

Instead of doing a backwash, RMFs use what's called a 'bump': too much debris or particulate on the hoses triggers a bump—debris is bumped to the bottom of the tank and a small amount of water does what a much larger backwash does in sand filters. RMFs are automated, and the controller notifies operators when a bump is needed; they can bump from their cellphone or tablet.

The energy efficiency of LED lighting is well known; the only issue is whether replacement costs are doable even when energy savings are taken into account.

"From an energy standpoint, if you don't have a variable frequency drive and LED lights in your pool, you are just burning through money," Basnight said. "The costs associated with buying those products and putting them in your pool is such a money maker."

Taken altogether, the right combination of equipment, maintenance practices and renovation when it's needed will keep your pool in tip-top shape.



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