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Thursday, Jun 20, 2024

Sinking Feeling for Pool Owners

A new federal law with the goal of reducing the number of deaths by drowning nationwide has created confusion and uncertainty among property owners, aquatic facility operators and pool construction and maintenance firms. The Virginia Graeme Baker Pool and Spa Safety Act was signed into federal law on Dec. 20, 2007 and gave those responsible for commercial-use pools just one year to be in compliance. The law is named in the memory of the granddaughter of former Secretary of State James A. Baker, III, who died at the age of seven after being trapped underwater in a spa by powerful drain suction. Incorporated into the law are new safety standards for public pools and spas to prevent the type of entrapment that caused her death. Public, in terms of this law, refers to larger pools on both public and private property, such as those at large apartment complexes, athletic and aquatic facilities, and parks and recreation centers. The confusion and uncertainty has to do with the process of implementing a federal law at the local level. “Everybody wants to comply,” said Marybeth O. Green, assistant vice president of education for Merit Property Management, Inc. which oversees homeowners associations and commercial properties from Sacramento to San Diego. “The problem is that the language is so broad and vague, and they really didn’t get any input or feedback from the pool companies, and the manufacturers especially, and I don’t think they got a whole lot of participation from the local levels of government.” For instance, at the time the law was signed, products that would allow pool operators to make required fixes to drain covers were not yet on the market and even today still do not exist for many older aquatic facilities. “We lost six to eight months just with manufacturers trying to get their products to market,” said Ben Nichols of Precision Pool in Glendora, who is also the outreach committee chair for IPSSA, the Independent Pool and Spa Service Association. “They had to get their drain covers engineered, get them UV compliant, and get them certified.” Even more challenging, said owners and pool technicians alike, are more complex issues dealing with the drains themselves and the pumps that move the water. In Los Angeles County, public pools come under the purview of the Department of Health, and specifically Bernard Franklin, chief of the Recreational Waters Program. Presently, at the local level, Franklin said, “There’s no requirement for compliance. We don’t enforce federal law. The only person who can enforce the federal act is the U.S. Attorney General.” What Franklin’s department has done is provide an advisory for how pool and spa owners can comply with the Virginia Graeme Baker act while still being in accord with existing health, safety and building codes. “What’s kind of weird here is the counties, like Los Angeles, came out with this rather draconian advisory,” said Ray Arouesty of Arrow Insurance Service in Simi Valley whose brokerage represents pool and spa companies. Arouesty is himself an attorney and a licensed pool contractor. “In December of last year, L.A. County came up with their regulations and they went so far beyond the federal legislation, it was ridiculous,” he said. “I’m really glad they backed off on that.” At the time the County was requiring that all pools be drained so that inspectors could clearly identify whether upgrades or repairs were in compliance with local codes. That caused an uproar, Arouesty said, not only because of the drought situation facing California but also because draining a pool puts stress on the structure and can cause damage. In response, on Feb. 9 the Health Department issued some clarifications and revisions that eliminated the need to drain pools just for the purposes of inspection. “That’s major,” said Arouesty, but the new changes still have left lingering questions for many. “One paragraph contradicts the other,” said Ben Nichols referring specifically to requirements about who was eligible to make certain fixes. “When they decided to allow divers, they added a stipulation that a diver had to be a C53 licensed contractor.” That license is for pool builders, while C61 licenses are held by pool maintenance companies. “We’ve been changing covers and using divers for years and years,” said C61-certified Nichols who’s been in the business for 30 years. “It’s very difficult to have dialogue with (the County). I’m sure they’re well intended, but just sometimes seems they’re over-reaching.” Scott McKenna, president of Gardner Pool Plastering, said that challenges in getting clarifications from the County are not unique. In San Diego, he said, “we’re waiting several weeks to get a permit and then another several weeks to get an inspection. We’re having to plan the construction around the inspection so the pool is not out of commission too long.” Another pool man, Ben Honadel of Pools by Ben in Santa Clarita, would like to see the County approve more variable-speed pumps that not only could be used to comply with VGB but would also improve energy efficiency. “Ventura County has approved them. San Diego County has approved them,” said Honadel. “The owners of these properties, the property managers, are calling me constantly because they want to put these pumps in. They want to comply with the law and they want to save money.” Some of the confusion may be cleared up by a bill that was introduced to the state Assembly on February 27 that would make changes to the Health and Safety Code to incorporate the requirements of the VGB, as the Virginia Graeme Baker Act is referred to in the industry. But the process of getting the bill through committee and onto the Governor’s desk is lengthy, leaving a soup of mixed messages causing confusion. Insurers are asking property owners to show they are already in compliance or have plans in place to do so. “The insurers want to see there’s money budgeted and plans to do it in a specific timeframe,” said Jeff Leane of LaBarre Oksnee Insurance that underwrites policies on commercial properties in California, Arizona and Nevada. “I haven’t yet seen any homeowners’ associations or condo associations denied insurance on this basis or cancelled, certainly,” said Leane. “It’s a new question on most of the applications for new insurance and I expect it’s going to come up on a lot of our existing clients’ renewals. But our experience is it hasn’t really impacted folks that much.” The newness of the VGB Act means it is still not on the radar for a lot of carriers, but those responsible for maintaining the pools have their antennae fully extended. “It’s just this perfect storm of chaos and confusion where everybody wants to do the right thing,” said Merit’s Green. “That’s the main message. Everybody wants to do the right thing. It’s just tough to do when we don’t know what the right thing is.”

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