Your Pool Toolkit

Support Aquatic Programming With Pool Accessories

By Joe Bush

There are many ways to use a pool, and every way needs accessories.

Rarely do pool users simply get in the water and float. When parents swim with small children, not much else is needed. Same with teenagers racing or doing cannonballs and backflips.

But pools today are usually designed for certain uses and have the tools for each. Lane lines define lap swimming. Timing systems and starting blocks are musts for competition. Many products make pools more fun—climbing walls, diving rings, inflatable bridges and slides for instance—and safer, like paddle boards and noodles and life jackets. Swim classes need those safety items too. Aquatic exercise and therapy sessions have their implements too, like treadmills and weights.

All those uses of a pool are part of a facility's programming and revenue streams, and can be made permanent—like slides—or modular and added anytime, like obstacle courses, which have gained popularity in the past decade. One manufacturer, for example, offers inflatable structures that are not only modular but interchangeable for variety of experience and visual impact.

The rise of aquatic entertainment in the 21st century will only be bolstered by the ending of the pandemic, said Chris Thomas, marketing director for a manufacturer of splash play products, pool slides and more.

"The pandemic has pushed consumers to want to spend more time outdoors, so aquatic facilities have an opportunity to draw in new patrons with fun accessories like slides and spray features that are interactive and appeal to a large range of ages," Thomas said. "From off-the-shelf solutions to customized designs, there are many play accessories available to meet the needs of any aquatic facility."

These types of accessories have evolved in a short time, and only creativity is a limit it seems. Ease of installation and takedown and storage are operator-centric highlights as well.

"Facilities are looking for renovation they can do fast, without having to tear up their decks and can be operational quickly," said Thomas. "In addition to ease of installation, having 'themed' water features really helps renovate a facility and gives facilities a memorable feature that kids will talk about, remember and want to return to experience."

Typically, companies like Thomas' make products for pools, waterparks and spraygrounds as well. He said his company works with aquatic designers and aquatic facilities to help them select the best aquatic features for their facility, their timeline and their budget.

"We always work with the client to determine their short and long-term goals and direct them to the products that will meet their needs," he said. "Right now we know that many commercial aquatic facilities suffered from being closed during the pandemic, so we are definitely showing them the many benefits of installing smaller slides to quickly re-attract patrons without having to do any major renovation to the facility."

For example, when helping a facility choose a slide, Thomas' company shows the many themes available, then narrows down a slide that will fit into their kiddie pool, splash pad or beach entry area so that there are the safety zones and clearances needed around the structure to be in compliance with all ordinances.

"And we point out that best of all, there is no need to break up any of the deck," he said.

Not only do companies focus on creativity and safety, they also customize with themes and color elements, as well as sizes and difficulties for different age groups. One slide made by Thomas' company has 40 different designs and can be sized for 2-to-5-year-olds as well as 5-to-12-year-olds.

Thomas said the future of fun pool accessories is strong, partly because many pools want to increase the entertainment value of their facilities without spending too much. "All pools want to have some 'excitement' that makes them feel more like a waterpark," he said. "It's a way to add excitement to existing aquatic facilities, pools, kiddie pools and splash pads. Many of the accessories on the market are designed specifically for ease and speed of installation, using existing plumbing.

Not to be forgotten, said Thomas, accessories can also be used to make facilities more efficient.

"We find that the most successful aquatic renovations leverage underutilized space or underutilized water features so that there isn't a need to completely overhaul the facility," said Thomas. "We always find out what features and plumbing are already present and try to build and add to it in order to maximize untapped potential."

Other accessories aren't as adrenalized but just as important. Mike Fowler works for a company that sells items that help keep water and air safe so fun can be had without sickness or accident—maintenance equipment, such as poles, nets and brushes, as well as UV systems, ADA lifts and deck equipment such as lifeguard chairs, ladders and rails, as well as chemical controllers. Fowler said these items too could see a surge in pandemic-related sales.

"The pandemic has put tremendous attention on sanitization," said Fowler. "Looking at UV or ozone systems as a way to bring a better swimming experience to your guests and members is one of the growing trends and will continue to be, especially with indoor pools."

Fowler said it isn't hard to convince clients of the need for his company's products; a safer environment keeps users returning. "Providing UV and ozone systems to enhance the air quality in indoor pools helps limit air issues, and providing necessary ADA lifts provides access to all people so they can improve their lifestyle and health," said Fowler. "And when you speak with customers, you always mention improving their main equipment—pumps, lights or heaters that may be much more efficient that would allow more money savings in energy costs and give them extra income to pursue other accessories to make their facility the best it can be."

These days, many aquatic facilities are including more and more thrills. Where there was just rectangular pool with maybe a slide, now pools feature climbing walls, zip lines and ninja courses that arch over the water. Nabil Khaled, a vice president of sales and marketing for a company that manufactures such structures, said after years of focus on smaller children, facilities are looking for opportunities to wow the older kids.

"We are seeing more and more facilities incorporating features targeted toward tweens to keep them engaged and stay longer," said Khaled. "Basketball hoops are very popular, and we are now seeing an uptick in features like climbing walls, zip lines, obstacle courses and key log rolling, to name a few.

"Pools can operate these low-maintenance adventure zones at a reasonable price point and allow facility operators to market new spaces and challenges."

Pool consultants and designers have a unique point of view of accessories, looking at the full range of possibilities, including an increasingly popular use for pools—physical therapy.

Connor Riley and Chris Seris are project managers with Counsilman-Hunsaker, which has advised facilities of all kinds, including those that want to feature therapy programs. Companies manufacture underwater treadmills and resistance jets and pools with deep tissue massage technology—all products that can help you deliver aquatic therapy to patrons.

"The things you have to think of with therapy pools is first and foremost access," said Riley. "We always design an ADA-compliant ramp to get into the therapy pool and an ADA chairlift. The basic amenity would be railings all around the pool and water that's moving. Not necessarily a lazy river but a current channel or a vortex. Either the current would assist them to walk or for more of a workout walking against the current."

Swim instruction is a programming and revenue staple of pools, and Seris said the lessons need all the tools to properly serve members and pupils.

"Most of the instruction is going to be learn-to-swim but some programs have diving as part of the curriculum as students get older," he said. "Just having an all deep water lap pool is not going to be conducive for classes of kids 4 to 7 years old. Have the appropriate depth in the pool, have stairs or benches so students can stand or sit rather than hanging on the wall so they can stay a little more engaged and not worry so much about their safety. Same for the instructors; if the kids are safe then the instructors can focus more on the instruction."

Seris said facilities should have appropriate areas within a pool for different levels of instruction, and the separation of classes and skill levels should be taken into account in the programming process and the design process of the pool itself. Accessories that can be kept in storage between sessions include kickboards, pool buoys and weighted toys to help kids swim underwater by retrieving them off the bottom of the pool.

"As swimmers increase their skill and learn to swim distances, they move into lap lanes with lane dividers that separate the lanes and create the natural separation for different classes or groups or skill levels," Seris said. "As they progress to competitive swimming, then you're looking at items like starting blocks for races and timing systems, diving boards in your deep ends. One- and three-meter and even platforms."

Seris said accessory choices follow and many times mesh with pool design choices. "If we're hired to assist with the design of a facility we will go through programming and equipment options with the client early in the process, maybe introducing them to things they haven't seen before, or they have an idea of what they would like or they don't know what's available so we can provide examples and even vouch for specific vendors that provide equipment options along the lines of what they're looking for and we can help guide them," he said.

"If they have no idea and just want something cool the neighboring town doesn't have, we can help provide examples of that and help them through that process."

Anna Slocum, parks and recreation director in Merriam, Kan., said the indoor and outdoor pools at the Merriam Community Center have a full slate of programs and classes for exercise, therapy, competition and instruction for all ages. They also have an impressive array of fun accessories. She experienced the design and accessory choice as the town planned for its current facility.

The indoor pool has basketball and a slide while the outdoor pool features a pair of 1-meter dive boards, a zipline structure and starting platforms for a swim club that's been around since 1963. Slocum said that as a part of the pool's design process, there was an appointed group of pool patrons who helped select the accessories from a list of budget-approved options.

The pool has members and non-members who pay a daily rate for using the pools.

"(The accessories) have provided a good mix of options for patrons whether they decide to remain inside or outside, which is a great selling point for memberships," Slocum said.

She said when municipalities or private organizations begin planning a pool and accessories, they should start by looking around their region to understand what neighboring facilities have, and if they are replacing an existing facility, what patrons expect to return.

"We had slides outdoors at the former facility with no indoor facility, and moving the slides indoors took a lot of education," said Slocum. "We had a designated slide for patrons under 48 inches, one of the few facilities to have that feature, and it was important to emulate that experience on some level.

"There was a three-meter dive board but no space to accommodate the new stair design nor money to go increase water depth to accommodate the height. It was a struggle, but with a consistent communication plan from staff to city council it helped to educate the public when the question was raised."

Slocum said details matter when planning what a pool can accommodate. For instance, the depth of bodies of water to ensure ample space for swim lessons was important as well as depth that provided versatility. Because anything over five feet is used less, the outdoor pool in Merriam has a unique shape to maximize the 3.5-feet to 5-feet depth.

Another example of details affecting pool design and use: Slocum said the patrons struggled with yards vs. meters.

"Since pools in the area were all built in the 1980s when meters were prevalent, yards were not an acceptable length for the outdoor pool, specifically for the summer swim team. Although yards could be accommodated for this six-week program, with other amenities and changes occurring, the city council decided it should remain meters, which eliminates any programming opportunities outdoors with USA Swimming. With only four lanes indoors, it is unlikely the space is large enough to accommodate any of the (USA Swimming) needs."

Phil Henry, maintenance logistics coordinator of aquatics for the city of Boulder, Colo., said the mix of accessories—waterslides of varying heights, in-pool basketball hoops, climbing walls, diving boards—at the pool he oversees was decided in part by the citizens of Boulder in a series of citywide surveys.

"Every built-in amenity at the pool has drawn a different type of customer," said Henry. "The features in the sprayground and zero-depth areas have drawn families with small children. The lazy river and waterslides appeal to all ages, and the diving and climbing features have drawn the adventurous crowd.

"I advise a diverse palette of amenities to appeal to patrons. We were able to spread our amenities out across the entire facility, and it has allowed us to utilize all of our available space without crowding."

Further north, the city of Butte, Mont., opened Ridge Waters, a waterpark within a massive community park that features a golf course, million-dollar playground, carousel and athletic fields. Parks Director Bob Lazzari said the only programming is lap swimming in the mornings. After that there's two sessions of fun, with a 300-person limit for each session. A 10-visit card is $30, said Lazzari.

"After three hours, we chase everyone out, clean the whole thing, sanitize everything, wipe down the deck, all tables all chairs, bathrooms," Lazzari said. "The advantage to it is it gives lifeguards a break and they pay attention better on the second shift. Most parents like it because they're ready to leave after three hours."

The play structure in shallow water boasts a tube slide, side-by-side racer slides, water cannons and large dumping bucket. In deeper water, features include floatable logs, water basketball, water volleyball and a 20-foot monkey rope. In the deepest water are a 15-foot climbing wall and a diving platform, and two 23-foot water slides. Underwater benches help swimmers relax without hanging onto the deck.

Lazzari said the monkey rope was not used this summer because of staffing issues, but in the pool's three previous years it was as popular as the climbing wall. Topping off the pool's status as a destination are five cabanas for rent.

Lazzari said the town's data shows that 60% of the cabanas' renters are from at least 80 miles from Butte. The park's closest competition for a similar waterpark is Missoula, 100 miles away.

"It's a busy place," he said. RM



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