Lately, it seems the only news we hear involving facility construction and aquatics management relates to the enactment and enforcement of the Virginia Graeme Baker Pool and Spa Safety Act.

By some accounts, approximately 40 percent of aquatics facilities nationwide have complied with the new legislation as new and innovative product solutions have been (and still are) being introduced into the market. That means the remaining 60 percent of pool builders and facility managers must work quickly to bring their facilities into compliance.

But in their haste to comply, some important and basic water-quality management rules have been forgotten. Consider a new, commonly used phrase that’s recently entered our vocabulary — “swapping plastic.” This term refers to simply changing an existing suction outlet cover with a new VGB-certified cover. However, merely “swapping plastic” has become a catalyst for other problems.

Guidelines for flow rates, sump design and other considerations have been fully outlined within the law. But some have perceived these guidelines as nuances, resulting in negative press, water-quality issues — and even entrapment risks on improperly installed VGB-certified covers.

For example, one of the largest cities in Florida recently was forced to close three of its public pools due to problems that arose from efforts to comply with the VGB. To the city's credit, the necessary steps were taken to replace existing covers with approved products. However, the city's actions addressed only part of the legislation and resulted in another equally serious problem, which stemmed from the attempted retrofitting.

The VGB-certified covers the city installed to achieve compliance were undersized and did not allow the correct flow to filter the water properly. By exceeding the maximum flow rate (as required to be stamped on each cover), the grates were no longer certified as tested, thereby rendering the facility out of compliance. Moreover, by installing a cover that had a substantially reduced flow rate, the city caused an equally hazardous situation of unsafe water chemistry.

An important part of the testing that determines whether a cover is certified depends on the velocity at which the water flows through the grate. Body entrapment and hair entanglement, two of the five forms of entrapment, are directly related to the cover's maximum allowable flow rate, sump configuration and associated piping. Installing a cover with a flow rate less than needed and operating the pool at a higher velocity completely negates the certification and approval of the cover.

State and local health departments require a certain turnover rate for a pool or spa. This allows proper filtration and disinfection of the water. The turnover rate is simply the time it takes for every gallon of water in a swimming pool or spa to be cycled through the filtration system while the water is being chemically balanced. This rate varies from 15 minutes for a spa to six hours for a lap or diving pool. The label given to submerged suction outlet covers defines the role they play in the recirculation of large amounts of water in such a short time.

For existing pools, an evaluation from a design professional should be performed to match the compliant cover with the turnover rate of the pool being retrofitted. Another factor in determining whether a cover is properly sized is the depth and size of the sump and associated piping. Without a complete evaluation of these three elements, the suction outlet cover may not meet the intent of the law and actually create additional hazards.

In new construction, most design teams are specifying complete grate and sumps that were tested as a single system. With the focus of the certification process being on entrapment, fasteners and flow rates, a complete system eliminates the need for any other type of field approval or sign-off.  For the design-build contractor, a single system eliminates the need to source a design professional for the necessary approvals because the liability rests on the shoulders of the manufacturer.

The Virginia Graeme Baker Pool and Spa Safety Act was written to regulate commercial pools and spas. Because the law prohibits the manufacturing, distribution, and sale of noncompliant products within the United States, the certified covers eventually will make their way into the residential market. Though products are becoming more available for almost all situations, in the end, the overall costs associated with bringing a pool or facility into compliance can be a large undertaking.

It is important to avoid those who are exploiting the law and are only interested in “swapping plastic.” As with any update or repair needed for a pool, doing the necessary homework and hiring a reputable company can save time and money.

Even more important is ensuring that the replacement covers are properly manufactured and in line with the intent of the new legislation. This will give facility operators the peace of mind that comes from knowing that their pools will provide a safe and enjoyable experience for everyone.