Author(s): Jeff Sargent. Published on July 3, 2014.

The dog days of summer are here. Temperatures hover in the 90s, the humidity is off the charts, and meteorologists evoke beads of perspiration as they tell us the “heat index” is approaching Death Valley levels. Seeking refuge from the heat, millions of Americans dive into home or municipal swimming pools. Electrical safety is the last thought on their minds, but recent incidents have created a heightened awareness of the importance of the National Electrical Code® (NEC®) in making sure the pool visit is safe as well as enjoyable. Failure to follow NEC requirements for electrical installations around swimming pools can lead to tragic results.

Last August, a 27-year-old Texas man was swimming with his family in a Houston-area hotel swimming pool. According to a report published in the Houston Chronicle, people swimming in the pool “complained of being shocked” when the underwater pool lights came on. Noticing a child in distress in the deep end of the pool, the man swam to the child and helped him safely out of the pool. However, he was not as lucky and could not escape the “energized” pool water on this own. Rescuers pulled him out, but he went into cardiac arrest. First aid was administered at the scene and he was transported to a local hospital. He died six days later, a victim of electrocution, according to the medical examiner.

Investigation of this accident by the City of Houston and the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation led to a determination that “shoddy” electrical work recently performed by licensed electricians resulted in the pool being electrically unsafe. The investigation determined that the circuit supplying the underwater light did not have ground-fault circuit interrupter protection. Additionally, NEC requirements for equipotential bonding in the pool area—meaning all conductive objects, such as ladders, lighting fixtures, and diving boards, are connected to minimize a voltage difference between them—had not been followed. The fatal consequences of their noncompliant work led to the electricians being charged with criminally negligent homicide.

That was not an isolated incident. In April, a seven-year-old Florida boy died when he was electrocuted in his family’s swimming pool. The source of the lethal current was also attributed to a faulty underwater lighting fixture.

These tragedies might cause someone to jump to the conclusion that underwater lighting in swimming pools should be prohibited. When we take a closer look at these two incidents, though, it becomes apparent that the accidents more than likely could have been prevented through compliance with the requirements of Article 680 in the NEC and by maintaining the equipment to ensure continued safe operation. Underwater lights not only provide aesthetic value, but when pools are used after dark, illumination allows swimmers to be seen by those outside of the pool, a desirable safety feature particularly in deeper water.

Requirements covering electrical installations associated with swimming pools, including underwater lighting equipment, have been in the NEC since 1962. The rules covering the installation of underwater lighting are some of the most stringent in the NEC. The use of ground-fault circuit-interrupters in the circuit supplying line-voltage underwater lights or the use of lighting equipment operating at a low voltage level considered to be safe are the two acceptable protection strategies specified in Article 680. In addition, the wiring methods and installation practices are tightly controlled.

While some may question why these rules are so rigid, there is clear evidence that when these rules are followed, lighting equipment installed in a pool does not pose a threat to swimmers. There is also tragic evidence that when the requirements are not followed and the equipment is not maintained, the old adage about water and electricity not mixing is a truism with potentially fatal consequences.

Jeffrey Sargent is a regional electrical code specialist for NFPA.