Some lucky condos offer the benefits of an indoor or outdoor swimming pool for their residents; it’s a splashy amenity that many people request when looking for a home…but there are many drawbacks, issues, and liabilities that come with managing a pool.
Anyone who is considering living in a building with a pool—or thinking of running for the board of trustees in a building with a pool—should learn about safety measures and pool features before diving in.
Indeed, there are serious dangers involved with managing condo and HOA pools. From 2005 to 2007, there were 385 pool-related drownings for children younger than 15, and from 2007 to 2009, there were an average of 4,200 emergency department-treated submersions for children younger than the age of 15, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).
Shockingly, 54 percent of the injuries from 2007 to 2009 and 74 percent of the fatalities between 2005 and 2007 (involving children younger than 15) occurred at a residence.
“The standard of care today is that individuals who are responsible for the care of swimming pools and spas should have achieved a minimum education level,” says Thomas L. Lachocki, Ph.D., CEO of the National Swimming Pool Foundation (NSPF), a non-profit organization based in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
“The most common, the most respected and most widely accepted by health departments is the Certified Pool/Spa Operator Certification course. The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention issued the Model Aquatic Health Code at the end of summer 2014. This model is being considered by many health departments around the country. Operator training and many other operational and design factors are covered in this code.”
“Educating communities on the potential dangers of swimming pools is a critical tool in saving the lives of our children,” says Florida Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-23, the author of the Virginia Graeme Baker Pool and Spa Safety Act.
A Need for Change
The result of a tragic accident in June 2002, the Virginia Graeme Baker Pool and Spa Safety Act was introduced after suction from a Jacuzzi drain trapped the 7-year-old granddaughter of former Secretary of State James Baker III under water; it took two men to pull her from the drain, but it happened too late and she drowned.
Virginia’s mother, Nancy Baker, advocated for pool and spa safety and won support for a law requiring anti-entrapment drain covers and other safety devices. It was enacted by Congress and signed by President Bush in 2007, and became law in 2008. Experts believe anti-entrapment drain covers and sonar pool alarm systems provide additional safety. While items like the sonar alarms are optional, there are many potentially life-saving safety devices required across New England.
Maintaining Overflowing Costs
According to Brian Diglio, owner of Blue Wave Pool Supplies in Hamden, Connecticut, there are a number of key elements that property managers should focus on to help reduce liabilities at your pool. The two most important are proper insurance and knowledgeable, licensed technicians. The state of Connecticut requires a SP (swimming pool) license to perform work on pools and spas, so it’s important to make sure that the paper work technicians provide is accurate.
“Make sure to ask to see the service providers’ license,” says Diglio. “The state also has a home improvement registration number and sometimes people will think that’s a license number, but it’s not. There’s also an ongoing effort to test safety devices. All devices should be tested and sometimes they are not. For example: drain covers, maybe they were installed years ago. They have a service life. It may be time to test them; they don’t last forever. Depending on the manufacturer, the lifespan of a cover can range from three to seven years.” If an association isn’t sure of the installation date, it’s a good idea to change the cover, to be certain about being in compliance.
Massachusetts requires that all public and semi-public pools be under the supervision of a Certified Pool Operator (CPO) when the pool is opened, and then the supervisor is “required to visit the site at least once a week to ensure the pool is being operated in a safe and sanitary manner,” says Ryan O’Donnell of Continental Pools in Woburn, Massachusetts.
Pools and hot tubs operate 24-hours a day, seven days a week and require attention before swimmers enter the water, during their visit and after they leave.
According to experts, many pool systems are set to operate automatically, often with increased technological reliance on advanced computers and systems that give a false sense of security—so it is essential to have well-trained staff managing your pool. “The swimming pool, for any community, business, park, apartment complex, country club, gym, or school, is arguably the most dangerous amenity or structure on that property,” O’Donnell says. “The board of directors of a condo association faces the unenviable task of trying to better their community whilst pleasing their residents. Always keep in mind, the right solution, the safe solution, is typically the easiest to make, and the hardest to execute.”
“One of the most important things to make sure your pool is as safe as possible is to make sure your staff is properly trained in order to protect you from lawsuits,” says Trevor Sherwood, a NESPA (Northeast Spa and Pool Association) member who teaches pool operating classes in Connecticut. “A lot of states require that the pool technician is a certified operator. It’s also important to know the rules. Make sure all of your safety equipment is the proper stuff and your pool is up to code.”
While operating a pool is an expensive ordeal, there are ways to reduce costs, such as limiting the number of hours a pool is open, thus paying for fewer lifeguard hours. Insurance rates will go down, largely because such rates are determined by the number of hours the pool is in operation. In New England, peak hours of pool operation are typically from 12 p.m. to 8 p.m. during the week and from 11 p.m. to 7 p.m. on weekends and holidays.
And for safety’s sake, lifeguards are essential—though not always easy to find. “Hiring lifeguards for an outdoor pool in the northeast is challenging, to say the least,” O’Donnell says. “After all, an employer is looking for a low-dollar, seasonal (three-month) commitment for a very responsible job.”
It’s not surprising, therefore, that many pool owners like condo associations are turning to professional pool management companies to fill the position. “The difference between hiring one or two employees for the summer and 100 employees for the summer is obvious. Pool management companies are better equipped to deal with personnel issues, temporary or permanent, that a pool owner will undoubtedly face. Between having a surplus of staff, and being able to backfill with other certified and experienced employees, there is a far greater chance that your pool will remain open in the event of staff member attrition,” O’Donnell says.
Who’s in Charge?
In the New England area, the waters may seem murky when it comes to who exactly is responsible for enforcing pool safety rules. It can range from board members to property managers who are responsible for hiring pool operators. “Most pool owners aren’t just pool owners. They are condo boards of directors (volunteers), or community managers, with no specific knowledge or experience in the swimming pool industry,” O’Donnell notes. “This makes it very difficult to properly supervise, critique, and effect positive change in your swimming pool staff.”
“The Health Department is the main person who is going to be out in the field doing checks on the pool,” says Diglio. “One thing you need to remember is that these health officials do many other things besides checking pools. In Connecticut, each town has its own health department. As a condo owner, you can’t just rely on their knowledge on what needs to be done. You should really know some of the rules and regulations. A good start is to make sure that someone on staff has taken the certified pool operator class. There is a lot of information in that course,” which teaches individuals basic knowledge and techniques of pool and spa operations so they are able to maintain the pool and satisfy the state requirements. The CPO certification is valid for five years. (Learn more about the course and the requirements at www.pooloperationmanagement.)
In most cases, the pool operator completes daily operation records for the pool and keeps a record of those forms at the facility for 12 months. The records include everything from chlorine levels to water testing frequency, pH testing, water clarity, bather load, depth markings, cyanuric acid levels, and CPO required.
“A lot of times a condo association will just have a board member who will do certain things like checking daily test readings and emptying skimmer baskets,” says Diglio. “And they will outsource the pool maintenance and addition of chemicals to an outside company.”
The person managing the pool needs to know that bathrooms must be provided, except when bathrooms are available within 300 feet of the pool, or within one floor above or below the pool. All showers must reach a temperature of at least 90 degrees, and no more than 110 degrees, at a rate of at least 1½ gallons per minute per showerhead. These are all issues that the manager would handle…taking the headache away from the association itself.
And maintenance is an on-going concern. “In conjunction with their swimming pool management company, a condo association should be forecasting for repairs for at least a five year period,” O’Donnell adds. “Pools are like boats...you can only use them sometimes, you have to maintain them all the time, and they are very expensive. Off-season temps and precipitation are brutal on swimming pools and their components. Each year, there should be money budgeted for swimming pool repairs. A failure to properly plan, or to make necessary repairs over the years, can lead to major costly repairs down the road.
“We have seen pools that have had to close down, sometimes temporarily, sometimes permanently, due to a lack of a good plan, and a failure to properly maintain it over time. Also, the bigger the pool, the more you should budget.”
Danielle Braff is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to New England Condominium. Staff writer Christy Smith-Sloman contributed to this article.