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
A number of facilities also mistakenly use low lighting to set a
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
But these codes can prove to be outdated.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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
“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
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
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
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
“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
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