Pool owners find challenges installing new drainsby Tom Weber, Minnesota Public Radio
Many public swimming pools shut down this time of year for a few days of routine maintenance. This year, many of them are using that time to meet the requirements of two new laws, one federal and one state. But some pools are running into roadblocks.
St. Paul, Minn. — The sound of splashing was replaced last week with the noise of jackhammers at the YWCA in Minneapolis's Uptown neighborhood.
Crews worked in a room next to the Y's Olympic-sized pool and hot tub, breaking through concrete to get to a filter that needed work.
Both pools were empty and waiting for upgrades, and the hot tub was of special concern.
"The floor will be raised so that there's no direct contact with the drain, ever, at any point on the pool floor," noted the Y's Jason Burmeister. "It basically makes the drain unblockable, which was the whole point of the law."
The federal government estimates nearly 300 children younger than age 5 drown in pools and spas each year. Two specific deaths prompted tougher safety standards.
The federal law, signed in December, is named for Virginia Graeme Baker, the granddaughter of former Secretary of State James Baker. The Minnesota law, signed in May, is named for Abigail Taylor, of Edina. Both girls died after being trapped and injured by the suction from pool drains.
Pools have to meet the federal requirements by Dec. 19, and the state requirements by Jan. 1.
The laws aim to prevent injuries by requiring drains or drain covers that keep people far enough away from strong suction currents.
The Y's hot tub in Uptown has a floor with three drains. A new grate over the bottom will essentially create a new floor that adds a few crucial inches above the drains.
The Y says it's happy to comply if it means safer pools, but getting orders filled has been a challenge. That's because pool owners aren't the only ones getting ready for the laws. So is the government.
"It's kind of a mess," was how Dan Lundgren explained it. He co-owns Aqua Logic in Waconia.
Lundgren has been busy filling orders from customers like the YWCA who need upgrades because of the new laws. The problem, he says, has been the Consumer Products Safety Commission -- the agency implementing the federal law.
The law instantly created a need for new products, but some aren't ready for market yet because they need to be inspected and certified. But the Consumer Products Safety Commission is still creating its certification process -- which hinders Lindgren.
"I have these things on order, and all of a sudden my supplier calls and says the CPSC has basically told them they should stop putting these in," he said. "So now, these customers are saying, 'What are we supposed to do?'"
Commission spokesman Scott Wolfson says there is a solution. Products can instead be approved by one of three organizations that do testing. They include the International Association of Plumbing and Mechanical Officials (IAPMO), Underwriters' Labratories, and the National Sanitation Foundation.
He says approvals from those organizations will suffice until his agency's certification is in place, which means no pool will have an excuse for missing that Dec. 19 deadline.
"There are some issues in here and now where products might not be available, but we are confident that as we move into September and October, new products will come to market," Wolfson said.
"The issue will be how quickly can these pool operators turn on a dime and purchase the products and have them installed."
At the state level, a health official says he's hopeful the concerns will be resolved by December, though he admits that won't help pools working to comply with the new laws now.
"Isn't clear whether those newly manufactured drain covers will meet requirements of either the federal or state law," noted John Linc Stine, who directs the Minnesota Department of Health office that will enforce the laws.
When asked whether that puts pool owners in a bind, especially if they make changes now that might have to be redone later, Stine responded, "it puts them in a difficult position."
Stine says pool owners in Minnesota will also face more regulations under the state law. All pool drains in Minnesota must be visually inspected every day, and more pools will need licenses.
Until now, the state didn't consider pools at apartment and condo buildings, as well as schools and fitness centers, as public pools. They are now, which Stine says could mean an additional 1,000-4,000 licenses.
The YWCA's Uptown pools are open again, but without new drains because of the certification problem. Crews will try again during a planned closure in October.
Even with all these changes, more could be on the way for Minnesota. The state law also requires more study of deeper pools, where drains that are eight feet under water are assumed to be safer.
If that study suggests any changes for deeper pools, lawmakers could revisit the issue next year.
- Morning Edition, 08/27/2008, 7:25 a.m.