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WaterShapesBy Mark Holden

It has always bothered me:  Why do we take devices that draw electrical current and install them in aquatic environments where humans get in the water?  Even if precautions are taken, isn’t this risky business?

To be sure, suppliers have come up with all sorts of measures designed to protect bathers from any potential hazard, and I have nothing but praise for the ingenuity they’ve displayed in surrounding their products with safeguards that minimize concern.  But based on my own observations and experience, I must say that this is nonetheless a greater risk than most of us perceive.

Why so?  Well, no matter how well-meaning and conscientious suppliers are, they don’t control what happens in the field with every project and therefore face a near-insurmountable safety challenge.  At the most basic level, that challenge rises from the fact that, in all of nature, two of the most unyielding and unwieldy beasts are water and electricity, with water always seeking its own level and finding ways to escape the structures that confine it and electricity similarly always seeking and moving toward paths of least resistance.

When you factor in the fallibility of human installers, I’m surprised there aren’t more incidents having to do with exposure to stray currents in pools.

GETTING SPECIFIC

Even doing our best on all fronts – from the equipment manufacturer to the code writer to the installer – there are still risks to be considered.  On one of my very own projects, for instance, we used all of the right equipment and complied with all applicable codes and followed recommended installation procedures to the letter but still ended up exposing bathers to stray current.

Following the rules, it seems, is not enough!

As you may have noticed through my recent columns, I’ve been in a place lately where I’ve spent a huge amount of time evaluating and reevaluating what we do as watershapers, largely because I’ve run into a whole bunch of bright students of landscape architecture who are adept at challenging assumptions.

They’ve forced me to look at our industry with open eyes, and one side effect has been that I’ve spent a lot of time bucking against convention and looking at ways of building watershapes without the use of established products and practices.  The fact that times are tough has accelerated these thought processes:  The idea that we can “stay the course” in the current marketplace seems absurd to me.

As far back as last April, I used this space to write about three technologies that represented the sort of change I was interested in, the first two being variable-speed pumps and a fresh approach to water sanitization.  The third had to do with lighting – and I’m coming back to it now because the abovementioned experience I had with stray current in one of my projects made me realize that the time for a complete change was upon me.

The great thing is that I believe a revolution in the field of underwater lighting is upon us in the form of the latest generation of LED technology.   

Originally, the appeal of LEDs came largely by virtue of the “wow factor.”  Arrays of these lamps can easily be used to generate colorized light shows that thrill our clients and make us look like geniuses for managing to find something new under the sun.

From my perspective, however, the instant availability of millions of colors is now the least of the benefits LED technology has to offer us.  Sure, it will always appeal to clients who buy on an emotional level, but as I now see it, there’s a whole range of benefits that are far more important for us and our clients that have to do with safety and operational efficiencies.

WEIGHING RISKS

To be sure, producing light from charged semiconductors is nothing new to the world.  It’s not even revolutionary to put these devices under water.  

What is new, however, is the variety of applications into which these devices are finding their ways – a range that seems to broaden every day as LEDs take over in automobile headlights, streetlights and traffic signals as well as for less-critical applications in flashlights and, yes, the lighting of pools, spas, waterfeatures, fountains, streams and waterfalls.  

But our industry has been late in coming to the technology, and some say it had to do with a lack of output from LED fixtures.  Now, however, there’s no such excuse:  Not only can sources of electroluminescence produce every color in the rainbow, but they can do so at lighting levels comparable to standard incandescent systems.

As suggested above, however, colors and intensity are only part of what’s happening with LEDs these days:  Not only are they viable, but they also offer a pile of benefits that we simply can’t overlook.

Each year, we at Holdenwater step away from our offices in Fullerton, Calif., to conduct safety inspections on public swimming pools.  All too often, what we find is sobering, especially when it comes to the conditions of the underwater lights.

As we all should know, light niches are tricky to build, so it should come as no surprise that we find all sorts of problems with how they’ve been installed.  Sometimes it’s a problem with the bonding wires that results from application of potting compounds in ways that compromise system integrity.  Other times it has to do with apparently routine lamp replacement and damage done in the process that creates leaks.  And where we might find that a high percentage of lights in a single large pool might be in great shape, we’ll most likely find a couple that fail the inspection.

Overall, however, the picture’s not so bright:  Conservatively, I’d say that we find water in 30 to 40 percent of the “dry” fixtures we inspect.  If it’s not faulty housings, then it’s the seals haven’t been replaced as they should have been.  Either way, the situation is potentially dangerous.  

Yes, these fixtures are attached through GFCI-protected circuits and we all talk about how well they work.  And we’re also well versed in the benefits of grounding and bonding, but the real question is, would you be willing to let your kids jump in a pool with a flooded light fixture?  I sure wouldn’t.

There is, I’m happy to say, a better option nowadays that not only removes the niche from the water but also eliminates the need for bonding.  It may not be the “standard” approach, but I believe firmly that it’s a better one.  

MAKING THE CHANGE

So let’s size up the situation:  We need a safer, more economical, more cost efficient, easier to install, more versatile and more ecologically responsible alternative to the antiquated lamps and fixtures we’ve been using for more than a half a century.  As I see it, LEDs fill the bill – but not all LEDs are created equal.

A year ago, my research into countless underwater LEDs led me to identify a single product that, I thought, rose above the rest in terms of addressing our issues and needs – that is, Nexxus Lighting’s Savi Note LED system.  Since then, the company has introduced Savi Melody and Melody Blanco (the latter with white light only for commercial applications):  Both excel in so many arenas that I think they’ve set the bar at an all-new level and should become the standard by which other systems are evaluated.  

(If this seems like a product endorsement, it probably qualifies – but that’s definitely not my point:  My intention here is to offer this product as an example of the type of innovative thinking we need and something we need to bring up in our conversations with other lighting suppliers to encourage them to get up to speed.  I’m not picky:  I’ll use anybody’s product that rises to or exceeds this level of performance.)

What makes this product different is the fact that the majority of LED underwater fixtures now on the market persist in feeding line voltage direct to the wet niche, where this 120-volt current is stepped to low voltage to make the light-emitting diodes disperse the photons we perceive as visible light.  If the fixture needs low voltage, why put the transformer in the niche?  

That’s apparently a question the folks at Nexxus answered differently from everyone else:  The Savi Melody system puts the transformer up on deck, with only low-voltage power transmitting to the underwater LEDs.  That seems simple enough, so why on earth is anyone still doing things the old way?

In addition, these new fixtures can be installed into inch-and-a-half apertures on the wall of a pool or spa with no niche or bonding wire.  The fixture is housed in a foot-long piece of pipe with a bushing on the back end that steps down to a one-inch conduit running to a transformer that can be placed up to 150 feet away from the fixture.  Sounds good to me:  quick to install, and lamp replacement will be a breeze – although the lamps are rated for 50,000 hours, so that won’t happen too often.  (This is particularly beneficial for public pools, especially when you consider the maintenance requirements of conventional incandescents.)  

These new LEDS are also far greener than conventional lights that consume 500 watts.  The Savi Melody runs on just 14 watts and has the output equivalency of a 350-watt incandescent lamp.  That might be a slightly lower output, but the energy savings are amazing.  And with the white-light only performance of Melody Blanco, public and institutional watershapes can now use them and comply with most Health Department rules.

Moreover, these LEDs have an edge no conventional light can touch when it comes to depth of placement:  Where most incandescent-system suppliers specify placement at 18-inch depths for a variety of reasons, LEDs can be placed just about anywhere, such as on the edges of beach entries or thermal shelves.  They’re great in compact spaces, and they even work in kiddie pools – where lights are required by code but incandescent fixtures can’t be used because of the shallow depths and fiberoptics don’t typically generate enough light.  

VALUABLY UNOBTRUSIVE

I don’t just build and inspect watershapes:  I also design them.  For years, I’ve been bothered by the visual intrusions that result from the big stainless steel rings, the bulging lenses and the tremendous hot spot that is created by a system that only manages to illuminate one area of a watershape effectively.  

The small LED fixtures are about as big as traditional wall returns and indeed are installed in that same sort of wall fitting.  They’re so discrete that I’m happy to use several of them around my watershapes, partly because they’re unobtrusive, but also because they help me create an even glow throughout a vessel.

And when I take away the cost of organizing and installing the niche, the bonding wire and the potting compound for incandescent lights and paying to have all that work done, the new LED option is considerably less expensive than the conventional approach.  

When you add it all up, I see this change in direction as the responsible answer to our need to make clients happy, control costs, make our projects safe, conserve energy and reduce our carbon footprint.  It’s the kind of thing my students demand, and increasingly it’s just what my clients want.

All that and cool colors, too.

 

Mark Holden is a landscape architect and a landscape and pool contractor specializing in watershapes and their environments.  He has been designing and building watershapes for nearly two decades, and his firm, Holdenwater of Fullerton, Calif., assists other professionals with their projects.  He is also an instructor for the Genesis 3 schools and at California State Polytechnic University in Pomona.  He can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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