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Electrical problems common in older pools

According to Patrick Jackson, Plumbing and Electrical Division Manager for Alan Smith Pool Plastering, Inc., located in Orange, California, most residential pools have electrical hazards and violations. 

For more than 30 years, Alan Smith Pool Plastering has been in the business of renovation and new construction, and has completed tens of thousands of projects. Jackson has been with the company since 2011, and, conducts electrical safety inspections prior to and after the completion of commercial and residential renovations. 

Among other things, Jackson does continuity testing, to verify that pools are properly bonded. He checks for stray voltage in the water itself. He checks GFCI functionality. In general, he verifies that pools are up to the National Electric Code.

And he says most of his pre-site inspections turn up glaring NEC violations. Some of these pools are regularly serviced and maintained by professional service technicians. 

Many of the replacement equipment installations Jackson sees are not electrically bonded. Many are lacking GFCI protection. It is not uncommon for him to find that the water has a little stray current.

This summer, the staff of Service Industry News accompanied Jackson to his pre-site inspections. We wanted to see what the experts look for in an electrical inspection. But in particular, we wanted to be able to tell pool and spa service professionals how they can begin to create an electrical safety checklist at the pools they service. The staff of Alan Smith Pool Plastering was more than willing to help as they see potential danger areas all too often.

The pools we went to see were all scheduled for renovation and replastering. It should be emphasized that these were largely cosmetic remodels; in most cases, the pools were full and the equipment functional. The pools were clean, apparently well maintained, and were beautifully landscaped. 

Their owners clearly took pride in their backyards, and to an untrained eye, they looked great. 

But they were all unsafe.

Jackson knows what to look for, and he was quick to point out the problems. Over the course of three days, Jackson drove us all over Southern California, beginning in Orange County, and venturing into some cities in Los Angeles. All in all, we visited perhaps 15 residential swimming pools. 

Not one of them was properly bonded. All of them had electrical hazards. All had NEC code violations

On a sunny day in June, we drove to three residential pools in upscale coastal neighborhoods. Jackson explained to the homeowners that he wanted to do electrical safety tests prior to their scheduled remodels. 

In Newport Coast, we saw a nice looking residential pool. Upon entering the backyard, Jackson pointed out that the ornamental lights for lighting up the landscaping were too close to the pool. 

“They need to be five feet from the water,” Jackson said, citing NEC code.

At the equipment pad, Jackson pointed out the bonding wire, emerging from the ground. We looked behind the pump, at the bonding lug located there. It was not connected to the bonding wire, as it should have been. Jackson said that the pump had likely been replaced and that whoever had disconnected the bond wire to the original pump had neglected to reconnect it to the new pump. 

To novices such as us, it seemed easy to understand why the installer might have made such an error. A bond wire emerges from the earth just like a rusty-looking coat hanger. It looks entirely useless – one might, in fact, be tempted to snip it off at the ground to avoid tripping over it while walking around the equipment pad.

However, Jackson explained that the barrier between the pump motor and the pump can be as thin as 1/8 of an inch. If a fault occurred, current could get into the pool through the returns. 

“That’s 220 volts, potentially in the water, all from break in a little grommet that can get worn,” Jackson said, adding, “This is a major screw-up. If something happened, the homeowners could sue the installer.”

We looked at the automation unit – also not bonded. But Jackson noted that it was not functional anyhow, and the wires had been left uncapped in the breaker box. 

We checked the GFCI to the pool lights. Jackson turned the pool lights on and then tripped the GFCI. The lights turned off. Good.

We checked the equipotential bonding. Jackson has a continuity-testing flashlight. It is a yellow, standard looking flashlight, except it has two insulated wires that come from the end cap, each terminating with alligator clamps. Similar continuity-testing flashlights can be found online for $20 to $30. 

Jackson also had a long length of wire that he used to extend the reach of his flashlight. He attached one lead to the bonding wire coming from the ground, and touched the other lead to the J-Box. The flashlight came on. That passed. 

Our second pool was in Fountain Valley. The neighborhood was nice, with beautiful houses and well manicured gardens and lawns in front of every house. This pool was scheduled for nothing more than a replastering job, although the existing plaster seemed to be in pretty good shape. 

Upon entering the pool area, Jackson observed the first offense. The Magnalatch safety gate did not self-close. 

We walked to the equipment pad, and Jackson noted that it had a new heater, and two pumps. One of the pump motors had been replaced, Jackson said. He could tell because the motor housing was a different color than the pump. We looked behind the equipment, and could see that the heater was bonded to the bond wire coming out of the earth. Then Jackson pointed out a second offense: the pumps were bonded to each other, but to nothing else.

“It’s totally useless, like this,” Jackson said. “Whoever installed the new heater cut the bonding from the heater to the pump.”

He then observed that there was no GFCI to the pumps. He explained that when this motor had originally been installed, it was not required to have GFCI breakers to the pumps.

“GFCI protection is required for pump motors, but it wasn’t really enforced until Title 22,” Jackson said, referring to a California Code of Regulations that was amended in 2015.

Jackson explained that in some cases, a GFCI breaker will not fit in the existing breaker box, and it will need a new subpanel to accommodate it. 

“We simply won’t replace a pump unless we can put a GFCI breaker in the box. It’s code,” Jackson said.

But sometimes homeowners refuse to install the breaker because of the price. Jackson said he could not believe that people would reject the improvement over $275.

“It’s not for the money that we insist – it’s for safety. Because we ‘own’ it after that. And then I can sleep at night,” Jackson said.

Our last stop was at a pool in beautiful Huntington Beach that was scheduled to be replastered. 

Inspecting the equipment pad, Jackson noted that everything had been replaced since the pool’s original construction. Looking behind the pump, filter and heater, we could see for ourselves that nothing was bonded at all. We found the bond wire sticking out of the ground, lying uselessly on the dirt. 

Jackson walked over to the J-Box, intending to begin a continuity test, and quickly realized that the brass conduit that he would normally touch with the leads on his flashlight had been replaced with PVC. 

“The J-box has been cut out of the equipotential grid,” he said. This was his first thought, but to confirm, he opened the J-box. Seeing a bonding wire within, he attached one of his leads to that wire and the other lead to the bond wire sticking out of the ground at the equipment pad. The flashlight lit up.

“The bonding is good, but this brass J-box is not approved for use with PVC conduit,” Jackson said.

He tested the GFCI to the pool light by turning the light on and touching reset on the GFCI. The pool light went off. Good.

At this pool, as well as each of the pools we visited that were still filled with water, Jackson ran a Shock Alert unit around the perimeter of the pool. 

Shock Alert is a voltage detector for water. It is a lightweight (~2 lbs) yellow unit, about 8 inches across, with a light that flashes red LED warning lights if voltage is present. It also has audio indicators that beep with increasing intensity as it moves closer to a voltage source. It comes with a rope and the user drops the unit into the water, and then slowly drags the unit around the circumference of the pool.

Jackson uses this unit at every pool he visits. If Shock Alert goes off near a pool light, it is a problem. If it goes off near a return, he said that it is a pump seal problem.

Fortunately, the unit did not go off at any of the 15 pools that we visited, but Jackson said that he generally does detect electricity in someone’s pool at least once a month. 

Each of the 15 pools that we visited did have some pretty major violations to the code. A lack of GFCI to the equipment is a big no-no and terribly dangerous. Lack of bonding: not acceptable, and also dangerous. 

And, according to Jackson, most of the problems he sees happened when an old piece of equipment is replaced.

“A lot of people just don’t know what they are doing, and the reason why it’s important,” Jackson said.

Look forward to more stories from our field trips with Jackson, from Alan Smith’s Pool Plastering. Everyone can benefit from electrical safety. 

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