Proper Pool Maintenance Key to a Safe Reopening for Clubs

What to consider before reopening pools, spa pools, hydrotherapy pools, and other water-based recreational facilities in your health club.

Updated September 29, 2020


Kilian Fisher, IHRSA’s International Public Policy advisor, and Paul Hackett, a Chartered Safety & Health Practitioner and OSHCR Registered Consultant, contributed to this article.

As swimming pools and other water-based facilities reopen in most countries, it is critical a risk assessment is carried out based on how facilities were mothballed on closing down before they can be safely reopened. This article will help many facilities that have not reopened yet as well as others that have been forced to close again due to local lockdowns in an increasing number of countries. We have become aware of many facilities that did not follow this advice and are now struggling to reopen due to the additional costs. We urge all pool owners and operators to follow this advice.

Industry experts Kilian Fisher, IHRSA’s International Public Policy advisor, and Paul Hackett, a Chartered Safety & Health Practitioner and OSHCR Registered Consultant, underline what to check before reopening your pools.

Please note: This is not a fully comprehensive list as each club/facility needs to assess if there are other factors to be taken into consideration. However, these are the key considerations.

These guidelines should be read alongside the Key Considerations and Risk Assessment tools produced by a global experts group led by IHRSA. View also the webinar featuring a top advisor from the World Health Organization discussing these tools to help keep your club open or reopen and show your local health authorities that your club is safe.

Swimming Pools & Filtration

When starting to bring a swimming pool out of mothballing, you will need to take into account how it was shut down in the first place. You can be reasonably assured that your pools and filtration will be in good condition if your facility:

  • Left its pumps running and the water circulating;
  • Continued backwashing the filters on a weekly/fortnightly basis; and
  • Kept the water chlorinated (disinfected).

If you have followed the above measures, the system will just need to be brought back up to temperature. If ventilation has been set to minimum levels but kept operational, adjusting the variable speed motors back up to normal or automatic levels should not create any major problems. As soon as the water quality readings are up to standard and the temperature is as desired, the facility could reopen.

More Serious Pool & Filtration Challenges

At the other end of the scale, for operators who have merely thrown the main switch and abandoned their building, there will be more serious challenges.

Pool filters are the primary defense against microbiological pollution in a swimming pool. They must function correctly to prevent cross contamination of microbiological hazards. It is not much good coming out of COVID-19 and exposing customers to other potentially infectious diseases. Below are some issues to watch out for.

Pool & Filtration Challenges: Inactive Filters

Filters that have not had water circulating through them for over eight weeks will probably have developed a stagnant layer of biofilms that will bind the sand grains and leave the pool potentially contaminated with bacteria. Therefore, pools that have not been circulated need to ensure that the filters are thoroughly cleaned and backwashed with a deep fluidization of the filter bed before considering reopening. In some cases, the contamination may be so bad as to require re-sanding the filters before reopening.

Pool & Filtration Challenges: Contaminated Filters

Contamination of the filters can be tested for by running microbiological tests for TVC/E. coli/PSA before and after the filters on the circulation line. If the results are the same, then the filters are OK; if the results indicate that the water was more contaminated on the way into the filters, they are working well. If, however, the water is more contaminated after going through the filter this indicates that they are in poor condition and need additional cleaning or replacement of the sand.

Pool & Filtration Challenges: Algae on Pool Decks

With the early spring comes the potential for algae to flourish around pool surrounds (deck) and the pool basin and on the sunshine side of the pools. This is normally unsightly but not hazardous. The algae should be physically removed by scrubbing before attempting to disinfect. Once dispersed in the water, the filters should remove it reasonably well. Once the water is treated and circulated through efficient filters it will regain its clarity and hygienic status.

Additional Pool & Filtration Concerns to Check

  • Check that the automatic dosing unit is fully operational and appropriately calibrated and the probes are cleaned.
  • Check that any floating pool cover is appropriately cleaned on the pool facing surface.
  • Check that strainer baskets are clean and clear.
  • Check that pumps are fully operational and have not developed any faults while offline.
  • Check that deck level grating and its channels are clean.

Ventilation Systems

If the ventilation has been operating on a humidistat and maintained on low air circulation rates, bringing the air temperature up and increasing the circulation rate should cause no major problems.

If the ventilation was merely stopped, some corrosion damage may have occurred on the moving parts of the ventilation system; air recirculating dampers may have stuck and cloth and paper filters may have got overly damp from the humidity. Check that all moving parts are free and not seized or stuck. Check that filtering mechanisms are clean and functional before starting to raise the temperature. Check any V Drives (drive belts) have not stretched, shrunk, or developed excessive tension cracks while not in use.

If air conditioning is used, check that there has not been any leakage of F-gases and check they are topped up with appropriate replacements.

Legionella in the Water Supplies

Shower heads and taps around the building that would normally be fully operational and flushed by daily use, have potentially been static for over eight weeks with a potential for legionella to flourish. Check that all taps and showers run well and reach their normal operating temperature before reopening.

Cleaning

The building needs to be cleaned from top to bottom with special attention paid to:

  • Hard-to-reach places
  • Shower handles
  • Toilet handles
  • Door handles on the inside of bathroom stalls and shower doors
  • Shower and toilet walls where infected hands may have touched

Pre-cleaning is a given, but more thorough cleaning will be required for continued operation without cross infections.

Once it is technically possible to reopen, one must risk-assess the building for its suitability to maintain social distancing. Is there enough space to maintain 2 meters (6 feet) separation? Are the changing rooms large enough for as many people as we plan to allow in?

Lifeguarding & First Aid

If you are reopening your pool and you normally employ lifeguards/first aiders, consider these questions:

  • How are they to do their jobs?
  • How are they to be dressed?
  • What training should they have to deal with potential casualties either in the water or on the pool deck?
  • Are you expecting lifeguards to potentially enter the water to rescue an injured party?
  • How do you expect a first aider to deal with an injured bather with a cut or impact injury?
  • Have you enough masks for customers to wear if a first aider must come close to treat them?
  • Can you get appropriate masks/PPE to supply all your staff?
  • Have you a supply of CPR BVM bags and trained your first aider/lifeguards to use them?
  • What staffing levels will you be able to maintain if staff have to self-isolate after dealing with a potentially infectious member of the public?
  • Are you taking any actions to protect your staff’s immediate family if they become infected or your staff need to self-isolate?

Spa Pools

All the comments above regarding swimming pool filters would apply equally to spa/whirlpool pools.

However, additionally one should check that the whole unit has been stripped down and every last drop of water has been removed (even from booster lines and airlines). Spa pools are renowned for being potential sources of legionella which causes bacterial pneumonia. Operators must check that their spa is clean inside and out and that every pipe has been thoroughly cleaned, thoroughly disinfected and thoroughly rinsed before reopening and is running at appropriate disinfectant or redox levels.

Sauna

As stated in our previous article on pool, hot tub, and sauna safety, if the reports are correct in stating that the Sars-Cov-2 virus will not survive five minutes at 70°C, then a sauna operating at 90-100°C should be relatively safe, but we caution operators to confirm the latest research and advice from WHO and your local health authorities. However, safe distancing is going to be proportional to the size of the sauna. This means that most commercial saunas will have a maximum load of two people, which might make them commercially unviable especially when we would be expected to clean them between users. The time necessary for the sauna to cool down to make it safe for the operator to enter and clean would be difficult to be commercially valid.

Steam Rooms

Steam rooms operate at far lower temperatures and are not warm enough to interfere with the lifecycle of the coronavirus, so they could be a potential source of contamination. Hygiene arrangements after each use would need to be thorough and bather use would need to be controlled to the size of the unit. Steam rooms/Turkish-/Russian-style steam baths can be very large and consequently have many customers simultaneously without infringing social distancing.

Also the operating temperatures being lower should enable almost continuous cleaning. The risk assessment would be weighing up the ability to clean versus the numbers of potential clients. Activities in steam rooms such as massage would need to be curtailed.

Risk Assessment

Each operator will need to look at their own circumstances and operating protocols and decide whether it is reasonable to reopen, some will be able to without much change to normal day-to-day procedures, others may find it is not yet safe enough or commercially viable to reopen.

For more information on coronavirus and reopening considerations, visit IHRSA’s Coronavirus Resources for Health Clubs.

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Kilian Fisher

Kilian Fisher is the International Public Policy Advisor for IHRSA.