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    Credit: RDG PLANNING & DESIGN

    Lighting, especially in commercial pools, should be designed not only to set a mood, but also to help perceive depth, read signs and detect when somebody is in distress. Experts warn that many codes are outdated and insufficient to foster these goals.

When talking about safety-specific products, something that’s often taken for granted in the whole equation is lighting.

But this component allows swimmers to see where they’re headed and how far they can swim or dive before bumping into the walls and floor. In a commercial setting, lighting becomes even more important, as it illuminates signs and helps lifeguards identify when people are in distress.

But in the HMAC sector (hotel, motel, apartment and condo), this part of pool design is often done incorrectly. First, the owners of these facilities often have cost concerns.

“They’re the worst, because they don’t want to spend any money,” says lighting designer Jim Weathers, president of Engineering Associates in Alvord, Texas. “They don’t want maintenance items. They don’t want to spend $700 for a pool light; they want to spend $350 on a pool light, and they’ll put on the bare minimum. That’s all a cost game.”

A number of facilities also mistakenly use low lighting to set a mood.

But some counter that mood-setting shouldn’t be the priority. “It’s safety, not just paint it pretty,” says Kent Williams, president of the Professional Pool Operators of America in Newcastle, Calif. “It has to do with the survivability of the people who swim in your pool.”

Some facility owners and operators further say they want to minimize lighting to save on energy costs. But with new, energy-efficient options such as LED lighting available, that is no longer an excuse.

“You can justify improving your lighting if you can drop the cost of doing it,” says Alison Osinski, president of Aquatic Consulting Services in San Diego.

Here, experts offer some tips on properly lighting commercial pools and spas for safety.

Know the codes — and how they don’t apply.

Virtually all codes on the books contain lighting requirements based on watts, prescribing a certain wattage per so many square feet.

But these codes can prove to be outdated. For starters, lighting technology has greatly evolved since the 1970s and ’80s, when many of these codes were written. Today’s higher-efficiency lights yield significantly more illumination per watt and don’t require as much energy. These older codes don’t consider the actual light output, which affects safety more than anything.

The Illuminating Engineering Society makes recommendations based on the number of foot candles of illumination to be detected in certain spots. For instance, in indoor pools, a reading taken 6 inches above the water’s surface should indicate a light level of at least 100 foot candles. On outdoor pools, that measurement should be at least 60 foot candles. Illumination levels can be measured using a light meter or photometer.

Some state and municipal codes only call for 3 foot candles — well below that called for by the IES. But some professionals consider that too dark. “It’s low and just so out of industry standard,” Osinski says.

Many facility designers overlook light levels on the deck, which is important to ensure that signage is readable, Osinski adds. The IES suggests a minimum of 30 foot candles be detected at eye level on the deck.

Do not use lighting directly over the pool.

Some aquatic facilities will install lighting directly over the water — not on poles around the pool perimeter, but rather on rafters, catwalks and other structures reaching across the vessel. This is a bad idea for a number of reasons.

“It creates a serious glare problem for lifeguards,” Osinski says. “What they see is the light reflecting back at them. They see a perfectly round circle [of light] in the pool and absolutely nothing below it.”

And, with the potential for a bulb to shatter and fall in the water, this placement actually causes safety problems.

Finally, this kind of configuration doesn’t promote proper maintenance. “Every time I see one of those pools with the lights over them, I look up and about five of them are burned out,” Osinski says. “I say, ‘When do you change them?’ And I hear, ‘Oh, when half are burned out.’ That’s because it’s really hard to change the bulbs.”

Rather than placing lights directly above the pool, they can be installed on the perimeter and angled toward the water. This way, the glare is reduced and it’s much easier to change the bulbs.

Light the pool uniformly. 

The goal not only is to help swimmers read signs and avoid hitting the bottom of the pool, it’s also to help rescuers see when someone needs help. “You want to be able to see a body underwater, or a person who’s in distress,” Weathers says. “The biggest problem I see is probably lack of underwater lighting.”

For this reason, installers should not rely solely on local codes to establish the minimum guidelines. Codes may require a certain number of watts every so many square feet, but this doesn’t take into account the beam spread and how much coverage the lights will provide. “When you do calculations based on square footage of surface area, sometimes you have dark places between fixtures,” Weathers says. “You need to space your fixtures correctly.”

On lazy rivers and other curvy, freeform aquatic elements, space the lights closer together than normal to make sure every inch is illuminated. “You get so much coverage from each fixture,” Weathers says. “Each one’s different, so you have to really look at the beam spread on the fixture and be able to triangulate that so you don’t have dark spots.”

Getting the best possible light may require designers to incorporate new habits.  Especially in HMAC pools, many designers simply place one fixture at the deep end and rely on it to illuminate the whole pool.  But the light beam will fade progressively the farther it travels, so the shallow end won’t be well lit. “What they should be doing is [placing lights] on the sides, all the way to the point where it becomes too shallow to install a fixture,” Weathers says.

For the shallowest water, such as that found in beach entries and sun shelves, designers should make special considerations. Most underwater lights can only be installed in water that’s 18 inches or more deep. In these spaces, add lights nearby, such as on pole-mounted fixtures.

“You can light them overhead with flood lights and still penetrate the water,” Weathers says. (But once again, these lights should not be placed on rafters or other structures crossing above the pool. Instead, they can be on poles around the pool perimeter.)

Pay attention to key areas.

Bathers use the shallow end more often than the deep, so make sure that area is well-lit. “We used to put six times more bulbs in the shallow end than the deep end, because the deep end has much less of the swimming activity,” Williams says.

Though the deep end may have two to three times more water than the remainder of the pool, he adds, the shallow end likely will hold the vast majority of swimmers. “So the shallow end needs a lot of light,” Williams says. “Any simple state rule saying you need one illuminator per 1,000 square feet isn’t sufficient.”

Additionally, make sure that drains are well-illuminated, so they can be easily seen for detection of missing or broken outlet covers, says Tom Ebro, a water safety specialist with Aquatic Risk Management in Lutz, Fla.

Use color sparingly, if at all.

If the goal is to detect the human form in distress as quickly as possible, Ebro says, it’s best to have as much contrast as possible. Thus, the ideal scenario is a light-colored pool interior with white light. Colored lights can interfere with quick recognition of a struggling person. In a commercial setting, avoid colored lighting.

Warn customers about maintenance and replacement.

Even when pools and spas begin with the right amount of illumination to meet codes and standards, time can erode that away.

“Part of the problem with lighting is you’ll go in and have a compliant situation with the [right amount of] foot candles, and over a period of time, the ballasts or light will get dirty, and you’ll go to less than [the needed] foot candles,” says Bill Rowley, president of Rowley International  Inc. in Palos Verdes Estates, Calif. “Now you’re not compliant and you don’t know it. Then you’ll get into a situation with a lawsuit where you’re less than the [needed] foot candles, and even if it doesn’t have anything to do with the lawsuit, it will be cited.”

When completing a pool and “handing over the keys,” so to speak, designers and builders should warn owners and operators about the need to clean bulbs and ballasts, and to replace lights.

Explain to those in charge of maintenance that they should not wait until half the lights are burned out to begin replacing bulbs. This applies to in-pool lighting and other lighting in the area.

Inform pool owners and operators that too many burned-out bulbs can come back to haunt them if an accident occurs.

“If you don’t have enough light in a pool [so] that you can’t really perceive what the depth is, you haven’t got a chance,” Rowley says. “I’ve been involved in litigation where lights were burned out, which gave a false indication of the pool depth, and someone dove in and hurt themselves.”