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A safe pool primer

Maintenance and safety tips from the Pool and Hot Tub Alliance

By Nicole Tropp, MMC
Condominiums With Swimming Pool

Residents and guests may see a pool as the fun, recreational asset that it is. But for property managers, pools require diligence when it comes to safety, health and maintenance. Commercial pools are specialized systems and require trained professionals to maintain the mechanical function, chemical integrity and biological safety. Defined as any pool other than a single-family residential pool, commercial pools are broken down into six classifications, one of which includes pools intended for use by apartments, condominiums, homeowners associations and other residential properties. Pools operated solely for, and in conjunction with, lodgings such as hotels and motels are also included.

“Pools are complex systems,” says John Mason, Pool & Hot Tub Alliance (PHTA) Certified Pool OperatorSM, instructor and registered environmental health specialist at Deschutes County Public Health in Bend, Oregon. “It would be hard to hire someone off the street to come in and run these pools with pumps, heaters and filters.”

Education is key

With all of the complexities in keeping residents and guests safe and healthy, maintaining the property’s reputation and reducing liability risk, Mason says the key is to educate the workforce, and property managers need to empower their pool operators with the necessary tools and skills. When educated pool operators have the means to accurately test the facility and the ability to close the pool for safety purposes, everyone is better off.

In the same way that a new driver wouldn’t be given keys to an old, poorly maintained car and expected to maneuver the vehicle without danger, a pool operator shouldn’t be given expired test kits or chemicals and be expected to maintain a safe pool, Mason explains. Dated equipment can compromise the integrity of the pool’s chemistry, leading to the erosion of its foundational and mechanical aspects, and potentially to health hazards.

“We want the managers to set some boundaries for the pool operator and determine the standards for their facilities,” Mason says. “This information is readily available through the public health department. Give your pool operator the tools to maintain a safe facility. Provide your operator with a quality test kit.”

“It should not be the property manager’s job to get into the granular details of the inner workings of the pool system. They must trust that the pool contractor, operator or service provider is doing the job correctly.”

—Jason Schallock, Anderson Poolworks

Jason Schallock, COO of Anderson Poolworks in Oregon and PHTA Commercial Council co-chair, emphasizes the importance and value of hiring knowledgeable, qualified people. A safe pool requires a good design, quality installation and proper commissioning—and well-trained operators and service professionals.

“It should not be the property manager’s job to get into the granular details of the inner workings of the pool system,” Schallock says. “They must trust that the pool contractor, operator or service provider is doing the job correctly. It boils down to hiring a professional company that is trained properly, has the right licenses, accreditations and certifications and is asking hard questions. Most important to a property manager is to hire the right people to operate the pool and invest in quality training.”

Ease with automation

Property owners, managers and pool operators are all ultimately responsible for maintaining water quality and chemistry, and verifying the operation system is functioning properly. There are several tools that will help with these tasks. It’s becoming increasingly popular to have automated systems that sense the water quality and feed sanitizer or other chemicals into the pool. These systems have tremendous value but should be properly installed, maintained and operated.

“Chemical automation has now become a widely used tool to log data in real time,” Schallock notes. “It’s easy to view trends in how your pool is performing, water quality conditions, temperature, flow rates and filter status. If a controller is installed, operated and maintained correctly, it can be extremely reliable in maintaining a constant sanitation and pH level.”

The automated systems help reduce liability, increase operational efficiency, regulate safety, improve the experience of residents and guests, and maintain quality and staff proficiency. For instance, if there is a particularly busy day at the pool, the automated system tests and adjusts the chemicals accordingly in real time, with the goal of preventing waterborne illnesses. The system will log time stamps of the tests and note any chemical or water quality changes.

“Not only is there the safety aspect, [automated systems] also prevent your water from scaling or getting too corrosive, which can damage the pool interior finishes, the equipment—everything,” says Schallock. “You could be saving money down the road on replacing equipment or refinishing the pool interior. There’s a huge hidden ROI that comes with these automated systems. They’re second to a quality pool operator or quality service provider.”

Avoiding the energy drain

In the vein of return on investment, property managers have been focusing on energy efficiency in their aquatic facilities. Pools can be one of the largest energy consumers on commercial properties. Schallock says it doesn’t have to be that way.

“Improperly installed equipment or improperly sized equipment leads to huge upticks in energy consumption,” he notes. “A pool that is properly designed with properly installed and commissioned energy-efficient equipment can use up to an eighth of the power and water of a pool that is not.”

As properties build, update or renovate aquatic facilities, Schallock recommends asking questions about the energy efficiency rating, finding out if there are incentives for using energy-efficient equipment, and ensuring the equipment is properly sized, installed, commissioned and programmed. ANSI/APSP/ICC Standards address proper hydraulic design and energy efficiency guidelines in pools and spas.

Clean, healthy and accident-proof

Among the biggest concerns for property owners with aquatic features are water quality and waterborne illness. Schallock advises making filtration and water quality top priorities. Maintaining consistency and quality can help protect properties from spreading disease.

“It’s important to make sure the operating system is functioning well and that there’s proper turnover in the pool—which is how many times the water passes through the filtration and chemical treatment system each day,” Schallock says. “You need to make sure your filtration system is up and running without issues, and you need to make sure your water chemistry is on point.”

“My job is to protect the public health, but I am not actually adjusting the chemistry or monitoring the water quality. I have to empower the pool operators to do that.”

—John Mason, Pool & Hot Tub Alliance

If there are questions or concerns about the status of a facility, Mason encourages property managers to reach out to the local health inspector, who will be able to explain the rules and boundaries for safe pool operation.

“My job is to protect the public health, but I am not actually adjusting the chemistry or monitoring the water quality,” Mason notes. “I have to empower the pool operators to do that. I invest time in them; making sure they know what they’re doing, making sure they know how to use the equipment and resources they have so that they can do a good job and protect the public health. We try to empower them with education.”

Protecting public health goes beyond water chemistry and water quality. Commercial pools are also expected to have physical safeguards in place.

In 2007, the U.S. Congress passed The Virginia Graeme Baker Pool and Spa Safety Act (VGBA) to promote pool safety and reduce the risk of drowning incidents, entrapment injuries and death in aquatic facilities. This law requires all public pools and spas, both new and existing, to be equipped with compliant suction outlet fitting assemblies (SOFA). The federal mandate originally took effect December 19, 2008.

Under the federal VGBA, product components certified on or after November 24, 2020 are required to comply with PHTA’s ANSI/APSP/ICC-16 2017 Standard for Suction Outlet Fitting Assemblies (SOFA), which serves to define VGBA compliance. Maintaining updated and VGBA-compliant drains is essential to pool safety. There are several ways to remain in compliance when it comes to drains and drain covers. Schallock says the key is to verify the drain cover has been updated within the allotted time for that particular cover based on manufacturer specifications. The only way to know when a drain cover was updated is from the invoice, the installation proposal or contract, or the drain cover informational paperwork.

“If the property manager is unsure of when the drain cover was updated, then they just need to update them and retain the paperwork,” Schallock advises. “We see a lot of paperwork lost during turnover.”

Over time, activity and possible chemical degradation can affect the hardware on a drain cover. Schallock says it’s imperative to keep the grate secure and in place, using the hardware provided by the manufacturer assembly. Every component of a SOFA needs to be one system from the same manufacturer.

When the drain cover is being replaced, property managers need to verify the cover matches the drain sump and is rated for the depth of the sump. Additionally, the grate cover must match the total maximum flow rate of the system that it is a component of. This includes recirculation, filtration and therapy jet or water features. In a two-suction outlet system, the SOFAs should be rated so that if one is blocked, the other is able to handle the entirety of the system flow. If there are three fittings, two should be able to handle the flow rate if one is blocked and so on. Another good option is using an unblockable SOFA system.

For additional information on standards, codes and more, visit phta.org. For healthy swimming resources, visit the CDC’s “Healthy swimming” page.

Says Schallock, “The key things I see when I visit a property: One, the drain covers have not been updated, or nobody knows anything about them. Two, the drain covers haven’t been properly secured or not secured at all in some cases. Three, the grate does not match the sump depth. Four, the grate or grates do not match the rated flow of the system.

Pools have both obvious and hidden dangers. They are complex and require specific skills and knowledge to properly maintain. Relying on individuals with experience and expertise can aid in keeping aquatic facilities open and enjoyable, while giving property managers solid peace of mind.

Maggie Callahan

Nicole Tropp, MMC, is a public relations specialist with the Pool & Hot Tub Alliance.

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