Make a Splash with Minimal Cash

By Eric Hornig
Photos Courtesy Of Hitchcock Design Group

Splash pads offer fun and unique water experiences that are safe, compact, and relatively inexpensive compared to those at other aquatic facilities. The pads have become wildly popular even in challenging climates because of the minimal investment and space required. While most agencies are careful to spend public money wisely, it is important to look at short-term costs, long-term costs, and the value returned to the public for basic support items, the system itself, and experiential items in deciding about splash pads.


The Basics
Every splash pad needs a site, so let’s start with the surfacing. Since safety is first over all other criteria, the surfacing must be slip-resistant. Surfacing is available from poured-in-place rubber to natural stone, with concrete being the most common choice. This surfacing is controlled by the depth of brush strokes, and is of a common construction material moldable into a variety of shapes (thus, costs are relatively low). It also provides a good base for color additives, surface stains, or slip-resistant coatings.

The water source may have an impact on costs. Most domestic water supply is treated sufficiently to be used in a splash pad for many years. In some rural areas, or if water is drawn directly from a well, it can have a high mineral content that can break down the system over time. Water softeners, special filters, increased cleaning, or replacement costs may outweigh the benefits of using an on-site well. Additional pumps may be required to closely monitor and control use to prevent the capacity of a well or small domestic supply from becoming an issue.

Utility extensions, backflow prevention, a new power service, or drainage can soak up much of a project’s cost, which the public may not understand. For this reason, the splash pad should be as close as practical to the source of water, electric, and storm or sanitary service. Sanitary and storm sewers tend to be larger and deeper, so keeping these runs short is helpful. Water and electric costs typically include the ever-changing price of copper pipe or wire, so keeping these runs short also helps. Typically, water service will lead to the manifold with a single pipe, which then divides into multiple pipes to distribute water to spray features, so keeping the plumbing manifold close to the project can have a dramatic impact on costs. [i] For example, sliding a 10-feature system’s manifold 5 feet closer to the splash pad could save 50 feet of pipe.

The splash pad’s features can also have both long-term and short-term impacts on the budget. [ii] Ground sprays tend to cost less than larger overhead elements, and tend to use less water, so frequent use of these sprays will decrease the equipment costs, system size needs, and potential water-use fees. Some sprays require multiple actuators and, although they appear as only one feature, they may cost as much as three. Be sure to consider the target audience in the design. Younger children tend to enjoy the ground sprays, but the older they get, the more they gravitate toward a giant overhead element that will absolutely soak them. With the basics in place, you now have a decision to make about the system type.

System Types
Drain-to-waste systems are those that draw water in, spray out through features, and then allow the water to drain. All water is lost in a typical system. These are the least expensive types, as the equipment is straightforward and relatively common. They can range

from a single nozzle to multiple features. The obvious drawback is that water is wasted, so the appropriate balance must be struck between the budget and sustainability goals. Ground sprays can be utilized for these types of systems in order to reduce water usage and its cost from a domestic supply (which can add up significantly depending on location). Take advantage of the controls available to minimize time of use, sequence, and season length, balanced with expectations. Individual valves that feed to taller spray features can be throttled down, or an anemometer can be added to minimize loss through windy conditions. In some states, recapturing this water is allowed for irrigation purposes, which can help offset the environmental drawbacks. This type is appropriate for small-park complements that offer an escape from the heat, but may not be considered destination locations.

Recirculating systems are those that draw water in initially, spray water out through features, and collect the water for filtering, treatment, and recirculation. The only water lost is from evaporation, and that taken away with patrons on their clothing. This system brings the freedom to use higher-volume, overhead-feature elements because the water is recirculated, but can cost two to three times as much as a drain-to-waste system up front, with long-term savings yielded by less water usage. Because of the need for items like storage tanks, chemical treatment, advanced controllers, and monitoring equipment, recirculating systems just cost more money. They also require a degree of maintenance and staff involvement not necessary with drain-to-waste systems. Similar to methods for a pool, frequent checks to ensure healthy conditions are mandatory. In many states, these systems trigger a department of public-health review process and design requirements that may include engineering, fencing, gates, drinking fountains, restrooms, signs, staffing, training, and annual follow-up tasks that can be quite costly in both time and money. This type is appropriate for community park destinations where investment is justified by heavy use.

Experience Items
Access to a splash pad, along with the environment surrounding the pad, can make or break the experience, so complementing an existing play environment already served by sidewalks, signs, parking, shade, and restrooms will have a cost advantage.

Earthform adjustments, plants, and simple creature comforts like seating and shade can go a long way toward making the space special. Concrete patterns and stain, signs and activities, as well as appropriately themed overhead-feature elements can bring the space alive, whether it is wet or dry. Keep in mind that the space will be dry often and may serve other uses if programmed with care, allowing the investment to be spread across multiple demands.

[iii] Finding a balance of sustainability, budget, and value can be difficult, especially when the investment will be scrutinized, no matter how much planning has been done. However, if you know what you want, and make balanced decisions throughout the process, you can definitely make a big splash with minimal cash.

Eric Hornig is a Principal and landscape architect with Hitchcock Design Group’s Recreation Studio and can be reached at Hitchcock Design Group is a landscape architecture and planning firm with offices in Chicago and Naperville, Ill.

[i] System Image: Picture of a manifold cabinet under construction

[ii] Ground Spray: Picture of ground spray versus overhead spray elements

[iii] Conclusion: Full-featured splash pad