Look before you leap: ShockAlarm blinks and blares when it detects the presence of electricity.
Credit: ShockAlarm, LLC

Look before you leap: ShockAlarm blinks and blares when it detects the presence of electricity.

Brian Byrd and Neal Branstetter want to bring a product to market before one more swimmer dies from electrical shock in pools, spas and other bodies of water.

The New Albany, Ind. developers of a device that warns people when it detects electrical current in water recently launched an ambitious Kickstarter campaign to raise $30,000 to begin the manufacturing process.

The ShockAlarm is Byrd’s brainchild. Five years ago he began experimenting with an in-water warning system that looks similar to a buoy, after learning about a local family of three that was shocked to death in a pool.

However, his background in biophysics didn’t exactly lend itself to inventing electronic gizmos.

“I couldn’t get it to work, to be honest with you,” said the father of two.

Galvanized by the recent electrocution of Calder Sloan, a 7-year-old Florida boy whose death inspired a legislative effort in the state, Byrd decided to revisit the project. This time he enlisted the help of his neighbor, an electrical engineer.

That would be Branstetter.

The problem, as Branstetter saw it, was that the unit detected electrical currents through a ground wire to the pool, which wasn’t the safest way to go. If the GFI or transformer became compromised in any way, the hard copper wire would transfer the voltage to the pool via the warning system. In essence, the system designed to keep people out of an electrically charged pool could actually become part of the problem.

Branstetter had a better idea: By borrowing technology used in noncontact voltage testers, the unit would take electromagnetic readings coursing through the water – not the ground wire.

“The best way to explain it is it’s like a radio receiver,” Branstetter said. “It picks up a signal from the AC voltage in the water.”

When it does, the floating alarm system, which is tethered to the tile line, trills and blinks to let people know the pool is unsafe.

But what if you’re already in the water when the system goes off? The product then cues people outside the pool to begin the proper rescue procedure.

The first step, obviously, would be to cut the electricity to the pool, then resuscitate victims. But that process isn’t always followed in emergency situations. Byrd and Brantetter cite several recent examples when would-be rescuers became victims themselves when they dove into electrically charged water.

“A lot of the ways people get hurt or killed is because they try to get in the pool to help the people experiencing the shock before they know exactly what’s going on,” Branstetter said.

The ShockAlarm’s battery is completely enclosed in the device and inaccessible. This is to keep water out and prevent wet, prying hands from touching sensitive circuits within the unit. Given that the battery can’t be replaced, the inventors say the system has a 2-year lifespan, and they’re working on developing some sort of protocol to notify owners when their alarms are set to expire. In the meantime, if owners had any concerns that the device wasn’t functioning, they could easily test it by holding it up to any voltage source — say, a plugged-in phone charger — which emits an electromagnetic wave that should set the thing off.

“It doesn’t have to be in the water,” Byrd said.

ShockAlarm's Brian Byrd (left) and Neal Branstetter are tenants at the Purdue Research Park, a business incubator that offers resources to get promising startups off the ground.
ShockAlarm ShockAlarm's Brian Byrd (left) and Neal Branstetter are tenants at the Purdue Research Park, a business incubator that offers resources to get promising startups off the ground.

The business partners envision ShockAlarms selling in both the commercial and residential market. They’ve already received interest from one major U.S. hotel chain and distributers from Australia, Brazil and Spain, the inventors said.

The product is appropriate for any freshwater application, so it also can be used in lakes and marinas. This answers concerns in the boating world, which has become increasingly concerned about a phenomenon called electric shock drowning, by which the current paralyzes swimmers, causing them to drown.

Byrd and Branstetter recently set up shop at Purdue Research Park, the largest university-affiliated business incubator in the nation, which comes with certain benefits.

“What they allow us to do is tap into the state’s network – especially Purdue’s network –  of engineers and technologists … as well as business coaching for entrepreneurs and startups,” said Jyll Stuart, the company’s director of marketing and sales.

It also doesn’t hurt that the product received something of an endorsement from Calder Sloan’s father, Chris Sloan, who participated in a recent publicity effort for the ShockAlarm.

“The sense of urgency is to make sure what happened to Calder never happens to another kid,” Byrd said.

They estimate ShockAlarm will retail for about $60.