San Diego, 2019 — It’s a typical sunny Saturday, and tourists and locals are flocking to the new, state-of-the art indoor waterpark. Nestled in the heart of the city, the waterpark is part of a larger multiuse complex that includes gardens and green space.

Similar to a typical skyscraper, the seven-story waterpark structure has a comparably small footprint for a space that can comfortably accommodate 1,000 to 2,000 guests per day. It uses wind and solar energy to generate its own power and is almost completely self-sustaining. It also includes a desalinization plant that generates enough potable water for the waterpark and much of the surrounding city.

Aquatic attractions are combined with extreme sport amenities, including climbing walls. There’s a mix of thrill rides, children’s play spaces and more leisurely fun, but the most popular amenities are the interactive experiences. Many guests have their own handheld game controllers, which store game-play information so they can download their waterpark play and continue online from home.

That is Ben Packard’s concept of what an aquatics facility might look like a decade from now. Packard is CAD technician at Aquatic Design Group in Carlsbad, Calif., and even if things don’t quite turn out like his vision, it’s no secret that change is occurring. Now, more than ever, it is not the time for the aquatics industry to stand still.

“The pace of change is accelerating and I think we’re going to have to be more comfortable with change than we have in the past,” says Scot Hunsaker, chief operating officer of Counsilman-Hunsaker, based in St. Louis.

To remain strong, experts say the industry must tap into technology to address issues such as energy efficiency, air and water quality, and the guest experience.

Buzzwords such as “green,” “efficiency” and “interactive” are regularly thrown around at industry events. And you may have heard of things such as radio frequency identification and UV supplemental disinfection. The good news is, that’s just the tip of the technological iceberg. Thanks to a growing body of aquatics research, manufacturers are continuing to develop new products that promise to revolutionize the industry — and the way you operate facilities.

First priorities

When it comes to running the pools of tomorrow, many industry experts say the No. 1 concern is water and air quality.

“If we don’t solve some of [those] issues, I think there’s a real danger that people are going to start saying ‘I just don’t feel safe,’” says Ken Ballard, founding partner at Ballard*King & Associates in Highlands Ranch, Colo. “What the industry should do — and I believe will do — is continue to advance the way water is treated for health and safety of the public.”

Manufacturers apparently agree. A number of advances now on the drawing board are likely to change the future of pool sanitization. At present, use of supplemental disinfection such as UV and ozone is exploding, and a number of concepts in the works are poised to take the current standard of high-rate sand or regenerative media filtration to the next level.

Research and development is set to create systems that improve filtration so it can remove even the smallest microns of bacteria and debris. Advancements may rely on new applications of the basic tried-and-true principles that humans have been relying on for water purification for centuries — or new innovations.

One filtration advancement showing promise goes back to nature. This summer, results from a pilot program in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area indicated that a moss-based filtration system appears to significantly improve water quality. The project included several public pools that tested a filtration system featuring sphagnum moss, known for its antiseptic properties. Results showed the moss inhibits combined chlorine, absorbs heavy metals in the water, and ultimately saves operators money and time by reducing the frequency of backwashing and the amount of chemicals needed to treat the pool water, says project leader Dr. David Knighton, president/CEO of Creative Water Solutions in Plymouth, Minn.

Several aquatics professionals believe legislation will further drive developments in the area of water quality. In 2008 Congress passed the first-ever federal pool/spa legislation, the Virginia Graeme Baker Pool and Spa Safety Act. Though that law deals with drowning entrapment, more localities and states, including Texas, are adopting new codes and passing laws regulating water quality.

Water quality is a paramount concern, but many such as Doug Whitaker say there’s growing interest in reducing the amount of chemicals used in water treatment.

“There’s much more of an outcry [from patrons] for less chemicals,” says Whitaker, principal at Water Technology in Beaver Dam, Wis. Ultimately, for many, the gold standard would be to maintain today’s highest standards for water quality without the use of chlorine at all, and government regulations appear to be driving development in that direction.

Following 9/11 many agencies, including the U.S. military and Penn State University, changed the rules for storing hazardous chemicals. As a result of the new rules and growing interest in green technologies, the popularity of “chlorine-free” or “saltwater” pools has increased.

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In another generation, it’s possible that better drug therapies and even a vaccine could come online. For instance, a recent study from the UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas found that bacteria present in the human gut help defend against certain parasites. This suggests that probiotic strategies may one day help treat parasitic infections such as crypto.

Systems upgrade

What about the other aspects of aquatic systems? In many ways it appears tomorrow’s pools will operate much more synergistically. Some leading manufacturers say the idea is to eventually move toward one control that operates everything remotely. This would streamline operations, and lower energy use and expenses.

“If there’s going to be one push, I think it [will] be for a smarter control system that works with the pump system,” says Tom Pientka, CEO of Iconica, a design-build firm in Madison, Wis. “Smarter technology will blend the two systems together and hopefully make it more affordable.”

Automated controls for water chemistry systems and other pool equipment exist; however, industry leaders expect the next generation of these controls to be more affordable and advanced in terms of communications and remote operation capabilities.

“Aside from some great breakthroughs in sensor technology and other features that would improve reliability or decrease cost, communications is where we’re going to see the most innovations,” one manufacturer observes. “We’re already seeing manufacturers with Web connectivity to controllers that are in the field.”

Perhaps state-of-the-art advancements in the residential pool market are an indication of what commercial operators can expect down the road. Another manufacturer recently introduced an iPhone app that links to corresponding control systems and allows residential pool owners with those control systems to remotely control and monitor water temperature, lighting and other features. Company officials believe the industry will see crossover of the remote pH/ ORP functionality in commercial products, and the slick, user-friendly wireless interfaces coming online for residential products.

More sophisticated controls also might help make it possible to better regulate water temperature. Though there doesn’t seem to be any such breakthroughs on the horizon, a hypothetical technology that could allow an operator to quickly raise or lower temperature would be an important advancement given the growing menu of aquatic programming, observes Mick Nelson, facilities development director of USA Swimming in Colorado Springs, Colo.

With greater control over water temperature, operators could more comfortably schedule various activities — from swim team practice to toddler learn-to-swim classes — in the same body of water.

For indoor facilities, water temperature is directly related to air temperature, and experts say HVAC is another area that could see significant development.

“Right now HVAC is an open control system,” explains Jeff Nodorft, studio director at Counsilman-Hunsaker. “When some kind of chloramine sensor for the airstream comes online, we’ll be able to … control air quality similar to the way we can control temperature with a thermostat.”

Big-picture design

The overall design of aquatics facilities also is shifting toward a more holistic approach, according to industry professionals. The look and feel of the aquatics facility environment is becoming more important, and in an ideal future, more projects will be built with greater emphasis on long-term viability. That means future facilities will likely be designed to accommodate various uses in smaller spaces, with a greater emphasis on state-of-the-art building materials and green technologies.

Nelson believes steel pool technology may be a wave of the future. “Steel is not going to replace gunite or fiberglass,” he says. “But with a steel pool, several large pieces are bolted together, meaning a pool can be built much more quickly and can last for more than 15 years.”

Other advancements are likely to come from the world of polymer science. A polyurethane coating currently is used to line and protect water tanks and other heavy industrial equipment could be available to the aquatics industry within the next five years, according to one manufacturer.

Companies are still working to find ways of making polyurethane coatings color-stable and UV-resistant. Once that happens, polyurethane will have several great advantages as a pool coating. The application process is somewhat challenging, but it’s durable, can cover virtually any surface. Also, it has more give than many options available today, so it’s not likely to crack as easily.

Meanwhile, operators are already moving toward energy-efficient technologies, an area that’s likely to continue to see rapid development.

“Even five years ago, you didn’t hear as much concern about green issues. Now that’s almost the first thing out of people’s mouths,” Ballard notes.

Experts agree that patrons want environmentally sustainable facilities and increasing operational costs are going to continue to demand money-saving efficiencies.

A product making waves in the residential market is solar-powered pool pumps. In fact, one manufacturer says that technology is likely to become a viable option for commercial pools in the future.

Some other notable advancements now on the market include variable-frequency drives, retractable roofing that allows in natural light and fresh air, solar and wind power, and heat recovery units that capture heat from air exhausted through the HVAC system.

Looking ahead, the aquatics facilities of tomorrow probably will incorporate all this technology. Likewise, they will embrace other innovations that are still cost-prohibitive, along with common-sense practices such as incorporating live plant life in an indoor pool space to help improve air quality and locating aquatics — which require a large amount of heat energy — in close proximity to a facility that is exhausting a large amount of heat energy such as a factory.

Indeed, the two could work in tandem.

Ohio State University in Columbus is experimenting with another innovative way to move toward sustainability. According to reports, OSU’s recreation center recently became one of only a handful of facilities nationwide to purchase state-of-the-art elliptical exercise machines that generate energy.

Operational advancements

So what’s next in terms of operations? No matter what the future holds, as long as humans are getting in the water, the potential for drowning will still exist. So advancements to help mitigate risk will remain paramount.

“My desire is that we use technology to prevent drownings,” says Tom Griffiths, founder of Aquatics Safety Research Group in State College, Pa.

The beginning stages of what he’s referring to are already in play with underwater video surveillance systems that can sound an alarm if a body has been motionless underwater too long. That kind of technology is likely just the start. Griffiths expects new systems to come online soon that have the ability to track individual patrons at an aquatics facility and immediately raise an alert if there’s a problem.

Another safety improvement may be in the area of emergency phones. According to telecommunications consultant Jay J. Adams, cellular phones with no monthly fee and ADA-compliant phones are some of the latest developments in emergency pool phones.

Other experts, including Ray Dunham, principal at Raymond K. Dunham & Associates in Simpsonville, S.C., say new training methods may revolutionize lifeguarding. They point to online tools and perhaps social networking and mobile messaging as possibilities.

Improved test kits also may revolutionize how tomorrow’s staff checks water quality. In 2008 the National Pool Industry Research Center released data on the reliability of several test kits. NPIRC, which is located at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, Calif., found there’s a tendency to underestimate chlorine levels and overestimate calcium hardness. Though some of the discrepancies could be a result of human error, it’s clear that this is one area of pool operations that could benefit from improvements.

Advancements may come in the form of digital test kits, which have become more accurate and affordable in recent years. By design, test kits with digital readers further help eliminate human mistakes. Today’s digital readers can store information from previous readings, and at least one model has a built-in infrared port and adapter that allows users to conveniently upload data directly to a computer.

Tomorrow’s amenities

Water quality and safety may be at the top of the list of operational advancements, but perhaps the biggest changes will involve patrons. Their wants and needs are changing, and aquatics facilities must change with them. Many in the industry point to the desire for greater service and increasing interest in interactivity as the driving factors.

It appears the industry is on the threshold of some exciting advances.

“Technology will allow [aquatics facilities] to personalize the experience for guests,” one RFID manufacturer says.

In leisure industries, RFID technology can enhance the guest experience by enabling cashless transactions, keyless access, ticketing and real time location. It works by sending radio frequencies between a chip — embedded in a simple wristband — and a receiving device. But there’s more on the horizon.

Expect the next generation of RFID to be the first to practically incorporate GPS-like capabilities. The technology is moving from a “where have I been” functionality to “where am I now,” explains one manufacturer. (Think parents being able to use their cell phones to check on their teenager’s location in a waterpark.)

Future developments are expected to include a short-range, high-frequency transmission known as near field communication. At present, NFC capability can be embedded in a cell phone and, similar to RFID, developments should allow leisure venues to further personalize the guest experience.

Technology also is being applied to aquatic attractions. In the past it was all about “bigger, faster, scarier.” Tomorrow’s top draws may more interactive and allow guests to actively connect by testing their skills.

Experts say extreme sports-type rides such as today’s stationary wave machines are a good example, but it could be something less physically demanding, such as lazy rivers that include water gun targets. These types of rides may not automatically require the large volumes of water and space that many current attractions do and, being skill-based, they encourage participants to want to come back and try again.

That may be enhanced using technologies that allow participants to log their scores or skill level on the Internet as well as via digital video. Digital video is being integrated in all kinds of rides and soon guests will be able to share their experiences by posting videos directly to YouTube or Facebook.

“Technology is coming to a point where the level of sophistication [means] we’ll be able to incorporate a lot more,” says Carin Brown, president of Aqua Kingdoms, LLC, in Madison, Wis.

Her team is leading the charge toward interactive attractions with AquaQuest, a kind of live-action video game. The driving technology behind AquaQuest is the Aqua glove, which is equipped with infrared and other high-tech components that allow players to journey through various areas of a specific waterpark. Players can use the glove to activate certain elements in the waterpark — such as water sprays or dump buckets — and then continue the adventure from home online. Game play is saved so the next time players visit that waterpark, they can continue where they left off.

“What we’re focusing on is finding a way to use the physical elements of the waterpark and enhancing and transforming the experience by melding of the physical world with the gaming world,” Brown says.

Additionally, given the increasingly varied population, future amenities may blend the need for fun with the need for fitness and/or therapy. A non-aquatic example of this may be Nintendo’s Wii Fit. In aquatics, the next generation of attractions could include physical and cognitive benefits.

Such amenities and other changes may not become reality in the next 10 or even 100 years. But if the last century of change is any indication, there are sure to be some exciting advancements that enable the industry to thrive.

Records indicate that during the Olympic competitions of a hundred years ago, swimming events were held in open bodies of water, and electronic timing wasn’t instituted until the 1912 games.

“We shouldn’t settle for what’s always been done,” one manufacturer says. “We have an absolutely critical ethical and moral demand on us to continue to raise the bar.”