Faulty Pool Drain Evaluations and Tests

Chicago Tribune // Monday, February 7, 2011 // By: Patricia Callahan

 Equipment meant to prevent powerful drains from causing people to drown in pools and hot tubs is being used across the country even though the products underwent flawed safety evaluations, then failed subsequent, more stringent tests, a Chicago Tribune investigation has found.

A confidential report describing one laboratory's tests concluded that the equipment "could result in serious injuries and or death." Yet the manufacturers and federal regulators have not alerted the public about potential safety problems.

At issue are drain covers meant to protect children and others from a grisly fate -- being trapped underwater by hundreds of pounds of suction from improperly covered drains in hot tubs and small pools in hotels and backyards.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, which regulates pools, has received complaints for two years that some models weren't working properly. But the safety commission, known as the CPSC, didn't launch an investigation until last July. Subpoenas obtained by the Tribune show the agency is investigating whether differing testing procedures at independent labs allowed drain covers to be sold even though they don't comply with the law. 

The safety concerns extend beyond the few models that failed tests. When an accreditation authority investigated the lab that certified most U.S. drain covers, its team found incorrect testing procedures that didn't accurately mimic the entrapment forces in a real pool or spa, records show.

The Tribune found that AquaStar Pool Products Inc., a company that makes some of the more popular drain covers, did not issue a warning to the public after one of its products failed tests at independent labs. Nor did the company widely recall the product. Instead, AquaStar asked its distributors to stop selling that model and return the remaining inventory. In a letter last July, the California company asked distributors "out of an abundance of caution" to notify past buyers of different installation instructions and offer a new plastic piece to raise the cover. 

Since there was no public alert, it's unlikely that word reached every pool and hot tub owner relying on this safety equipment, which costs less than $20. Distributors sold more than 20,000 of them, an attorney for AquaStar said.

CPSC spokesman Scott Wolfson declined to comment on AquaStar's actions. In general, however, he said: "A company is not allowed to take unilateral action that is intended to fix a safety problem with their product without reporting and coordinating that action with the CPSC."

Steven Getzoff, an attorney for AquaStar, said the company's actions have been "perfectly lawful." Notifying distributors was the most efficient way to reach the pool professionals who typically buy the covers and know how to install and remove them without creating an entrapment hazard, Getzoff said.

"We don't want the homeowner going to the bottom of their pool and fiddling with it," Getzoff said. "That's how entrapment happens.CPSC officials are aware of AquaStar's letter to distributors, he said, and "they've expressed no problem with what we've done." He reiterated this point twice more during the interview but later denied to the Tribune he had made such assertions.

Getzoff said the CPSC has an ongoing investigation of AquaStar and declined further comment.

To keep most pools sanitary, pumps move water through a filtering system that relies on one or more drains. When a drain cover is broken or missing or if a body covers all the holes in a cover, the pool's pump can act like a supercharged vacuum cleaner that tries to suck the person into the drain with hundreds of pounds of force.

Skilled swimmers have drowned when rescuers were unable to free them from the powerful suction force. Children sitting on drains with missing covers have been disemboweled. Others died when hair tangled in drains tethered them under water.

Between 1999 and 2009, federal regulators received reports of 94 entrapments in pools, hot tubs and whirlpool tubs, including a dozen deaths. A federal law passed in 2007 after a 7-year-old girl died in a hot tub requires public pools and spas to install anti-entrapment drain covers certified as having passed safety tests at one of three approved labs. 

Since then, more than a million of these covers were sold.

Paul Pennington, chairman of the nonprofit Pool Safety Council, said he has sent 73 e-mails to CPSC and standards officials pleading with them to do something about unsafe drain covers since the new law took effect in December 2008.

"Some child is going to die," said Pennington. His group is largely funded by the makers of devices that shut off a pool's pump when a dangerous vacuum forms, like a circuit breaker turns off power when it senses an overload. 

Why did Pennington think the covers were dangerous? As soon as the new drain covers hit the market in 2008, pool owners that had vacuum-release devices complained that their pumps were turning off after they installed the covers. Pennington, who owns a stake in a vacuum-release system company, investigated and concluded the new covers were allowing the hazardous suction forces they were supposed to prevent.

Pennington said his concerns were ignored by the federal government and by the standards committee that writes the testing rules for the drain covers. That committee consists mostly of people who work in the pool and spa business.

Eventually, however, complaints from others in the industry got the attention of the standards committee chairman and led to more testing of the drain covers. 

Labs that test drain covers give them a rating based on the strength of the pump in the pool or spa where they'll be used. A pool's pump circulates water at a certain number of gallons per minute. Public children's wading pools, hot tubs, backyard pools and small motel pools, for instance, typically have pumps that move less than 100 gallons of water per minute, so a drain cover rated at 100 gallons per minute should be safe.

The AquaStar model had a listed flow rating of 100 gallons per minute, based on tests by a lab called IAPMO R&T. But testing by NSF International Engineering Laboratories for the standards committee chairman found it had a flow rating of zero, meaning it wouldn't work safely in any pools or spas, records show.

Committee chairman Leif Zars, who's been building pools for five decades and sells a different kind of drain cover, e-mailed the test report to the CPSC in March 2010, saying, "I was astonished to see this cover fail time and time again."

NSF, on its own, then ran additional tests on three more models and found they also had pump flow rates far below what IAPMO, its competitor, had certified. NSF reported the results on all four models to the American National Standards Institute, which accredits IAPMO as a product certifier, and alleged there was an imminent threat to the public.

As a result of those tests, in July the institute dispatched one of its technical assessors, Zars and three others to witness testing of those four drain covers at IAPMO.

The team found that IAPMO was using improper equipment, including pumps that didn't create the necessary vacuum forces, according to a standards institute report. The lab also tested drain covers as though they were suspended in water rather than mounted to the pool floor where the drain sits.

While the standard didn't spell this out, Zars said he thought it was "common sense" that a cover to be used on a drain in the floor of a pool should be tested as though it's mounted on the floor. "You have people who are trying to find ways over the fence, through the fence, around the fence, and legally we didn't close that door," he said.

When the tests were modified to address some of these concerns, three of the four drain covers -- the two made by AquaStar and one made by Afras Industries -- had lower flow ratings than what their labels stated, according to the standards institute report.The report, sent by the standards institute's technical assessor to the team that witnessed the testing, concluded: "The difference between a safe flow rate and a dangerous flow rate is substantial due to incorrect testing practices. The covers allowed for public use due to the original results could result in serious injuries and or death."

The standards institute now is distancing itself from that report. "Whether or not they're safe is beyond our purview," said Lane Hallenbeck, a vice president at the institute.

He said the document, labeled "Final Report," is not actually the final report, but he declined to release any later version because it is confidential. No such version was sent to the team that witnessed the tests.

In an effort to figure out which drain covers are safe and which aren't, the federal safety commission in September took the rare step of issuing subpoenas to the three testing labs allowed to certify drain covers, demanding not only the results on all drain covers but also how the tests were performed. The CPSC also hired a third lab, Northbrook, Ill.-based Underwriters Laboratories, to test drain covers but has not made those results public.

Russ Chaney, CEO of the IAPMO Group, said the drain covers his lab certified meet the safety standard and noted that labs could get different results depending on how they interpreted performance requirements. "The standards have to be written as clearly as possible so that the test labs can produce repeatable results," Chaney said.

Gary Duren, a pool safety engineer who was one of the witnesses to the standards institute's tests, said he has raised concerns about the "wiggle room" built into the pool-drain safety standard for years.

"I've seen a lot of fiascos in my days, but this one tops them all," said Duren, who has served as an expert for plaintiffs and defendants in entrapment cases. "Somebody's life is in danger on this. It's just a matter of time."

Reza Afshar, president of Afras Industries, dismissed the poor test results on his product as "totally off." He said IAPMO tested his drain cover many times and always found it complies with the law. The product has been on the market 30 years, he said, and has never been involved in an entrapment. 

AquaStar attorney Getzoff also said that IAPMO tests show its products comply with the law and that no one has ever been entrapped on any of its drain covers. 

But Tim McIntyre says he complained to AquaStar about just such a scenario in 2009. The California father said he decided to check out the effectiveness of the new drain covers on his condo association spa that February in Seal Beach, Calif., because he thought the long, flat drain covers from AquaStar didn't look as safe as the old, domed round ones.

So he dipped under water and placed himself over the drain cover. He got stuck for a moment, and although he was able to roll off, the suction force left bruises on his trunk in the shape of the drain cover. "It shocked the heck out of me," McIntyre said. 

The drain cover was one of two AquaStar models that delivered substandard test results. 

McIntyre said he complained to an AquaStar executive, who told him, "In order to block our drain you have to be 500 pounds." Ultimately, the condo association scaled back the power of the spa's pump to address the concerns, said McIntyre, who lets his kids use it. 

AquaStar's attorney said the drain cover, which is a different model than the one AquaStar stopped selling, worked well because McIntyre was able to roll off of it.

"The safety of the drain cover is not to prevent a hickey," Getzoff said. "It's to prevent a serious injury or death by allowing a person to immediately roll himself off the cover and come to the surface of the pool."

Pennington of the Pool Safety Council, who saw photos of McIntyre's injury in a CPSC report, said it's wrong to minimize bruising from entrapment as a "hickey."

"The children and adults who have died all had similar 'hickey' markings," he said.

How to Stay SafeFederal regulators have not completed their investigation of drain covers, so it's not clear yet which are safe and which aren't. In the meantime, here are some general ways to prevent entrapment in pools and spas:Teach children to stay away from drains, pipes and other openings.If you see a loose or broken drain cover, leave the water and let the owner know that the pool or spa should be shut down until it is fixed.

If you need to replace a drain cover, hire a professional to do it.

If your pool or spa is serviced, make sure the drain covers are replaced securely. 

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