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Inflatable pools look like a thousand gallons of family fun. The multicolored boxes are proudly displayed in chain stores across the nation, next to bright rows of Nerf balls and jump-ropes. Hardly anything could appear ominous about an inflatable pool.

However, last February, ConsumerReports.org published a list of eight of the most dangerous products for children. Inflatable pools ranked as the second leading cause of death for kids, behind all-terrain vehicles, which were responsible for roughly 150 child fatalities in 2004.

The article was the most damaging in a series of high-profile reports attacking inflatable pools. It expressly urged parents not to buy these products for their children.

The growing number of deaths has exposed a market segment that is misunderstood by consumers. While these pools are becoming increasingly affordable, the mass merchandisers who sell them are not educating their customers about safety requirements associated with the product. Now a number of consumer groups are on the warpath, decrying the hazards of inflatable pools. But is the problem with the product itself, or the way that it’s sold?

Critical mass

Portable pools were introduced to America in the 1950s. Marketed as an affordable alternative to concrete vessels, these early models featured inflatable top rings designed to hold the pool’s shape.

By the 1990s, the product had become even less expensive and more user-friendly. Manufacturers worked to position their brands as the everyman’s pool, by offering the fun of recreational water at rock-bottom prices.

Today’s models can be anywhere from 30 inches to 48 inches deep and all require the same filtration equipment as their inground counterparts.

But if these pools have been available for years, why are they suddenly landing on the media’s radar?

Recently, sales of portable pools have exploded due to their presence on the shelves of big-box discounters. Indeed, the product has emerged as one of the fastest-growing segments of the pool industry.

Though some specialty retailers still carry inflatable pools, it’s the megaoutlets such as Wal-Mart and Toys “R” Us that are largely responsible for the upsurge. There, the product can sell for as little as $50. At that price point, access to pool ownership is increasing dramatically.

This explains why 2 million inflatable pools were sold in America in 2005 — a whopping 100 percent increase over 2002, according to the Good Housekeeping Institute. And by some accounts, even that is an underestimate. Last year, Paul Hoiriis, former COO of Aqua Leisure Industries Inc., claimed that his inflatable-pool manufacturing firm in Avon, Mass., shipped nearly 1 million units.

But such success has come at a price.

Buyer beware

Drowning is the second leading cause of accidental death for children under age 5, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission in Bethesda, Md. Approximately 300 kids drown in pools annually, and thousands more are treated in emergency rooms for submersion injuries.

Pool professionals are well aware of the numbers and, for the most part, treat safety as a serious issue. Builders and retailers are careful to properly educate their customers. But that’s not the case with big-box stores.

“The salespeople have no knowledge. All they can do is point to the right shelf and help the consumer cart the pool to their car,” says Barry Vineberg, president of Long Island Swim Pool Service, an installer/builder in Oceanside, N.Y. “Pools should be sold by professionals because you’re dealing with people’s lives if it’s not done correctly.”

In 2005, 17 drowning deaths occurred in inflatable pools, up from nine in 2004 and 10 in 2003, according to CPSC. While these numbers may seem small, they are expected to rise exponentially as consumers continue to purchase inflatable pools without the benefit of proper education.

But in discussing the problem, some media outlets and consumer advocates don’t differentiate between the product and the way it’s sold. They blame the increase in drownings on the sharp rise in popularity of inflatable pools rather than the lack of consumer education.

“The way the big-box stores sell inflatable pools is like putting a child behind the wheel of a car and telling them to drive,” says Ted Hebert, owner of Teddy Bear Pools, a retailer/installer in Chicopee, Mass. “You could tell the child, ‘Read these instructions on driving, and now go do it,’ but would they know how?”

To assess the scope of the problem,Pool & Spa News visited six major retail outlets in the Los Angeles area, including Toys “R” Us, Target and Wal-Mart. Our reporters posed as homeowners in the market for an inflatable pool.

At every location, not one customer service representative, cashier or manager on duty knew about local fencing ordinances. In fact, when we inquired about whether or not the pools might need a fence or other safety device, we were clearly told those measures weren’t necessary. One rep even said, “If you needed it, it would already be in the box.”

However, according to Los Angeles Municipal Code, any swimming pool containing water more than 18 inches deep is required to be enclosed by a barrier. That includes inflatable pools. Furthermore, owners of such pools are supposed to have an alarm on any door leading from the house to the pool area. Yet none of the mega-retailers visited had heard of the code or had any information on the necessary devices.

When it comes to code awareness, Bob Steinbach says, “Most of them don’t know; the rest don’t care. They just want to sell a pool.” The assistant bureau chief of the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety adds, “You’re not going to get the correct information from these types of stores because their employees aren’t properly trained.”

The misinformation doesn’t end with fencing and alarm requirements. Any plug- in pool also must have a dedicated GFI circuit breaker for electrical safety, as well as the proper electrical permit, according to the LAMC. But when we asked a number of customer service reps at a Target in North Hollywood, they had never heard of a GFI circuit.

Slipping through the cracks

Currently, safety experts are urging manufacturers of inflatable pools to include items such as fences, covers and alarms in the box with the product. In fact, a new standard being developed by ASTM International might force manufacturers to do just that.

“Manufacturers and retailers should supply fencing at the point of sale for the do-it-yourselfer,” says Don Mays, senior director, product safety and consumer sciences at Consumer Reports. He also sits on the subcommittee overseeing the writing of the ASTM standard for these pools.

Paul Dickson, acting building official for the city of Cape Coral, Fla., would like to see a different strategy used. Rather than focusing on the manufacturer, he’d prefer the big boxes make more of an effort to inform the consumer.

“They go to Target, pick this thing up for $100 and a few hours later, they’ve got a 24-foot swimming pool with no barrier, running off three extension cords in their backyard,” he says. “I think these are great products. My problem with them is my inability to educate retailers and consumers that these things have great potential for injury or death, which is why Florida code requires a permit.”

Many industry members want to take it a step further and actually force the big boxes to educate their customers. Eddie Secard, for one, would like to see anyone who sells such a pool go over a list with the consumer, outlining safety options and the need to check state and local laws for any applicable code requirements.

“I think the dealer bears that responsibility,” says the vice president of Secard Pools, a retailer/manufacturer in West Covina, Calif. “When you buy a car, somebody walks you around it and goes through a checklist. This is no different. The consumer puts the product in their front yard because nobody ever told them not to, and then someone gets hurt or cited, and now the customer experiences our whole industry as bad.”

Some states actually have put laws on the books aimed at informing big-box customers about inflatable pools.

In 1998, a New York state law was passed that required all retailers and installers of pools to post signs in their stores that read, “… additional costs may be incurred when installing a pool in order to comply with state or local laws regarding fencing and other safety requirements.”

Then, in January, the New York State Assembly introduced an amendment to the bill that seemed to be directed primarily at big-box stores. The additional language states the posted signs must specify that a barrier is required around all pools. The amendment also has retailers provide a copy of current code requirements to consumers upon request.

In other words, if you’re anywhere in New York, you should find these signs in the aisles of every Toys “R” Us or Wal-Mart that sells inflatable pools.

But that’s far from the case.

A reporter fromPool & Spa News called five big-box stores across New York to ascertain if they had the required signage. The answer was a resounding “No.” Moreover, the employees seemed surprised that a sign would even be an issue, with one of them stating, “There may be some law, I don’t know, but it’s not up to us to bring it to anyone’s attention.”

Though many are in favor of forcing mass merchants to educate customers, some manufacturers think this type of legislation unfairly targets inflatable pools. They argue that more regulations aren’t necessarily the solution because portables only constitute a small percentage of overall drownings.

“There is a low incident rate compared with some other forms of recreational products and activities,” says Dwayne Carreau, vice president of Sofpool, a Rancho Cordova, Calif.-based manufacturer. “For instance, the number of injuries compared with trampolines (98,000 per year) seems hugely disproportionate.”

As far as the big-box stores go, their stand on the issue is unknown. Toys “R” Us and Wal-Mart declined to comment for this story.

Setting the standard

Last year, the Good Housekeeping Institute in New York tested five models of inflatable pools from three popular manufacturers: Aqua Leisure Industries Inc., Intex Recreation Corp. and Sevylor Inc. The researchers were looking for unseen risks that these products might pose to children.

Their analysis concluded that children as young as 21/2 could easily climb into these pools unnoticed. The institute also pointed out that these types of pools weren’t regulated by local codes written for standard pools.

Currently, the CPSC staff is working with ASTM International — the largest independent organization that develops standards — to create a standard covering inflatable pools. It’s possible that one of the requirements would be for manufacturers to include safety devices, such as fencing and alarms, in the packages with the pools.

In addition, the ANSI/APSP standard for aboveground pools is up for review. Currently, pools with water depths of less than 36 inches are not included in the scope of the standard. The members felt the best thing was to either let ASTM continue its efforts or, alternatively, propose a new standard devoted solely to portable pools — which might just be where all this is headed.

“Right now, we’re balloting our Technical Council regarding to sanctioning a separate standard for portable pools with less than 36 inches of water,” says Carvin DiGiovanni, senior director for technical, education and government relations at the Association of Pool & Spa Professionals. “So far, the results are looking favorable.”

Ultimately, inflatable pool manufacturers would prefer the industry tackle a new standard internally. “If we leave it to ASTM, they are going to want to make a foolproof item that is not necessarily going to be competitively priced,” Hoiriis said earlier this year. “Depending on the final recommendation that is promulgated in terms of materials and safety features, they literally could price this thing out of the market.”

The standards are important, but the industry also is curious about what will happen as code enforcers start holding retailers’ feet to the flame on the inflatable pool issue. “How do you convince customers to buy a $600 fence for a pool that cost $50?” they wonder.

Ironically, local and state fencing codes may turn out to be the most significant barriers to the continued growth of the inflatable pool business. Will these SKUs still be attractive to big-box stores in light of new standards and stricter legislation? Can a Wal-Mart justify the costs of compliance to investors with a product margin that’s already being squeezed?

“Occasionally, someone will come into my office after buying one of these pools and say their neighbor told them they needed a $110 permit,” reports building official Dickson.

“When they find that they also need to install a fence and get an electrician, most of them just return the pool to the store,” he adds. “If they have to spend $600 for other incidentals on an $80 investment, it’s just not worth it to people.”