Piecing Together The Regulations: What You Need to Know.

Whether you already have a pool and are getting ready to open up for the season, looking to purchase a home that has a pool, or are just in the planning stage and trying to make sure you have all the bases covered, it’s important to know the federal, state and local rules and regulations that apply to the ownership and operation of swimming pools.  This is a primer to make you aware of the various requirements that apply to residential private pools, the regulations that apply to public swimming and bathing facilities are much more extensive.

So what do you need to know?  Here goes:

  1. Federal Law. The most prominent federal statute that applies to all swimming pools is the Virginia Graeme Baker Pool & Spa Safety Act (VGBPSSA), which specifically addresses the requirements for the design of drains and drain covers to avoid suction entrapment, and also instructs states to adopt regulations for barriers (e.g., fencing) around swimming pools and spas. These requirements took effect on December 19, 2008, so the good news for homeowners is that pools constructed after this date very likely have drain systems and covers that meet the statutory criteria.  However, for pools constructed prior to December of 2008, homeowners should have their pools inspected by a qualified pool inspector to determine whether the drain systems and covers comply with the VGBPSSA.  Also, if your drain covers are cracked or damaged, they need to be replaced, regardless of when they were originally installed.
  1. State Law. Pennsylvania has formally adopted both the 2015 International Building Codes (that include requirements for electrical, mechanical and plumbing systems for swimming pools and spas) and the 2015 International Swimming Pool and Spa Code (ISPSC).  Chapter 3 of the 2015 ISPCS contains specific requirements for private pools and spas, and covers a wide variety of topics, ranging from materials and testing procedures, energy consumption and physical barrier requirements to equipment, water circulation and ingress/egress features.  The pool contractor you hire needs to be familiar with all these requirements, or have specialty subcontractors (such as licensed electricians and plumbers) who have this knowledge.
  1. Local/Municipal Regulations. These are the zoning and land development ordinances that have been enacted by the township or municipality where you live, as well as the various permitting and inspection requirements for new construction or alterations.  These ordinances can include property line setback restrictions, use and impervious coverage limitations, and stormwater management and landscaping requirements.  Unlike federal and state laws and regulations, these regulations are not uniform, but vary with each township, borough or municipality (and possibly within each zoning district), so your pool contractor needs to carefully review these ordinances to make sure your swimming pool complies with all of these requirements when planning a new swimming pool or spa.
  1. Planned Community Restrictions. Last but not least, for those living in planned residential communities who are thinking about putting in a pool or spa on their private lot, you need to check the document that created your planned community (called the Declaration) to see if there are restrictions upon, or specific requirements for, the installation of swimming pools and spas.  This document is different from the architectural regulations adopted by the homeowner’s association, which can be changed or waived by the HOA, but is similar to a deed restriction that cannot be removed except by amending the Declaration.  This is not something your pool contractor or pool inspector is expected to know or look into, but you or a qualified consultant will have to research.

This is only a brief overview of the various forms of legal regulations to be aware of as a pool owner.  So long as you put together a good checklist of items to consider, and follow through to make sure you don’t overlook these requirements, you’ll be fine.  We can help you put all this together.

Some final points on this topic:

  • Regulations Can Always be More Restrictive, But Never More Lenient. It’s a simple concept: from federal→state→municipal, each lower-tier level of government can impose greater restrictions relating to health, safety and welfare, but they cannot eliminate or waive requirements imposed by higher-level authorities.  By the same token, just because your pool complies with federal and state law standards, you cannot use that fact to avoid having to comply with the more restrictive local regulations.
  • Municipal Code Enforcement Officers Conduct Limited Permit Inspections. While some local code enforcement officers may have a good working knowledge of pool-specific state codes and regulations, you should not expect them to perform an exhaustive review of your pool or spa plans to make sure all applicable code requirements are satisfied and point out all the things that were missed or incorrect, particularly if those elements are not part of the local ordinance requirements. So it is vitally important that you, your pool contractor and any other consultants you employ accept that responsibility and make sure all these requirements are accounted for.