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 well.

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 off.

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 backup devices.

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 systems.”

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 efficient remedy.”

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 in CPSC.)

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 change.

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,” Barnes said.

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.”