Every day, Mike Stinson gets calls from across the country from people who have found his Web site. Service techs, commercial pool operators and even professional divers want to know what it takes to get into underwater pool service. And they’re not suddenly interested in repairing rebar rust stains or finding leaks.

Stinson’s callers are all interested in compliance with the Virginia Graeme Baker Pool and Spa Safety Act.

“It’s about the only reason the phone is ringing right now,” says the owner of Mike the Poolman in Folsom, Calif.

Among other requirements, the new federal law mandates that all public pools must have been retrofitted with approved drain covers by Dec. 19, 2008.

The new regulations have proven expensive for many commercial pools, and some facilities could be pushed over the edge if they had to pay a hefty bill for draining the vessel. Thus, the interest in underwater drain cover replacement has increased.

Indeed, underwater retrofitting can be an excellent option for service companies willing to invest in time, training and equipment. Here are a few guidelines to help you get started.

Safety first

Before working on the safety of a client’s pool, divers must take precautions to ensure their own protection. Safety is achieved through support, proper equipment and common sense.

Though some experts may feel comfortable performing underwater repairs alone, it’s not recommended for novices.

“We never work alone, nor should anyone who’s working underwater,” says Drew Anderson, principal at Scuba Pool Repair in Campbell, Calif. “My background is in diving and...we take [safety] really seriously.”

If one tech is working underwater, his partner can monitor from the deck, mix any plaster materials as necessary and keep the tools sharp, Anderson adds.

It’s also a good idea to dive in shifts during the colder months, when hypothermia can set in after only a few hours. And it’s ideal for longer retrofits — usually involving a new sump or cover ring.

Of course, divers must wear a wetsuit to provide adequate thermal protection for any extended period of time. But cold water may call for something stronger.

“If the pool is in the 50s or lower, your body can’t handle [the temperature], even in a wetsuit, after two or three hours,” explains Phil Grider, owner of the Pool Dentist in Carlsbad, Calif. “Hypothermia will set in after a while.”

For unheated pools during the winter, a commercial drysuit is the best way to ensure safe (and comfortable) conditions underwater. Note that this equipment is significantly more expensive, and some drysuits can cost upwards of $1,000.

Divers also should be equipped with a weight belt to counteract the buoyancy of any other equipment.

“I’ve heard of guys tying weightlifting weights around their neck [to dive], which is not a really good idea,” Grider says, chuckling at the understatement. “A weight belt is of prime importance.”

The belt keeps a diver underwater, but it also has a release system in case he or she needs to resurface in an emergency.

Finally, the diver must be able to breathe underwater.

Javier Payan, who owns Payan Pool Service in El Cajon, Calif., recently formed an in-house diving team to meet the demand for VGB compliance. Instead of scuba tanks, his staff uses regulators and an on-deck compressor to take in breathable air while underwater.

“As long as the water isn’t too cold, you can spend an hour under the surface with a pump that’s giving you unlimited air,” he says.

Payan spent close to $10,000 to fund the new venture, including the cost of a pair of compressors, dive belts, drysuits, pneumatic tools and plaster materials. It’s a large investment, but having the right equipment is crucial.

Cover swap

Once the equipment has been purchased and the divers have been trained, it’s time to start bringing pools up to compliance.

Before the drain is replaced, it’s a good idea to look for existing or potential entrapment hazards. If you are unsure of what constitutes a safe system, consult the ANSI/APSP-7 standard. This document provides guidelines for suction entrapment avoidance, including standards for water velocity, sump depth and distance between drains.

First, check the pool pumps. A common mistake is to assume that two main drains indicate a dual-drain installation. However, a spa, for example, could be using one pump, ultimately making the system a single-drain spa in need of another safety mechanism – most likely a safety vacuum release system.

Also, look at the system’s hydraulics: What’s the highest flow possible in this pool or spa? Is the pump oversized for the plumbing? Answering these types of questions will enable a service company to perform a retrofit with efficiency and thoroughness.

“When we go [to dive], we’ve already done a pre-site evaluation where we take note of the pump hydraulics and pump air through the equalization lines,” Payan says.

Pumping air through the plumbing allows Payan to see if the drains on a dual-drain system are hydraulically balanced (i.e. moving water at the same rate).

Once the divers are in the water, there are two more areas that are critical to creating a safe environment. First, if the cover ring is not being replaced, it should be checked for any signs of yellowing or cracking. Then, most importantly, look under the drain cover to see if it’s been installed with a sump that is consistent with the manufacturer’s specifications. More often than not, especially on new pools, compliant field-fabricated sumps are nearly nonexistent.

If the job is a straight retrofit without any other problems, consider yourself lucky. But be prepared for wrinkles. Payan brings multiple drain covers to a jobsite, just in case the cover being replaced turns out to be a different model.

“The idea is to be prepared for everything when we do these jobs,” he says. “You never know what people have [installed] until you’re down there.”

Some of the most common problems occur when trying to detach the older cover. Screws are prone to corrosion over time, especially in a spa where heat and chemicals break down the metal more quickly. And unfortunately, some older screws cannot be removed without breaking.

“If you take the screws out and they break in the screw hole, you need to start completely over [with a new frame],” Grider says. “That way, I know the frame and cover match and I’m not re-engineering anything.”

Although it may be tempting to jerry-rig the new screws to the old frame, it’s not worth the liability. After all, most entrapments are the result of missing or broken covers.

Sump solutions

Often, as soon as a diver removes the old drain cover, there’s suddenly much more work to be done.

“In most cases, particularly with suction fittings on the wall, the plasterer is only cutting it at a 1- to a 1.5-inch depth,” Grider says. “I do find some floor [sumps] that are done correctly from the old days, but anything in the last 10 years ... they’ve replastered the sumps flat.”

To make the entire drain safe, a diver will have to remove the old cover and use pneumatic tools – including hammers, chisels and dye grinders — to dig into the pool floor and create a new sump. He will then have to replaster the sump to waterproof it, and sterilize any rebar.

As a rule of thumb, a field-fabricated sump should have a depth of at least one-and-a-half times the diameter of the suction pipe. However, it’s best to follow the manufacturer’s guidelines for each drain cover.

Be warned: Digging out a new sump is time-consuming. For channel drains, which require a trough-like niche almost three feet in length, the entire process may take up to six hours, says Kevin Wallace.

“I wouldn’t recommend it for someone who doesn’t have a lot of experience,” explains the owner of Underwater Unlimited in Encinitas, Calif. “You have to be prepared for the unexpected.”

Some of these surprises may include shotcrete (which is harder to dig through than gunite), rebar and lateral pipe. For rebar, you have to cut out the exposed material and sterilize the rest to ensure it doesn’t create rust spots on the pool floor.

Lateral pipe can be a nightmare. If the sump is built shallow and the suction pipe is coming in from the side instead of the bottom, it still must be lowered to a safe depth.

“You can’t just dig a hole and push the pipe down because it’s sarchophagized [sic] in gunite,” Anderson explains. “You’ve got to dig a trough big enough for the pipe to go down.”

Larger jobs like this may be best subcontracted out to more experienced underwater service techs. Still, the demand for VGB compliance is great enough to warrant the increased interest in diving. Many more public pools will need to be outfitted with new drains, equipment and sumps.


Video: Drain replacement

A link to a video of an underwater drain replacement.