Two areas that continue to be moving targets in today’s aquatics world are the cost to build facilities and the cost to operate them. These costs are critical considerations when making the decision to move forward with a project.
When planning an aquatics facility, several questions need to be answered. The first is, “Who is going to use the facility?” Understanding facility use ultimately determines the type of pools and other amenities needed to create a successful aquatics center, which will impact both the cost to build and operate.
The three main considerations revolve around water depth, water temperature and access. Younger children participating in swimming lessons prefer the water to be shallow and warm to provide a comfortable learning environment. It’s also preferred to have easy access in the form of a ramp entry or grand staircase, which can also be used for staging lessons.
Competitive high school or college swimmers need the pool to be deeper and colder. This provides a safe training environment for athletes who are pushing their limits. Accommodating temperatures and depths appropriate to different users enables programming to encompass swim lessons, competitive swimming and diving practices and events, aquatics therapy sessions, water fitness activities, and family leisure outings — simultaneously.
As more athletes cross train with water fitness components, and more doctors recommend water rehabilitation for injured, obese, diabetic and aging patients, multigenerational aquatic centers must be inclusive of the entire community.
Once the size, type and mix of pools are determined, the design process can start. During this phase, there are several decisions that need to be made that can affect both the initial cost to build, but also the ongoing operational cost.
There are numerous opportunities to incorporate energy conservation, LEED design criteria and sustainable design approaches in aquatics-related facilities. Pool designers and engineers continue to improve innovation in design and systems. Over the past several years, these technologies have become more affordable, more readily available and more prevalent in modern aquatics facilities.
While most of these technologies come with an increased capital investment, they can also provide a return on investment with the savings they provide. Some of the most common energy-saving options today include regenerative-media filtration, high-efficiency heaters, LED pool lights, ultraviolet sanitation, saline chlorinators and the use of pool covers or blankets.
Regenerative media filtration
A regenerative media filter system utilizes technology that has been in the industry for 50 years. The primary reason for the major return of interest in these systems is the reduction in equipment room space requirements and reduced water consumption. A single tank oriented vertically in the filter area can act as the filter system for the entire pool by enclosing hundreds of hollow tubes adhered to a regenerative filter. This single tank can accommodate the same filter area as five or six traditional high-rate sand filters, creating a significant reduction in required mechanical room space.
A typical RMF system may reduce a pool’s water consumption by up to 97 percent. A high-rate sand filtration system’s typical backwash is 5,000 gallons of water per filter in automatic, semi-automatic and manual pressure system operations. By using a regenerative media filter, a typical backwash is only 300 gallons. Other benefits include its effective filtration with 2-to-3-micron removal capacity, and long filter runs that dramatically reduce water, chemical and energy demand.
For cost comparison, a high-rate sand filter on a 25-yard competition pool carries an initial cost of around $32,000, with an annual operating cost of around $4,300. The automatic regenerative media filter’s initial cost is around $56,500, but with an annual operating cost of only $500. Payback is achieved in 6.4 years based on $0.09 per kilowatt for electricity.
A similar-sized recreational pool with a higher turnover rate would face a sand filter cost of around $65,000, with an annual operating cost of about $8,600. The automatic regenerative media filter’s initial cost is around $97,700 for the same pool, but with an annual operating cost of $1,050. In this case, payback would be achieved in 4.3 years based on $0.09 per kW.
High-efficiency direct-fired heating
Direct-fired pool heating technology has dramatically improved in recent years. Improvements in the design of burners as they relate to the integrated heat exchanger have resulted in heater efficiency ratings of 95 percent to 97 percent. Additionally, these new design solutions have increased system durability and longevity, allowing for an extended heater life and reduced maintenance costs.
Underwater pool lights
LED technology is now available for underwater pool lighting. The bulbs provide energy efficiency in operation by utilizing just 70 watts each compared to traditional underwater bulbs that use 500 watts or greater. These energy-efficient bulbs also provide 10 times the life, making them a cost-effective and “green” addition to any pool.
Ultraviolet supplemental sanitation
A UV system may provide a 10 percent reduction in chemical consumption and extend the life of the air handling system by 10 to 15 years. For comparison, a 25-yard competition pool’s UV system costs around $45,700, and annual electrical cost is approximately $2,760 (3.5 kW by 24 hours by 365 days by $0.09). A chemical savings of around $316 may be achieved per year. The recreational pool’s UV system costs around $55,000, and annual electrical cost is approximately $4,340 (5.5 kW by 24 hours by 365 days by $0.09). A chemical savings of around $441 may be achieved per year.
While a direct return on investment is hard to measure, the UV system saves additional costs by protecting other valuable equipment.
On-site chlorine generation
Saline chlorine generators produce chlorine on site and offer an annual savings on pool chemical costs. This pool sanitizing technology also minimizes the necessity for deliveries and handling of chemicals.
Initial cost for a typical 25-yard pool is around $23,000 and includes start-up salt and installation. Depending on local electric costs and historic chemical costs, payback for these systems is typically achieved in three to five years.
There are four major sources of heat loss for swimming pools: evaporation, conduction, convection and radiation. Most of this energy (up to 95 percent) is lost through the water surface. The most efficient way to reduce this form of energy loss is by covering the pool with pool blankets during down times.
As pools lose heat through evaporation, pool heaters must supplement the heat loss. The use of pool blankets mitigates evaporation, retains heat in the water and reduces the demand on pool heaters as they work to maintain operating temperatures. Pool blankets can reduce operating costs in the form of water, heat and chemical losses by as much as 50 percent if used daily for 8- to 10-hour periods.
As an example, a 25-yard competition pool cover has an initial cost of around $9,600, with an energy savings of approximately $8,700 per year. Payback is achieved in about 1.1 years. A similar-sized recreational pool that is kept at a warmer temperature has an initial cost of around $17,600, with an energy savings of approximately $29,800. Payback is achieved in about 0.59 years.
Once you’ve finished planning the facility, there are a few more things to consider related to the cost. One is the time of year you plan to receive bids. If you can get contractors involved early, they can provide more favorable pricing as they work to build up their project list.
For a pool that wants to start construction in May, it’s recommended to have planning documents done by the previous December and start accepting contactor bids in January. Later in the year, contractors and their subs will become booked and will have limited resources to put toward other projects. This often results in higher costs to deliver the same project. The other reason to get contractors involved early is to get ahead of today’s biggest challenge: rising costs and supply issues.
Like most industries, the commercial pool market is experiencing labor shortages and supply issues. Last summer, we heard from several facilities that were not able to get cementitious finish products such as plaster or even grout for tile. And like the automotive industry, microchips play a role in much of today’s equipment. This could continue to create shortages in the future, as other industries are still struggling, too.
A final consideration is the vulnerability of prices in today’s market. With much uncertainty regarding the future supply chain, it’s becoming harder to predict what costs will look like in three or six months. We’ve seen a few companies roll out midyear price increases for the first time in their history, in order to correct for material-cost increases.
Building and operating an aquatics facility is never easy or inexpensive, but improvements in equipment and new technologies introduced to the aquatics market continue to offer more sustainable solutions. When considering an aquatics project, keep in mind both the upfront cost, but also the potential savings afforded by some of the aforementioned solutions. Remember, costs will only go up, so invest now.