Closed For Maintenance

By Randy Gaddo

Closed for maintenance—these are three words that parks and rec professionals and patrons do not enjoy seeing posted on the front door of any rec facility. However, when they apply to outdoor aquatic facilities, they can take on a whole new level of importance.

Why, you might ask, is this phrase more critical in aquatics? A good question, and the answer isn’t a simple one. First of all, aquatic facilities generally are among the most expensive for a parks department to run, so the cost-to-benefit ratio is often skewed. But citizens who patronize aquatic facilities are among the most loyal and vocal, so anything that interrupts service is sure to get a reaction.          

So it often comes down to a service-versus-cost analysis: Does the cost of maintaining an aquatic facility justify keeping it open? In many cases over the past several years, the answer has been no.

Keeping an outdoor aquatic facility operating can often be cost-prohibitive, especially if it is older and in need of upgrades. So, many parks and rec departments have been forced to close them. However, this is not always the case.

Not Enough Winter Swimmers
The city of El Paso in Texas provides examples of both in the aquatic section (chapter 7) of its 2007 Recreation Master Plan (www.elpasotexas.gov). In this case, there is a well-developed system of pools but many of them are old; all of the outdoor pools were at least 25 years old at the time the plan was finished, with most of them requiring upgrades and renovations. Due to the intense heat in summer, attendance in the harsh outdoor environment was sparse after July Fourth.

Indoor pools were suggested as a solution; however, the plan noted that the aquatic staff reported winter pool usage declining significantly at some indoor pools. Plan authors explained: “Pool users are simply not used to swimming in the winter months, and the number of users swimming for pure fitness may not be high enough to justify the cost of keeping all the pools opened.”

Planners also pointed out: “The need for greater entertainment value in aquatic facilities, as well as the ever-increasing cost of operating and maintaining pools, has led to most cities transitioning to a system of fewer but larger pools.”

Year-Round Maintenance
Such is not the case in McHenry, Ill., a city with a population of about 27,000 near the southeastern border of Wisconsin and the shores of Lake Michigan. The city faces the full brunt of winter weather, but the Peter J. Merkel Aquatic Center has a heated, outdoor, 25-yard lap pool with two diving boards at one- and three-meter heights. The facility is open from Memorial Day until Labor Day, as is the affiliated Petersen Park, a sandy beach on the shores of the small, inland McCullom Lake.

The Merkel center features group and private swim lessons, hosts a recreational swim team, and has aquatic fitness classes, water polo, and open recreational swimming. The beachfront, with Wibit inflatables and recreational boat rentals, is monitored by guards during operating hours.

Like so many other parks departments, McHenry is always discussing cost versus benefit of its aquatic facilities, with maintenance a major topic. However, in spite of variable temperatures at the opening and closing dates—which can often curtail attendance—maintenance does not stop.

“Variable temperatures do not disrupt our maintenance,” affirms Nicole F. Thompson, Athletics and Aquatics Supervisor at the McHenry Parks and Recreation Department. She adds that the pool is well maintained, a process made more challenging for being an outdoor facility. “The variable temps have more effect on our programming and attendance, which can lead to issues with staffing and budgetary effect,” she says.

The McHenry pool has two features, two diving boards and the pool heating system, which can add cost and complexity to the maintenance effort. While diving boards can provide hours of fun for patrons, an element of safety and risk management  has caused many pools to discontinue their use.     

Thompson matter-of-factly says that the maintenance crew inspects the boards each year to ensure the equipment isn’t cracked, the top surface has plenty of grip material, and the boards generally are in working order. “Any cracks or problems with the boards, and we have reached out directly to our retailer,” she says. 

Bringing outside retailers, the people who produce and warranty the diving boards, into the picture is a smart move, sharing the load of maintenance and risk-management responsibilities.

Thompson says that the heating feature of the pool does indeed require special maintenance, beyond what the department’s maintenance crew is usually tasked to do. “We have a heating contractor who comes out each year to inspect the unit, get it up and running, and ensure everything is working,” she says. If, during the season, there are issues with the unit, the same contractor, who is familiar with the equipment, is hired to inspect and fix it.

Tips And Tricks
At the end of the season, the pool is covered and the facility is winterized. Pipes are drained of water and antifreeze is added. Over the winter months, standard maintenance issues are handled, such as replacing plumbing equipment or making minor improvements that can’t be made in the height of the summer season.

“We periodically check the facilities to ensure pipes aren’t frozen and that the heat to the bathhouse is on,” Thompson notes. “Otherwise, we will look at scheduling large-scale improvements, such as replacing liners, painting, and general upkeep until April or May when we are prepping to re-open for the season.”

Some places choose to keep chlorination systems at outdoor pools running in the winter season to make spring opening-prep easier. However, the McHenry staff has an interesting way of keeping the pool minimally chlorinated during the off season. 

The pool is chlorinated in the summer with large chlorine tabs sold in five-gallon buckets. The tabs are about 75-percent calcium hypochlorite and are distributed using the accu-tab feeder system.           

When the staff is ready to close up for the winter, “We actually put three or four buckets of the chlorine tabs into the deep end under the pool cover,” says Thompson. “We poke holes in the containers before we toss them in. We have found that it helps when power-washing the pool in the spring. The algae is easier to get off the pool lining.”                

The affiliated outdoor aquatic center, the sandy beach, is a bit unusual for most parks and rec departments to have, and there are some non-routine maintenance items that need attention.

Thompson says the beachfront water is tested by the county health department every week during the summer and after every heavy rain or inclement-weather event. “They will let us know if the water is safe for patrons or if we will be closed until lower bacteria counts are present,” she says. Bacteria in the 244-acre lake are created to some extent from human bathers, but there is any number of natural sources, such as runoff from the surrounding cityscape or feces of the native fauna population.          

The beachfront requires the maintenance staff to install buoys and swim lines plus test rescue-boat motors, install floating piers, and ensure that all rescue equipment is in place prior to opening each May. The beachfront is dragged continually, even in the off season, to keep trash and debris from collecting and also being a safety and aesthetic issue.  Every three years, a contractor treats the lake to control aquatic plant growth, and during the season lifeguards inspect the water daily to ensure that no underwater obstructions have floated into the swimming areas.           

In spite of the additional maintenance load, the beach remains a popular and unique feature that the McHenry community continues to support.

Additional Assistance
Every outdoor aquatic facility will be different, depending on climate, funding, age, amenities, and a host of other variables. However, the one common denominator is maintenance. Whether brand-spanking new or a holdover from the last century, a building must be constantly maintained in order to keep the doors open.            

This is why the non-profit Association of Aquatic Professionals (AOAP) (www.aquaticpros.org) promotes coordination and cooperation between established aquatic associations responsible for all aspects of programming, management, operations and maintenance, and facility design, among a host of other aquatic-profession services.           

As part of its mission, AOAP sponsors educational webinars and other courses that address pool operations and maintenance.

The February 2018 7th Annual Conference and Exposition offers parks and rec aquatic professionals an excellent educational and networking opportunity. Past attendees complimented the conference as one of the best opportunities that aquatic professionals have to rub elbows with fellow professionals and hear top-ranked speakers on every aspect of aquatics, including maintenance.

More info is available at https://aquaticpros.org/annual-conference-exposition.

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.