Tuesday, May 19, 2009

New drain-safety law may close some pools

Many say cost of repairs prohibitive

by Edythe Jensen - May. 4, 2009 12:00 AM
The Arizona Republic

A new federal pool-safety law has cash-strapped Valley homeowners' associations and apartment managers scrambling to finish costly drain modifications so they won't have to close pools this summer.

Some have already locked gates and posted signs; a few are mulling permanent closure to avoid renovation costs or stiff penalties and legal liabilities if they fail to comply.

The Virginia Graeme Baker Pool and Spa Safety Act went into effect in December and requires that all outlet fittings and drain systems in public and semi-public pools meet new safety standards that prevent drain suction from holding swimmers under water. Backyard pools at single-family residences are exempt.

The law was named after the 7-year-old granddaughter of former Secretary of State James A. Baker III who died in 2002 in a spa after the powerful suction of a drain held her underwater. Supporters of the act have said that in the past 20 years, at least 36 children have died and 147 others were injured after becoming trapped underwater by the suction of a pool or hot-tub drain.

The cost to retrofit older pools and spas can run into the thousands of dollars and requires a Maricopa County pool-remodeling permit that costs an additional $165 to $250, said Kevin Chadwick of the county's water and waste-management division. About 9,000 Valley pools are affected by the new law; most are semi-public facilities in neighborhoods, condominiums or apartments, he said. All that aren't already in compliance will have to be modified.

Scott Wolfson, spokesman for the Consumer Product Safety Commission in Bethesda, Md., said the agency is serious about enforcement and is talking to state attorneys general and health officials about inspections and complaint procedures. The federal agency is prepared to respond to Arizonans' tips about pools that may be violating the act but will give priority to spas, kiddie pools and wading areas frequented by children, he said.

Since the law took effect, the county has seen pool-remodeling permit applications skyrocket from an average 58 per month last year to 190 per month since December. Chadwick's small office has only two employees to review the permits.

Property managers and contractors say that even if associations have the money to modify their pools, parts are sometimes hard to find and permit delays could keep neighborhood pools closed for the summer.

"The act is a good idea but implementation of it has been horrible," said Gilbert property manager Dave Heywood. Two condominiums that he manages, Ville Monaco in Tempe and Marlborough Mesa Villas in Mesa, have closed pools that aren't in compliance with the federal law.

"We know people have been dealing with backlogs in parts, labor and permits," Wolfson said. "But our advice to owners of public and semi-public pools is clear: you should not be open unless you are in compliance with the law."

"One of our big concerns is cost," said Cynthia Dunham, executive director of the Chandler-based Leadership Centre, a non-profit neighborhood resource that works with homeowners' associations. "This comes at a time when HOAs are struggling financially," she said.

Jim Welch, director of the Mountain Park Ranch Homeowners' Association in Phoenix, said that because his community maintains several pools and spas, the retrofitting cost more than $10,000.

"I don't think anyone had it in their budgets, but we did what we had to do," he said.
Fred Wagner, president of Poolman, a pool-service company in Phoenix, said several of his clients including Vogel Place Condominiums in north Phoenix are closing their pool "because they don't have the money to bring them up to standards." Others are ignoring the law and taking serious liability risks, he said.

Barbara Dummitt, spokeswoman for City Property Management, said her firm has advised its more than 250 clients to get the work done or close pools. Most have already made the changes, which she said cost up to $3,000 per pool.