Spray Play In America

Photos Courtesy of Elmhurst Park District Marketing Dept.

These structures have many different names—spray grounds, spray parks, sprinkler pads, water parks, splash pads, or any mix of the above. No matter the name, spray grounds have continued to gain popularity over the last decade. While spray grounds are most commonly found in public park and recreation agencies, the private sector has begun building spray grounds, which are usually found in campgrounds, YMCAs, commercial water parks, hotels and resorts, and community subdivisions.

Benefits For All

The community benefits of a spray ground are varied. The lower maintenance costs allow park and recreation agencies the opportunity to build and maintain a spray ground for much less than the cost of a community pool. With low maintenance costs come low admittance costs. For agencies that charge, for example, in Illinois, the average cost of admission is $3 per person for residents, and $4 per person for non-residents, with some communities allowing free admission to pool pass holders. Considering the target age group for spray grounds is children under 10, with an abundance of users being toddlers and preschool-aged children, this is a real benefit because there are fewer users competing for the same space at the community pool.

Among the benefits of building a public spray ground are safety and interactive play. Spray grounds are commonly found as stand-alone amenities in a community park with no standing water, which eliminates the need for lifeguards. The ability for children to manipulate the rate of water flow and the direction of water with some features offers an interactive environment, which builds social skills and strengthens imagination as children work together to complete either a designed task or manipulate the water to complete a made-up task.


When designing a spray ground, begin by contacting other agencies to determine the pros and cons of the design and manufacturer they used. Of the more than a dozen spray-ground manufacturers, some have specialties, while others are more willing to work with any agency to customize each feature within the overall design. It is important to over-design in terms of square footage and the number of features to allow for growth in attendance. Failure to correctly plan in the initial design phase may result in costly future expansion. The ability to change out features with newer ones, as well as rearrange current features, is an additional option to consider when choosing a manufacturer.

Another common afterthought of the design process is the number of shade structures provided in the immediate area. With the average age of users who require adult supervision, shade and seating are almost as significant as the spray features. Providing ample shaded seating gives adults an area in which to relax, keeping them at the facility longer, which can result in increased concession and merchandise revenue.

Another consideration when designing the area surrounding the spray ground is to limit the possibility of places where children can drag sand and dirt into the water. A good rule is not to include any sand features in a playground adjacent to the spray ground, as the sand will travel on people or by wind.

There are three typical ways to design a community spray ground:

  • As part of an existing community pool

  • As a free-standing amenity open and free to the public

  • As part of another park facility with limited access.

Each design has an effect on labor costs, depending on the number of staff members needed to collect and enforce admissions, and the frequency of checking the water chemistry and  the cleaning required. Spray grounds requiring admissions need to put a barrier in place that is aesthetically pleasing yet can provide a suitable restraint to prevent patrons from sneaking in. An easy way to monitor who has paid is to provide wristbands that are unique to the facility and changed daily.

Balancing Chemicals

During the research process, ask questions about the operations of the pumping and chemical-dispensing equipment. This is likely the area that will require the most labor and repairs. Similar to the pump room of a swimming pool, the pump area of a spray ground over time will develop wear and tear from routine work, such as filling chemical containers and changing and cleaning filters, in addition to the corrosion that occurs from equipment’s exposure to harsh chemicals.

Balancing chemicals in a spray ground is as important as in a swimming pool, requiring the same knowledge, but applied on a smaller level. However, with the smaller quantity of water being used in a spray ground, chemical changes can occur rapidly. Common causes

of change are sun, wind, patron occupancy, and foreign debris. The ability for quick change makes it important to check the water chemistry every 1 to 2 hours. It is almost impossible to prevent sun damage, but with suitable wind-breaking landscape or the use of wind screens, the loss of water due to wind can be reduced. With proper rules and enforcement, one can limit the impact from humans, food, beverage, or other debris.

Responding To Accidents

Procedures need to be established to respond to and clean up accidents involving feces, urine, blood, and vomit. Consult local, county, and state health codes as they provide closure requirements to prevent possible threats to patrons. It can be beneficial to review similar procedures for the community pool, as it may be possible to borrow from an existing policy. Either the county or state agencies will provide the spray ground’s bather load. Overloading the number of people on the mat can put a strain on the chemical system.

Long-Term Expenses

Long-term expenses include updating the spray features, replacing the poured-in-place surfacing, and repairing and maintaining shade structures and seating. When consulting other agencies and the manufacturer, long-term expenses can be foreseen, allowing for proper budgeting. Annual maintenance includes painting the features, upgrading the automatic chemical controller, replacing the pumps and valves, and cleaning the motors. A good preventative-maintenance program can minimize the chances of having to unexpectedly shut down or make costly repairs.


In states where spray grounds are seasonal, winterization practices are essential to minimize surprises in the spring. Water needs to be removed from pipes, features, and holding tanks, in order to prevent water freezing and pipes cracking. Breaks in underground piping can become costly to repair, but are preventable with proper shutdown procedures. In addition, to prevent clogging and unnecessary corrosion, no chemicals should be kept in tanks or tubing during the closed season. Tips for a better winterization include leaving drains open to prevent rain and melted snow from sitting in holding tanks, and pouring antifreeze into any place where spray heads are removed and capped. A more detailed list can be obtained from the manufacturer who is installing the spray ground.

Spray grounds have proven to provide numerous benefits to communities and individuals. Although there are obstacles to designing and maintaining spray grounds, much of them can be diminished with smart planning, effective maintenance, and a solid design. The low cost will provide a welcomed new amenity, providing years of fun.

Joey Cullen , MS, CPRP, CPO, CPSI, is the Hospitality and Concessions Supervisor for the Elmhurst Park District in Elmhurst, Ill. Reach him at jcullen@epd.org .


Play By The Rules

Here are some common rules for any spray ground:

  1. Adult supervision is required for children under 10.

  1. Food and beverages are not allowed in the immediate area of the spray ground.

  1. Shoes are not to be worn in the water.

  1. Children who are not bathroom-trained must wear a swim diaper.

  1. Play at your own risk. There is no lifeguard on duty.

  1. The spray ground will close in the event of lightning or inclement weather.

  1. Do not drink the water.