The Consumer Product Safety Commission denied a petition by unblockable drain cover manufacturer BeeSafe Systems requesting that its products be approved for installation without a secondary vacuum-limiting system.

The decision also was a setback to another group hoping to gain such an allowance for certain unblockable drains.

When the Virginia Graeme Baker Pool and Spa Safety Act was first passed, CPSC was charged with interpreting its language and writing guidelines. It was known that unblockable drains could be installed without a second outlet or entrapment prevention device. But one question that lingered was how a main drain could qualify as unblockable. While it was clear that the unit had to measure more than 18-by-23-inches and meet certain testing parameters, it wasn’t known whether those qualifications applied solely to the drain cover or to the sump as well. This uncertainty especially affected manufacturers and purchasers of drain covers meant to convert smaller sumps into unblockables, which spared owners of single-drain pools the need to split the outlets or add secondary devices.

In 2010, well after the deadline to comply with the law, CPSC took a vote among its commissioners and decided 3-to-2 that a drain qualifies as unblockable if its cover meets the standards regardless of sump. After pushback by certain individuals and groups, one commissioner changed his mind, stating that if an unblockable cover should come off and expose a blockable-sized sump, it would pose too much of a hazard. He called for a new vote and in September 2011, the 3-to-2 count went in the other direction. Those who had installed an unblockable drain over a blockable sump would have to retrofit their pools with multidrain systems or devices such as safety vacuum release systems, suction-limiting vents, gravity-drainage systems and others. Originally they were given until May 28, 2012 to retrofit their pools, but CPSC later extended the deadline to May 23, 2013.

BeeSafe filed its petition last spring. The law allows CPSC to deem certain technologies compliant if they are determined to be at least as safe as those specifically named in the law. BeeSafe sought to gain such status, stating that its unblockable cover technology not only relied on the larger size, but also incorporated features that prevent the covers from coming off and protect against hair entrapment.

Shortly thereafter, a coalition of manufacturers and associations, led by Worldwide Sports and including the Association of Pool & Spa Professionals, the National Swimming Pool Foundation and the American Hotel & Lodging Association, sought to file a more widespread exception allowing unblockable drain covers to be installed as the sole means of entrapment protection as long as the unit met certain criteria. The coalition was told not to file a petition, but to submit the request as a public comment weighing in on the BeeSafe request.

After investigating the BeeSafe request, CPSC staff recommended denying the petition. The main issue, staff said, was how the cover would perform if a special winterizing cover were to come off or be removed. The only way to remove the entire BeeSafe cover is with a specific screw driver. However, a winterizing cover can be removed with conventional tools. Though BeeSafe said the technology would protect swimmers even if that winterizing lid were removed, CPSC did not agree.

“CPSC staff ... found that pull-off forces for the body-block tests exceeded the forces allowed by the standard,” the report stated. “When CPSC staff conducted the full-head-of-hair tests, the simulated human head that was used to conduct the test was pulled completely into the winterizing cover opening. ...”

The commission voted unanimously to follow the staff’s advice.

Commissioner Robert Adler, the Democrat whose change of heart resulted in last year’s revote, said he hopes to see new technologies developed, including unblockable drains that can shut off the pool pump if the cover is removed, or covers that don’t need to be removed for maintenance and repair.

“I say this in part because I suspect that SVRS continues to be the secondary anti-entrapment system of choice for most pool owners due to its relatively low cost,” he said in his statement. “Unfortunately, I believe that the SVRS technology currently on the market provides extremely limited secondary protection to swimmers and bathers.”

Neither the staff nor commissioners acknowledged the comment filed by the industry coalition seeking an exception for unblockable covers meeting certain criteria. Walt Sanders, the lobbyist heading up the effort, said the group is evaluating CPSC’s comments and considering whether it wants to take the effort farther through a formal petition or other means.

BeeSafe CEO Bonnie Snow took issue with how CPSC tested her product. “The logical way would have been to test my product both with and without an SVRS added ... to see if the built-in technology that we have for breaking suction at the surface of our covers is equal to the SVRS technology,” she said. This, she added, would establish whether the BeeSafe cover would benefit from the addition of the most popular backup device.

Additionally, she said that if the winterizing cover were missing, it would be a matter of human error and the pool would be out of compliance. She didn’t think it fair to downgrade her product because of the possibility of human error and not judge other devices similarly.

“If they denied my petition because there’s a remote risk of that cover being damaged or missing, they have then failed to say what happens if the SVRS device is not installed properly, has been tampered with, has been [purposely] disabled or just plain fails to work when an entrapment happens,” Snow said. “Those failures are going to happen because of human error in the field. The law is not going to solve that.”

Snow, a former health inspector who took an interest in entrapment prevention, said the indecision involving the unblockable-drain definition put undue strain on her company.

The firm stopped producing unblockable drains when its definition came into question. With the CPSC decision, she said, her company has closed its doors.