How to Enjoy Summer with a Safe Swimming Pool Electrical System

a sunset over a tropical residential pool - electrical pool safety tips

With more than 10.7 million residential pools in the U.S., many homeowners safely enjoy a dip in a residential pool each year. Unfortunately, there have been times where pools and electricity have mixed in dangerous ways. 

“We tend to see tragedies occur when there is some piece of the safety system that was compromised,” says Jeff Sargent, principal electrical specialist with the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). 

How can you make sure your home pool or hot tub is safe to enjoy this (and every) summer? Jeff shared with us important tips to help you identify potential electrical safety issues with your pool and tips for ensuring that it’s safe to use. 

What happens when electricity meets water?

An electric current in a pool or hot tub can create a dangerous and potentially deadly situation, leading to electric shock drowning (ESD). ESD severely injures and kills people every year; however, it’s important to note the difference between electrocution and ESD.

“Electrocution is where the current goes through a person’s body to the point where it stops a vital organ, such as the heart,” says Jeff.

This occurs when a person comes in contact with energized electrical components. With ESD, there is still an electric current involved, but the results are different.

“[The swimmer] is not receiving a severe enough shock to have a physiological effect, like the stopping of the heart,” says Jeff. “It is disabling muscular control.”

A swimmer may suffer from paralysis and may not be able to swim or stay afloat, resulting in drowning. The current doesn’t even need to be large since as little as 10 milliamps or 1/50th the amount used by a 60-watt light bulb can cause ESD. 

In the event you believe someone may be suffering ESD, turn the power off to the pool, throw a life ring, and call 9-1-1. Never enter the water as you can become a victim, too.

How to test pool water for electricity

Unfortunately, there are no visible signs of electrified water, but there are a few indications of electrical issues, which can lead to a current in the water. One of the most frequent signs is the flickering of an underwater light.

a repairman fixing a pool light - swimming pool electrical system
Beware of flickering underwater lights.

“It should be checked to make sure it’s not an electrical connection that’s come loose,” says Jeff.

Though the issue may only be a loose bulb, it’s important to make sure you understand why that pool light is flickering since it may be dangerous.

Another warning sign is the feeling of tingling in the water.

“That’s certainly a sign that there’s electrical current in the water and a problem with your pool wiring,” says Jeff.

This creates what is known as “circles of electrical current”. When swimming through it, pool-goers become an extended conductor from their hands to their feet. This can lead to a dangerous and potentially deadly situation for swimmers.

How to prevent a ESD and unsafe pool conditions

The very first way to help prevent ESD and unsafe pool conditions is to use a knowledgeable and qualified professional who is familiar with the pool wiring code requirements to install your pool’s electrical system. After the pool is installed, an electrical inspector will check to make sure the installation was done properly and is up to code.

The second way is to maintain your swimming pool’s electrical system.

This can be difficult as pools can last upwards of 20 years and endure extreme conditions.  

“Pools and hot tubs, particularly outside, are subject to a fairly harsh environment – the sun and corrosive pool chemicals,” says Jeff. “Those all have an impact on the electrical installation.”

While your pool’s electrical system may be functional, keeping it functioning safely is imperative.

“Owners need to be very familiar with the safety components of their pool or hot tub and make sure they stay in good working order.”

If homeowners do not hire a professional pool technician to perform routine pool maintenance, they will need to complete the tasks themselves. This may require them to disconnect the motor and put parts away for the winter (if one lives up north where pools must be “closed”).

“Little things can happen like the ground prong gets broken off when plugging the cord into a receptacle,” says Jeff. “The motor still works, but that safety feature is gone.”

That’s why it’s important to keep a pool’s system maintained and operating safely.

“A system that’s put in and maintained per the requirements within the National Electrical Code® (NEC®) is a safe system,” says Jeff.

5 electrical safety measures that may save a life

There are five easy tasks that can help you prevent an electrical safety issue from happening in your pool.

1. Know where the pool breakers are.

NEC® sets the standard for having local switches and/or the means to turn off the power to the pool’s motors and heaters. However, the surest way to turn the power off to your pool equipment is to know where the circuit breakers are. They could be in the main panel that comes in from the utility or in a sub-panel that has been installed exclusively to power the pool equipment.

“Make sure you can get to the breakers quickly if necessary and have them labeled,” says Jeff, “so you know exactly what you’re turning off.”

2. Make sure you have GFCIs installed where you need them.

An outdoor GFCI as part of a swimming pool electrical system
Al outdoorl outlets should be GFCIs.

You should also have GFCIs installed around your pool area. GFCIs or ground fault circuit interrupters have helped to save thousands of lives by preventing electrocution. (“The GFCIs are what stand between you and electric shock hazards,” says Jeff.) These outlets should be installed in areas of the home that are prone to electric shock exposures, such as the kitchen, bathrooms, basement, and of course, the pool area.

“There are a number of electrical code requirements that mandate the use of GFCIs,” explains Jeff. “For instance, the pump motor and the underwater lights.”

Make sure they are working, and if they do trip, there’s generally a reason.

Explains Jeff, “Some people will say, ‘Oh, it’s a nuisance trip,’ but GFCIs are very reliable. Typically if it trips, it’s recognizing something that is not working properly and is providing the protection that it’s designed to provide.”

Listen to your GFCI and see if you can find where that problem exists. When in doubt, contact a qualified electrical professional. Also, test your GFCIs to ensure they are working properly.

“The homeowners themselves should take a look at these things on a regular basis to make sure everything is functional,” says Jeff. “Most GFCI manufacturers recommend testing your GFCIs monthly.”

3. Keep your electrical devices, including your phones and speakers, a safe distance away.

Of course, you can’t keep underwater pool lights from touching water, but the swimming pool electrical code requires distance between any electrical outlet, device (TVs and radios), outdoor refrigerators, etc., and the pool. The Consumer Product Safety Commission recommends a 10-foot distance.

Pool owners should also be aware that in bare feet, especially on a wet surface, they’re more prone to shocks. This is especially important if one of the devices near the pool has a “leakage current” or stray voltage.

“The recommendation is to be very judicious about what you put out there for appliances,” says Jeff. “Also, when using extension cords, make sure those are plugged into a GFCI.”

Though Bluetooth speakers operate at a safer voltage level than a stereo plugged into a 120-volt outlet, battery-operated devices, especially battery-operated tools, can be dangerous.

“Just because it’s battery operated doesn’t mean it’s necessarily safe,” says Jeff.

4. Get your pool’s electrical system inspected regularly.

A professional inspecting a hot tub
Use professionals for inspections and service.

While there’s no timetable for continued electrical inspections for your pool or hot tub, homeowners who recently purchased a house with an existing pool and/or hot tub should have these items and their electrical system inspected. This can help to ensure all its safety components are present and functional. Then, homeowners should consider hiring a qualified electrician to inspect the pool or hot tub about every five years.

5. Hire a qualified electrician to inspect your pool equipment.

NFPA uses the term “qualified electrician” and not “licensed electrician” because not every state has a licensing program. The professional should also be experienced in swimming pool installations since not all electricians have the specialized expertise or knowledge. Swimming pool electrical system installations and inspections are beyond the expertise of most handymen and should absolutely not be completed by the homeowners themselves.

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