Interview: Allen Schnaak, Vice President of Business Development, BioNova Natural Pools

Allen Schnaak“Awareness precedes all change and social awareness related to environmental responsibility, sustainability, and stewardship is reaching a critical mass in the world” 

Allen Schnaak's personal and professional life have revolved around water and the outdoors. Over 50 years ago, at the age of 12, he got his first job maintaining a neighborhood swimming pool. He was active in boy scouts, earned the Eagle scout rank with a community project involving the cleanup of a garbage dump. While in college he studied marine biology and limnology, but "since Jacques Cousteau had the job" he wanted, his career evolved around the swimming pool industry, the last 30 years focused on chemical solutions to water maintenance. Now, with BioNova Natural Pools and the promotion of natural biological filtration of swimming environments, his life and career "has come full circle". Mr Schnaak explains that the more he learns the more he is amazed, at how “nature” can so easily manage the diverse and complex interrelationships of biology, chemistry, and geology, so long as the conditions for nurturing it are properly “cared for”. He believes that there is a rising level of awareness in sustainable practices and promoting responsible stewardship of our natural resources.

Ecoclub: While preparing for our conversation, we showed images of your pools to two friends. After three seconds of awe, one exclaimed 'I want one of these!" and the other one opined that 'this is how pools should be made". Indeed. So why aren't they, we thought? There is always resistance to change, sometimes fueled by conventional scientific wisdom and other times by material posted online. A quick search reveals that there have been some studies suggesting that natural swimming pools may be at risk from fecal materials from birds and other animals and there are some online cautionary tales [inexperienced contractors apparently using cheap filtration materials or the wrong type of plants and ending up creating fish ponds]. How do you convince customers to do away with their fears and opt for green progress?

BioNova Natural PoolBioNova Natural Pool

Allen Schnaak: I agree. Natural Swimming Pools should be more prevalent than they are, and to understand the reason why they are not, one only needs to “follow the money”. That sounds crass, but in the 1960’s when construction techniques simplified the process and lowered the cost for pool construction it enabled the average person the ability to afford a swimming pool. During this same time, chlorine was growing in popularity as a water treatment method to curb illness caused by water borne pathogens in drinking water across the world. It was an easy leap for chemical manufacturers to expand their business to market to this growing water treatment opportunity for recreational water. Pool businesses that evolved in the last 60 years were provided with a revenue stream of maintenance chemicals to sell once the swimming pool was installed and now the average swimming pool (18k gallons operating 22 weeks of the year) will require US $600-$1,000 per pool season, of chemicals for maintenance of a “nearly” sterilized water environment.

If the objective of a viable business is “to find a need and fill it” then chemical companies and pool businesses were simply filling a market need. For Natural Swimming Pools (NSPs) to gain a more prevalent position in the market, designers and builders of recreational water environments must first believe that there is “demand” in the marketplace and realize a profitable return for their time and effort to add it to their portfolio of pool options. For there to be more demand, there needs to be greater awareness in the marketplace of NSPs as a viable option for pool care.

That is where we are now, building greater public awareness of the viability of natural water purification. “Awareness precedes all change” and social awareness related to environmental responsibility, sustainability, and stewardship is reaching a critical mass in the world and this growing group of environmentally focused persons is seeking more options to support their “green living” lifestyles. NSPs now become one of those choices to complement their focus on environmentally sustainable choices.

Regarding animal and bird “deposits” in the pool: we do not encourage waterfowl or fish to take up residence in those NSPs that use a “wetlands” or “bog” biological filter area. Granted, these are very desirable locations for waterfowl to nest and fish to live, but we do not want their added “waste” to complicate and overwhelm the system. Measures should be taken to dissuade ducks and geese from taking up residence and DO NOT allow fish to live in the system.

It is entirely acceptable for frogs, amphibians, and reptiles to inhabit these areas, in fact they are a welcomed part of the ecosystem, feeding on the detritus of the plant materials and helping to reduce the normal organic waste that occurs.

It is important to understand that both, the chemical treatment of a swimming pool and natural biological filters used in NSPs, are accomplishing the same task, suppressing the opportunity for pathogens to thrive. Chemicals suppress pathogens by killing everything in the water. Biological filters suppress pathogens by outcompeting the pathogens for nutrients. 

Ecoclub: How time consuming and how costly is it to convert a conventional pool to a natural pool? 

Allen Schnaak: Conversion of an existing swimming pool from chemically treated to naturally purified is “simply” a matter of incorporating a biological filter into the circulation system of the pool. I say “simply” because the process is simple, but the execution of the conversion will require a certain amount of excavation and possibly pool renovation. But the process is very straight forward. In many cases, the existing equipment (pump & filter) may be able to be used in the conversion.

First one, must decide which “Type” of NSP one wants. There are two types of biological filtration; one relies on a “man-made” wetlands area (a regeneration zone) that incorporates various species of aquatic plants and slow water flow, much like a natural pond environment, we call this type of NSP a BioSwimPond™. The other biological filter relies purely on the microbiome called “biofilm”, a diverse community of fungi, algae, & bacteria, which develops and grows on suitable surfaces, to absorb and metabolize the nutrients in the water. These biofilm biological filters do require a faster water flow, but do NOT require plants and we call this type of NSP a BioPool®. In both the BioSwimPond™ and the BioPool®, the nutrients that come from the environment and the bathers provide the food source to support the biological filter.

Of the two types the BioPool® is an easier and less expensive choice for conversion requiring a biofilm filter area be installed and plumbed to the pool circulation system. An average pool with 500 ft2 (47 m2) of swimming area would only require 40 ft2 (4m2) of area for the biofilm filter. Average cost for the biofilm filter manifold and the vault to contain it, would be less than $10k plus installation.

Converting an existing pool to a BioSwimPond™ would be more involved. First, we need the same amount of surface area for the planted regeneration area as we have for a swim area and there are several options to accomplish that. One option would be to keep the existing pool vessel intact and divide the area in half… one half for swimming, one half for the regeneration zone. Another option would be removing a side, corner or end of the pool and incorporate a properly sized regeneration zone by adding to the existing pool. Still another option would be to add the regeneration zone somewhere within a reasonable distance from the pool and connect the two with appropriate plumbing. The associated costs to employ these three different methods would vary considerably. Suffice it to say, the BioPool® option, using a biofilm filter, is easily the least complex and least costly option for conversion of an existing swimming pool.

Ecoclub: Are there real savings to be made in relation to avoiding chemicals and water waste or is it mainly better for health and the environment?

Allen Schnaak: The average chemically treated swimming pool will use a minimum of $600 per year of maintenance chemicals (sanitizer, oxidizer, and water balance) for proper routine chemical care. That cost could easily double or triple (or more) if the pool develops a problem like cloudy water or an algae infestation. It is important to understand that chemical “sterilization” of the water is NOT a natural condition. Swimming pools are routinely bombarded with contaminants that exhaust the biocides and impact the ideal water balance range required for proper chemical treatment. Ironically, these contaminants in a chemical pool are the “nutrients” required for the healthy operation of an NSP.

Time is also a precious commodity, in order to monitor and maintain proper water quality, daily testing of water quality parameters are necessary to ensure that the biocides will work efficiently, that the swimmers are comfortable, and that the equipment or pool surface is not adversely affected by poor water balance. Resurfacing a swimming pool due to improper water chemistry could easily cost $5,000 to $10,000. It is also significant to realize the amount of energy that is invested to manufacture, package, and ship the chemicals used in the swimming pool along with waste created from the often-NON-recyclable containers in which the chemicals are packaged.

The only routine maintenance required in an NSP is to clean it, but that is also required in a chemical pool. There is no requirement for testing a residential NSP, however testing of public NSPs is done on a less frequent basis. There is no need to balance the water in an NSP, the natural metabolic byproducts from the microorganisms, plants, and filtration, provide an environment perfectly suited for their health growth… that’s what natural systems do, when they are not polluted with excessive agricultural runoff, or sewage from the city.

One other benefit of an NSP, when the biological filters do require cleaning, the “waste” that is cleaned from the filter is an EXCELLENT natural fertilizer for your yard and garden. Since these filter cleanings typically occur in the spring of the year, it is a perfect way to naturally feed your seasonal garden.

Another cost of operation of any swimming pool is the electrical cost to operate the pump to circulate and filter the water. A regular chemically treated pool typically employs a “pressurized” filter system, meaning water from the pump is pushed through the filter media creating backpressure of 10-15psi. This backpressure causes the pump to work exceptionally hard to push the water and this extra work means the pump motor must draw more power. The average* chemical pool pump/filter system will cost ~$60-$100 a month to operate in season.

An NSP uses a much more efficient means to circulation the water. In both NSP systems the water is “pulled” through the biological filter and then “pushed” back to the swimming area. This “open atmosphere” system requires less energy because the pump (typically energy efficient, variable speed, programable pumps) does not have to work as hard to move the water through the system. These systems DO have to run 24/7 during the season, but only require a fraction of the energy cost, typically no more than the amount of energy required to burn a couple of 100w light bulbs.

For those wanting an even more energy efficient system, we can design an unique airlift hydraulic system powered by an air blower using even less energy and can even be powered by solar panels with battery storage to operate this system “off the grid”.

BioNova Natural Swimming PoolBioNova Natural Swimming Pool

Ecoclub: Shouldn't there be tax incentives for those (homes or hotels) choosing natural pools and a green tax for those who do not? After all we should finally factor-in the environmental cost in the price of products and services otherwise the dirtier will always be cheaper?

Allen Schnaak: I feel like I am being baited by this question… ? I am a realist, an optimistic realist, but a realist. I do not anticipate our US government, or most of the global governments, to subsidize a solution that undermines their power or taxes the hand that feeds their campaign contributions. The industries that are the most environmentally damaging are the ones with the deepest pockets and have the most political connections.

Additionally, people are very reluctant to make significant sacrifices until they absolutely must, they do not want to give up their gas guzzling SUV until gasoline reaches $5/gallon. The climate change topic provides another example. The climate deniers are generally distrustful of the science and the data, claiming that “climif you happen to know)ate change” is a conspiracy for another money grab under the guise of carbon credits. This distrust is polarizing and paralyzing in an increasingly global society. I agree that “Incentives”, rewarding good behaviors, is a good practice for both parenting and governing. But I also believe that, ultimately, people are more responsive to the pressure of their peers than regressive taxes. The tobacco industry is a good example. Cigarette smoking did not decline due to the increasing taxation put on the product or that it was a known health risk; more people quit smoking when it became a socially unacceptable behavior amongst their peers.

In short, I believe that people really desire to “do the right thing” if they see others, in their peer group (or leaders in their community or government) that they respect and trust, DOING the right thing. It is called Leading by Example.

Ecoclub: Are those who buy natural pools environment-conscious or mostly health-conscious?

Allen Schnaak: Generally, those persons interested in NSPs do have a primary motivation to be environmentally responsible. The majority of those persons already subscribe to some other “Green Living” lifestyle choices… electric cars, grey water/rainwater capture, green roofs, farm to table programs, recycling, up-cycling, no single use plastics, etc… AND, the NSP owners also have a higher than average income. For us, the last point is an especially important demographic as we seek to grow the awareness of NSPs and build a viable business model for the installation of NSPs.

On that last point, we are often asked what the price difference is between a chemical pool and an NSP. The BioPool® is approximately 10%-15% more expensive to install than a chemical pool of the same size and construction type. The BioSwimPond™ average cost is approximately 40%-50% more expensive to install both the regeneration area and the same sized swimming area. Thus, the higher income demographic of NSP owners may simply be a self-fulfilling characteristic not a limiting characteristic.

There is a modest number of persons that inquire about NSPs who have an underlying “health” concern. Some claim to be “allergic” to pool chemicals, some simply do not like the way the water feels on their hair and skin, and other are fearful of the chemicals absorbing through their skin. Regardless of the motivation, this concern over their health and well-being, their desire to engage in a healthier lifestyle, can be addressed by choosing a swimming environment that is entirely natural.

Ecoclub: Has the pandemic already affected your business, for example a drop of sales to the hotel sector, or have you witnessed a surge in demand given that the pandemic may encourage staycations and cocooning?

Allen Schnaak: Inquiries through our web site over the past two months compared to the previous year at the same time, is up over 400%. New visitors to our website outnumber returning visitors by 10:1. Yes, I do believe there will be a longer-term effect of the pandemic that will cause many people to invest more in their outdoor living spaces. We have seen a similar response with folks staying at home and investing in their at-home comfort, during the oil crisis, previous economic recessions, and post 9/11. So, Yes, we are seeing a positive surge in demand.

Ecoclub: How satisfied are you with US and international legislation, Health codes and Building Codes in relation to natural swimming pools. Is a major update needed and how easy would it be now with the renewed pandemic-era emphasis on chlorine? (Most hotel pools around the world are currently shut due to covid contagion fears)

Allen Schnaak: Good question and I am not sure how the corona virus will play out in the regulatory environment for NSPs. There is evidence that BioSwimPonds™ do remove pathogens more effectively that properly treated chlorinated water. The primary reason is that the BioSwimPonds™ with their aquatic vegetation promote a healthy population of zooplankton, like Daphnia, who in turn feed on/consume pathogens like giardia, cryptosporidium, and other viruses & resistant cysts. This activity is only evident in the BioSwimPonds™ and not BioPools®.

Universal guidelines on swimming pool use have always cautioned that persons who are immune compromised (infants, elderly, or undergoing chemo treatment), or have existing illness, or an open cut, should NOT swim in any pool chemically treated or naturally purified. The most common illnesses related to pathogen exposure in swimming pools manifest themselves as gastrointestinal illness. The only way these pathogens can cause a gastrointestinal illness is for the organism to be ingested. So, swimmers should never take in water through the mouth or nose. Open cuts also allow entry of some bacteria that could cause a more severe infection.

Even in a properly treated chemical pool, pathogens will exist. Remember, the role of water treatment is to “suppress” the opportunity for these organisms to thrive. They are not eliminated entirely.

The US guidelines that makes recommendations for the operation of public aquatic venues is provided through the CDC and NSF. The guidelines are call the Model Aquatic Health Code (MAHC). The MAHC provides guidelines for everything related to the design, operation, and maintenance of public aquatic facilities. This includes water quality guidelines that currently only recognize the use of EPA registered sanitizers (Chlorine, Bromine) as well as the use of Ozone, UV and other supplemental biocides for chemical treatment. Every three years the Council for the MAHC (CMAHC) accepts change requests from its membership of Health officials, aquatics managers, builders, service companies, etc.. to address any needed corrections to the content and guidelines.

This past year, on behalf of the Association for Swimming Ponds and Natural Swimming Pools ( I have submitted a ‘Change Request’ to the recognize NSPs as a viable and accepted option for the operation of public swimming pools. The data from the IOB and FLL (See response below in #8) have provided the criteria for water quality that are in place for the operation of NSPs in Europe where over 1,200 public NSPs operate very successfully. Until the US has an acceptable standard for public NSPs I feel the real opportunity for NSP growth will be stunted.

Hopefully, all will go well with the MAHC change request, and if it does, public NSPs in the US will be allowed in the summer of 2021. 

Ecoclub: Is there some sort of an international standard / certification / quality mark for natural swimming pools? (If not, would you like to see one?)

Allen Schnaak: The quality and operational guidelines for NSPs has been developed from the German FLL-guidelines originally formed for the “…improvement of environmental conditions through the advancement of and dissemination of plant research and its planned applications.” While originally formed in Europe for the development and management of “green roofs”, the committees in the FLL have created guidelines for the operation of NSPs. The FLL in conjunction with the International Organization of natural Bathing waters (IOB) form the regulatory guidelines for water quality as well as operational maintenance of NSPs.

Ecoclub: What is the market size of the natural pool sector in comparison to the total residential pool sector and the hospitality pool sector? Is it growing considerably during the past 10 years?

Allen Schnaak: European countries have embraced and promoted the growth of NSPs greater than any other area of the world. Over 40 years ago Warner Gamerith developed the first NSP installation at his home in Austria. This installation ultimate was awarded recognition as both an ecological engineering and art accomplishment. Built by entirely relying on natural limnological principles, this natural swimming pond operates today without the aide of pumps or supplemental filtration.

Currently NSPs represent 16% of the total recreational water installations in Europe, with the greatest concentration in Germany and Austria. Worldwide over 1,400 Public NSPs are in operation and most subscribe to water quality monitoring through the IOB. This monitoring database has been gathering water quality data for over 10 years and provides the public NSP with a “score card” on the water quality. This oversight provides the public with the awareness that these are NOT chemically treated swimming environments, and that testing is being done on a weekly basis to confirm the health standards, recognized by the FLL and IOB, are being met.

The distribution of NSPs around the US is very anemic. With over 1.8 million swimming pools in operation in the US, there are currently only 200+ known installations of NSPs. The only public NSP in the US is at Webber Park in Minneapolis, MN. With a swimming area of over 22,000 ft2 is can host over 500 bathers at one time and is naturally purified with a regeneration area of over 16,000 ft2.

As mentioned earlier, the current awareness and desire for residential NSPs is growing. With the development of the BioPool® biofilm filter system, the complexity and cost of installation has been lowered and the quality of water has improved. This method of constructing an NSP will provide a significant growth trend in NSPs in the US and around the world.

I also have an optimistic outlook that public NSPs will gain greater and greater recognition in the US when the MAHC (see response under question #7) allows the inclusion of NSP biological filtration methods to be employed in public swimming pools.

Ecoclub: In theory, how big a natural swimming pool can you get? Is a huge public natural swimming pool/lake an attractive proposition / nature-based solution for local authorities aiming to create quality/innovative recreational facilities? 

Allen Schnaak: We consulted on the design and installation of the Webber Park Pool in Minneapolis, over 4 years ago when the city was doing a feasibility study on what to do about the public swimming hole at the park. They were motivated to find a solution that maintained the natural environment and were opposed to the conversion to a chemically treated pool.

All around the world we are confronted with similar opportunities as cities, towns, and communities look for ways to find “Nature-based Solutions” to enhance the landscape and provide sustainable options for recreational water.

An NSP can be built as large as the budget to accomplish the task. There is no maximum size, however there is a point at which the area being considered needs to be designed for the best use. Many times, the renovation/revitalization of an existing lake or pond can be done by simply restoring a healthy natural aquatic ecosystem to improve the water quality and the surrounding aesthetics. This is exactly the situation with a park near Calgary, Alberta, Canada. The lake is unsightly, cloudy, algae invested, with invasive plants spreading. They initially wanted to “…convert the whole lake…” to an NSP. Instead of investing huge amounts of money to convert the 20 hectar lake, we recommended to simply carve out an area adjacent to the lake and isolate that water for a natural swimming area and then apply techniques to improve the natural vitality of the remaining lake.

This is a defining characteristic of the Natural Swimming Pools/Ponds that we design and construct – they are isolated systems not subject to outside water intrusion, and the swimming area is designed and engineered to provide safe entrance and exit. Additionally, the vessels have an interior surface that can be cleaned. We do not recommend sand or gravel bottoms that are notoriously hard to clean and typically harbor undesirable growth in the swimming area.

So, to answer your question “In Theory, how big a natural pool can you get?” … As big as your budget allows. 

Ecoclub: Having studied marine biology and limnology, and then spent 30 years focused on chemical solutions to water maintenance your career has - as you put it - come full circle as you are now back to natural methods. Would young marine biologists / limnologists and others (from landscape architects to marketeers) be able to start straight away in the natural pool sector without being 'poached' by the 'chlorine' people? Is your business and sector growing quickly and sustainably enough to absorb them?

Allen Schnaak: For those that love the outdoors and appreciate the intricate wonders of nature and natural systems, the creation of natural swimming environments is a great addition to landscape design, landscape architects, and pool construction business portfolios. We expect that the growth in awareness of NSPs will create an entirely new market niche for pool owners that do not want a chemically treated pool. For that reason, it just makes good sense for those involved in the design and construction of outdoor living spaces to understand how NSPs can provide what many are looking for, a Nature-based Solution.

There is always an opportunity to “get in at the ground floor” of new products and innovative ideas. Those that are early adopters have the greatest opportunity to realize the most significant gain. The expanding awareness and desire for environmentally sustainable products and services is certain to improve the growth opportunity for NSPs.

We are actively seeking businesses to expand our reach in North America. BioNova has a worldwide network of dealer companies and all are seeing similar conditions that are influencing awareness and growth.

Ecoclub: Thank you very much for enlightening us on Natural Swimming Pools. It is something that green hospitality providers in particular should adopt. Thank you also for accepting to reply to questions live from our Members next week.
(Details will be sent to Ecoclub Members shortly.)