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
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.
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
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.
When it comes down to it, many contemporary advances in water
filtration and sanitation are an effort to mitigate
crypto. Looking forward, it’s not unlikely
that medical research could nullify many crypto concerns.
Ongoing research is finding new and better testing methods to
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.
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
“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
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
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
For indoor facilities, water temperature is directly related to air
temperature, and experts say HVAC is another area that could see
“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.”
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
“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
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.
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
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.
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
“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
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
“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
“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