According to a U.S. Consumer Product Safety
commission study of a small percentage of U.S. emergency rooms, there were 130 swimming pool
cases resulting in 35, deaths between January and June 2001. Based on these numbers and anecdotal
evidence, there is a reasonably wide-ranging consensus that a pool
drain entrapment problem exists. But when it comes to gauging the
severity of the problem and recommending a solution, a gaping divide
At the crux of the issue are three key questions —
who should write the anti-entrapment standards,
what they should say, and how much the commercial products ought to
cost. Some have gone on record with the position that the most
high-tech, electro-mechanical drain vacuum safety system is the best
solution — that
for safety, price is no object. But others say the industry needs a
more measured approach to a secondary safety problem (entrapment has a
much lower rate of incidence than, for instance, diving accidents or
unsupervised-child drowning). They suggest that the motive behind the
movement is really profit for select manufacturers, and that the
exorbitant price demanded for these products may be due to lack of
Roger Gaffner, national sales director for Vac-Alert
Industries of Fort Pierce, Fla., defends his company against that
charge. "Everyone’s looking for the most cost-effective way of
doing this," he says.
On the other hand, Mike Logan, owner of Logan Pools
in Brentwood, Calif., feels safety is important, but, he says, most
pool and spa dealers can’t stomach the price involved in purchasing
a vacuum-release system.
"For the most part, especially in our
marketplace, I don’t know anybody who’s using the suction
equipment because it’s so expensive," says Logan, adding that
Fail Safe’s anti-suction release pump costs about $1,200, or four
times as much as a regular pump. "Lack of competition drives the
Logan says his company instead uses Fail Safe’s
$30 Anti Hair Snare Plus, a safety grate that is placed over an
anti-vortex plate, One problem with this measure, according to
proponents of vacuum release equipment, is that it is possible to
remove an anti-vortex plate, either through vandalism or careless
installation and tampering.
In that event, Logan admits, a dangerous situation
exists. "When [the anti-vortex plate] comes loose and comes off,
the bather can be exposed to a tremendous amount of force," he
says. Logan Pools repairs the grate free of charge if It becomes
Setting the Standards
As of this writing, no national, comprehensive
standard exists for anti-entrapment swimming pool or hot tub devices.
Either a state standard or simply a personal commitment to water safety
is what’s driving most pool and spa retailers to pitch the importance
of anti-entrapment devices to their customers.
"Whether or not the state or federal government
passes the law is a political problem. Regardless, we want to preach
safety," says Robert "Mac" McDowell, owner of Aquarius
Pool & Spa Service in Walnut Creek, Calif.
But the National Spa & Pool Institute hopes to
change the situation by implementing a national
standard. NSPI has written an updated standard that takes into
U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission guidelines for dual main
drains, and it will likely be approved by January 2003, says
Carvin DiGiovanni, NSPI's senior director for technical, education
and government. Tests done in 1998 on West Coast dual main-drain
systems prompted the CPSC guidelines.
"The current NSPI standard only requires having an
anti-vortex cover, and grates to go over suctions areas. The
[updated NSPI] standard attempts to recognize that something needs
to be done to make a safe pool or spa" by coming up with
generic guidelines that don't endorse certain products, DiGiovanni
says. "The standard needs to remain open and flexible to
allow different technologies to be recognized."
Meanwhile, the states battle it out.
Throughout 2001, California Assembly member Dennis Cardoza
(D-Merced) and industry supporter Vac-alert Industries, a Fort
Pierce, Fla.-based manufacturer of vacuum cut-off devices, battled
SPEC, the lobbying organization for the California pool and spa
industry, over a spa and pool drain bill (AB 359) which had been
launched Feb. 16, 2001.
Vac-Alert, fresh from legislative successes in Texas, Ohio and
several other states, had targeted California for legislation
requiring the use of its suction entrapment alarm. Don
Burns, spokesman for SPEC, mounted a vigorous opposition.
Specifically, Burns charged that "the measure was being
touted as a means of preventing body entrapment on swimming pool
main drains, but was in reality a special interest measure being
pushed for the financial gain of [Vac-Alert]."
Burns said that Vac-Alert switch would add between $900 and
$1000 to the cost of new residential pools. Instead, SPEC
urged the enactment of a bill requiring dual main drains on all
new pools, saying "This would only cost and additional $50 or
so for construction and is the only tested and proven method of
preventing body and hair entrapment, as well as
In response, Paul Pennington of Vac-Alert called the SPEC
charges a "distortion" and a "misrepresentation"
and said that "the bill provides for a variety of
protections, including safety vacuum-release systems."
Pennington added, "We support AB 359 because it will save
This bill was amended six times throughout the year, in
particular on Aug. 28, 2001, when much of language requiring
specific anti-entrapment measure was stripped from the text.
The final resolution of this debate is yet to be determined.
The California Senate Health and Human Services Committee takes up
the bill on March6. If enacted, it directs the California Department of Health Services to adopt an
anti-entrapment standard by Dec. 31, 2002.
In safety battleground Florida, however, a state bill does not dictate
anti-entrapment standards. The Florida Building Commission
does. Its anti-entrapment code (enacted Jan. 1, 2002)
requires three layers of protection on all newly constructed
pools: dual main drains at least three feet apart, an anti-vortex
and anti-entrapment drain cover, and one of "three means of
protection" in case the drain cover breaks. The three
means are: an approved safety vacuum-release system, an approved
vent line or other approved means.
Therein lie the seeds for further controversy: What should be
the final layer of safety if one of the two main drains should
become blocked, and at the same time, the anti-vortex and
anti-entrapment drain covers somehow become disabled?
A vent line, the least expensive of the three approved means
and a popular option among builders, is simply and empty pipe which
runs from the pool drain to the ground surface next to the
pool. It releases the suction on a trapped bather by pulling
air down into the drain pipe in the event the drain becomes
Ron Schroader, of Niles, Ill.-based Triodyne Safety Systems,
feels there are too many weaknesses in the vent line means
of suction defense. "That line could easily become infested
with insects, blocked by debris or perhaps algae," he says.
Schroader also believes that real world pool builder may
install the vent line incorrectly. "I just wonder about
the guy down in that muddy hole when they're building the
pool. Is he going to know how to put in a vent line the
right way? If it's not installed right, it not going to
David E. Allen, general manager of Ericksons Pools & Spas,
Orlando, Fla., also has issues with the standard. He thinks
the window of time from the code's passage to its implementation
was too short. The anti-entrapment code was approved
in October and pushed into effect less than 90 days later.
"Obviously, nobody likes legislation or the government
adding layers of bureaucracy to everything ... but anything to add
to the safety of a pool [is important]." says Allen.
"The fear we had originally was that the only way we were
going to be able to meet the code was with installation and
devices that cost $500 to $1000."
He adds that this could easily price someone out of the market.
However, he's somewhat optimistic about what safety devices can do
to pool sales. "In the long run, maybe we'll give
people a little more peace of mind and sell more pools, "he
The Anti-Vortex Vortex
These issues aside, it's less than clear to some Florida
builders what entails approved and truly safe equipment. Bruce
Rothschild of Hot Spring Spas of Brevard and Indian River, with
two Florida locations (Melbourne and Vero Beach) says the
filtration systems in the spas he sells are already considered
anti-vortex. But he's still keeping a close eye on the
"We really want the public to be aware, not as a scare
tactic, but these are things they really need to know," he
says. "We are involved in the industry as a whole; that
involves knowing our product and the competition's product.
A better-educated shopper is much better for everyone."
But the very safety products being debated each have possible
glitches, too. Take Gaffner's example of a wading pool
during the summer with 30 kids crawling in it. "One of
the biggest fears [with dual-drain systems] is it's very possible
to have two drains covered simultaneously," says Gaffner,
setting up an unanticipated danger.
One thing Schroader wants NSPI and CPSC to stop doing is using
the terms "anti-vortex covers" and "safety
devices" in the same breath. He thinks it's misleading
to market drain covers (by themselves, with no other layers of
protection) as safety devices.
"Here we are, we're killing kids with these anti-vortex
covers," he says, referring to the case of Jordan Bucy,
a Florida boy who reached for an anti-vortex cover at the bottom
of his swimming pool, and drowned when it broke. Drain
covers made of PVC with an ultra-violet inhibitor are much safer
than one made of ABS plastic, Schroader says.
Sweeping the Nation
While Florida and California have been eager to adopt new
anti-entrapment guidelines, other states might be quick to
follow. "It's the kind of thing that can very well
sweep the nation." says Jon Bednerik, executive director of
Florida Pool & Spa Association.
Bednerik rattles off the states that have already pushed for
guidelines. A bill was passed in Texas in 1999 through the
state's Department of Health. Kansas's Health Department
want to rewrite its standards. Ontario, Canada's chief
corner in December issued recommended guidelines for hot tubs and
spas in the city after witnessing a 13 year-old boy's death due to
entrapment last summer.
Also, Utah passed a standard last fall, and Maryland's will take
effect when the swimming season starts this year. Last year's
passage of House Bill 1551 in Illinois required the development of
entrapment standards for public hot tubes. Illinois' House
Republican Leader Lee Daniels and Republican Senator Kirk Dillard added
an anti-entrapment provision to standards for safety, cleanliness and
sanitation in public water facilities at the urging of friends and
family of Christopher Lizzardo, In 1993, Lizzardo, 14, died after
being entrapped in an open whirlpool drain.
Further Testing Required
Meanwhile, further product investigation continues. Two tests
were done on Jan. 17 at the Aquatic Center in Orlando, Fla., hosted by
the Florida Pool & Spa Association and NSPI-Florida. The tests
included a vent-line system demonstration, and those test results will
be incorporated into NSPI's updated standard, according to DiGiovanni.
"We all came away feeling pretty good about the pipe and its
effectiveness," adds Allen of Erickson Pools & Spas, who did
not attend the tests but heard about them from the company's
However, pool safety advocate Schroader feels differently. He
says the tests lacked scientific precision, as he witnessed only a
stopwatch around Bednerik's neck and a 10 inch mechanical vacuum gauge
mounted to the test stand.
"If you're a human and you have a stopwatch in your hand, your
reactions are very slow," says Schroader, "and if you're doing
a test like this you should use a digital transmitter or transducer to
send the signal so you can see exactly what the signal is.
"I didn't expect it to be so archaic, I mean, they were using
high-school lab stuff to set scientific precedent for the
industry," he says.
Lack of scientific procedures notwithstanding, it must be admitted
that the close attention now being focused on the safety issue is almost
certain to pay dividends in the long term in the form of fewer pool- and
spa-related injuries and greater consumer confidence.
In 2000, after four children died in Florida from allegedly
ineffective anti-entrapment devices, Schroader became an advocate for
pool safety. "I think we're going to start saving kid's lives
all over the United Sates in 2002," he says.