When a homeowner is ready for the execution of what, for many, is a lifetime dream — a backyard pool — they’re thinking first about lifestyle and enjoyment, not safety.
Few think about drain cover options, barriers or alarms. They’re envisioning where the pool will be, the patio set they’ll have and maybe consider that they need plastic dishes to use by the pool. Maybe.
Until passage of the Virginia Graeme Baker Pool & Spa Safety Act, safety regulation for pools was limited to state and local building codes. There also are the American National Standards Institute/Association of Pool & Spa Professionals Standards — but those are voluntary.
With the increased awareness of pool and spa safety comes a desire for a standardized level of safety that all consumers and pool enthusiasts can expect. Enter the International Swimming Pool & Spa Code.
Written by the Association of Pool & Spa Professionals and International Code Council, the ISPSC is intended to exceed the VGB standards for safety and offer more comprehensive language than the model codes currently available, encompassing commercial and residential in-ground and aboveground pools, waterparks, exercise spas, and built-in and portable spas.
The code is beginning to see movement and early successes, though there also continue to be challenges.
The great equalizer
While safety in commercial builds has been covered since VGB when into effect in 2008, backyard pools haven’t faced the same requirements. The federal law left residential pool regulation to local jurisdictions.
“There are a lot more people using residential backyard pools and spas than public,” says Carvin DiGiovanni, vice president of technical and standards at the Association of Pool & Spa Professionals. “There is a much larger public to protect.”
This gap spurred APSP and ICC to collaborate on a model code dedicated to pools and spas. The language is comprehensive, addressing more aspects of pool and spa design than the ICC’s existing model codes, which cover all aspects of building and in which pool-safety language was considered optional.
“We just want to put this pool and spa code in place because there aren’t any codes like it as comprehensive as this for both residential and public pools and spas,” DiGiovanni says.
The code is on its first update, the 2015 edition, which had minor tweaks from the first, published in 2012. The 2018 version of the code is already in process. But this still is a model code, meaning that states and regions can adopt the language at their discretion.
APSP’s goal is to pass it in as many jurisdictions as possible, DiGiovanni says. So far, 10 states have adopted the code: Arizona, California, Colorado, Georgia, Illinois, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and Wyoming, plus Washington, D.C. Additionally, Pool & Spa News previously reported on an effort this year in Michigan, lead by Chris Ferriss, owner of Splash Pool Services and past president of APSP Michigan Chapter, to get such a bill passed.
Adoption is starkly different than enforcement, though. Of those states, only Virginia is enforcing the code statewide, as is D.C. In the others, the code is considered “permissible,” meaning jurisdictions within the state can adopt it.
While uniformity across the country may be a lofty aspiration, it isn’t necessarily an easy one.
The challenge of adding states and jurisdictions to the map comes from the somewhat tangled nature of code adoption.
Codes aren’t updated in municipalities and general assemblies every year, and the frequency varies from state to state, locality to locality. Cycles range from three to six years, and a state also must consider which version of the ISPSC it wants to adopt. Many states also have Home Rule, which gives local jurisdictions the ability to govern themselves as they want.
That means as code cycles come up, APSP officials and local members must lobby states and municipalities to put adoption of the ISPSC on their agendas. The government relations teams at APSP and ICC are working together to implore legislators to grant the code permissible in their states.
“We are concentrating on those jurisdictions whose code cycles are coming up and whose officials are concerned about pool and spa safety,” DiGiovanni says.
Even given some of the other model codes available, DiGiovanni likes the ISPSC’s chances. “The ISPSC does for residential pools and spas what the VGB does for public pools and spas, thus making the adoption of the ISPSC a real solution for protecting backyard pools and spas,” he says. “No other code can make that claim.”
On the ground
In Virginia, which is enforcing the code, both the payoff and challenges have perhaps been the highest.
Where the ISPSC is enforced, every new residential pool built will meet the same threshold of safety, which some like.
“Even though [Virginia] had adopted some of the APSP standards [before], those standards dealt with fencing, bonding and electrical at the equipment pad, and to some extent pool lights,” builder Tim Coleman says. “There was nothing to do with the actual design and construction of the pool.”
Before the state adopted the ISPSC and started enforcing it in July 2014, the managing partner of Augusta Aquatics in Fisherville, Va., wasn’t asked to provide plans when he pulled permits.
Working in types of areas sometimes jokingly called the “wild, wild West” by pool pros, Coleman was priced out of some jobs by competitors who weren’t basing their designs on the ANSI/APSP standards Coleman was building to.
“Where we have always been considered a more expensive pool contractor, we’re anticipating that the new regulations will ... once they are enforced by building officials ... bring local competition up to an even playing field,” Coleman says. With every builder including the same features in their bids, consumers will be able to truly assess cost and safety, he says.
But the ISPSC also introduces a layer that wasn’t there before, leaving some builders somewhat conflicted.
“There was not a lot of regulation, which on one hand, as a builder, I like — it makes things easier to do,” says Jason Vaughan, president of National Pools of Roanoke Inc., based in Roanoke, Va. “On the other hand, [lack of regulation] allows people who are not doing things correctly to take short cuts and to do things not the correct way. To me, it’s kind of a catch-22.”
Breaking it in
The last challenge a builder wants is to relearn their business. The threat of change could make some firms reluctant to support the code when adoption is considered in their state or local jurisdiction.
But never fear.
“If you had been building and designing to the previous ANSI/APSP standards, then it’s not going to be a big challenge for you,” DiGiovanni says. “The ANSI/APSP standards basically make up 99 percent of the content of the ISPSC code.”
The builders who will see the most changes are those who weren’t using ANSI/APSP standards as their guide, and who work in areas like Virginia that, to date, have had little code enforcement and regulation. To help, APSP is launching an online ISPSC training curriculum geared toward contractors with the goal of educating them on building to the code.
But areas such as Clark County, Nevada, which already had a robust set of codes in place before enforcing the ISPSC in July 2014, will have an easier time.
“There’s no problem at all. All we’ve done is make the pool a lot safer,” says Joseph M. Vassallo, president of Las Vegas-based Paragon Pools. “It’s very comforting, I think, to a pool builder to know that’s not a concern any longer.”
In Las Vegas and surrounding areas, the code actually has made building easier, builders there report, by clarifying and streamlining the previous code.
The increased safety measures for residential pools don’t necessarily add costs in Clark County — there’s a difference of maybe $100 for the required main drains — but instead result in savings for homeowners.
Previously, Clark Country and nearby jurisdictions called for alarms on all doors and windows. Now, the code relaxes that requirement for windows with sills higher than 48 inches or a manufactured lock at least 54 inches high.
“Some people had as many as 15 doors and windows that had access to the backyard and the pool area,” Vassallo says. “You could be looking … at $1,500 cost to put those in.” Those code changes actually benefitted Clark County builders. In fact, one actually delayed pulling some permits until the ISPSC was enforced or worked to have the new code applied to permits.
“It was in our favor,” says Dustin Watters, vice president of Las Vegas-based Watters Aquatech. “It wasn’t as stringent.”
Good news/bad news
Once the code goes into effect, there’s the inevitable period of adjustment.
As with many codes, the immediate challenge rests with educating inspectors and plan reviewers.
“The difficulty we’re seeing is that building officials are being asked to ... become more involved with swimming pools and their design and construction than they ever have been before,” Coleman says. “As such, it’s going to be a learning curve for them.” The concern is that officials, many of whom deal mostly with buildings, won’t be able to review plans and understand hydraulics or other aspects of the schematic.
Pools also aren’t always a top priority. “At the time this code was put into place, they had several building codes change,” Coleman says. “My understanding is when they meet on a state level that there might be five minutes of discussion on pools, whereas the balance of the day is on other changes to the codes they enforce.” Even with that disappointing challenge, there also are rewards.
The code not only protects consumers, it also provides builders a tool to point to for legal cases and code enforcement. Three times, Vaughan has used the code to plead his case as to why a pool he built in Virginia was correct.
In one instance, he built a 6-by-10 foot pool that officials wrestled to define because of its size. “You could call it a pool, you could call it a spa, you could call it a swim spa, you could call it a plunge pool,” Vaughan says.
Having the standard in place meant the build was treated exactly as it should have been for its size and purpose — not as the swimming pool it wasn’t. It fit the ISPSC definition of a swim spa and was able to incorporate an ASTM-rated hard cover instead of the fence and automatic cover the building department was pushing for.
Regardless of the challenges, professionals say, the goal remains: allowing that hypothetical homeowner to enjoy their dream pool or spa with the same level of safety, whether they swim in Virginia, Nebraska or Alaska.