AQUA

March 2002

The industry struggles to overcome pool drain suction.

By Kristine Hansen

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 emerges.

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 competition.

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 price up."

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 damaged.

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 consideration

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.

Intrastate Battles

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 evisceration."

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 kids' lives."

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 blocked.

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 work."

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 says.

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 anti-entrapment debate.

"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 representatives.

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.

 

 

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New Water Solutions, Inc., Drainsafe drainsafe.com nor I, Ron Schroader recommend the use of one product or device over another.
 Products must be implemented as per system/job specific application . It is the obligation of the installer to understand the intended use and application prior to installation of any product or device.
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 All products must be installed as per manufacturers instructions and be job site specific to meet the criteria of each individual application.
 

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