A Spray Ground By Any Other Name

By Randy Gaddo

They go by many names—spray grounds, splash pads, spray parks, and splash play areas. No matter how they are identified, more and more parks and rec departments are calling them good for business.

Outdoor play areas feature sprinklers, fountains, and nozzles that spray water up and towers that pour water down on kids and adults—without a pool. Parents love them because there isn’t a drowning risk; kids love them because they’re fun and cool. They range from small neighborhood pads to regional water parks and have been springing up more and more in the past 30 years.

However, when it comes to maintenance of these highly popular attractions, there’s more to them than meets the eye.         

“To the casual observer, they look small and easy, and people think they don’t require a lot of maintenance, but that isn’t the case,” says Tim Trout, a Dallas Park and Recreation Division manager, who oversees the spray grounds and pools in Dallas. With 17 outdoor pools, one indoor therapeutic pool, and 11 spray grounds, Trout, his assistant managers, and eight maintenance staff members are intimately familiar with the details of maintaining spray grounds.

Stirring The Pot
Many years ago Dallas had as many as 100 “junior” pools spread throughout the city. These waist-deep neighborhood pools were not filtered; they were filled at the beginning of each day and emptied at the end of the day! “It was an enormous waste of water,” Trout notes. “They used to add the chemicals directly into the water at the beginning of the day, and the swimmers would actually circulate them as they moved around in the pool.”

As more contemporary health and safety codes came into existence, some of those pools were converted to filtered systems but at great cost and with additional maintenance headaches, so eventually they began closing them and replacing them with spray grounds. The first one was built in 2003 and the most recent in 2015.

Trout estimates that even though Dallas has more pools than spray grounds, about 60 percent of his staff’s time is spent on spray grounds and the rest on pools. There are many reasons for this.

Pools are under constant supervision by staff and lifeguards, who check the pool chemistry every hour, so there’s not as much need for the staff to visit. “Our maintenance techs drop by the pools maybe once a day to ensure all the systems are functioning,” says Trout. Otherwise, pool staff and lifeguards take care of these items.

Pools are in a controlled environment, with fences, gates, and a person who monitors them during all operating hours. Users are required to shower before they enter the pool area. There are normally strict rules about food and drinks around the pool and rules about user conduct. The spray grounds, on the other hand, are wide open. “Our spray grounds are free and open to the public daily during the season, from 10 a.m. until 8 p.m.,” says Trout. Children and adults come in right off the street, through the grass, and onto the splash pads, bringing lawn chemicals, dirt, sometimes pets, and debris with them. Birds, squirrels, and other denizens of nature can frequent the pads and deposit foreign materials during closed hours as well. These elements all go through the filtration system, which can throw the chemical balance off. Also, people bring food, drinks, balloons, and other items onto the spray grounds, and Mother Nature adds her debris; all that washes into the filters, requiring them to be cleaned frequently.

The Nuts And Bolts
The maintenance crew in Dallas must go to the spray grounds a minimum of twice a day to conduct preventive checks—first thing in the morning to ensure everything is ready for the day, and again later in the afternoon after the spray grounds have been in use. “Chlorination levels may be fine in the morning when nobody is using the splash pads, but as more people use it, the levels change, so we have to check to make sure the automatic chlorination systems are functioning properly,” says Trout.

In addition to the automatic chlorinators, an auto-fill valve ensures that the 3,000- to 4,000-gallon underground reservoirs are kept full. Water is taken from the system by evaporation, as well as users running on and off the pads, bringing water with them. So, during heavy use, the auto-fill valve is kept busy.

Since the spray grounds are open 10 hours daily, Trout splits the crew into two sections—one group coming to work at 6:30 a.m. and others arriving about noon. Thus, maintenance staff members are always monitoring the systems and available if something goes wrong.

The splash pads have two purification systems, chemical and ultraviolet (UV). This redundancy not only provides doubly safe filtration, but also guarantees that if one system goes down, there is one still functioning until the crew gets there. During each preventive-maintenance check, crews must clean filter baskets that go into the water pumps as well as into the UV system.

The Dallas Parks Department wisely upgraded all of the spray parks to the same mechanical level about five years ago, making monitoring and maintenance of the systems easier and more efficient. “We went to the same combined chlorination and UV systems at all the spray parks at the same time, so mechanically they are up to date.”

The Dallas spray parks have a variety of features that bring the purified water from the underground storage tanks to the users above ground. From tippy buckets and water cannons to foam jet nozzles and spray hoops and a host of others, all of the features are subject to occasional maintenance. However, Trout notes, they are not normally maintenance intensive and require minimum time and effort to unclog nozzles or perform routine plumbing work.

Budgetary Sense
Dallas has an impressive parks department and a robust aquatic program to serve its 1.3-million citizens. An aquatic master plan guides the existing and future needs, including budgets to build and maintain water parks.

“We have several more regional and community water parks, many that include spray parks, forecasted in the aquatics plan,” explains James Page, Manager of the Facility Services Division, under which Trout’s department falls. Page further notes that the Dallas community is very supportive of the parks department, but the future parks will depend on budgeted funding. With more than 380 parks of all kinds in the system, aquatic master plan is a critical tool to justify and secure that funding.

Page also says that, while splash pads do require significant maintenance attention, they are still less expensive to operate than pools because, even though there are more visits required by the staff, there is less time per visit. “So, overall, they are less expensive to operate, especially when you factor in that lifeguards are not required,” he says.

Maintenance crews also carry cell phones with published emergency numbers, so users can call any time during operating hours if there is a problem at one of the spray grounds. “We are preparing to install new signage at all the spray grounds with the emergency number as well as basic rules we’d like users to follow,” notes Trout.

Down To The Details
The surface covering of splash pads also requires the attention and work of the maintenance staff. Trout says that 10 of the 11 spray parks in Dallas are poured-in-place rubberized surfacing, and the newest is a smooth-finish concrete surface. Concrete surfaces are normally less expensive and easier to clean but aren’t as shock-absorbing as the rubberized surface; however, both require close attention to avoid the growth of algae, mold, and associated bacteria.

“We super-chlorinate all the spray grounds before we open each season, and the chlorination systems keep the pads clean during the season, but we are constantly watching for any signs of mold or algae and will eliminate it immediately,” Trout says. “Each pad seems to have its own characteristics depending on where it is, whether it’s shaded or not, how it’s used, and other factors, so we have to treat each one differently.”

In colder climates, where splash pads can’t stay open all year, they must be winterized just like any other outdoor facility. It can be a time-consuming process. Generally this involves removing all nozzles and capping them, blowing out water lines, and powering down electronic equipment.

Modern spray grounds can be viewed as a contemporary version of the time-honored tradition of opening up a fire hydrant for kids on a sweltering summer day—a tradition no longer practiced because it lowers water pressure and makes it more difficult to fight fires.

However, many new spray grounds have some version of a fire hydrant that sprays water. Today’s parks and rec professionals are taking responsibility for this addition to their inventory, and are probably finding out the additional maintenance effort is well worth it.

“They are extremely popular with kids from 1 to 7 and even into the teens,” says Trout. “You’ll even see adults there too on a nice ‘cool’ Texas, 106-degree evening; they are tremendous assets for the city of Dallas.”

Randy Gaddo served for 15 years as a director in municipal parks and recreation after retiring from 20 years in the U.S. Marine Corps. He earned his master’s degree in Public Administration and is now a full-time photojournalist living in Bay Minette, Ala. Reach him at (678) 350-8642 or cwo4usmc@comcast.net.