With the summer season behind us, many consumers are heading into fall with happy memories of sun-filled days at the waterpark, relaxing poolside at a hotel resort or splashing around with family and friends at the community pool. But others’ summer recollections are highlighted by chemical burns, respiratory problems, and nausea and stomach discomfort from exposure to chlorine gas.

Several pool-chemical-related accidents have occurred at aquatics centers and waterparks across the country fairly recently. Incidents ranged from a chemical surge at Gulf Islands Waterpark in Gulfport, Miss., where 15 patrons were treated for breathing issues, to a chemical surge at Seven Peaks Waterpark Duneland in Porter, Ind., which left 11 children with chemical burns and another with eye irritation. In Tampa, Fla., five children were taken to the hospital and treated for stomach discomfort and nausea from exposure to chlorine gas at the Calypso Pool community swim center.

All these examples have similar origins — a piece of pool equipment malfunctioned, causing a surplus of chemicals and chemical gas to flood the pool, leading to respiratory and physical injuries.

No facility is immune to the occasional mishap, but these types of accidents can lead, not only to physical injury, but also lawsuits, negative press and erosion in community confidence — all of which could cost you business. We’ve gone to the experts in the aquatics community to find out how you can avoid these types of safety problems, and pave the way for an incident-free season next year.

Why Things Go Wrong
Most commercial pools are kept clean and functional via automated chemical-feeder systems. In fact, many regional health department codes mandate them. They monitor the water 24/7 and feed the pool with chemicals as needed. Higher-end versions even send alerts to service providers and on-site personnel if the water chemistry goes off balance.

Problems typically start when chemical feeders are not connected to the filtration pump, says Trevor Sherwood, owner of Pool Operation Management in Brick, N.J. If the filtration pump and chemical feeder are not connected, and the electric current to the filtration pump is disrupted — such as when a thunderstorm causes the breaker to trip — the water stops flowing, but chemicals do not. The chemicals continue to build up in the pipes, so when the pump turns back on, the concentration of chemicals feeds into the pool all at once, Sherwood says. This is why feeder manufacturers often recommend that the feeder be electronically connected to the filtration pump.

The chemical surplus also can result in the formation of chlorine gas. When water stops flowing, liquid chlorine and acids (sulfuric or muriatic) are mixed together in the stagnant pipe and form chlorine gas, which is discharged into the pool when the circulation pump is reactivated, says Daryl Matzke, vice president/director of aquatics at Ramaker & Associates in Sauk City, Wis. Off-gassing can occur at the water’s surface, leaving swimmers vulnerable to inhaling the concentrated chemical.

But it’s not just thunderstorms that can cause a disruption in the chemical-feeding process. Several factors could cause this problem. The system could simply break down, someone could shut the pump off by accident, or the breaker could get turned off when workers perform routine maintenance.

Harmful chemical imbalances also can be caused by human error — namely, choosing to sidestep the automated system. “Sometimes the chemical feed systems … are so complex that people resort to hand feeding,” says Willan Johnson, CEO of Monrovia, Calif.-based VivoAquatics.

He’s seen pools that were over-chlorinated or had other chemistry issues because the staff didn’t know how to use the automated feeder and they just started adding chemicals on their own.

“I’d say at least six out of 10 times that we go to a commercial property [with] an automated feed system in place, that feeder has been unplugged,” he says.

Industry Issues
In addition to complexity, the price tag of automated chemical feeding systems may discourage their usage — even though they may provide the best defense against spills and water-chemistry issues.

Basic models go for approximately $2,000 per body of water, and more advanced models can run up to $6,000. Email alert capabilities and additional monitoring can increase the price by $50-$100 or more per month to cover the cost of the data plan, Johnson says.

He’s noticed that the most common issue these systems detect is a lack of chemical in the water, caused by a chlorine tank that’s run dry or a malfunction with the feeder.

But whether the issue is over- or under-chlorination, staffers typically are left to handle the situation after the fact. This could mean anything from adding more chemicals into the feeder to dealing with angry parents and making 911 calls.

The way Johnson sees it, many in the aquatics industry address these chemical hazards in a very reactionary way. He believes the industry should place a bigger focus on water quality to prevent these occurrences altogether.

And Matzke suggests facilities follow the Model Aquatic Health Code for water quality. Aquatics codes vary from state to state, creating a lack of consistency, but the MAHC creates a baseline, he says.

The Solution
The fact is that even if your facility checks chemical levels by hand every 15 minutes and uses the most expensive state-of-the-art automated feeder system that alerts everyone in a 10-mile radius if the water chemistry is off balance, patrons can still sustain significant injury if something goes wrong.

In the event of a surge, the chemical surplus has to flow all the way to the control box before the system registers the problem, Sherwood says. And since water has a tendency to move swiftly, patrons will most likely have already been exposed to the chemicals by the time staffers are alerted to the problem.

At the end of the day, the No. 1 thing you can do to minimize the risk of chemical incidents is to ensure that pool chemical feed systems are properly installed and include an electrical interlock with the pool recirculation pump, Matzke says. This device will disable the feeder if the circulation pump stops running, without relying on the automated controller.

Staff education and equipment maintenance are big components as well. Remember those unplugged feeder systems? Johnson has mostly noticed this problem occurring at waterparks. He attributes the issue to management teams who don’t have time to reeducate seasonal staff workers about how the equipment works. Maintenance drops off with the seasonality issue, he says, adding to the problem. He’s noticed fewer maintenance issues in the hotel industry because those facilities have year-round staffers on site.

To remedy these problems, Johnson recommends enlisting the support of manufacturers, many of whom are willing to come to aquatics facilities and assist with start-of-the-season equipment training. Managers also should ensure that a facility has preventive maintenance documentation plans for all equipment, he adds. These documents provide staffers a checklist of everything they need to do in order to keep the equipment properly maintained throughout the year.

Johnson also suggests that staffers receive traditional education, such as training for the Certified Pool Operator and Aquatic Facility Operator certifications. These programs offer information on everything from water chemistry and circulation to operation and safety.

“You see a lot of great parks out there, every year, ensuring that their staff is fully trained,” he says.

Johnson has seen some facilities that require the entire staff to go through this training, while other venues only mandate this education for engineering and/or water-maintenance teams.

Chemical-related incidents also can be reduced and even prevented with a little ingenuity meant to work around humans’ propensity to err.

We’ve all heard stories of chemicals such as chlorine and muriatic acid getting dumped into the wrong feeder, which can result in a life-threatening toxic gas. Larger facilities that can spare the space have gone so far as to put different chemicals in separate rooms to reduce the odds of a chemical mix-up, Matzke says.

“We’re not going to eliminate the human error [factor],” he says. “But there are certain things we can do to help prevent it.”