First-Class And Financially Feasible

By Josh Martin

More and more, parks- and government-operations directors are choosing to include different types of interactive water features instead of swimming pools, citing smaller up-front costs, no lifeguard costs, and less long-term maintenance. Splash pads do offer these benefits, but if they’re designed and constructed without the proper engineering, there could be significant problems.

Considerations For The Environment
Parks operators naturally must walk a fine line between serving the public and preserving the community’s environment. When space is committed for any type of community amenity, it’s important to consider not only the initial investment (financial and dedicated land) but also the ongoing needs and resources for its operation.

For this reason, many municipalities are eschewing the idea of a swimming pool because of the amount of water needed. Community pools typically contain between 70,000 and 120,000 gallons of water. To ensure the water is clean and safe for swimmers, it gets re-circulated every 4 to 6 hours (meaning the entire volume of water cycles through a filter and is pumped back in), which requires routine maintenance and the constant checking of chemical levels to ensure proper balance. 

The obvious difference with a splash pad is there is no need for thousands of gallons of water to operate it. However, parks operators and sometimes health and safety officials must make another decision that can ultimately affect the sustainability of this type of interactive water feature.

Depending on how the splash pad is engineered, it can either use a pass-through system, which means that city potable water is used and not collected, or alternatively a recirculated system, in which the water is collected, filtered, and re-used in the feature—the more sustainable option. On the surface, safety or cost considerations will often outweigh environmental impact when planning to use a pass-through system on an interactive feature—it’s perceived as cleaner and still less wasteful than planning a swimming pool. Those myths—and the lack of an experienced engineer—will create a new community amenity that really isn’t sustainable at all; the community will end up with an interactive water feature that is essentially like playing at an open fire hydrant.

Engineering For Safety
The argument against using a sustainable, recirculated system rests on two points: cost of a high-performing filter and health concerns, with the latter serving as the emotionally driven rationale.

Safety fears over using a re-circulated recirculated system are not without merit. There have been several high-profile cases of illness because of water-borne bacteria that were circulated throughout an interactive feature. However, the fault in those cases lay in how the feature was engineered, not the system itself.

Without the knowledge and experience of an aquatic engineer, builders will sometimes select a lower-grade filter without enough precision to properly clean the water before circulating it back through, allowing children and families to splash and play in contaminated water.

The best way to select a filter for a re-circulated system is to size the filter to turn over the water every 30 minutes to ensure optimal quality. It is also important that the water can be filtered down to one micron, which is sufficient to begin eliminating harmful bacteria. Finally, it is important to install a medium-pressure UV system to ensure all water is treated, and any remaining bacteria are neutralized.

With a guarantee of clean water, a properly filtered, recirculated system makes having an interactive water feature an environmentally conscious amenity for the community.

Designing A Multi-Function Feature
There’s no question that the first aim of a splash pad is to provide a fun play area for visitors to engage with water, whether from colorful-spraying water towers, shooting vertical jets, or pouring rain tunnels. However, for some communities where open, public space is limited, an interactive water feature may include a second design intent that allows the area to become a multi-function amenity.

Unlike a pool, the flat deck of a splash pad and the ability to turn the water nozzles on and off can make the feature play host to other activities. When designing the area, the engineer should consider other potential uses before including architectural elements that become permanent structures.

When Aquatic Design & Engineering (ADE) was tasked with designing one of several interactive water features for Cincinnati’s Smale Riverfront Park, the firm considered using the spaces for other public events. Because so much of the park’s surface is grass, other than paved walking paths, the water features became prime real estate for large gatherings, especially with their location as a terrace space outside of an indoor banquet area. The dual-purpose design intent allows the public to enjoy the fountains as a splash pad during the day, while also being available for reserved (and possibly even paid) private functions in the evening. As a bonus, the free nature of the fountains helps draw in families to the nearby carousel, and they can also be a revenue-generator for the park.

Making Aquatic Play Accessible For All
The advantage of having a community splash pad instead of a community pool is most obvious in allowing all children and adults—regardless of ability—the opportunity to splash and play in the water. Every child can appreciate the fun of shooting jets and spraying water, and for those with special needs, an interactive water feature can make them feel like any other kid cooling off on a sunny day.

As part of an expansion to Morgan’s Wonderland, the world’s first theme park for special-needs individuals in San Antonio, Texas, ADE designed the features for an ultra-accessible splash park called Morgan’s Inspiration Island. Within five different whimsically themed splash zones, every element is wheelchair-accessible, from tall poles that rain down, spinning water cannons, and tipping dump buckets that drench those below.

When designing for accessibility, consider whether to include wet play structures and how those can accommodate all guests. For example, the design for Morgan’s Inspiration Island includes an elevated pirate-ship structure with a sloped entrance ramp, allowing everyone the chance to come aboard and blast water across at other children playing nearby.

Including an interactive water feature can engage city residents and park visitors in a way like no other. Splash pads have the power to bring together all members of the community, regardless of ability, while also allowing for a functional use of public space. However, sometimes the costs that might be saved by not developing a swimming pool can become unexpected expenses if the feature is not carefully engineered. Ensuring the public’s safety, while also serving as a steward to the community’s environment, requires the knowledge and experience of an aquatic specialist who can engineer a first-class water feature.

Based in Orlando, Fla., Josh Martin is the president and creative director of Aquatic Design & Engineering (ADE), a specialty water-feature design firm. Reach him at