Commercial swimming pools require a higher level of maintenance than most other sports and recreation facilities, mainly because water is involved — which can complicate just about anything. While pools may falter, they don’t often fail for a good long time, and that can prompt some facility operators to press their luck.
“The term ‘deferred maintenance’ is relevant in the pool industry,” says Michael Walsh, chairman and founder of commercial pool and equipment supplier Natare Corporation.
You can, indeed, defer maintenance on certain pieces of pool equipment and ancillary products. (Think about it: How many times have you been in a natatorium where the scoreboard doesn’t function perfectly?) Pipes, pumps, filters, gutters and drains can be fixed or replaced. But what happens when leaks become more than a nuisance and impact programming? Or the pool shell crumbles on a daily basis?
“Sometimes, all a customer needs to do are minor repairs,” says Jason Mart, founder and CEO of the commercial pool construction and renovation company RenoSys. “That happens more frequently than not. A broken pipe, a small leak, a minor crack. But when you have a major crack in your pool, it’s time to start planning for something more significant, like a renovation. Patches and repairs only last so long.”
When the flaws become progressively bigger, and the resulting consequences more dire, renovating the pool might make more logical and fiscal sense than continued repairs.
“We’ve seen some interesting situations over the years,” Walsh says. “From pools that need a high-capacity hose running around the clock to pools where the interior tile has fallen off in large sheets to pools that you look at them and just ask, ‘What happened?’ ”
Control leaks for longer life
The best way to prolong a pool’s life is to control leakage, according to Mart. Leaking can come from supply piping through a gutter or wall/floor inlets, so it’s critical to make sure there is no water seeping in from them. Thus, surface cracks, leaks and deterioration of the existing shell must be maintained consistently.
“Nothing will deteriorate a pool vessel faster than leakage,” Mart says. “Leakage will blow out the substrate supporting the pool and cause shifting and settling over time, which will continue to exacerbate leaking.”
“Concrete is an incredible product,” Walsh adds. “Our entire lifestyle today is based on concrete, from roads to buildings. But concrete is a structural product; it is not designed to be waterproof. It also is a porous product that tends to absorb moisture. When moisture is absorbed into a porous surface, that surface is then exposed to freeze-thaw cycles. You’re going to have deterioration. You’re going to have cracking. That cracking does not affect the structural capability of the product, but it certainly impacts the water-holding characteristics.”
As primitive as it may sound, the bucket test remains among the most reliable ways to determine if a pool is leaking. American Leak Detection offers a step-by-step guide to the test, which should be conducted when the pool is filled to its standard level.
First, make sure all automatic valves are off and access to the pool is closed. Then fill a 5-gallon bucket with pool water, leaving about an inch at the top. Set the bucket on a step about 5 inches into the pool. Mark the water level inside the bucket, and then mark how high the pool water rises on the outside of the bucket as it’s set in the pool. Wait 24 hours for evaporation to do its thing, and then compare the water levels. For a competition pool without steps, Mart suggests filling a bucket with water and marking the water level on the side of the bucket, then marking the water level on the side of the pool.
“The bucket test will tell the story, because the evaporation — the [water] losses — will be very similar between the bucket and the pool shell. If there’s any difference between the bucket and the pool vessel, that indicates some level of leakage, and to best prolong the life of the pool, that leakage needs to be corrected,” Mart says, recommending that the bucket test be conducted at least once a year, as well as any time a pool leak is suspected.
Once a leaky pool is drained, perform a visual inspection to make sure there’s no caulk damage, which could be a culprit. (While you’re at it, check for surface irregularities that might cause abrasion injuries to swimmers.)
If resurfacing eventually becomes necessary, PVC membrane has emerged as one of the most economical and reliable solutions. Both RenoSys and Natare offer 60 mil PVC liners, which have a life expectancy of 15 to 25 years and are installed over the pool interior after surface defects are patched and piping problems are repaired.
The liners come with a “pretty strong guarantee that over the next couple of decades, the pool should be able to operate without major costs incurred for the maintenance of the pool,” Walsh says. “Obviously, I’m not talking about the mechanical plant and the building itself, but you can buy a pretty good life extension of the pool by using a PVC membrane.”
Poor indoor air quality
A leaky pool isn’t the only factor that accelerates the need to repair or renovate a commercial pool and its surroundings.
“The one thing that will ruin a building, ruin equipment, ruin pumps and heaters in mechanical rooms, and that will degrade all of the metal fittings and fixtures inside a pool facility is poor indoor air quality,” says Mark Hines, vice president of sales and marketing for Paddock Pool Equipment Co. “I can walk into almost any pool facility and tell you where the air returns are in that pool, because the equipment on the side of the pool closest to the returns — where all this bad air is being drawn — will be significantly more stained with corrosion.”
That’s why Paddock introduced the Evacuator indoor air-quality system more than a decade ago. The product minimizes chloramine levels and disinfectant byproducts by exhausting them out of a facility — not only creating a safer environment for the pool and its equipment but also for swimmers, spectators and staff.
“Organics mix with chlorine in the pool, and parts of it off-gas into trichloramines,” Hines says. “Trichloramines are extremely corrosive, but the cool thing about them is that they’re two-and-a-half to three times heavier than air, so you know they’re just hovering over the surface of the pool.”
Evacuator technology works in conjunction with the facility’s air-handling system to remove chloramines from the air and prolong the life of the facility. Units can be retrofitted into a deck drain, benches or walls. For new construction, the Evacuator can be installed as a closed-source capture system in the pool gutter.
In advance of the 2023 NCAA Division I Women’s Swimming and Diving Championships in March at the University of Tennessee’s Allan Jones Aquatic Center, Paddock installed a temporary Evacuator system to provide what Hines calls “some much-needed improvements” to the facility’s indoor air quality.
“We literally had to run a pipe from the edge of the pool to a fan outside,” he explains. “We punched a hole in the side of the building and temporarily put this fan up. We’re going to go back at some point and make it permanent by building a retrofit gutter system for the Evacuator.”
From vigilance to replacement
Here are three additional steps you can take to keep your pool in top operating condition:
1. Maintain vigilance over components in your equipment room, which may have its own indoor air-quality issues. Obviously, leaks in that space would indicate a pump, pipe or filter issue. But also inspect for rust around welds and joints.
2. When you replace heaters, consider installing, for example, two 500,000-BTU heaters rather than a single 1 million-BTU unit. That way, if one goes down, at least the other one likely will remain operational.
3. When you do notice something is amiss, call the professionals who do the pool’s service and maintenance and ask for assistance. It’s best to err on the side of caution than face an unexpected shutdown.
Inevitably, pool operators must consider planning for renovation or replacement. “At some point, the questions become ‘How soon?’ and ‘Where can we get the funding?’ ” Walsh says, noting that many Natare customers begin budgeting for a new PVC liner shortly after the current one is installed. “Some facilities, frankly, don’t need to replace the liner after 10 or 12 years, but they regularly do.”
Replacing an existing pool with a new pool is much rarer than renovating one, according to Mart. “Very, very seldom is there any reason to build a new pool unless you want to change its footprint,” he says, noting an uptick in the number of renovation projects that incorporate amenities such as play features, waterslides and climbing walls to create mini-waterpark environments. “Otherwise, it’s basically recycling, if you will, the existing infrastructure. All that concrete work doesn’t need to be torn out. Put a new gutter on top and a new watertight membrane inside, and you have a like-new pool that’s guaranteed for 10 years.”