ICC broadens consensus on pool drains

Scott Webb Headshot

Pooldrain0209There are important mandates for public pools in the Virginia Graeme Baker Pool and Spa Safety Act, but in terms of residential pools, VGB has meant little to date.

From a residential builder's perspective, while it does say that only approved drain covers can be sold, VGB appears to be a federal law that offers some money to states in exchange for adopting safety codes requiring the use of entrapment barriers described in ANSI-7 and barriers to pool access along the lines of ANSI-8.

That's about to change, however. The overall momentum in the direction of ANSI-7 recently received strong new impetus from the International Code Commission, which adopted the language of ANSI-7 into its 2009 building code.

This development means that the entrapment safety requirements of VGB and ANSI-7 are much more likely to turn up in local building codes, which have the weight of law behind them.

"States don't have the manpower or expertise to analyze solutions for entrapment hazards in pools," notes Carvin DiGiovanni, senior technical director, APSP. "They're looking for a credible authority to tell them what to do."

With 46 of 50 states currently using the ICC's residential building code, the ICC qualifies as a very credible authority. And now that ANSI, ICC and the federal government are speaking with one voice on drain entrapment, state code bodies should find adoption of VGB into their state building codes to be an easy decision.

At the same time, ICC and ANSI have large numbers of members, well positioned to promulgate a new standard. With formal adoption by the ICC, says Jay Peters, executive director for plumbing, mechanical and fuel gas standards, ICC, Whittier, Calif., "the membership begins to take action.

"Our members are mostly in government and they like to stay on the cutting edge of safety and codes. As soon as a code comes out they're ready to start getting it adopted. And we assist them with education, tech assistance and things like that. We serve as a neutral party to the development of codes, kind of a steward of the process."

Cover Your Own

As a separate issue from drain covers, a portion of VGB demands that public pools address the design of the drain system. (If the pool has multiple drains, they must be more than 3 feet apart. If it's a single drain, it must be "unblockable," according to the specifications in the Act. Detailed information is available at www.apsp.org.)

As of the printing of this article, however, there is no law prompting a residential builder to construct a pool with any particular drain system other than what local codes already demand. That is to say, new residential pools are not subject to the VGB law concerning the design of drains other than the use of an approved drain cover.

Be that as it may, notes DiGiovanni, "I think a residential builder would be out of his mind to build a new pool outside of the VGB Act."

That's because there is a good chance the public pool drain design portions of the Act will one day become residential state and local code. And beyond that, there is great potential for legal action if an injury occurs in a pool built contrary to the safety ideas embodied in a federal law.

In that unfortunate event, a builder would sound lame and foolish arguing in court that although a pool was not built to ANSI or ICC code, it met the letter of the law.

The plaintiff, on the other hand, would stand behind the consensus of all of the major standards organizations plus the federal government, saying in effect, "They all agreed a single, blockable drain was unsafe, and you did it anyway."

What ANSI-7, VGB and ICC all say in unison is that if a public pool has a single suction source, then it must have an additional layer of protection - these layers are outlined in the code (multiple drains, an engineered venting system, creation of an unblockable drain by expanding the orifice, an automatic pump shut-off, an SVRS, etc).

Drain Covers

Although it is now illegal to sell a non-approved drain cover, at the moment there's nothing that forces builders and service personnel to update a non-approved drain cover on an existing residential pool or spa.

What should a maintenance professional do when a non-compliant drain cover is discovered? DiGiovanni provides some excellent advice for this situation that is certain to be very common in the coming years:

"Although the law does not require them to update that drain cover," he says, "the action that they should take to protect themselves from a potential lawsuit is to alert the homeowner that there is a non-compliant drain cover in their pool or spa, and for the sake of safety it should be replaced."

He recommends the service professional put that request in writing, so if the homeowner turns them down, they will have that written request in their file as protection from any legal action in the event that someone gets hurt in that pool or spa after the fact.

"Let's face it," he says, "it is a litigious society in which we live, and in case of an injury due to a non-compliant drain cover, there would more than likely be a lawsuit against the service company."

DiGiovanni notes that service personnel should not necessarily see this as a burden. A letter stating that the ICC, ANSI and the federal government all believe that a homeowner's drain cover is unsafe, and stipulating the homeowner formally reject the replacement, is in effect a powerful inducement. "It could be a source of additional business to the service company," he says.

A Strategy Of Flexibility

A great success of this now-consensus standard is its flexibility. The overall strategy from its inception at APSP was to provide different options to builders - to put different solutions to the problem in the hands of builders and give them the opportunity to find the best one for each pool. In this way, local government and builders can work together as more of a partnership than a dictatorship.

"That's been the approach of all our standards committees," DiGiovanni says. "Another example of this was the ANSI-8 model barrier code. There we talk about a lot of different options including, obviously, the mainstay - which is adult supervision. We strongly believe that one size does not fit all, and we do not want to have local legislation forcing one particular option down the builder's throat.

It's been a long road from the formation of the original standards committee at APSP to an internationally recognized building standard, DiGiovanni says. "There's a lot of rigorous procedure that these technical requirements have to go through to vet any superfluous or self-serving language.

"It is a very comprehensive standard and allows for different technologies to prevent entrapment, and these different technologies compete with the SVRS.

"But this industry has historically been embracing of all technologies," DiGiovanni adds. "We feel it's best to give builders good solutions and then let them pick and choose what they feel suits their needs."

Inspectors And Enforcement

The VGB Act has been passed and signed, but it remains for the states to decide if they will adopt it into their residential building codes. Some states, such as Florida, have already adopted the language of the Act into their codes, but many other states have not. It is up to residential pool builders, of course, to be aware of what their particular state or county decides to do in terms of pool building regulation.

Most building inspectors are currently waiting for instructions from their particular county and state as to how to handle enforcement. "That's what makes this kind of murky," says Carvin DiGiovanni, senior technical director, APSP. "A lot of the enforcement comes at the county level, and that varies across the board.

"Some counties may pick up the gauntlet and run with this - train their code inspectors on what to look for, how to handle it, what to red tag, etc. Those will be the more proactive counties, the more affluent ones that have the money to do it. There will be many others that don't have the same resources that are waiting for the state to tell them what to do."


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