A few years ago, a friend who doesn’t work in the swimming pool industry called me about an ear infection she developed after using a backyard pool on Canada Day. “It was the first day the pool was open, ever,” she said. “They just finished construction. I don’t understand how this could happen.”
Those of us who operate pools know exactly how it happened. The residential swimming pool is sized for regular use by one family. When 15-20 guests show up for a party on a hot summer day, sanitizer levels quickly drop and are not restored because automation isn’t required for residential pools. Add in homeowners new to operating a swimming pool, and they probably did not know more frequent water testing is required during heavy or extended bather use.
I told this same story recently when advising a commercial client to skip a grand opening for their new aquatic facility. After a long period of construction, with invoices and loans coming due for payment, there is a tendency to throw open the facility doors and invite everyone in for a quick infusion of cash. There’s also the legitimate desire to celebrate a milestone achievement.
The reality is — whether you are opening a pool for the first time or just reopening for the summer season — you are creating a climate of increased risk and liability when, not if, things go wrong. Many factors go into starting up a swimming pool — water chemistry, mechanical systems, staff training, etc. — without adding the unnecessary burden of balloons and a band.
Soft opening allows the owner and their operators sufficient time with minimal load to ensure the system fully functions, and they can begin to fully understand their system.”Jamie Lopes, DEI & Associates Inc.
With swimming pools, “soft opening allows the owner and their operators sufficient time with minimal load to ensure the system fully functions, and they can begin to fully understand their system,” says Jamie Lopes, senior project manager in the recreation division of aquatic design and engineering of DEI & Associates Inc. Opening before the facility is ready can have devastating consequences, including recreational water illness and litigation.
Still not convinced? Here are five areas that can break down quickly if high expectations aren’t supported with proper systems.
Our brains are slower to respond and troubleshoot when they are out of practice. Something as simple as calculating how much sodium hypochlorite is needed to breakpoint chlorinate a pool will be difficult to do if you have not done chemical dosing in nine months. Learning directly from someone with experience is great the first few times, but physical documentation in the form of standard operating procedures, checklists, manuals and logs is vital for consistency between shifts at a busy facility.
A quick tour of mechanical systems when commissioning a new pool or reopening for the summer is no substitute for day-to-day operational experience. “A commissioned system is running under zero load; further commissioning may be required once there are swimmers in the pool,” Lopes says. “Peripheral equipment such as dehumidifiers, pool heaters, chemical control systems, etc. may perform differently based on the flow of the system. As more users begin to use the water, the filters become dirty resulting in less flow.”
The No. 1 thing you cannot predict with a grand opening is attendance. Will 50 people show up or 500? Are staff adequately prepared to troubleshoot chemical fluctuations? Is enough chemical stored on-site for heavy usage or contamination? How will auxiliary facilities like showers, toilets and change rooms perform when capacity is reached? Are you prepared to turn people away if the facility becomes too busy?
When I teach Pool & Hot Tub Alliance Certified Pool Operator classes, I talk specifically about how the water chemistry requirements set by local health authorities are the absolute minimum standard to operate a pool. From there, the pool operator must determine a logical minimum chemical level based on facility function. A water park expecting 2,000 guests to arrive on-site in the first hour after opening has very different chemical minimums from a community center that sees bather usage build throughout the day, particularly after school and into the evening.
When there is added pressure to perform at a high level, it creates conditions where good people can become impulsive and make bad decisions out of fear. Clear expectations from management about what constitutes acceptable standards need to be clearly written in advance or else people are left to make dangerous assumptions.
Another key takeaway is that if you cannot avoid a grand opening, work backward and soft open a few days before the public date. For example, if you need to be open on Friday, soft open on Tuesday. Under-promise and over-deliver. Invite friends, family, regular patrons and off-duty staff. How did it go? What did you miss? Give your staff the opportunity to dial-in systems before you try to go from zero to hero in a short time.