Mighty Moss

November 1, 2014, Department, by Samantha Bartram

Using sphagnum moss to aid in filtering pool water could be a green, cost-saving alternative to pool chemicals.Conservation-minded park and recreation professionals are always looking for ways to “green” their operations. We want to offer our communities the healthiest options when it comes to wellness, exercise and fun, while conserving water and energy in the process. Unfortunately, this is more easily accomplished in certain areas of a facility than others. Indoor and outdoor community pools are buzzing hubs of activity all year long, and that often means a lot of labor and chemicals to keep our pools pleasant and, most importantly, sanitary. But, some agencies have found a more earth-friendly filtration option that reportedly helps keep pool water clean, cuts down on chemical and water use and makes for a more enjoyable swimming experience. At pools across the country, sphagnum moss is proving to be a well-equipped, natural water conditioner that could soon be coming to a facility near you. 

Having a Moss Moment

Sphagnum moss filters are already in widespread use at many pools operated by the City of St. Paul, Minnesota, as well as at all four University of Maryland-operated pools. This, thanks to Creative Water Solutions (CWS) founder and CEO David Knighton. In addition to being an entrepreneur, Knighton is also a surgeon. While poring over books about medical treatment for soldiers during World War I, a nugget of information popped out at him. Namely, that solders whose wounds were packed with sphagnum moss saw faster, more effective healing, versus those who were given cotton packs. “I knew from my years working with wound healing that [the moss] had to be antimicrobial,” Knighton explained in a 2012 interview with Discovery News. 

As luck would have it, Knighton is also a pilot, and one day while flying over Minnesota, the “Land of 10,000 Lakes,” he had an epiphany. “As I went north, [the lakes] got cleaner and cleaner,” he continued. “I wondered, ‘Well, maybe it’s the moss?’” Knighton put two and two together, and decided to test how effective natural moss could be as a filter and water conditioner in his own home spa. Within just 10 days, he says, the moss stabilized troublesome pH levels and expertly tidied up his personal oasis.

Soon after, Knighton called on the expertise of his longtime colleague, business partner and microbiologist Vance Fiegel, and together the two developed the SpaNaturally and PoolNaturally water conditioning systems, making primary use of the antimicrobial, absorptive properties of sphagnum moss. 

Taking On the Scum

CWS’ sphagnum moss filtration systems, available for home or commercial use, seem to be particularly effective at dealing with biofilm, a scummy, bacteria-laden residue that is the primary culprit when it comes to causing illness or infection from pool water. Biofilm is basically a group of microorganisms that are stuck together, forming a thin layer on surfaces. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has identified biofilm as being linked to several infectious diseases, and it’s the beast aquatics facilities operators are battling daily with various cleaning techniques, filtration systems and chemicals, most commonly, chlorine.

With the CWS systems, sphagnum moss comes packaged in tea bag-like packs, which are then placed inside a contact chamber, allowing them to interact with and treat the water. The moss packets’ antimicrobial properties go to work making the water and pool surfaces less hospitable to biofilm while simultaneously releasing natural buffers into the water, stabilizing pH and alkalinity levels. It also binds metals like calcium, magnesium and iron, which helps diminish scaling and staining in pipes, pumps and bulkheads. Less gunky buildup and surface damage means lower maintenance costs — music to a facility operator’s ears.

Encouraging Feedback

Operators at the Oxford Community Center in St. Paul say since implementing the sphagnum moss filtration system, patrons notice softer, better-hydrated skin after their swim and a conspicuous absence of the “chlorine smell” that was sometimes present at the pool. “People started stopping me [to ask], ‘What are you doing? The water is great,’” Lynn Waldorf, aquatics director for the City of St. Paul, commented in the Discovery article. She estimated using the sphagnum moss filters saved her facility approximately $35,000 in chemical costs during the summer 2012 swimming season, while revenue increased substantially as word of mouth spread and more community members visited the pool. 

Meanwhile, at the University of Maryland, Campus Recreation Services (CRS) staff are engaged in an ongoing practice of using sphagnum moss filtration systems. In 2010, CRS received an almost $65,000 grant from the University Sustainability Fund to support the installation of a sphagnum moss swimming pool water treatment system for its two indoor pools. Today, “the sphagnum is currently used on all four of our swimming pools,” says CRS Manager of Pool Operations Matthew Quigley. “Initially it took some convincing for our staff to get on board, as to the typical ‘pool guy,’ the moss was a far-fetched idea and it’s fairly hard [for new products to] break into the pool world, especially with all the benefits the moss was claiming to have.” But, Quigley was able to rally his staff, and, as in St. Paul, reports came back positive. “On average, we save 750,000 gallons of water per year through backwashing our filters about one-third less, and use 40 percent less chlorine,” he says. His staff found no accumulations of biofilm where before it was present, and a few swimmers “describe the water as ‘softer’ or less harsh on their skin and hair. We have a few patrons who visit our facility specifically because of our ability to run our chlorine at lower levels due to the moss — they have harsh reactions to high chlorine.”

These results do come at a cost, however. Quigley reported a savings of $44,000 for CRS after implementing the sphagnum moss filtration systems, but adds, “the grant paid for our first year’s supply. We have continued to purchase the moss through department funding and currently spend approximately $46,500 per year for a 12-month supply of moss for all of our pools.” 

Still, Quigley says he would absolutely recommend pool operators give sphagnum moss a try. At the moment, CWS is the largest player in the game, but as demand increases for green, cost- and water-saving alternatives to typical pool maintenance, one expects the market to expand. “[Sphagnum moss] has proven to be beneficial to human health, the environment, our equipment and our budget,” Quigley says. “The bottom line is that the moss is a very low-risk/high-reward treatment system that offers no hindrances to operations beyond cost.”

For those agencies that wish to be on the forefront of conservation and sustainability throughout their operations, the cost may well be worth the reward. “CRS decided to undertake this experiment because we are always looking for ways to be cutting-edge in recreation,” Quigley says. “The university has been pushing to increase sustainability efforts, and swimming pools are by nature very wasteful. We believed the moss would help reduce that waste while still allowing our aquatic facilities to be top-notch.”

Samantha Bartram is the Associate Editor of Parks & Recreation Magazine.