By Steven H. Miller
Sometimes a fence is more than just a boundary, it’s a lifesaver. The family swimming pool, that little backyard slice of paradise, is also a life-threatening hazard. A pool safety fence is all that stands between small children and sudden death, making it one of the most critical jobs a fence installer can do.
Drowning is the leading cause of accidental death in children under five years old. Many of these tragic accidents occur in backyard pools that are left accessible to toddlers, sometimes only for a few moments. Almost as terrible are the near-drownings, when children fall in the water and are submerged long enough to suffer oxygen deprivation that can result in irreversible brain damage. For a fencing contractor, learning to install a high-performing pool fence system is both a professional and moral obligation.
Know The Law
Residential pool fences – the typical back yard pool or spa – are often designed by the fencing contractor. It is imperative for him to know the applicable code requirements, the underlying safety concepts, and the materials that are available to make a safe fence system. Commercial or institutional pools – generally large-scale projects – are usually designed by an architect or landscape architect, including the pool fence system. Nonetheless, the contractor should know the code (which may be different from the residential code) as a double-check on the designer. If there is an accident and the fence is not code-compliant, or is in some other way hazardous, the contractor could be legally liable. Knowing the law is a must.
For a contractor who has mostly done perimeter fencing, the move to pool fencing may include more code requirements than he’s used to. The International Building Code (IBC) and the International Residential Code (IRC) have basic safety requirements defining fence and gate characteristics. Many states have enacted pool fence laws that are adopted from the IBC or IRC but with significant modifications. Laws vary from state to state. Local jurisdictions, both counties and municipalities, have added their own modifications to the codes, and in some places, residential and commercial codes vary considerably.
Know the codes for the specific jurisdiction of any pool-fence you install.
Know your state law and check the appropriate city and county websites.
A quick comparison of laws from pool-rich states like California and Florida reveals some common themes of pool safety fencing.
Who Needs A Pool Fence?
Are pool fences only needed in households where children live? Or should every pool have a fence?
According to Thomas Court, Customer Experience Manager for AFA member D&D Technologies (a leading manufacturer of pool gate safety hardware), the best answer is that laws may vary on this point, but any homeowner with a pool would be well-advised to put up a code-compliant fence around it. First, children may visit the home, and if that happens, there’s no time to “invent” pool protection on the spur of the moment. Second, uninvited children may enter the property without authorization. “Even if children don’t live there,” suggests Court, “there’s a likelihood that there will be children in the neighborhood. You like to think that your front fence will keep people off your property, but children have been known to hop fences. There will be certain codes that state that the fence may not be required in every application if your front fence is high enough, etc., but from our perspective, you should put up an isolation fence for every pool.”
A pool fence system needs to completely surround the pool, making it inaccessible except through the gate(s). If the pool adjoins the house and there are windows or doors that open into the pool area inside the fence perimeter, the homeowner needs to consider compliant ways to secure those doors and windows so children can’t access the pool that way. Some counties ban direct access to a pool from the home which is why you must always check local codes.
Homeowners should be advised to check their insurance policies, too, to be sure they cover liability for the pool.
Elements of the Fence
One thing the codes generally do not restrict is the type of fencing material that may be used. Metal, glass, mesh, wood and vinyl are all common. There are requirements on the maximum size of openings in the fence and gate, aimed at preventing a small child slipping through the fence, or being able to climb it. The allowable opening-size in the area immediately surrounding the latch is often very small, down to a half-inch, to prevent reaching in by a small hand or some small object that could be used as a tool to open the latch.
Chain link is not often seen around backyard fences. 2” chain link is too easy to use as a foothold for climbing. But even tighter chain link sizes simply fail to meet the appearance most people want in their back yard.
One popular option is a nylon mesh fence supported on 1” round aluminum posts. This type of fence is easy to set up as a removable installation. Receivers for the poles are embedded in the concrete pool deck, and the posts just slide down into them. If the fence is properly made, there is sufficient tension in the mesh to keep it stiff and prevent slipping under, and it is too smooth to climb over.
“We see a lot of removable mesh fences,” notes D&D’s Court. “The nice thing about mesh is that, even over time, you have to ability to tighten it up if it stretches. And while it acts as a barrier, visually, you can still see through it.”
The removable aspect can be a huge convenience. The fence can be kept in place for pool protection most of the time, but removed if, for example, there is a backyard party with no children present, or where adults will supervise the pool constantly.
Fencing must not provide toeholds or handholds for climbing. The rails should be on the inside surface of the fence, for just that reason.
Psychologically, the center of the fence is the gate. A properly designed fence forces people to use the gate for entry. The gate needs to be easy to use for authorized access, but completely inaccessible for unauthorized access by small children.
The main goal is to keep the gate consistently closed and securely latched whenever it’s not in use. It must be self-closing, the latch must be self-latching, and it has to work reliably every time. (And of course, the homeowner must never leave it propped open.)
This means the gate must be constructed so it doesn’t sag or shift, compromising proper alignment of the latch. The hinges need to work smoothly and resist corrosion that might change the smoothness of movement over time. The self-closing mechanism, similarly, needs to be weatherproof, and should be adjustable.
D&D’s Court recommends hinges with an integrated self-closing mechanism. “Generally, having self-closing hinges is your best combination. Putting in a separate overhead closer is more work, more cost, and more trouble.”
“Based on the gate material, gate size, and gate weight,” Court continues, “you figure out what are the most appropriate hinges. They must be self-closing. They need to be adjustable, too, because springs will lose tension over time. When you put them on, they’ll work great for six months or a year, but eventually the homeowner or someone else will have to adjust the tension. You also want something with a small footprint. You don’t want the hinge to be something that children can use as a toe hold.”
He cites his company’s TrueClose hinges as an example. “Ours are adjustable from top and bottom with a flathead screwdriver. The majority of the hinge is polymer, with marine grade stainless steel screws and spring inside, so it’s non-rusting. We have hinge safety caps that create a slope so the child can’t use it as a toehold. Our hinges are also self-lubricating: the more you use it, the better it functions.”
The heart of the gate is, of course, the latch. The latch must be self-latching. “When the gate closes,” explains Court, “the latch automatically engages so you can’t just pull the gate open. You have to lift that knob every time.” (He points out that it’s different than a self-locking mechanism, which would require a key or a number combination or some other unlocking method to be used.)
D&D’s self-latching mechanism, MagnaLatch, was one of the first self-latching products specifically for pools, introduced back in the 1990’s, and was an important step forward for the industry. It is magnetically triggered. “Small children probably don’t have strength to lift the knob because of the strong magnet at the bottom,” he explains, “and it’s designed so it’s hard for small child to grasp.” The company recently debuted an advanced version, MagnaLatch ALERT, that integrates visible and audible alarms into the latch. Whenever the gate is opened, it beeps once, and beeps a second time if it’s left open more than 10 seconds. After 15 seconds open, an alarm siren begins and LED lights flash, warning adults of a hazardous condition.
The latch has to be mounted so that small children cannot reach it. Generally, this means it has to be on the inside of the gate, and there cannot be any openings on the surrounding area of the gate that are large enough to reach through. In some codes, this is specified as small as a half-inch opening. Some codes also detail exactly how far below the top of the gate the latch must be mounted, so that opening it requires reaching over the top and down.
According to Thomas Court, the latch may be mounted on the outside of the gate and/or extend above the top of the gate that sets the operating handle at least 54” above the ground. Exact code requirements vary from one jurisdiction to another, and a contractor should check state and local codes. “The national code is a wonderful reference,” says Court, “but you’re really going to have to dig deep for the local codes.”
Court advises contractors not to try to save money on gate hardware. “The gate is the whole package. If you put up a pool fence, the customer will look at the whole thing, but what they’ll look at the most is the gate. The customer is going to judge you based on the gate. You want to have something high quality on the gate, because that’s what they’ll look at every day, and that’s the part that will keep their child safe. Your reputation is on the line. If it’s not self-closing or self-latching properly, they’re going to be very upset.”
He also advises contractors who are doing pool fences to have insurance that covers that specific liability. “Even if it is a little expensive,” he says, “it’s worth it in the long run.”
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