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In the months since the Virginia Graeme Baker Pool and Spa Safety Act went into effect, problems have come to the surface and compliance is far from complete nationwide.

While many reputable firms are busy retrofitting commercial pools, still other companies are doing sloppy work and/or overcharging for services.

“A lot of service techs are seeing money on the table and wanting to get in on it, but they’re not experienced and that’s where the trouble comes in,” said Mike Stinson, owner of Mike the Poolman in Folsom, Calif. “Or pool owners hire people who aren’t licensed and they do the install incorrectly, then a professional has to go in and fix it.”

Monte Vajnar agrees. “A lot of service guys out there are replacing [drain] covers, but not sumps. They’re not doing work up to code,” said the co-owner of American Pool & Safety Inc., a Sylmar, Calif.-based firm handling VGB-compliant pool renovations.

Retrofits can cost anywhere from several hundred dollars for drain cover replacements to $5,000 or more if plumbing also must be addressed. Prices climb higher if the renovation is more extensive and includes system tests, engineer’s fees and the like. It is not unheard of for remodels to cost tens of thousands of dollars.

Such an atmosphere leaves plenty of room for price gouging, and Stinson and Vajnar have both heard of such tactics throughout California.

But the problems run deeper than issues of workmanship and prices.  

Many public pool owners and operators aren’t happy about having to come up with the money for retrofits, but they’re trying to comply. However, some are ignoring the law for a variety of reasons.

“Many, many pool owners are doing nothing,” Stinson said. “They’re calling the bluff of the inspectors because they’ve heard there aren’t enough [personnel] to go around.”

Thomas Lachocki said he’s hearing that people are confused, and there’s a lack of confidence in the government’s ability to enforce the law. “A lot of ambiguity remains over who will enforce the law or, even more sadly, what’s required for compliance,” said Lachocki, who is CEO of the National Swimming Pool Foundation in Colorado Springs, Colo. 

The mood in Phoenix’s Valley of the Sun is uneasy as well. Kevin Chadwick, manager of the Water and Waste Management Division, Environmental Services Department, said nearly 9,000 semipublic and public pools in his area are affected by the new law.

“The main complaint we’re hearing is that many pool owners are stressed by the economy right now,” Chadwick said. “Apartment owners and HOAs, condo owners and neighborhood pool operators are very concerned about the [retrofitting] expense, though if it improves safety, some said they’re happy to comply.”

Chadwick’s agency enforces Maricopa County codes and state law — not federal law — yet it has felt the pressure of heavy workloads as a direct result of the VGB Act. Requests for remodeling permits increased sevenfold from June 2008 to June 2009, and he had to add another engineer and assign four inspectors to full-time field work.

Meanwhile, the 21 pools run by Boston Centers for Youth & Families are all in compliance now. Most of the retrofits were completed in four months by two professional companies and were relatively simple, such as cover replacements. But some were more involved and one included liner replacement, said Pat McDonough, BCYF facilities manager. The overall cost was more than $150,000.

“I understand how the law came into effect,” McDonough said. “The loss of life, you can’t put a price on it. But most federal laws have a two-year window; this had only one year.”