Be prepared to spend some extra money next year if you live in a condo complex or community with a pool.
A new federal safety law that went into effect last month requires new drain covers to be installed in most of Florida's 37,000 public pools. The upgrade could cost from hundreds to thousands of dollars per pool - an expense that, in most cases, will be shared by the condo residents or homeowners.
"We have no idea yet how much it will be, but it's going to cost these people a fortune," said Joanne Jackson, a vice president with CenWest, the private company that manages the recreational facilities for South Florida's four Century Village retirement communities. "They will have to drain the pools down to do the installation."
The federally approved covers, which are domed instead of flat, are designed to prevent swimmers from being trapped underwater by drain suction. The Consumer Product Safety Commission logged 74 entrapment cases from 1999 through 2007, with nine fatalities.
The 2007 Virginia Graeme Baker Pool and Spa Safety Act, passed by Congress last year, required all public pools and spas have the covers installed by Dec. 19. Single family homes with pools are exempt. Almost one-fifth of Florida's affected pools also may need to replace their circulation systems if they have older, direct suction models.
The federal Consumer Product Safety Commission plans to work with state health departments and attorney general offices on compliance checks and enforcement, as it has limited staff. The South Florida office, in Miami, has one investigator.
"People need to know they are beyond the deadline. There is a renewed urgency for them to act if this is the first time they are hearing about the law," said CPSC spokesman Scott Wolfson.
Wolfson advised associations to first check with reliable pool installers and service companies, certified by the state, to do the upgrades. The CPSC has received reports of contractors trying to scare consumers into doing unnecessary work with tales of huge potential fines. Wolfson said the agency will consider, case by case, compliance obstacles associations may be facing, and is aware that there is "significant backlog" in orders for the new covers.
Regulators first will concentrate on wading pools, kiddie pools and spas, said Wolfson, because young children are the ones most likely to be injured or die in entrapment accidents. The act is named for former presidential adviser James Baker's 7-year-old granddaughter, who was killed in 2002 when she was trapped by a whirlpool drain.
Exactly how the act will be enforced still is being worked out among federal and state agencies.
The Florida Department of Health is drafting new state regulations that will incorporate the federal changes and be effective later this year. But Bob Vincent, assistant bureau chief with the state's Bureau of Water Programs, said the federal law, which supersedes state statutes, technically is valid now and pool owners "need to be pursuing getting a drain cover or have one in."
Pools serving between two and five residences and those in condo complexes with fewer than 32 units, which previously were exempted under state rules, are included in the pool safety act.
Health inspectors, who check public pools twice yearly, will be looking at covers and drains, Vincent said.
Jim Ellul, commercial service consultant for Pool Service America in Miami, said the majority of the company's South Florida clients have the new covers. The company is recommending those that aren't compliant close their pools or spas until they upgrade. "It's a matter of health and safety, not just liability," Ellul said.
Attorney Ken Direktor, chairman of Becker & Poliakoff's community association practice, agreed that liability issues could be "exacerbated" if a swimmer was injured in a noncompliant pool. But so far, he isn't recommending closures.
Financing mandatory pool retrofitting will be a "daunting process" during the economic downturn, Direktor said, with more than 20 percent of the units in some communities in foreclosure.
Stanley Siegel, a resident of Boca Raton's Century Village and chairman of a committee that works with the complex's management, said the retirement community's 18 pools remained open "because we haven't received any directive to close them. And we don't have many children that use them."
After cost estimates come in, "we will have to see if we have enough funds in reserve," Siegel said. "If not, we'll have to see about getting the money."
Almost all Florida pools and spas in condominiums, homeowner association communities, health clubs and hotels must be fitted with new safety-rated domed drain covers immediately.
Older pools and spas with direct suction drains may need new drainage systems as well.
Single family homeowners with pools and spas should replace outdated drain covers for safety reasons, even if not required to do so by law.
Approved covers should be stamped: ASME/ANSI A112.19.8.
New covers must be put in by state-registered pool installers and service companies in order to comply. To check a license, go to: http://www.myfloridalicense.com/. Or call 1-850-487-1395.
For more information: The federal Consumer Product Safety Commission. Go to http://www.cpsc.gov/ and type "pool/spa" into the search field. Or call 800-638-2772.
How to prevent entrapment
Do not lean your body against a drain or put your hands or feet near a drain
Swimmers with long hair should wear a bathing caps, or at least tie back their hair.
Don't swim in pools or spas with loose, broken or missing drain covers.
If the water isn't clear enough to see the pool drain, don't get in.
Know where the main switches are for pool and spa pumps, so you can quickly turn them off.