A new U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission proposal calls for
many commercial pools with unblockable drains to be altered.
As of press time, CPSC was scheduled to take a vote Sept. 28 to
determine whether the definition of an unblockable drain, as
classified in the Virginia Graeme Baker Pool and Spa Safety Act,
needs to become more stringent.
The ballot reconsiders a much-debated decision made by the agency
in April 2010, stating that a drain can be considered unblockable
as long as its cover measures 18-by-23-inches or larger. Now the
commissioners may mandate that the sump conform to that sizing as
Under the VGB Act, unblockable drains are not required to be split
or supplemented with a backup system, so this definition allowed
single-drain pools to comply with the law relatively easily. All
that was needed was a larger cover and the drain could be
reclassified as unblockable. Some drain covers were even
manufactured for this specific purpose.
But last year’s decision proved controversial with safety
groups and parents of entrapment victims, who said backup devices
should be required of single, unblockable drains, particularly
those with smaller sumps, in case the covers were to come
The current definition had passed by one vote. The ongoing campaign
for a new ballot was largely organized by the Pool Safety Council,
an advocacy group founded by manufacturers of safety products and
One commissioner who voted for the definition, Robert Adler, had a
change of heart after meeting with safety advocates and the
industry. “I believe our previous interpretation did not
comport with what Congress intended when it wrote the Virginia
Graeme Baker Pool and Spa Safety Act,” he said in a
statement to Pool & Spa News. “... In a perfect
world, we should require both unblockable drain covers and backup
Passage of the new requirement would mean that all drains with
unblockable-sized covers but smaller sumps will have to be
addressed by May 28, 2012. However, that date could change, said
Scott Wolfson, a CPSC spokesman.
Current indicators suggest the revision likely will go through,
with the vote following political party lines.
CPSC is led by five commissioners — two Republicans, two
Democrats and a chair appointed by the U.S. president.
In addition to Adler, Chairwoman Inez Tennenbaum has publicly
stated her objection to the current interpretation. Thomas Moore,
the remaining Democrat, voted against the current definition last
year, but declined to comment regarding the upcoming ballot.
Conversely, the two Republicans — Anne Northup and Nancy Nord
— voted for the current definition last year. Northup has
stated she will maintain her position.
“Unblockable drains are, by far, the best remedy to this
situation,” Northup said. “This is what we want pools
to do because backup systems only begin to work once there is an
entrapment taking place, and it doesn’t prevent all
entrapments. An unblockable drain cover is the safest, most
Nord hasn’t indicated how she will vote but, like Northup,
said she opposed revisiting the issue, as well as how the new vote
is being handled.
“I was told ... the commissioners aren’t even going to
get a public briefing about the impact of this change,” she
said. “I’m scrambling to find out information on my own
because no one else on the staff or in the leadership of this
agency is going out to determine the impact of a change of this
magnitude. That’s just bad governing.” (Click here for a separate article covering discord
Wolfson said the vote on the table was generated by Adler, not CPSC
staff. Additionally, he stated that “before the votes
are cast, the commissioners will be free to pose questions and have
a dialogue on the matter before them.”
Many pool and spa industry members disagree with the proposed
Though there have been concerns about how some unblockable drain
covers attach to existing smaller sumps, they are addressed through
product testing, said Steve Barnes, chairman of the APSP Technical
Committee. In addition, he said, the law should focus on the need
to ensure drain covers remain in place.
Because the backup devices currently available do not prevent
against all five types of entrapment, you can’t compare them
to, say, a GFCI in an electrical system, he added. “A GFCI
and a circuit breaker turn off the power, which is the
hazard,” he said. “The backup devices in VGB only
address hazards directly attributed to high vacuum, but not hair,
evisceration and limb entrapment.”
Any new definition is likely to take a toll on some manufacturers.
“The big losers here are going to be those guys who have been
making unblockable covers to go over blockable outlets,”
Meanwhile, those in the field express continued frustration with
how the VGB Act has been implemented.
“All the VGB work is pretty well done, so it’s kind of
after the fact,” said Dick Nichols, president of Genie Pool
and Spa Service in San Jose, Calif.
“I don’t know what it is they’re trying to
accomplish, but this whole thing has been the most ludicrous waste
of people’s money I think I’ve ever seen in my 35 years
in this business.”