What began as a complaint against one testing laboratory has grown into a full-scale investigation of virtually every drain cover on the market.

Spearheaded by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, the probe could result in a range of measures. CPSC could merely require a change in the drain cover standard, or choose to recall thousands of units that have already been installed.

As part of its inquiry, CPSC held a meeting April 5 to hear from testing labs, standards writers and other involved parties to discuss the standard, how testing is conducted and what changes should be implemented. A closed-door meeting with manufacturers followed the next day, with CPSC being characterized by one source close to the investigation as taking an aggressive stance toward the manufacturers.

The source went on to predict that approximately half a dozen drain covers would be recalled.

To comply with the Virginia Graeme Baker Pool and Spa Safety Act, all drain covers sold since Dec. 19, 2008, must be tested and certified by a third-party laboratory — either the International Association of Plumbing and Mechanical Officials (IAPMO), NSF International or Underwriters Laboratories (UL). The labs conduct testing according to protocol described in the standard ASME/ANSI A112.19.8.

Last year, NSF filed a complaint claiming that some IAPMO-tested covers did not perform as rated, and questioned the testing methods used. Confidential information related to the complaint somehow reached ABC News, which broke a large story last summer stating that certain drain covers were putting people at risk. At about that time, CPSC started its investigation.

In February, the Chicago Tribune published a similar report, claiming that thousands of pools may be dangerous. Shortly afterward, Illinois Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin demanded that CPSC intensify its investigation.

The attention has caused many in the industry to wonder if CPSC can remain unbiased in its findings.

“When you get the media [and] senators weighing in … These are government agencies; they buckle under some of this pressure,” said John Romano, president of All American Custom Pools & Spas, a Pool & Spa News Top Builder in Norwalk, Conn. “The best-case scenario for us is to prove them wrong.”

However, some believe CPSC has not taken the issue seriously enough. With claims that thousands of drain covers are unsafe, they wonder why the problem wasn’t resolved long ago.

“It has been approximately 625 days since the commission was notified of this potentially life-threatening problem, and yet the first hearing ... was just held,” said Karen Cohn, mother of 6-year-old entrapment victim Zachary Archer Cohn.

For their part, pool and spa professionals worry about the significant logistical challenges of a large-scale recall. “If manufacturers are going to underwrite the recall totally, with possible drainage of pools or paying divers to go in and make the changes, that’s one thing,” Romano said. “If they were just going to replace the cover … what’s out there to replace it, other than the products available right now? Are they going to shut every pool down that’s been retrofitted?”

At the meeting, CPSC laid out three issues it believes contribute most to the inconsistent testing.

The first, a concern about body entrapment tests, has the potential to affect the most drain covers on the market. Since NSF’s complaint was filed, all three testing labs have contended that language in the drain-cover standard is too vague, particularly regarding this portion of the required protocol.

In performing this test, technicians cover the drain using a “body blocking element” — a piece of plywood covered on one side by a layer of foam. Because of confusion regarding the standard, it’s believed that all three laboratories used a smaller body blocking element than required, possibly yielding an artificially high flow rating.

CPSC holds that all drain covers should be tested with an 18-by-23-inch body-blocking element. But the labs have used elements more in scale with the size of the drains themselves, believing that the piece should be just large enough to cover the suction fitting being tested.

In the meeting, Dave Purkiss, general manager of NSF International’s Water Treatment and Distribution Systems division, maintained this was the right method. Not only was this described in the standard, he said, but it yields the most accurate results. “If you test small drain covers with a larger body block … you will unnecessarily lower the flow rating for covers that meet the intended requirements of the standard ...” he said.

He added that NSF tests have shown using the larger body block can lower flow ratings by up to 75 percent. “[This] could have a significantly adverse public health consequence, such as increases in recreational water illness, from lowering circulation rates. ... or unnecessary recall and replacement of drain covers.”

Furthermore, Purkiss added, an upcoming replacement standard, called ANSI/APSP/IAPMO-16, will instruct test labs to use the smaller body blocking element.

Nevertheless, members of the standard-writing committee said CPSC’s position is correct. “That’s what the standard technically says, although you can read it differently,” stated Committee Chairman Leif Zars. “There was some honest misinterpretation of that requirement. We’re coming up with a slight modification.”

Another member of the committee, Steve Barnes, presented a theory as to why larger body blocking elements result in lower ratings. He believes the disparity may be caused by characteristics of the element that do not replicate the human form, and therefore don’t reflect what would happen during a body entrapment.

A representative from Underwriters Laboratories suggested that the solution is to test using three body blocking elements — the largest and smallest named in the standard, and a size closest to the tested drain.

The second of CPSC’s concerns involves two testing laboratories’ methodologies. In at least some instances, the labs used variable-speed pumps, possibly set at low speed, which will allow a higher flow rate before the suction force becomes hazardous. Some experts maintain that drain covers should always be tested at higher speeds because most pumps in the field today are single-speed models and even variable-speed units likely will be used on a high setting at least some of the time.

The final concern involves one lab, IAPMO, which allegedly has performed its tests by attaching a cover to a suspended drain, rather than mounting it to a horizontal surface that replicates a pool floor.

Though the investigation could potentially affect all three testing laboratories, IAPMO may be most vulnerable as the object of NSF’s complaint.

IAPMO CEO Russ Chaney said the lab has adjusted its methods since concerns were brought to its attention.

But one presenter at the meeting questioned IAPMO’s methods and ethics. “We saw that one lab was consistently giving higher ratings,” said Brooks Hilton, general manager of Waterway Plastics.

He went on to allege that the lab used these higher ratings to attract business. “[They would say,] ‘Bring your suctions to us. We will give you higher ratings,’” he stated.

Hilton also asserted that the lab sometimes didn’t perform tests at all, but rather applied mathematical calculations.

Though he didn’t name the lab during his presentation, Hilton identified it as IAPMO to another press outlet.

IAPMO’s Chaney denied the accusation, saying, “Our lab has never indicated that we could produce higher flow rates as a means of soliciting business. Anybody who does something like that should be suspect.”

Presenters also addressed other issues and concerns regarding testing protocol, among them how hair tests can be performed to more accurately replicate how hair entrapments occur and to achieve repeatable results.

Kendra Kozen contributed reporting to this article.