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5-yrsBy Mark Holden

‘Through the past two years,’ wrote Mark Holden to start his January/February 2011 Currents column in WaterShapes, ‘a handful of voices in this magazine and elsewhere have called for building pools without drains as a means of virtually eliminating suction-entrapment incidents.  The response to this suggestion has been strong, both for and against.’

‘In sifting through some of these discussions . . . one item caught my eye:  It came from a watershaper who clearly didn’t have a horse in the race but simply wanted to know how to go about building an efficient pool without a suction outlet at the deepest point of the floor.  Good question, I thought.’  He continued:


‘In conducting countless safety inspections, I have personally seen that every single entrapment-protection system ever devised can be (and quite frequently is) damaged, disengaged, altered or removed.  . . .  Likewise, drain grates seem to become old or cracked or lose their screws . . . [, and] despite the good intentions of designers, specifiers and builders, pumps are too frequently sized improperly.’


‘And all of this – all of it – is aggravated by the fact the pool/spa industry has an amazing capacity to resist change[;] . . . the design community (meaning landscape architects and architects) has the ignoble habit of ignoring water-related specifications . . . [; and] even regulators themselves have a pronounced tendency to ignore codes and seemingly make things up as they go along.’  


‘As a result, I have started designing and building in such a way that the risks to bathers are demonstrably and dramatically reduced – to such an extent, in fact, that these watershapes go well beyond what any health department has ever required to date.  And I apply the same principles in residential pools as I do in commercial and institutional projects.’


‘My aim here is to fuse the most advantageous products and techniques available into a comprehensive program that never lets the viability of any single object or measure within the system determine whether a pool or spa is safe.  . . .  This is why, as many others have suggested, I start by eliminating the drains themselves:  They are beyond doubt the most dangerous of all the pool/spa components involved in entrapment incidents – and there’s no need for them to be there at all!’  


‘Indeed, the only argument in favor of continuing the use of drains is that they are needed to ensure proper water circulation.  . . .  In that light, it seems the key in removing the drain is to make certain we alter the way we circulate water in a pool.  The obvious thought here is to return water through the pool’s floor – a common approach in competition and public pools that should be used in all residential pools.’


‘If drains are deleted from our watershapes, skimmers will by default become the primary suction devices for all pools and spas.  . . .  I would suggest that the code writers need to develop a firm rule that all watershapes designed for human immersion should have a minimum of two skimmers.  . . .  As for the equalizer lines that are activated when low-water conditions render skimmers inoperative, they all need to be split and set up in walls with grates a minimum of 48 inches apart.  In addition, they should be rated with minimum 100-gallon-per-minute flow capacities at each grate.  Floor returns (also NSF-rated) must be at least four in number for the first 400 square feet of surface area, with another return added for each additional 100 square feet of surface area.’    


‘The whole principal of this new breed of watershape . . . has to do with designing and building the best pool possible rather than the easiest or cheapest.  . . .  If I had my way, every single residential pool and spa built henceforth would represent the pursuit of the ideal and compliance with a stringent new set of rules that leaves none of us with more than a few shreds of wiggle room.’  

‘I know the very thought of more regulation offends the sensibilities of a great many watershapers,’ Mark concluded, ‘but my assertion is that doing things in accordance with this new model makes the process simpler to follow and dramatically increases the safety of our products.’   

Have you come around to Mark’s way of thinking about the common use of main drains in swimming pools?  If you have, please share information on the process – particularly about how you worked with local inspectors or regulators in making the absence of this feature a possibility – by commenting below!


Mark Holden is a landscape architect, pool contractor and teacher who owns and operates Holdenwater, a design/build/consulting firm based in Fullerton, Calif.  He may be reached via e-mail at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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