Americans love their swimming pools. In fact, an estimated 7.4 million vessels are in active use, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Every year, more than 360 million visits to recreational water venues are recorded, making swimming the second most popular recreational activity in the United States — and the most popular for children.

Water facilities are popular because they provide families with relaxing places to enjoy quality time together. The behind-the-scenes work to keep these facilities safe and healthy is vital to maintaining pool popularity. Operators and owners play an integral role and should be commended for their important work.

However, as a recent survey reveals, some operators need better education on recreational water illness prevention. RWIs can cause a variety of unpleasant symptoms, including gastrointestinal, skin, ear, respiratory, eye and neurologic disorders. Most often, RWIs are caused by pathogens such as cryptosporidium, escherichia coli (E-coli), giardia and shigella. The most common RWIs are diarrhea, hot tub rash, Legionnaires’ disease, and swimmer’s ear and itch.

The survey conducted by NSF International and the Accu-Tab System Group at PPG Industries, concludes that operators must educate themselves on RWIs in three key areas:

  • What they are
  • How to recognize them
  • How to prevent them

This survey polled environmental health professionals who inspect recreational water facilities. Approximately 92 percent of them have closed a recreational water facility in the past three years. This is not surprising; in fact, it shows that inspectors are protecting the public. However, it is surprising that 85 percent of inspectors who had to temporarily shut down a facility did so because of poor water quality/clarity. Depending on the facility type, inspectors are uncovering a multitude of water quality violations. Some venues are more susceptible to violations than others. For example, hot tubs (spas) and children’s pools typically have more violations because they have low water volumes and high bather loads. Water sanitizer can be more quickly depleted; total dissolved solids (TDS) or bather waste can accumulate in a hurry; and pH may drift out of range rather quickly. Failure to correct for these will, of course, create more opportunities for error.

Hotel and motel pools and hot tubs were the most frequently cited sources of water quality violations with 70 percent of inspectors finding violations. Apartment complexes and homeowners’ associations followed a close second with 68 percent showing at least one violation in the past year. Compare this with waterparks and resorts, where only 5 percent of inspectors reported violations. 

Why? Facilities that have a pool or hot tub as an amenity rather than the main attraction are more susceptible to violations. In most cases, these properties do not have chemical controllers or a full-time staff member dedicated to the pool, and pool care often is  a shared job function. Consequently, the employee responsible for pool maintenance is less likely to be well-trained and certified, and may not be aware of the latest codes and regulations for pool and water safety.

Environmental health professionals also were asked their opinions on the knowledge of pool operators and their staffs concerning local codes, regulations and inspection requirements. Sixty-two percent consider only half the pool operators they routinely inspect to be well-trained or well-informed regarding inspection requirements.

Chemical-related violations such as low chlorine concentration or pH outside the acceptable range were reported by most inspectors. Additionally, a significant number  cited malfunctioning water sanitation and circulation equipment. Another common violation was inaccurate or incomplete records. 

Cyanuric acid (CYA) regulation is another issue gaining attention among water quality professionals. In many states, CYA has been regulated for years. A number of limits on CYA have been imposed by various authorities, with 100 parts per million (ppm) being a fairly common limit. Why the renewed interest? Cryptosporidium. This protozoan parasite can cause acute gastrointestinal illness that can be severe. Excessive concentrations of CYA significantly increase the time it takes for chlorine to kill crypto

At CYA levels above 50 ppm, it takes much longer to kill germs in the water compared with pool water that is CYA-free. Various regulatory bodies, health authorities and committees of experts are considering changes to codes and recommendations regarding the amount of CYA in recreational water.

Yet many in the industry are unaware of pending changes. Another study issued by PPG Industries found half of operators surveyed were not aware that changes limiting levels of CYA to 50 ppm or less were under consideration and/or scheduled to be implemented. With regulations pending or being proposed in various states, pool operators must learn the proper CYA limits for their pools.

Based on advice from environmental health professionals who were surveyed, here are some “best practices” to help operators:

  • Take an active role in monitoring water quality.
  • Print all codes and make them available.
  • Require pool operators to become certified.
  • Keep the pool’s log in a specified location and maintain accurate records.
  • Set up a regular routine for checking pool water, and pay special attention to pH and chlorine measurements.
  • Measure each water parameter and record it at the frequency required by code.
  • Check CYA on a regular basis — at least once a month. Have a CYA test kit and educate your staff on how to use and understand the readings. (Look for a high sensitivity test kit. Many kits do not measure below 30 ppm CYA.) Remember, CYA should be used only in outdoor pools.
  • Know all relevant state codes regarding chlorinator sizing. When in doubt, oversize.
  • Stay within NSF/ANSI Standard 50 guidelines by using only chemicals recommended by the manufacturer in flow-through chlorinators. The bottom line for pool operators is simple: They must act in the best interest of patrons, stay abreast of current codes and be familiar with manufacturers’ guidelines for the equipment used on their pools.