Stay Out Of Hot Water

By Randy Gaddo

When it comes to being extra-persnickety about maintenance, I would have to say that cleaning hot tubs ranks high on the risk-management list.

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My opinion is partly based on personal experience—both at home and in a public-pool setting. However, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reinforced my belief when it recently announced an increase in infections from swimming pools and hot tubs. In a Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) (as reported by Dr. Judy Stone, an infectious-disease specialist), the CDC announced that cases of a parasite—cryptosporidium—had doubled between 2014 and 2016, with 32 outbreaks reported. There have been 2,295 cases so far this year, compared to 2,631 in all of 2017, Stone wrote in a blog.

In the MMWR, the CDC noted that approximately 20 percent of 13,864 routine inspections of public hot tubs/spas conducted in 16 jurisdictions in 2013 identified improper concentrations of disinfectant (i.e., chlorine).

Hot tubs are also called spas, therapy pools, and Jacuzzi, which is actually a brand name, but over the years people began to generically call anything in the family of hot tubs by that name. While there may be subtle differences among the above-named equipment, essentially they are all hot-water baths that circulate, pump, gush, blast, and/or pulse water in one way or another. The overall effect on the human body can be relaxing and even therapeutic. This article will refer to them all as hot tubs or spas for simplicity.

Like any other mechanical item in a parks and rec inventory, hot tubs require close and frequent maintenance. There are electrical, mechanical, hydraulic, and chlorination systems all working together to provide clean, hot fun for patrons; however, close attention must be paid to the surface of the tub itself, as well as the surface area around it to avoid creating an infectious environment. All in all, it’s a lot to keep up.

Unfortunately, the hot, humid environment created in and around hot tubs can become a hotbed of breeding grounds for germs.

Make Rules And Stick With Them
The CDC report explains that chlorine (in swimming pools and hot tubs) kills the germs that cause Recreational Water Illnesses (RWIs), but the time it takes to kill each germ varies. In pools and hot tubs with the correct pH and disinfectant levels, chlorine will kill most germs that cause RWIs in less than an hour. However, chlorine takes longer to kill some germs, such as Crypto (short for cryptosporidium). Crypto can survive for days even in a properly disinfected pool. This is why it is so important for swimmers and bathers to keep germs out of the water in the first place.

The CDC reports that skin infections, like “hot tub rash,” are a common RWI spread through hot tubs and spas, as well as respiratory illnesses associated with the use of improperly maintained hot tubs. RWIs can be spread by swallowing or having contact with contaminated water or by breathing in associated mists or aerosols.

To make it even more challenging, RWIs can also be a by-product of the chemicals in the water or the chemicals that turn into gas in the air, which in turn creates air-quality issues.

The high water temperatures in most hot tubs make it difficult to maintain disinfectant levels needed to kill germs. That’s why it’s so important for facility staff members to check disinfectant levels in hot tubs even more regularly than in swimming pools.

Policing patrons who use hot tubs is another important job for staff members at parks and rec facilities. Most facilities don’t allow children under a certain age (normally around 12 years old) into a hot tub. Children’s temperature-regulating systems are different from those of adults, so children can overheat more quickly. Also, they tend to want to go under the water or even get water in their mouth, which enables bacteria to enter their body.

People who are already ill should not go into a hot tub. If they have respiratory issues, or if they are coughing, sneezing, and wheezing or have diarrhea, they should not be in the spa. Staff members must be able to recognize health issues that restrict people from entering a hot tub, clearly post rules, and then enforce the rules.

A Senior Service
The staff at the South Portland, Maine, Parks, Recreation and Waterfront (PRW) Department hasn’t had to worry about safety in the hot tub in nearly 15 years; that’s when the hot tub at the South Portland Community Center stopped working. On February 27, it re-opened to the public.

For the past four years, the city has actively been working to replace the old concrete spa, which was installed in 1979 and reportedly stopped working circa 2005. Sometime in 2016, the top half of the spa was removed, and it was covered.

There have been the normal array of obstacles to replacing it over the past four years—bids coming in too high, the need to find additional funding, requests for bids being re-issued, etc. The project was more involved than initially realized.

“The project involved installing a new tub into a concrete base,” says Kevin Adams, Director of the PRW department. He explains that the old tub was filled in with gravel and covered over with concrete and flooring. At that time the department wasn’t going to replace it.

However, users wanted a new tub, so they formed a fundraising organization, and after a number of years they raised enough funds to purchase a modern, fiberglass therapy spa. The therapy hot tub cost about $25,000, but it was set to the side awaiting a place to put it.

“The city administration and council got behind the effort and agreed to allocate funds to cover the costs of other aspects of the project,” Adams says. These included upgraded HVAC, demolition and repair of the old concrete base to make space for the new spa, new tile flooring, pumps, piping, electrical work, and incidentals.

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Although there was considerable cost involved in completing the project, Adams says that the benefit to the patrons has outweighed the cost. “This was more about wellness and the therapeutic aspects of having a hot tub available,” he notes. In the end, it was public demand that brought the project to fruition, “especially from the senior population who use our aquatic services,” he adds.

Some may take the view that a therapy spa is a “nice-to-have” item, and Adams admits it is; however, he balances the view, adding, “It was not a necessity to run our operations, but it is a benefit to have as part of an overall wellness and therapeutic aquatic program.”

Adams anticipates moderate use of the hot tub, with high usage at certain times, especially by senior patrons, but he adds, “We do have some younger swimmers who use it for therapeutic methods.”

Squeaky Clean
There is a certain amount of risk-management involved with hot tubs, the risk of someone slipping and falling, or someone getting sick after using it, or any number of other things that can go wrong. However, in the end, it’s no more risky than what departments handle every day at any other facility; in the end, it comes down to proper maintenance that reduces or eliminates the risk.

South Portland goes the distance with maintaining its therapy spa. “We drain the tub every two weeks, clean it, and apply new chemicals to it,” says Patrick McArdle, Recreation Manager and Aquatics Director. He emphasizes water quality and good filter management. “We check chemicals every four hours to ensure that the water is safe at all levels. We have a written set of guidelines in place for patron usage, referencing model health code and age restrictions from the National Spa Pool Foundation and the American Academy of Pediatrics.”

McArdle suggests that any parks and rec professionals who are considering a new or upgraded hot tub should first conduct a thorough study of what the facility needs are, either for a regular hot tub or a more involved therapeutic spa. He advises going to the Association of Pool and Spa Professionals (www.apsp.org) for resources to help research.

A Good Investment
The parks and rec staff in Lincoln City, Ore., prominently promote its hot tub as part of the mission to enhance quality of life for patrons. The website leads off by promoting its 25-meter pool, enclosed water slide, diving boards and rope swing, warm-water instructional pool, and 12-person hot tub in operation since 2009. The staff is clearly prepared to take risks.

“The tub is definitely a therapeutic component of our wellness program,” says Lincoln City Parks and Rec Director Jeanne Sprague. “Our biggest users are our swimmers, and our most popular age demographic of users is our senior population. After our water-exercise classes, we encourage our patrons to relax and enjoy the tub. Not only does it help soothe sore muscles, it also provides a socialization aspect that is needed for healthy living.”

“The addition of the spa to our facility was a good investment,” adds Robert Long, Facilities Manager at the Lincoln City Parks and Rec Department. “It helped draw in new customers and was a big incentive for our returning customers to renew their pass. It has made our center a more complete facility.”

Long says that there was a good deal of interest from citizens to add the spa, which has been in operation since 2009. “And our tourist population, who drop in for day-use, are pleased to find out that we have a spa.”

Long, who is directly responsible for the care and maintenance of the spa, does not consider it a high-risk-management item. He stresses that because staff members properly maintain the spa and monitor its use and cleanliness, the risk is mitigated.

“The spa certainly takes a little more maintenance than a pool, but the rewards of happy customers are a big payoff for the facility,” Long says. He adds that every spa will be different in the maintenance it requires, due to the level of usage, users, water temperatures, the filtration and chlorination systems used—and a couple of other factors.

“Our facility manager started with guidelines set by our state and the manufacturer on proper care and maintenance,” says Long. “As he got to know the spa’s needs, he would adjust maintenance as needed. The usage will determine how the filters will be cleaned and when you need to drain and refill it with fresh water.” Long also says that keeping up with filter changes is one of the most prevalent maintenance items to contend with.

Do Your Homework
For parks and rec departments considering a new or upgraded spa, Long suggests that thorough research is the key. “Ask lots of questions to your contacts, and don’t be afraid of something new,” he says. “You will enjoy the delight from customers when they get into the spa and have a smile on their face as they lay back and enjoy it. I like to see all our pool and spa water looking crystal-clear—that’s my reward for the extra maintenance you have to give.”

In the two cases cited here, reward outweighed the risk in South Portland and Lincoln City. However, that may not be true in every instance. A parks and rec department must really weigh its options with a hot tub.

In my opinion, the last thing a department head would want to do is saddle the maintenance staff with another task if it cannot properly support the project with funding, staffing, and materials. There is nothing more revolting than walking into a facility and seeing a hot tub that has brownish-looking foam bubbling up, as fumes permeate the air from the murky mist rising around it.

No risk-management decision for me there because I would never risk getting into a tub looking like that—and I don’t think anybody else would either.

Randy Gaddo, a retired Marine who also served for 15 years in municipal parks and recreation, is now a full-time photojournalist who lives in Bay Minette, Ala. He can be reached at (678) 350-8642 or email cwo4usmc@comcast.net.