Cutting Corners

By Josh Martin

When it comes to adding any type of aquatic feature into a park—whether a community pool or a splash pad—there are important safety elements to take into consideration, some of which may not seem like the most necessary use of the budget. But what you don’t know can cost you. Discover the smart design decisions that can actually save money for a community in the long run.


Water Treatment As A Part Of Safe Design
It’s as critical as the lifeguard perched in the tower overlooking the pool: safe, clean water. For an aquatic engineer, preventing the spread of recreational water illnesses is a top priority in designing any public pool or splash pad, and it is why the right filtration and chemical-sterilization treatments are so important.

Any pool-maintenance technician should be familiar with how to identify unsafe water quality. Having the wrong levels of pH and disinfectant means that a pool can pose a health risk and warrant closure, which will cost a facility or park cleaning fees and potential lost revenue. When designing or renovating an aquatic amenity, remove human error by looking at new technology, such as automatic chemical feeders and monitors. As well, advances in filtration have changed the pool industry, creating not only a much safer pool environment, but also a more sustainable one. The historically used sand filtration screens dirt and bacteria particles from the water down to 20 microns. Another filtration technology being used more often by designers since its introduction 20 years ago is regenerative media filtration. It filters down to one micron, while saving hundreds of thousands of gallons of water annually in backwash when compared to sand filters, making it one of the most sustainable and safe options. For added water sanitation, the Centers for Disease Control also recommends the use of a supplementary, optimally designed, in-line disinfection system, such as one using ultraviolet light that can reduce the reliance on pool chemicals like chlorine.

Of course, it’s much easier to prevent the spread of illness by enforcing rules prior to swimming or splashing in a community interactive water feature. Having nearby restrooms, diaper-changing areas, and shower facilities is not only required per health codes, but it’s the best way to promote good swimmer hygiene.

Design Elements That Create A Safe Aquatic Area
For communities looking at splash pads as an alternative to pools, some important design elements should be considered when it comes to safety. If possible, parks and municipalities should steer clear of interactive water features in standing water. Building a zero-depth splash pad protects children who might fall and drown in only a few inches of water. And because running around the spraying elements of a splash pad is to be expected, investing in state-of-the-art, slip-resistant flooring is advised. There are manufacturers of floor tiles for aquatic environments with foam-rubber materials that are incredibly durable yet soft enough to bounce an egg.


Most splash pads are a good choice for communities that want to reduce operational expenses by not hiring a lifeguard, but it’s also important to design a space that encourages parental supervision. Close seating areas with covered shade structures and clear sightlines create a safe environment around interactive water features.

For pools, there is one method of designing a filtration system that aquatic engineers prefer—a collection tank. This construction uses gravity to draw water into a separate tank before going to the filter (rather than directly connecting the pool’s drain to the pump, causing a dangerous vacuum suction). In Florida, building pools with a collection tank has been required by law since 1977. The federal government didn’t create any such mandate on the safety of pool drains until the unfortunate drowning of a 7-year-old girl prompted the Virginia Graeme Baker Swimming Pool and Spa Safety Act in 2007, which names collection tanks as one of the ways to reduce the risk of entrapment from a single underwater drain. Otherwise, it takes some clever engineering to design other drainage points, so if one drain is blocked, the force of suction is easily overcome.

Recognizing The Hazards Of Value-Engineering Decisions
After the engineering of any aquatic feature has been completed, the construction crews, in reviewing the plans, can have a big impact on the safety of the pool or interactive water feature by what they decide to swap out or remove. This process of “value engineering” only takes into consideration the upfront costs of the project, without looking at the long-term operational expenses—not to mention the safety repercussions of those decisions.

For example, as noted above, when treating the pool’s water, some contractors prefer to save money by inserting low-cost filtration systems. But after factoring in the long-term expense of the water used to backwash the system and the amount of contaminants that can pass through a less-precise filter, you can see the true “cost” of value engineering. The same can be said for a contractor’s choice to install fiberglass parts instead of stainless-steel equipment. Less-expensive fiberglass parts will get the job done, helping you meet your budget and open the project, but they are susceptible to cracking after a few years. An aquatic consultant, who has the owner’s best interests in mind, will suggest using quality parts for a 15- to 20-year lifespan, rather than using adequate products that last just long enough for the contractor’s one-year warranty window.

Some value-engineering decisions affect the safety of the pool in even greater ways. There have been cases where the recommendation to install a smart chemical-automation system was nixed to save money. The contractor tried to convince the pool operator that testing the water chemistry and dispersing the chemicals manually would represent a significant cost savings. Once again, capital investments, such as a fully automated controller, do cost more up front, but the long-term operational expenses are dramatically reduced. Additionally, having an intelligent chemical controller that takes away the possibility for human error and improper chemical dosing gives owners peace of mind that the levels of their pools are safe for swimmers.

Morgan’s Inspiration Island: Where Safety Is The Number-One Priority
Engineering an aquatic project with safety in mind is always important. Morgan’s Inspiration Island, the San Antonio attraction that opened in 2017 was hailed as the world’s first “ultra-accessible” water park; it was built as an addition to the theme park Morgan’s Wonderland, which focuses on special-needs individuals. When Aquatic Design & Engineering designed five separate water-play areas, every aspect was needed to cater to 100 percent of the population, where some attractions could operate differently than others. For guests with sensitivities to cold temperatures, some features utilize water heaters. For guests with physical issues, some features spray at a lower intensity. And because some of the guests have compromised immune systems, the chemical filtration equipment throughout the park had to be state-of-the-art so operators would have no concerns over water quality. When a guest’s visit to Morgan’s Inspiration Island represents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, you can sincerely understand the importance of guaranteeing a safe, memorable aquatic experience.

In all aspects of aquatic design, it’s crucial to provide an end result that is sustainable, fun, and, most importantly, safe. No amount of money you can save makes it worth risking a child’s health and safety, and the potential for liability in today’s world of at-fault accidents is too great to take a chance. While some design choices require a higher investment up front, they pale in comparison to the real costs of unsafe aquatic design.

Josh Martin serves as President & Creative Director of Aquatic Design & Engineering, a firm that has completed more than 2,200 projects in its 30+ year history. He is an expert on the topic of aquatic design and has presented to the United States Public Health Board on the subject of water safety as a consultant for the cruise industry. He can be reached at