by Sean Griffin, November 16, 2009
With endless possibilities and technological advances in pool lighting, more and more pools are being equipped with numerous lighting techniques. Not only does backyard and pool lighting add to the beauty of your backyard, it also helps create a safe environment. Proper lighting is important at night when owning a pool. Ambient lighting will ensure safety when walking around pool and underwater lighting will allow you to swim safely.
Lighting is provided by slowing down an electric current and herein lies the dilemma, bringing together electricity and pool water while maintaining a safety barrier and preventing property damage, bodily harm, and electrocutions. Although deaths by electrocution in swimming pools are not common, proper preventative steps should be taken to avoid adding to this easily preventable statistic. Following state mandated codes, having work done by professional electricians, and proper maintenance is a must.
According to the CPSC (Consumer Products Safety Commission), the biggest risks of electrocution in a swimming pool come from faulty underwater lighting, aging electrical wiring, sump pumps, power washers and vacuums that are not grounded, and electrical appliances and extension cords that fall into the water. The risk is especially apparent if lighting and circuits aren't protected by Ground-Fault Circuit-Interrupters (GFCIs), which are one of the best ways to prevent electrocution, CPSC says.
The CPSC recommends the installation of ground-fault circuit-interrupter protection for consumers against electrical shock hazards in pool underwater lighting circuits and in electric circuits of spas and hot tubs. A GFCI constantly monitors current flowing in a circuit to sense any loss of current. If the current flowing through two circuit conductors differs by a very small amount, the GFCI instantly interrupts the current flow to prevent a lethal amount of electricity from reaching the consumer. You might feel a shock but are not at risk of electrocution.
The National Electrical Code, Article 680 provides GFCI protection for lighting fixtures and receptacle outlets in the vicinity of the pool. However the code does not require GFCI protection for all electrical equipment. Older pools may not have adequate protection and should be updated. In particular pools older than 15-20 years may not have GFCI on underwater lighting circuits. Although grounding provides some protection GFCI should be used in combination for ensured protection.
The first step in avoiding electrocution in swimming pools is in preventative measures. Following code (some states, such as Maryland, mandate a 12 volt system be used in pool lighting), proper maintenance, and qualified professionals are key. The next step is having an emergency plan to follow if an accident does occur. Having an emergency plan (.pdf) in writing nearby and going over with your family can save lives. Electrocutions in bodies of water can also be dangerous to those who are trying to save a potential victim. Making sure you yourself do not become a conductor will increase the chances of survival for both the victim and the rescuer.
In case of an electrical emergency, the American Red Cross recommends turning off all power, using a fiberglass hook to carefully remove the victim from the water, administering CPR, and calling 911.
CPSC's Safety Tips For Preventing Electrocutions In and Around the Pool
- Know where all the electrical switches and circuit breakers for pool equipment and lights are located and how to turn them off in an emergency.
- Refrain from swimming before, during, or after thunderstorms.
- Have an electrician who is qualified in pool and spa repairs inspect and upgrade your pool, spa or hot tub in accordance with applicable local codes and the National Electrical Code (NEC).
- Ensure that all electrical wires and junction boxes are at least five feet away from water, as required by the NEC.
- Protect swimmers from injury by following the NEC requirements for installing GFCIs:
- on underwater lighting circuits operating at 120-volts (CPSC recommends GFCIs for circuits that are 15 volts or greater);
- on pumps and electrical equipment used with pools, spas and hot tubs, including heaters close to the pool and operated on 240 volt circuits;
- on electrical circuits around pools, spas, and hot tubs;
- on all outdoor receptacles and receptacles within 20 feet of the water's edge to protect people from injury.
- Test GFCIs monthly to assure continued protection. Infrequently used and portable or cord-connected GFCIs should be tested before each day's use. To test a GFCI:
- Plug a nightlight into the outlet and turn the nightlight on.
- Press the "TEST" button. Did the light go out? If not, replace the GFCI or have it inspected by an electrician.
- Press the "RESET" button. Did the light come back on? If not, replace the GFCI.
- Wear shoes while conducting the test, especially if outdoors or standing on wet ground.
- Use battery-operated appliances instead of cord-connected appliances in and around a pool, spa, or hot tub.
- Post an emergency plan within clear view of those using the pool.
- Ensure that overhead power lines and junction boxes are safely positioned when installing a new pool, hot tub or spa.
For more information about electrical safety around pools, hot tubs or spas, consumers should contact CPSC at (800) 638-2772 or www.cpsc.gov. Consumers also can view their publications, "Don't Swim With Shocks – Electrical Safety In and Around Pools, Hot Tubs and Spas," (pdf) and "Install Ground-Fault Circuit Interrupter Protection for Pools, Spas and Hot Tubs".