Sometimes tragedy can get the job done faster than anything else.
In March 2007, Florida Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz
reintroduced the Virginia Graeme Baker Pool and Spa Safety Act. The
legislation ran out of time the year before as the House
deliberated on a pile of bills on the last day of voting.
The new version didn’t move at all for a couple of months.
Some believed it was going nowhere.
But that changed following two well-publicized accidents
involving 6-year-old children. In June, Abigail Taylor survived a
suction-entrapment incident in a resort wading pool in Minnesota.
Almost immediately, the Pool & Spa Safety Act gained two new
sponsors from that state. A month later, Zachary Cohn drowned after
his arm got stuck in a pool drain at his own Greenwich, Conn.,
As the press showed renewed interest in entrapment hazards, so
did federal lawmakers, who passed the law late last year.
Most contractors are ready to build their pools for drowning and
entrapment prevention. But the loosely worded law may lead to
individual negotiations with states and a key federal agency to
hammer out the most effective way to ensure compliance.
This article answers five key questions regarding the new
federal Pool & Spa Safety Act.
1. What does the law entail?
The Virginia Graeme Baker Pool & Spa Safety Act is the first
federal legislation ever to address drowning and entrapment
prevention in pools and spas.
However, it doesn’t call for immediate requirements.
Instead of mandating certain devices on all pools, the law gives
grant money to states that comply with safety guidelines. The
program will be administered by the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
The new law is specific on only two matters, both pertaining to
entrapment. First, all pool drains must be capped with
anti-entrapment covers. And beginning next December, manufacturers
will have to produce drain covers that conform to the ASME/ANSI
A112.19.8 performance standard, which can only be changed with
Second, the wording is clear that pools and spas built more than
one year after a state enacts its own law should not have single
main drains. Instead, they need at least two main drains for each
pump, “unblockable drains,” or a drainless circulation
As administrator of the program, CPSC will decide the minimum
requirements that states must impose to qualify for the grant. The
requirements must address drowning and entrapment prevention on all
pools and spas. The commission can make changes to those
requirements anytime it chooses, as long as the public is notified
and given a 30-day period for comment.
In addition, states can impose more stringent standards.
States receiving grant money must use at least half of the funds
to hire and train enforcement personnel, and the remainder to
provide education for the public, the pool and spa industry, and
aquatics facility operators about the state’s safety law.
2. How effective will the law be?
As with anything decided by committee, no one is 100 percent happy
with the language. House author Debbie Wasserman Schultz, as well
as child-safety groups such as the National
Drowning Prevention Alliance, wanted the law to require
four-sided fencing around all pools.
“There is disappointment in all of us who are involved in
drowning prevention that the Senate version was considerably
watered down from the House version,” says Maureen Williams,
founding president of the National Drowning Prevention Alliance and
the North American public relations manager for D&D
Technologies, a manufacturer of gate latches, locks and hinges,
based in Huntington Beach, Calif.
For its part, the Association of Pool & Spa Professionals would have
preferred that its own standards be used verbatim.
Conversely, manufacturers of safety vacuum release systems
wanted the language to specifically call for a backup device to
shut off the pump if a vacuum is created in the suction lines.
Opinions aside, the law’s effectiveness no doubt will be
determined in part by the states’ motivation to create their
own safety legislation. The law only earmarks $2 million in grant
money per year for 2009 and 2010, to be spread among the 50 states.
When you consider that the 2008 budget for the smallest state in
the union, Rhode Island, is $3.4 billion, it’s difficult to
believe that the law will snap states into action. (Meanwhile, $5
million annually will be given to CPSC from 2008 to 2012 to develop
educational materials. That’s more than double the amount to
be split between the participating states.)
“You have to ask yourself how much of an enticement this
grant program is,” says Bill Weber, APSP’s
president/CEO. “If you take the total amount and divide it by
the number of states, it’s not a significant amount of money.
So I don’t see the value of this as the grant
More people view the law as a good guideline for regulators and
self-motivated legislators in the future. All parties are happy
enough with the law to believe that it gets their point across.
“I think the law is a living law and it delegates the
authority to the CPSC. It’s going to promote new technologies
and performance standards, and we’re going to wind up with
safer pools,” says Joe Cohen, president of Denver-based SVRS
manufacturer Fail-Safe, LLC. “If I were the president, I
would’ve signed it.”
At the very least, some believe the law will make the government
more aware of this issue. “If it wakes people up and they
understand the need for safety in and around pools, then
that’s a wonderful benefit of this,” says Dan Gossage,
president of APEC, a Texas industry lobbying group.
3. How will it affect the industry?
Because so many details are left to CPSC and individual states, the
full effect of the law is yet to be determined.
Currently, APSP and some manufacturers disagree about whether
the law calls for a backup SVRS system. This confusion springs from
a vague clause stating that CPSC shall require one of the listed
backup systems, “except for pools constructed without a
single main drain.”
“I asked about 10 people, and 50 percent said emphatically
[the exception applied to] a multiple-drain pool; the other 50
percent said emphatically it meant no drain. So that’s
confusing,” Cohen says. He interprets the phrase to mean that
a backup system is required on all pools, except those without any
main drains at all.
APSP’s Weber, however, thinks the clause refers to pools
with one main drain. “It means that if you have multiple
drains or no drains, the [devices] are not required,” he
says. “If it doesn’t have a ‘single main
drain,’ they’re not needed. [The other interpretation]
would be a stretch, I think.”
Jonathan Beeton, a spokesperson for Rep. Wasserman Schultz,
said, to the best of his understanding the language does not
mandate SVRS’s on pools with multiple main drains.
The law is even less specific when it comes to barriers. It
tells CPSC that in writing the minimum standards, it must consider
covers, gates, doors and pool alarms. It doesn’t state that
the commission must include all these devices in its list of
That’s OK with Weber, who negotiated with legislators on
the language. “It’s nodding in the direction of layers
of protection,” he says. “This is one of the primary
arguments that we have been making successfully. If you mandate
four-sided fencing, many homeowners are not going to abide by
it.” The original House bill called for isolation fencing, he
What really matters is how CPSC interprets the wording. And that
is unknown at this time. Spokesman Scott Wolfson couldn’t
even say how CPSC will determine the standards or whether it will
seek input from the industry. The normal procedure for any law
would be to involve the commission’s executive and technical
review committees, he said, as well as any CPSC division that would
be impacted by the law.
Other than that, Wolfson could only state that the group takes
the issues of drowning and entrapment prevention seriously.
“It is an [issue] CPSC works on every single year to help
drive down the more than 250 pool drownings that we know occur with
children under age 5,” he says.
It’s important to note that CPSC has published its
opinions about barriers and entrapment prevention in Safety
Barrier Guidelines for Home Pools and Guidelines for
Entrapment Hazards: Making Pools and Spas Safer. The Pool
& Spa Safety Act states that minimum standards must satisfy
The entrapment-prevention guidelines recommend the
“consideration” of a backup system such as an SVRS or
vent line on new and existing pools that have dual main drains,
gravity-feed systems or other methods designed to prevent a vacuum.
If it’s impossible to retrofit a pool or spa with dual main
drains and the like, then CPSC states that a backup system should
Because CPSC said on the record that it sees the value of
SVRS’s and other backup devices, Cohen thinks they will be
required at least on shallow wading pools.
Once CPSC defines the baseline standards, it’s up to the
states to enact legislation. Most of the pool-heavy states —
including Arizona, California, Connecticut, Florida, Nevada, New
York and Pennsylvania — already have laws on the books.
Texas remains the least-regulated state in the Sunbelt, so
Gossage thinks it will take the cue. “I do believe the
national legislation is going to play a big factor in Texas in this
upcoming session,” he says. “I think that since Texas
is one of the few states that does not have any effective licensing
or stringent regulations when it comes to residential and
commercial swimming pools, we’re a target.”
4. Are industry advocates ready for it?
When it comes time to write the CPSC minimum guidelines and
individual state legislation, the pool and spa industry will need
to negotiate. The industry and safety advocates have expressed an
interest in taking less adversarial stances toward one another, but
each has different objectives — and both will seek the
“We will make a concerted effort to work with the states
to be sure that they take advantage of the grant opportunity by
passing barrier legislation,” says Williams of the National
Drowning Prevention Alliance. “And we hope we can do that as
a partner with the industry.”
“When the final language is developed,” she adds,
“we will be working to develop a model barrier standard that
states can use to meet and, we hope, exceed the minimum
Weber says the industry is ready to work with CPSC and state
legislators. He expects the loose language of the federal
legislation to demonstrate the need for flexibility. More
importantly, he says, the new ANSI/APSP-7 entrapment
standard should give the group additional traction, particularly if
the International Code Council adopts it next year.
The trade group feels especially confident after last
year’s battle in Florida, when its members successfully
convinced the state of Florida to remove its SVRS requirement and
adopt APSP’s standard. “We presented our data to
Florida, and they adopted the APSP/ANSI standards. That sets a good
precedent,” says Charlie Schobel, vice president of
government affairs for BioLab
Inc. and secretary/treasurer of APSP.
Besides the national group, there are industry lobbyists in
California, Connecticut, Florida, New Jersey, New York,
Pennsylvania and Texas.
“We’re gearing up in hopes of making sure that
anything that comes down on our industry in Texas is done so in a
logical manner,” says Gossage of Texas’ APEC. The group
recently hired a professional lobbyist to help with all the
pool-related legislation that has been the trend the past couple of
years. It is now beginning to develop informational materials that
would help fulfill the Pool & Spa Safety Act’s
5. Are pool builders and service technicians
Most builders believe they’re ready, particularly for the
drowning-prevention aspects of the job. They’ve been working
with the safety devices for years.
Even in less-regulated Texas, builders have to meet some codes.
“The local cities all have their specific regulations,”
says Debra Smith, vice president and general manager at Pulliam Pools, a Pool & Spa
News Top Builder in Fort Worth, Texas, and APEC vice
president. “Some require self-latching gates that have to be
a certain height. In others, you have to have door
While most builders have the ability to conform to new laws,
they vary in their attitudes toward the requirements.
What everyone fears are extreme measures and skewed
interpretations. For example, New York recently passed a law
stating that every pool and spa needs to have an alarm. Inspectors
applied this law to portable spas, for which alarms are not made.
This left several hot-tub retailers unable to sell one of their
“As long as what they require is readily available and
doesn’t create a financial crisis, I’m all for
it,” says Bruce Bagin, a partner at B&B Pool and Spa Center in
Chestnut Ridge, N.Y. “But I just don’t want to see
people react without thinking it through to ensure that it’s
a viable, workable process.”
Considering the lack of licensing laws in Texas, some
contractors there welcome any ruling that will make their
competitors more accountable.
Steve Toth, for instance, has included safety devices on his
projects for years and wants to work on a more level playing field
with those who build cheaper pools without the devices. “I
would like to see some type of state legislation that demands that
pool builders meet current ANSI standards,” says Toth, owner
Pools, LLC, in The Woodlands, Texas. “If we’re
going to all the trouble to do this stuff, I want other people to
do it, too.”
Others take a more cautious approach.
“I think it’s a double-edged sword,” says Guy
Wood, president of Westside Watershapes in Fort Worth, Texas.
“It’s good to have legislation that’s going to
make the industry more accountable, but if we’re not careful,
we’ll have unqualified people telling us how to do our