Hidden Electrical Dangers Can Make for Troubled Waters

Swimming pools and lakes pose serious risks that can be eliminated by inspection, maintenance and recognition this summer.

Sink or swim.

How about inspect and swim? Or, in some situations, don’t swim at all?

Neither has the same ring as the famous fail-or-succeed idiom, but with summer in full gear, failure is not an option. There are hidden electrical dangers in swimming pools and freshwater lakes, ponds and rivers.

Though drowning remains the biggest pool safety issue, there have been tragic reminders of the risk of electrical shock while swimming.

As a pool and Jacuzzi owner, as well as a licensed electrician, Mark Chapman says the most common problem he sees is old equipment, which can lead to the two biggest electrical hazards inside a pool: faulty underwater lights and their wiring. This is where inspection comes in.

“You don’t want to swim in a pool with a cracked or broken light, that’s for sure,” said Chapman, a 30-year electrical foreman at Southern California Edison, which offers apool pump rebate program to assist customers. “Pool equipment should be checked annually by a licensed electrician before people start using pools for the summer. And, people should never do the work themselves.”

Checkups are particularly important for older pools, but so is a properly grounded power system on all pools. Chapman says a well-grounded system must be protected by Ground Fault Circuit Interrupters (GFCIs) — which should be on any outlets within 20 feet of the water’s edge.

This is all crucial advice because of the 60 electrocutions and nearly 50 serious electrical shocks in and around swimming pools in the country since 1990.

Because of this, Chapman also advises downgrading pool lighting of 120 volts —more likely in older pools — to 15 volts and never using electrical cords within five feet of a pool.

But not swimming at all? This is advised around boats, marinas and docks in freshwater lakes, ponds and rivers because of the obscure invisible danger known as electric shock drownings.

Electric shock drownings claimed several young lives during the summer three years agoand mostly occur in freshwater when leaking voltage from a boat, marina or dock incapacitates nearby swimmers. It is believed that many electric shock drownings go unreported since electricity usually isn’t considered in a drowning and no agency tracks such deaths.

In addition to heeding that warning, electric shock drownings can be prevented by owners having Equipment Leakage Circuit Interrupters (ELCI) on boats or GFCIs on marinas and docks. Both devices are equipped to keep electricity out of the water.

“It is best that people not swim around marinas and docks with electricity or boats plugged into their electrical outlets,” said Don Neal, SCE director of Corporate Environmental, Health and Safety. “These are very preventable accidents, but unfortunately people often don’t become aware of these dangers until there’s a tragedy.”