Campus & Community / Magazine Feature

Natatorium upgrades to make a big splash for swimmers

It’s time to clear the air over swimming pool water.

It’s understandable that competitive swimmers would like water as fresh and clean as possible. Turns out, though, that the foot or so of air above the water is just as important.

“The 12 inches of air that floats on the surface is critical,” says Brian Schrader, DU’s head swimming and diving coach. “It always needs to be freshened.”

That’s one of the reasons Schrader and his DU aquanauts are so excited about $290,000 worth of improvements to the El Pomar Natatorium that presently are under way as a major maintenance effort.

The upgrade began earlier this month and will wrap up about Aug. 1, says Allan Wilson, director of building services at the Ritchie Center. Some of it is scheduled maintenance and some are enhancements. But all is intended to make the most complicated environment in the Ritchie Center work better and last longer.

It isn’t dirty pool to talk about the challenges of swimming pools, Wilson allows. The chemistry is delicate, especially for competitive pools like DU’s. The challenge begins with “biomatter” — sweat mostly — that gets in the water from athletes working hard and that chlorine is intended to combat. It does, binding with the biomatter to form chemical compounds that evaporate.

Often, though, this soup of compounds, known as “disinfection byproducts,” hovers near the surface, producing a familiar “chlorine” smell that actually isn’t chlorine at all, but the compounds the chlorine produces. A good air-flow system can get rid of the soup so when swimmers grab a breath, they inhale cleaner air and fewer byproducts. Cleaner air means more oxygen to the athlete and potentially better performance.

“Any time you can make improvements for swimmers, good things happen,” Schrader says, drawing on his background as a swimmer in Colorado and his experience coaching at DU, where he’s in his fourth year. Make El Pomar even better, Schrader maintains, and his swimmers will give spectators a lot to cheer about.

Carl Brockwell, assistant maintenance foreman, is confident the upgrade can deliver. “This will be fresher, crisper, cleaner air,” he predicts. “I think anyone who’s swum in this building will notice.”

Brockwell should know. He’s so close to the pool system that his beeper goes off whenever the water temperature gets even a degree out of the 78–81 degree range that NCAA rules require.

“The old system wasn’t set up for altitude properly and this one will be,” he adds, noting that the revamped system not only will better sweep the pool surface, it also will clean and re-circulate all the air in the natatorium 10–12 times per hour.

In a nutshell, explains Wilson, the system works like this: “The air comes in, gets conditioned [cooled and dehumidified], mixed, exchanged out through the ventilation system in the pool, then returned, with a percentage of it exhausted out and a percentage recycled back in.”

Achieving this means an energetic maintenance effort to install 4.5-foot diameter tin and steel air supply ducts, acid-wash the pool surface, re-grout the decks, resize the dehumidifiers, add ventilation, upgrade controls and tweak equipment, some of which has been running without interruption for 11 years.

When all is complete, the new air system will freshen the environment for swimmers and spectators alike, fine-tune controls and reduce potential health issues such as swimmers lung, an asthma-like allergic reaction to compounds produced in the pool.

A new ultraviolet water conditioner also will help, providing an additional mechanism for keeping chlorinated water in the 850,000-gallon pool as free of organic material as possible.

“The improvements they’re making are awesome,” Schrader says. “And we’re also getting a new scoreboard, which will help our spectators’ experience. People like to watch fast swimming.”

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