Though the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed 20 years ago, there’s been a lot of talk about it recently.

New ADA rules have been published, which pose “a responsibility and an opportunity,” says John Caden, director of pool lifts for manufacturer S.R. Smith, based in Canby, Ore. “It’s a responsibility for pool operators to make their pools accessible … And it’s a financial opportunity for those in the commercial side of the pool and spa business to sell this equipment to [facilities]that need to come up to these standards.”

Here, we provide background information about the language applying to pools and spas, and what it means.

I thought the ADA was enacted years ago. What’s different?

The Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990, and requirements were written for several areas of public life.

However, recreational settings went largely unaddressed.

Then, in 2004, guidelines were published that eventually were codified in 2010 to arrive at the current regulation, called the 2010 ADA Standards for  Accessible Design. These requirements include mandates for pools and spas.

“Before, you had to comply, but it wasn’t really clear how,” says Alison Osinski, president of San Diego-based Aquatic Consulting Services. “Now they’re saying ‘This is what you need to do.’”

What does the new law require?

The ADA states that all public pools must have a sloped entry or a lift. These are considered the primary forms of access.

In addition, any commercial pool measuring more than 300 perimeter feet (with one exception discussed below) must have a second means of entry. This additional method can include a lift, ramp, transfer wall (a low wall with handles that helps people lift themselves over the side of the pool), a transfer system (which resembles a set of small portable stairs) or accessible pool stairs.

In those pools that require two devices, the standard discourages against using the same method twice. Instead, installing different forms of access will address more diverse needs and, therefore, serve the most people.

Pools where entry is limited to one area, such as wave pools and lazy rivers, are only required to have a single form of access — a lift, sloped entry or transfer — regardless of the vessel’s size. Wading pools must have a sloped entry. Nothing is required for catch pools, but there needs to be a clear route through the deck to the edge.

Spas are to be outfitted with a lift, transfer wall or transfer system. When there is a group of spas, only 5 percent of the units are required to meet the standard, with a minimum of one complying.

Experts predict that lifts will be the preferred method for updating pools and spas because they’re the most cost effective and practical. In order to comply, these devices must enable independent operation by the user, removing manual lifts from the equation.

Lifts also must have seats measuring at least 16 inches wide. The unit needs to place users into water less than 48 inches deep, unless the entire vessel is deeper. Secondary lifts are exempt from that requirement. If the device is being used for a pool, it must have a footrest; however, spa lifts do not need one.

There had been questions about the use of portable lifts versus fixed lifts, or those that are permanently attached to the deck. The ADA requires that lifts be fixed, with one exception: Portable lifts are only allowed if they were purchased before March 15, 2012. Even those, however, must be in position and ready for use any time the pool is open.

If a ramp or zero-depth entry is used, it must have a 1-to-12 slope, meaning that it takes 12 feet of run for the elevation to change 1 foot. It must land in water between 24- and 30 inches deep. If landings are required (as they are for any ramp longer than 30 feet), at least one must fall in the specified depth. Ramps can go deeper, as long as they have that landing in the 24- to 30-inch depth. In wading pools, the landing must end at the deepest part of the vessel.

The sloped entry must have at least two handrails, spaced 33 to 38 inches apart. In wave pools, lazy rivers and other elements where access is limited to one area, the handrails don’t have to meet this requirement. Handrails are not required in wading pools.

The 60-by-60-inch area of the deck leading into the zero-depth entry must be nearly flat — at a 1-to-48-foot slope.

The law also includes specifications for transfer walls and transfer systems.

Many facilities can receive a tax credit or deduction for upgrades to meet ADA requirements. Local governments and non-profits can’t reap this benefit, however, because they don’t pay taxes.

What is the deadline?

All pools and spas completed since March 15 of 2011 must comply.

For facilities in existence before that date, the issue has been a little more confusing. The ADA originally stated that pools and spas were to be updated by March 15, 2012. Earlier this year, the deadline was extended to Jan. 31, 2013.

However, there is an allowance for those entities that can’t make the retrofits right away. Such operations can put a plan in writing and place it in their own files for reference, to show that a good faith effort is being made in case a complaint is filed. Unfortunately, the Department of Justice has not been clear as to when the actual renovations must be completed.

“The trick question here is by what date do those pools have to be made accessible,” McGovern says. “There’s not a clear answer.”

But he has a recommendation to address this issue: “We tell all our clients, ‘Do not extend the time to retrofit your pools and spas any longer than three years past the effective date. That takes you from March 15, 2012 to 2015.”

Caden also says this allowance was meant for entities with multiple pools and spas, not single facilities with a pool and spa. Even those entities, he advises, should have started the process by the posted deadline. Property owners can’t sit passively and just promise to buy the lifts in three years. Instead, they should already be upgrading pools and spas incrementally.

While the law mentions something called  safe harbor, or grandfathering, for facilities built to guidelines published in 1991, this does not apply to pools, spas and waterfeatures, because no earlier rules were available for those elements. Therefore, none are exempt from the new standard, and must comply by Jan. 31, 2013.

Some areas peripheral to the pool, such as decks, were covered by the 1991 guidelines. However, designers must abide by one standard for an entire facility. You can’t, for example, design the deck to the 1991 standard and the pool to the 2010 version. So, basically, anything involving a pool, spa or waterfeature must comply with the new law — and must do so by Jan. 31, 2013.

Do the ADA requirements apply to all commercial pools?

Yes and no.

Large-scale pools — those in universities, city parks and the like — fall under the jurisdiction of the Department of Justice and, therefore, must comply. Hotels and motels also must fall within the standard.

Those at apartment and condominium complexes and some private clubs are covered by the Fair Housing Act, so the ADA doesn’t apply. However, if the apartment or condo acts like a “public accommodation” by renting units out for vacationers, or selling entry or memberships for the pool to the public, then it does fall under the ADA.

However, the law does list two exceptions — facilities where alterations would detract from a site’s historic significance, and those that can prove financial hardship. However, this would be hard to back up, considering the relatively low cost of updating a pool compared with larger-scale upgrades such as sidewalks and the like, Caden says.

What does this mean for the industry?

With an estimated 300,000 public pools in the United States, pool and spa professionals have their work cut out for them.

Some categories of facility are less likely than others to fulfill the accessibility requirements. “One big market that’s really untapped is small hotels,” Caden says. “How many of them have you seen that are accessible? Not many.”

Each lift has slightly different installation instructions, so take advantage of manufacturer training or published directions.

If a zero-depth entry is used, check to make sure it has the proper slope — 1 in 12 — and that the designated handrails are in place. “The design community has been reluctant to put the handrails in zero-depth entries,” McGovern says. “You’ll often see only one handrail or no handrails.”

The language requiring that accessibility equipment be properly maintained also provides an opportunity for service companies. Technicians can sell annual maintenance contracts, where they can ensure pool lifts are always working.