Hidden Dangers Lurking in Your Pool: Pool Drain Risks and Safety Measures

Not many activities at home beat the enjoyment of playing, swimming, and relaxing in your backyard pool on a hot summer day. But, as with most activities, there’s a risk element; in a pool, that risk is getting into difficulties and possibly drowning. One way this may happen is if a swimmer gets trapped by the main drain at the bottom of the pool. Can that happen? Are pool drains dangerous?

Pool drains that comply with federal regulations are not dangerous. But those that are the pool’s only drainage point or have defective or damaged covers can entrap swimmers, particularly children, in several ways, causing severe injury or death by drowning as they cannot free themselves.

Key Takeaways

  • Entrapment Dangers: Risks include hair, limb, and body entrapment, with extreme cases like disembowelment due to faulty or damaged drain designs.
  • Unsafe Drain Features: Dangers arise from single outlet drains, flat covers with large holes, or missing covers, leading to increased entrapment risks.
  • Virginia Graeme Baker Act (VGBA): This U.S. law mandates safety standards like anti-vortex covers and dual drains to prevent entrapment.
  • Owner Safety Measures: Essential to replace drain covers regularly, install anti-entrapment covers, and know emergency power shut-off procedures.
  • Drain Necessity: Main drains aid in cleaning and circulation but are not legally required; skimmers can be effective alternatives in smaller pools.
  • Old vs. New Pools: Modern pools with compliant drains are safe; older pools may still pose risks due to outdated drain systems.

Deaths caused by being trapped at the main drain are thankfully a thing of the past, with statistics showing no such deaths recorded for many years. From 1999-2007, however, there were 74 reported entrapments, including 9 drownings. The reason is that stringent regulations were implemented in 2008 to prevent such horrific events. We’ll look at these and how to prevent any of these accidents from ever occurring in your pool.

What Are The Dangers Associated With Pool Drains?

Like me, I’m sure you’re acutely aware of the risks when your young children are in the pool and how vital it is to always watch them vigilantly. If your pool has a main drain at the deepest point, there are several entrapment situations that can happen in seconds:

  • Hair Entrapment: If the drain cover is faulty or incorrectly designed, long hair can easily be drawn into the drain and entangled in the cover.
  • Body Entrapment: If a part of the body covers the drain’s opening and prevents water from flowing into it, the suction will prevent the swimmer from escaping.
  • Limb entrapment: Without the correct cover over the drain, the small foot, arm, or leg of a child can get pulled into the drain, and the suction is too much for them to overcome.
  • Disembowelment/Evisceration: Sitting on the drain can result in a horrendous situation where the person’s intestines and organs are literally sucked out of their body.
  • Mechanical entrapment: The swimmer’s loose T-shirt or part of their swimming costume can get entangled in a faulty drain cover.
A pool drain cover not safely secured
Unsecured pool drain cover may pose a safety hazard

The Consumer Product Safety Commission has reported that the suction power in a main drain that has been totally blocked can reach 300 lbs per square inch, which leaves a child and even an adult powerless to escape should they get trapped.

What Makes A Pool Drain Unsafe?

An unsafe drain is one where any of the entrapments I outlined are possible. The most likely reason is that the cover is incorrectly designed, with a flat surface and large holes, or that it has become damaged with some parts missing, allowing objects to enter the drain and get entangled. In the worst case, the cover may be missing altogether.

Another situation where the drain is unsafe is when it’s the only outlet for the pool water. A second suction point will effectively reduce the pressure by compensating for the blockage in the first one, should it occur, and make it easier to break free.

Safe Pool Drains – The Virginia Graeme Baker Safety Act

After the 2002 drowning in a hot tub drain of 7-year-old Virginia Graeme Baker and the 2007 evisceration of 6-year-old Abigail Taylor at a public swimming pool, Graeme’s mother was the moving force in getting a federal Act passed aimed at making all pools and spas safe, and aimed, too, at educating parents on the importance of vigilance around a pool.

Besides regulations covering pool fencing and other safety measures, the Act (VGBA) laid down specifications for pool drain covers, vacuum release valves, and drain design, effectively making pool drains unblockable. No entrapment deaths have been recorded since the law became effective in 2008.

Safe pool drains are those that have complied with the provisions of VGBA, which stipulate that the drain covers must be compliant and at least one of the other measures must be present:

A pool drain cover compliant with the Virginia Graeme Baker Act
Drain cover meeting VGBA safety standards

Flat grates must be replaced with raised anti-vortex drain covers that are raised and usually dome-shaped. These covers also have smaller openings, making it impossible for things to get caught in them. It’s also essential that the drain cover is installed correctly and firmly attached at all times, but if this is done, these covers are the best way to prevent entrapment.

Dual Main Drain: Two separate drains, connected by a Tee fitting and at least three feet apart. This ensures that a person cannot block both drains simultaneously. If one drain is blocked, suction shifts to the other drain.

Vacuum Release Valve: Connected to the pool pump, sensors in the plumbing will detect if vacuum pressure increases beyond a set limit, and if so, the pump is immediately switched off.

These measures apply to public pools as legal requirements. They are just as crucial for residential pools, spas, and hot tubs but are not required by law. When it comes to protecting your family, though, it shouldn’t even be a question – just do it.

Safety First – More Measures To Make Your Drain Safe

Replace your old drain system: If you have a main drain that is not safe, replace or modify it. That may be an expensive exercise, but it can also be relatively cheap if, for instance, you add a skimmer to the drainage system so that you have two suction points.

a blue pool with a mosaic tile design and a central drain cover
a shimmering blue pool with the mosaic tiles and drain cover

Install new anti-entrapment drain covers. Drain covers must be replaced every five years in terms of the VGBA. It’s a small price to pay to ensure your children never get trapped by a faulty drain cover.

Know how to switch off power to your pool. Know exactly where the switch is located to turn off power to your pool pump in the case of an emergency.

Does My Pool Require A Main Drain?

It’s not a legal requirement for any pool to have a submerged suction system, or in other words, a main drain in the floor of the pool.

Advantages Of A Main Pool Drain

While not an essential part of the filtration system, a main drain does have benefits. Firstly, it’s effective in keeping the pool floor free of dirt and debris, and secondly, it allows you to drain the pool completely if you have to, without the need for a sump pump. In a larger pool, a main drain will assist in water circulation, particularly at the deep end, to ensure efficient filtration and chemical dispersion.

In a small pool, though, two skimmers will provide sufficient circulation, and even one skimmer is enough for a pool with less than 400 square feet of surface area.

Final Thoughts on The Danger of Pool Drain

Pool drains indeed were dangerous, and older pools may still have drains that don’t conform to VGB specifications and remain capable of entrapping swimmers, with disastrous consequences, including serious injury and death. Modern pools, with correctly installed drains, approved drain covers, and built-in safety measures, are perfectly safe, which is borne out by the absence of entrapment drownings since 2008.