To truly grasp the uncertainty surrounding the Virginia Graeme Baker Pool and Spa Safety Act, you need only to speak briefly with a government official, or even a pool and spa industry representative.

The act itself is complicated enough — it contains a section on drain covers, one on commercial pools, and another outlining the residential grant program. Some parts are explicit, while others were left for the Consumer Product Safety Commission to interpret.

If you consider recent changes in the International Building Codes, and a multitude of state and local ordinances, you’ve got a messy stew of deadlines, specifications and stipulations.

Here, Pool & Spa News presents a series of questions and answers about the VGB Act. It should be noted that many aspects of the law are still being clarified, leaving even industry experts in the dark on some matters. We have made every effort to provide accurate, up-to-date information. However, this material is subject to change.

Residential Pools

Q: I know that all public pools must have approved drain covers. How about residential pools? The Pool and Spa Safety Act says that all drain covers “manufactured, distributed or entered into commerce” as of Dec. 19, 2008, must comply with ASME/ANSI A112.19.8-2007. Beginning in October, the CPSC required manufacturers to place a stamp with “VGB 2008” on compliant covers. (The letters stand for Virginia Graeme Baker, the 7-year-old entrapment victim after whom the law is named.)

While the law technically covers only public pools, any pool or spa operator who installs new drain covers in residential pools would be advised to comply with the voluntary safety standard ASME/ANSI A112.19.8-2007, says CPSC spokesman Scott Wolfson. “The standard cited in the Pool and Spa Safety Act captures the state of the art in drain cover protection and safety.”

The law does not, however, say that drain covers must be replaced on all existing residential pools. Still, it’s a good idea to raise the issue with homeowners anyway since they may be interested in the upgrade if they feel it makes the pool safer. In this economy, it may even open up a new revenue stream.

Q: Does the law apply to spas?

Yes. After Dec. 19, all existing public inground and portable spas also must have compliant drain covers.

Q: Does the Pool and Spa Safety Act require safety vacuum release systems on residential pools?

Not at this time, but it remains to be seen.

Rather than finalizing requirements for residential pools, the CPSC currently is focusing on the commercial deadline.

In an earlier communication, CPSC officials said the agency would not require SVRSs on all new pools. Instead, it listed these devices as suggested back-up measures, along with suction limiting vents, gravity drainage systems, automatic pump shut-off, drain disablement, or other systems the CPSC deems sufficient. However, that may change.

NOTE: This does not mean that SVRSs aren’t now required on residential pools in your area. If your state or local building code includes Appendix G of the 2003 or 2006 versions of the International Residential Code, the devices are required until the 2009 version of the IRC is adopted.

Q: What else does the law require for residential pools?

That also remains to be seen.

The sections of VGB that deal with residential pools are less black and white than the language pertaining to commercial installations. For one, not all states must comply. The act is tied to a grant program, and states interested in receiving the money must enact legislation that meets minimum requirements as outlined by the CPSC.

Residential pools in states enacting this legislation will fall under the law’s jurisdiction. If a state chooses to forgo the grant money — which is admittedly a small amount and currently unavailable — then residential pools constructed in that state are not subject to VGB requirements.

That said, states interested in receiving grants may craft laws that are more stringent than CPSC’s minimum standards.

As mentioned above, the CPSC has not yet received the funds to supply grants or manage the program. The House Appropriations Committee will revisit the agency’s budget sometime in the first quarter of 2009. At that point, it will be apparent whether CPSC has the funds to distribute grant money.

Public Pools

Q: Who will enforce the Pool and Spa Safety Act?

The act places enforcement authority and responsibility with CPSC. But with limited resources, the agency is relying on assistance from state health departments. So, enforcement of the code depends on the individual state.

The CPSC administers the act’s implementation but does not have the manpower to enforce it. Enforcement will depend on the capabilities of individual states.

In some cases, an act of the state legislature is required to empower or compel the state’s health department to take on the work. And some states are loath to spend their resources enforcing a federal law. (Remember, the public portion is not part of the grant program mentioned before.)

But others place a premium on further safeguarding pools and preventing entrapment incidents on their watch. Some health departments may check for compliance during their yearly inspection. Several states already have begun setting up enforcement systems, or expressed an interest. Those include Connecticut, Minnesota, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Maine, Pennsylvania and South Carolina.

Q: If enforcement is low, then why should I comply?

If a suction-entrapment incident takes place in a pool or spa, the CPSC will deploy a representative to evaluate the vessel and determine whether the law was followed.

The penalty for non-compliance is a subject of some confusion. The Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act states that violators of any law under CPSC’s jurisdiction are subject to fines of up to $15 million and imprisonment.

However, such penalties would be reserved for manufacturers caught willfully breaching the law, Wolfson says. In the case of aquatics operations, the penalty would more likely be closure until the pool becomes compliant — unless a state imposes other penalties.

“We would like to quell the rumors that CPSC is going to be bringing million-dollar penalties and prison sentences against pool or spa operators,” Wolfson says.

However, a lack of compliance will certainly not help in the case of a liability suit. Because of this, some insurance companies are beginning to take note of this law, and carriers soon may demand compliance as a condition for insuring the pool.

Q: Did the Dec. 19 deadline apply to all public pools?

In theory, yes. However, CPSC has said that any pools closed for winter have until they reopen to comply. So at the moment, the emphasis is on indoor pools and those operating in warmer states.

Q: My state or local codes are different than the Pool and Spa Safety Act. Which do I follow?

You must satisfy codes and laws from both state and federal sources. For instance, facilities in Florida still need to have VGB-compliant drain covers in addition to the gravity drain systems required by that state’s health department.

In some areas, local codes are more stringent than the federal law. In that case, you can’t argue that the less-strict federal law invalidates the local law. If your state’s building code requires the installation of a safety vacuum release system or similar device, that is not negated by the Pool and Spa Safety Act’s lack of such a requirement.

If state or local regulations conflict with the federal act, contact the appropriate health or building officials for guidance on how to comply.

Q: When installing a new drain cover, can I just replace the cover itself, or must I use the supplied mounting ring and hardware?

Unless you are absolutely sure that the cover is made to fit the existing mounting, you should use all of the supplied hardware. Fortunately, many of the covers come with kits that can be drilled and anchored, glued or bolted in place.

Q: If a pool already has dual drains, can the covers be rated to accept only half the system flow?

No. The cover must be able to withstand the full flow of the system, in case one of the drains becomes blocked.

Q: If the pool uses gravity drainage, must it have compliant drain covers?

Yes. Q: What can I do on an older or custom-built public pool with an oversized or field-fabricated main drain?

As of fall, smaller VGB-compliant drain covers were entering the market.

Round, 8-inch versions came first, and shortly thereafter, several 9-by-9-inch square drains were approved. The larger 12-by-12-inch covers were made available on a limited basis.

Covers measuring 18-by-18 inches and larger were not yet available by presstime.

Some manufacturers have created kits for placing a smaller cover into a larger grate frame. This will only work, however, if the smaller drain is rated to withstand the full flow of the system, and the smaller openings allow enough flow to keep the pump primed. State and local codes may not allow these smaller drains if the velocity exceeds 1-1/2 feet-per-second or even lower in some states.

When using a pre-manufactured product over a field-fabricated sump, follow all manufacturer instructions. They will indicate how much flow can be generated through the drain while still maintaining the maximum allowable velocity. This may require down-sizing the pump. Just make sure it can move the water fast enough to fulfill the required turnover rates. If not, you may need a different drain cover.

When reading the instructions, check to see how far the bottom of the drain cover must sit above the pipe inside the sump. This is key to ensuring that the suction is low enough. For field-fabricated sumps measuring more than 18-by-23 inches, some custom grating systems are being certified and are expected to enter the market.

If no compliant covers are available for drains larger than 18-by-23 inches, pool owners and operators should hire a registered design professional to evaluate the cover, its connection to the sump and its flow rate to ensure it meets the standard for field-fabricated covers and sumps described in ASME A112.19.8-2007.

Several aquatics facilities have submitted “requests for enforcement discretion,” to buy time for older and customized pools and waterparks, as well as pools with drains placed in deep water. This would allow time for additional products to enter the market, for more specially engineered solutions to become available, and for municipal pools to undergo the funding process for major retrofits. At press time, CPSC was evaluating these individual requests.

Q: What, exactly, is meant by a registered design professional?

In its interpretation of the commercial portion of the act, the CPSC did not specifically define this term. Instead, the agency defers to the definition within each state of jurisdiction, based on the definition in the ASME A112.19.8-2007 standard.

To find out what constitutes a registered design professional, call your state’s health department. Most will require some sort of licensed engineer.

That said, finding someone to take on the job might take a few tries. Given the potential for liability, some professionals are very wary of this type of work, and may be particularly gun-shy about certifying that a field-fabricated outlet meets the requirements.

Q: Nobody produces a compliant drain cover that fits my pool, but I expect they will. How do I prove that I’ve done everything possible to comply with the act, in the absence of an available drain cover that fits?

If your pool needs covers larger than 18-by-18-inches and you’re waiting for compliant equipment to hit the streets, don’t just sit on your hands. First, make any other necessary changes. If you have single drains, or dual drains less than 3 feet apart, either split the drains or outfit the pool with an SVRS, suction-limiting vent, gravity drainage system or automatic pump shut-off.

And document everything.

If a particular cover isn’t yet available, determine which manufacturer will be offering it, place a back order for the product and document it.

If a certified professional has been hired, put that in writing. If finding a professional proves difficult, document every contact made thus far. In addition, write down the date and content of staff meetings where compliance is discussed.

Q: Are single, unblockable drains exempt from the dual-drain requirement?

Yes. Drain sumps measuring more than 18-by-23 inches are considered impossible to block by a human body. So they do not need a second drain.

However, they do need a compliant cover.

Q: We’re a service company and our client refuses to make the changes we recommend. What should we do?

It is ultimately the decision of the pool owner, but if the vessel has single main drains or non-compliant drain covers, it’s important to take a protective stance. Provide recommendations to the customer in writing, and get the client’s signature acknowledging receipt of these guidelines. If the customer can’t or won’t follow your advice, insist on a signed waiver before proceeding.

Q: Our pool has multiple drains, but each is connected to its own pump, which makes them functionally single main drains. We are interested in using an SVRS to fix the problem. Do we need an SVRS for each pump?

Yes. Each drain and pump connection must be treated separately and receive its own SVRS.

Q: Should we just go with a drainless pool?

This is an option only if the vessel complies with local codes. For example, Connecticut, New Jersey and New York require submerged suctions, while some other public-pool codes mandate turnover rates that aren’t achievable without drains. If using this alternative, be sure to check whether your state allows waivers when the plans are stamped by an engineer and allowed by the inspector. Then, perhaps, you will receive approval for a drainless pool.

Q: Are SVRSs always a viable retrofit option?

Not necessarily. The standard governing the manufacture of SVRSs — ASME A112.19.17 2002 — states that check valves and hydrostatic valves shall not be used in concert with an SVRS. If the pool system contains either of these elements, an SVRS will not comply. The SVRS standard’s writing committee has considered removing the hydrostatic valve prohibition, but that could take months.

Pool & Spa News thanks the following, in alphabetical order, for their help with this article: Steve Barnes, APSP Technical Committee and Pentair Water Pool and Spa; Don Burns, SPEC; Carvin DiGiovanni, APSP; Jeff Fausett, Aquatech; Thomas Lachocki, Ph.D., National Swimming Pool Foundation; Brian McGarry, City of Euless, Texas; Paulette Pitrak, Northeast Spa & Pool Association; Kevin Potucek, Hayward Pool Products; Debra Smith, APEC, Pulliam Pools; and Scott Wolfson, Consumer Product Safety Commission.