Summer is coming, and with it the scorching hot weather our tri-state area is notorious for. Many buildings and homeowners associations, however, have swimming pools on-site that help take some of the bite out of the hotter months. Swimming facilities are great for socializing, getting exercise, and surviving the heat, but there's a lot of maintenance, upkeep, and outright science to keeping a pool functioning as a pleasant, much-appreciated amenity. How do the contractors who maintain the pool do their job? Pool maintenance, whether at a condo, a YMCA, a summer camp or a country club, isn't as simple as it might appear to the layman. It's serious business.
Common pools can be beset by an array of problems—everything from an imbalance of chlorine to a broken pipe, from cloudiness in the water to a motor that isn't grounded correctly, from a toddler urinating in the pool to debris getting into cracks in the wall. And even if everything is OK, you still may have a steady stream of people going in and out of the pool, making cleanliness imperative.
That's why pool operators or managers in the state of New Jersey must be Certified Pool Operators, or CPOs, although they can delegate some of the daily maintenance tasks to lifeguards or superintendents after they've trained them. That's also why state health inspectors must give pools an official check-up before the start of each season. The state also can do random inspections, as can local municipalities.
To be certified CPOs must complete 16 hours of instruction and pass a written examination provided under the auspices of the non-profit Merrick, NY-based National Swimming Pool Foundation (NSPF). Training courses are given in various locations throughout New Jersey and the material includes topics such as pool and spa chemistry, testing, treatment, filtration, maintenance, government regulations and requirements, safety and related issues.
First and foremost, a pool manager is concerned with safety—and that involves many considerations, from the quality and clarity of the water in the pool to the condition of the tiles and concrete deck.
To maintain water quality, keeping the right chemical balance is essential. The primary chemical is chlorine, which is important because it works to kill bacteria. "If there is no chlorine," says Lawrence Waxenberg of Preferred Pool Management in Teaneck, "bacteria will grow, and the pool will become cloudy and unswimmable. The wrong chlorine balance can also result in corrosion and ruin the pipes."
But in addition to minimizing bacteria, pool managers also have to make sure the pH of the water is correct. For those of you who remember your science classes, that's the balance between acid, on one hand and base—also known as alkalinity—on the other. A solution is too acidic if its pH is below 7, too alkaline if it reads above 7. There are several chemicals pool managers can use to correct these situations, such as muriatic acid, which lowers the pH, or sodium carbonate, which raises it—those who want simplicity can use chemicals marketed simply as "pH-Plus" or "pH-minus."
The ideal pool readings, says Stuart Roaker of Pool Therapist in Staten Island, are 1.5 ppm—that's parts per million—for chlorine, and 7.4 to 7.8 for pH.
Maintaining the right chemical balance in public pools is so important that it's required by law in New Jersey. The water in a pool must be tested for chlorine and pH every two hours. "You can't always have a professional do it, so you can train a lifeguard to do it," says Waxenberg. "His or her supervisor is a CPO."
Maintaining the non-microbial cleanliness of the water is also extremely important. This entails "skimming" the surface of the water for leaves and other debris with a skimming net; running an underwater vacuum over the bottom and sides of the pool; and brush-cleaning plaster or epoxy tiles to remove debris that might have gotten between the cracks. Once again, lifeguards or superintendents can be trained to do most of this. Backwashing—or reversing the flow of water in the pool's circulation system to clean out the filters—is usually done at the end of the day when people aren't in the pool, says Roaker, adding that at some pools, maintenance doesn't stop at night—special mechanical devices able to crawl the bottom and walls of the pool are used to remove debris from the pool surfaces after-hours.
Maintaining traps and motors is also a key part of maintaining a pool's safety and swimmability. "There have been electrocutions from motors that weren't grounded properly," says Kent Doyle of B&K Aquatic Consultants in Succasunna.
Along with mechanical checkups, the CPO and their staff are also responsible for making sure the pool area is kept up to code. The pool manager must know not only the rules and regulations for community health, but also related liability and insurance issues. And, as anyone who's ever managed an HOA or condo or sat on a board knows, codes often change.
"For example," says Roaker, "they don't allow diving any more in many places because of insurance issues." Some residential developments, he adds, have gone so far as to change the size of the diving board and to make the pool deeper to conform to updated safety codes governing diving.
One other important point has little to do with the physical maintenance of the pool itself, but can save your association headaches and possible liability: Waxenberg says to make sure that both residents and lifeguards know that only association members—and their guests—may come into the pool area or use the pool. Residents who wish to use the pool must sign a waiver before being allowed in acknowledging that they're swimming at their own risk, and relieving the condo or homeowners association of liability in case of accident or injury, except in the case of negligence on the part of the association.
Along with monitoring who's in the pool, lifeguards can also see to it that the pool's decking is clear of debris and trash and that chairs, tables, and indoor rooms are in good order as part of their responsibilities. Doyle says his company makes sure that sinks are clean and toilets are flushed in pool lavatories even when it's not in the contract, because it's all part of a pool area's overall cleanliness and good health.
A Multitude of Tasks
Not all maintenance tasks, of course, have to be done on a day-to-day basis - but many do. Among the tasks that should be done daily are monitoring the chemicals in the water, skimming the water as needed, and cleaning the tiles. Vacuuming the bottom of the pool can be done daily or several times a week, depending on the size of the pool, the particular management company's preference, and how much use the pool gets.
Roaker says his company usually backwashes busy pools two or three times a week, although it's done every day at more heavily used facilities. Filters can also be cleaned a few times a week.
"You also have to adjust alkalinity [and] calcium hardness every three weeks," says Doyle, referring to two more chemical measurements in addition to chlorine and pH. "Hard" water can have high levels of calcium and magnesium, which can result in whitish deposits on the pool's surface. Water that is too "soft" can corrode surfaces as it attempts to absorb the calcium it needs. Alkalinity, which the Web site www.poolcenter.com describes as a "close cousin of pH," is a measure of all the alkaline substances in the pool water, and is defined as "the ability of the water to resist changes in pH."
Obviously, maintaining a pool requires a lot of gear. If you're wondering where it's kept, all the pool contractor's equipment - chemicals, chemical test kits, skimming nets, poles, brushes, vacuum heads—is stored on-site near the pool, usually in a shed or supply room.
As far as cost is concerned, says Roaker, "a basic pool contract with one lifeguard costs about $17,000, including maintenance, starting on Memorial Day, weekends in June, then continuous until Labor Day." Many factors can affect the annual cost of maintaining a community pool—things like overall pool size, hours of operation, whether it's indoors or outdoors, and lifeguard supervision, among others—but Roaker's figure is an average; according to their board minutes, the Hampton Commons Condominium Association in Sussex County paid $15,000 two years ago for a pool contract.
Of course, pool contractors have to refer some jobs out to other professionals. For motor problems, they call an electrician. For a broken pipe, a plumber must be called. Some large pool management companies have plumbers and electricians on staff. Other types of professionals—like architects and engineers—may have to be brought in, Roaker adds, if HOA and condo boards decide to make the diving area deeper to comply with new codes.
Saunas, Steam Rooms, and the Off-Season
Pool professionals also sometimes take care of saunas and steam rooms. "You have to make sure they get cleaned out," says Doyle. "They can get algae because of the heat, and should be hosed down on a regular basis. The decking should also be cleaned and mopped."
Some special considerations associated with saunas and steam rooms, Waxenberg says, are sanding down the wooden benches, which can get splintery; and taking care of the heating coil and replacing it when necessary.
It's also important to realize that pool management doesn't end when the summer is over. An unused pool can be a hazard, and needs to be securely covered in the off-season—not only to keep it safe, but also to keep it in good repair until the weather warms up. Most co-op and condo management companies prefer to use safety covers made of nylon mesh, which are set up on a spring system held by anchors attached to the deck of the pool.
This is in contrast with the solid covers used mostly on smaller, aboveground single-family pools, which are held in place by water-filled weights. If someone accidentally falls onto a safety cover, it's designed to support his or her weight. Non-safety rated covers can collapse and fall into the pool under a person's bodyweight.
A common—and costly—mistake some property management companies make is draining pools for the winter. According to Roaker, the weight of the water in the pool actually helps keep it in the ground; empty pools can literally work their way upwards during the winter's freeze-and-thaw cycle, rupturing pipes, splitting decking material, and destroying the pool itself. While certain machinery components should be drained and powered down during the winter, draining is generally a no-no. Most pool contractors do end-of-season maintenance as part of their service plans.
A Thorough Checkup
Like other professionals, pool managers have their horror stories. "We had to view a pool that an unlicensed management company had left empty," Roaker says. "As a result, it had literally popped out of the ground. We were then asked if we could pop it back in. The structural integrity of the pool, deck, and plumbing were destroyed. They're now in the process of putting in a brand new pool. It's a shame."
Waxenberg once had to get up in the middle of the night to take care of a broken pipe at a rooftop pool. "Imagine thousands of gallons of water, cascading down on 60 apartments," he says.
As a rule, pool management companies do have to be on call seven days a week, 24 hours a day. Most of the time, however, things are simpler. "It's no different than having your brakes or your oil checked on your car," Roaker says.
And while the pool management company, lifeguards and superintendents do the day-to-day work, the condo or association management, boards, and residents also have a job to do.
"They should get in touch with the pool management company if they see something wrong," says Roaker. "By having excellent communication, we can avoid any miscommunication. Pre-season meetings are important do discuss concerns from past season's problems. Any concerns or questions that may arise during a day's operation should be addressed that day." Don't wait until the end of the summer, Roaker warns, as problems may resurface again. "That's what it's all about: safety, cleanliness and responsiveness."
Raanan Geberer is a freelance writer living in New York City.