Pool Alarms Bleg:

I'm hoping to teach my boys to swim soon, but, as they say, "you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it swim." I'm not sure, therefore, when the 4.5-year-old and the 3-year-old will be pool-safe. And, in the meantime, we'll likely have occasional weekend visits to a friend's summer home that has an unfenced swimming pool.

Hence, my question: Can any of you recommend -- or recommend against -- any particular pool alarms that will provide a third line of defense in case the kids escape our watchful eye, and at the same time disregard our admonitions not to play around the pool unsupervised? Many thanks.

Scote (mail):
All I can say is "fence or pool cover." While this probably isn't practical for your situation, my sister had her mother-in law install a professionally installed removable fence around the pool with poles that fit into holes in the concrete and a light weight nylon fence.

I don't know enough about the proven efficacy of pool alarms to say one way or another.
4.7.2008 8:39pm
Henry (mail):
Please! A horse is a him or her, not an it.
4.7.2008 8:46pm
anon252 (mail):
No one who owns a pool should have it unfenced, even if they don't have kids. I have a friend who took her eye off her two-year old for a moment, and they found him a bit later lying face down in the neighbor's pool. Fortunately, her husband knew CPR, and they revived him, and he's fine. But I'd no sooner have an unfenced pool then I'd leave a loaded shotgun lying around. Certainly, if your friends are going to invite friends with small children over, they are morally obligated to get a fence.
4.7.2008 8:47pm
But I'd no sooner have an unfenced pool then I'd leave a loaded shotgun lying around.
Certainly the former is 1000 times more likely to kill your child.
4.7.2008 9:00pm
Fred the Fourth (mail):
Fence or cover. I have personally rescued two children from backyard pools, and I'm not talking about formal lifeguard situations.

If you rely on a cover it should not be a simple floating cover, those are mostly worse than useless. A kid can get under it, then you can't see the kid. Use a tracked cover.

I second the comment about the fence with removable poles and mesh. That works well for some friends without the budget for a good cover, and no room for a conventional fence.

Oren, normally I'd agree with your "1000 times" comment about the shotgun, but the analogy as stated is not actually so bad: AT LEAST until the kid can understand the First Law of Guns ("The Gun is Always Loaded"), I certainly would not leave a "loaded shotgun lying around". And even then, "lying around..."? I don't think so.
4.7.2008 9:13pm
But I'd no sooner have an unfenced pool then I'd leave a loaded shotgun lying around.

Certainly the former is 1000 times more likely to kill your child.

Umm. . . I don't doubt that this is true today, in the aggregate. And unfenced pools are indeed lethal to kids. But the statement above is true only because people have unfenced pools much, much more often than they leave loaded shotguns lying around. If the prevalence of those 2 hazards were equal, it's hard to believe leaving a single shotgun lying around for a fixed period of time near where kids play wouldn't prove several orders of magnitude more lethal than exposing kids to an unfenced pool for the same period of time.
4.7.2008 9:17pm
Scote (mail):

If the prevalence of those 2 hazards were equal, it's hard to believe leaving a single shotgun lying around for a fixed period of time near where kids play wouldn't prove several orders of magnitude more lethal than exposing kids to an unfenced pool for the same period of time.

Yet another reason you should always put a fence or cover over the loaded shotguns you leave lying around, though, admittedly, unloaded in a unsafe might be better...right next to where you have safely stashed the pool, of course.

Anyways, kids could only easily accidently kill other people with a shotgun (including other kids or adults) rather than themselves by accident, so there are some differences..
4.7.2008 9:23pm
With kids those ages you're going to be teaching bike riding soon so I'd like to let you in on an important safety issue. Lots of kids and even some adults are getting hurt because nobody knows how to teach them how to ride a bike.

The reason learning to ride a bike is tricky is that there is a counter intuitive aspect to it that nobody realizes they are doing. If people could and would just tell kids how to ride, then it would be easy for them to learn.

The first thing one needs to learn is how to balance. It's not very hard for kids to figure out on their own but it's even easier if someone tells them. The trick is simply to turn the handlebars the direction you start to fall. If your bike starts to lean to the right then turn the handlebars to the right and that will bring you back upright and into balance (you have to be moving forward for it to work and if you're going to slow it makes it harder). It's best to learn this in a giant flat area so that as you're turning the handlebars left and right, learning to balance, you don't have to worry about where you're going and running into anything. The narrowness of the typical residential street makes this challenging.

The second thing you need to know, and the counter intuitive part that is hard for the brain to figure out, is how to make the bike go the direction you want it to go. It's called counter steering. This is so counter intuitive that people rarely even believe me when I explain it to them. It's true though. It's in the California Department of Motor Vehicles Motorcycle Handbook, there's a web page by a Berkley physics professor, I've seen articles about it in a major motorcycle magazine. This is not controversial. Nobody who is an expert in motorcycle or bicycle physics will contradict me. The trick to turning a bicycle or motorcycle is to turn the handlebars the opposite direction you want to go. Seriously, I'm not joking. You don't hold them there. A little jerk the opposite way will suffice.

For example, say you're riding along perfectly straight. You've managed to get yourself so that your bike and your body is perfectly straight up and down and balanced and your handlebars are straight ahead. Now say you decide to turn LEFT. The first thing you do is give the handlebars a little nudge to the RIGHT. Your body continues in a roughly straight ahead direction while your bike moves out from underneath you to the right. Now you are leaning to the left just as you want to be and need to be in order to do the left turn you want to make. Now that you are leaned to the left you can proceed to turn the handlebars to the left and carry out your left turn.

Note that this IS how YOU ride a bike even if you don't realize it. There is no other way to do it. Some people think that in order to initiate a turn they just lean. But the only way you can lean your bike is to turn the handlebars the opposite way you want to lean. If you try to just lean your body by doing something like just bending your waist to the side, then your upper body will lean the way you want, but you have nothing to push against so the equal and opposite reaction will cause your lower body and your bike to lean the opposite way and cancel out nearly all of your lean. To prove that you can't just lean, try sitting on your bike with it not moving forward and try to balance it with your feet off the ground. It's extremely difficult. But if you're moving forward, you can turn the handlebars to make your bike go out from underneath you to effect a lean, and it's easy to balance.

One reason people don't realize that they're doing this counter steering thing is that when you're riding a bike you're constantly turning your handlebars back and forth and back and forth (a little tiny bit) in order to stay balanced. When you decide to make a turn your brain subconsciously just turns the handlebars a little bit earlier and a little bit more than it was going to in the course of maintaining balance anyway. It's like you've just willed yourself to lean but really you've done a little counter steering without even realizing it.

I feel sorry for all the kids who break their legs and scrape their knees and crack their heads needlessly just because nobody was there who could tell them how to ride their bike. Their brains had to subconsciously figure out how to counter steer and balance at the same time. I think teachers should be educated and schools should be required to teach bike riding in order to save kids the injuries.

But there's another reason that people need to know consciously about counter steering. When you need to make a hard fast turn in an emergency, a little subconscious nudge isn't enough. You have to turn the handlebars hard and far in the opposite direction you want to go in order to make a fast and steep lean in preparation for your hard fast turn. It has been observed that motorcyclists often turn directly towards the objects they're trying to steer away from in emergencies. For example if a motorcyclist is driving down the middle of the right hand lane of a road like normal (in the US), and a car pulls halfway into the lane and stops, so that the motorcyclist would just hit the front bumper if he continued straight, instead of turning to the left to go around the front of the car, motorcyclists will often turn right and hit the middle or rear of the car. This is caused by the motorcyclist quickly yanking the handlebars to the left to go around the front of the car. The result of turning the handlebars left is a right lean and a right turn. When you want to make a quick hard turn you have to yank the handlebars quick and hard the opposite way you want to go. If you don't know that or you think that's not true then you may die.

I place this post in the public domain so that this important info might save some kids and some motorcycle riders from injury.
4.7.2008 9:34pm
marcystrauss (mail):
Eugene, just a quick note to let you know that your kids are the right age to learn to swim. I had friends who ran a swim school in LA, and the typical age was 3-4. Actually, the goal at that age was not to have them know the strokes obviously, but to teach them what to do in case of the situation you describe--they fall into a pool. Thus, the hope it to keep reinforcing techniques like doggy paddle or turning on their back to get to the side, and not to panic. So don't underestimate the value of lessons at this age!
4.7.2008 9:51pm
Scote (mail):
@ rider
I'm not sure what that has to do with pool safety. I kept waiting for a tie in at the end.

Anyways, links are often helpful: Wikipedia
4.7.2008 9:58pm
I highly recommend katchakid pool nets. We had one installed on our pool and it has indeed caught our kids.

We live the Valley and were able to get the net installed within a week of calling.

Hope this helps.
4.7.2008 10:08pm
khbeihf (mail):
Katchakid nets are absolutely great. Another alternative to consider are surface and subsurface pool alarms. Cost ranges from $200-$700 and recent studies have shown they also work very well.
4.7.2008 10:19pm
I should have pointed out that my countersteering post was off topic. I wasn't aware of the Wikipedia article on countersteering. That is probably the best article on countersteering that I've seen on the web yet.
4.7.2008 10:24pm
I am sort of surprised that the building code allows for and that your friend can buy liability insurance for his house with an unfenced swimming pool.

While 3-4 seems old enough to teach them to swim I wouldn't rely on this to keep them from drowning.

4.7.2008 10:34pm
Scote (mail):
Given that Consumer reports failed three pool alarms as not acceptable (abstract) I'd be very careful in considering a pool alarm, either a specific model or in general.

From 2006:

Pool Alarms
Consumer Reports notes that, on average, more than 300 children under the age of 15 drown in swimming pools every year and that pool alarms are designed to raise an alert if people enter the water when they're not supposed to. For a pool alarm to meet the ASTM International voluntary standards, an 85-plus-decibel alarm must sound poolside and in the house within 20 seconds when an 18-pound, toddler-sized mannequin falls into the pool, and there must be no false alarms in a 15-mph wind or when a basketball plops into the pool.

The CPSC has guidelines.

CPSC Releases Study on Pool Alarm Reliability —
Barriers, Supervision Still Key to Preventing 350 Child Drownings Each Year

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Memorial Day weekend is the time many families open their home pools for the summer. Pool owners, especially those with young children and grandchildren, should always keep in mind the deadly hazards a pool can pose. About 350 children under 5 years old drown in pools each year nationwide and 2,600 are treated in hospital emergency rooms for near-drowning incidents. Most of the cases involve residential pools.

To prevent this tragedy, many pool owners use pool alarms designed to sound a warning if a child falls into the water. Sales of pool alarms have doubled since 1994. A study released today by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) tested the performance of various pool alarm systems.

The CPSC study looked at three types of alarms: floating alarms that detect waves on the surface; underwater alarms that detect waves under the surface; and a wristband alarm, which is worn by a child, and alarms when exposed to water.

CPSC's tests showed that underwater alarms performed the most consistently (with one surface alarm - PoolSOS - performing almost as well). Underwater sensors alarm more consistently and are less likely to false alarm. When a test object, intended to simulate the weight of a small child, was pushed into a pool, the underwater sensors detected it most reliably. The underwater alarms also can be used in conjunction with pool covers, whereas the surface alarms cannot. The wristband device alarmed well but can be impractical because the caregiver must remember to put it on the child, and it alarms when exposed to any water source, such as tap water.

Pool Alarms that Performed Well in the CPSC Tests

Underwater Alarms Floating/Surface Alarm
Poolguard - PBM Industries PoolSOS - Allweather Inc.
Sentinel LINK - Lambo Products Inc.

"Pool alarms can be used as an extra safeguard, but should never be relied upon as the only line of defense in preventing a child from drowning in your pool," said CPSC Chairman Ann Brown. "The keys to preventing these tragedies are placing barriers around your pool, closely supervising your child and being prepared in case of an emergency."

CPSC Swimming Pool Safety Guidelines

Pools should have layers of protection to prevent drowning:
Fences and walls should be at least 4 feet high and installed completely around the pool. Fence gates should be self-closing and self-latching. The latch should be out of a small child's reach.

If your house forms one side of the barrier to the pool, then doors leading from the house to the pool should be protected with alarms that produce a sound when a door is unexpectedly opened.

A power safety cover — a motor-powered barrier that can be placed over the water area — can be used when the pool is not in use.

For above-ground pools, steps and ladders to the pool should be secured and locked, or removed when the pool is not in use.

If a child is missing, always look in the pool first. Seconds count in preventing death or disability. Keep rescue equipment by the pool, and be sure a phone is poolside with emergency numbers posted. You or someone in your household should know CPR.

Pool alarms can be used as an added precaution. Underwater pool alarms generally perform better and can be used in conjunction with pool covers. CPSC advises that consumers use remote alarm receivers so the alarm can be heard inside the house or in other places away from the pool area.
CPSC offers three free publications consumers can use to help prevent child drowning: "Safety Barrier Guidelines for Pools," "How to Plan for the Unexpected" and "Guidelines for Entrapment Hazards: Making Pools and Spas Safer." Some localities have incorporated the CPSC guidelines into their building codes and regulations.
4.7.2008 10:34pm
Teaching them to swim: My daughter used to hang on to those foam noodles. For a while we had it in a circle and she would be in the middle hanging on. Before we knew it, she was kicking herself all around the pool hanging on to it. After that, it was only a short bit to swimming by herself. She was never shy about water which may have sped things up.

Teaching them to ride a bike: Start with a razor scooter. Same principle, less distance to fall. My daughter went from them straight to a bike the first try.
4.7.2008 10:37pm
Eric @ New York Personal Injury Law Blog (www):
Pool alarms may give a false sense of security. My kids learned when they were your kids' age. The best investment is swim lessons. You will breathe much easier once the kids learn how to float on their own. Once they get that, they can learn to swim very quickly.
4.7.2008 10:39pm
Michael A. Cleverly (www):
Coincidentally Bruce Schneier blogged about a pool safety product today. (See the blurb under "A Turtle is Safe in Water, A Child is Not!".)
4.7.2008 11:01pm
Freddy Hill:
I'm sure that pool alarms have all kinds of fail-safe features to account for loss of power, sensor malfunction, etc. I would, however, rather rely on old-fashioned physical barriers to entry than electronics.

This despite of the fact that I'm an IT guy. Or maybe BECAUSE I'm one.
4.7.2008 11:02pm
You might also make a deal with all the adults that every adult is responsible for every child while you're at your friend's house--at least with respect to keeping the kids the hell out of the pool when they're not supposed to be there.
4.7.2008 11:30pm
We have used "poolguard" since our now four-year old was three. It works as noted by "Scote," and has performed admirably.
4.7.2008 11:30pm
Tony Tutins (mail):
Good friends of mine raised a Newfoundland pup along with their first kid, because they figured at some point the kid would get through the fence around their pool, and the dog could both jump in and bark.
4.7.2008 11:36pm
Scote (mail):

You might also make a deal with all the adults that every adult is responsible for every child while you're at your friend's house--at least with respect to keeping the kids the hell out of the pool when they're not supposed to be there.

With small kids no responsible adult is going knowingly let the kids play by the pool. Problem is that kids drown when nobody is noticing, so such a pact is both redundant and, possibly, a counter productive diffusion of responsibility.

Parents are the parties responsible. It is their duty to keep them out of harm's way, as EV is trying to insure. If they don't think an unfenced pool is safe then, I hate to say it, they shouldn't stay there.
4.7.2008 11:39pm
wuzzagrunt (mail):
I'd definitely recommend a multi-layered approach to pool safety. Teach the kids to swim at an early age, teach the kids about pool safety (and have an old fashioned "come to Jesus meeting" if there are any violations of the rules), use a net cover during the season, use a winter cover (like the one with the elephant in the logo), install a fence, install an alarm, and get a Newfoundland dog. But above all, have fun! could just fill it with concrete and install a basketball hoop--but make sure they wear safety glasses, knee and elbow pads, and cups.
4.7.2008 11:43pm
Dave Hardy (mail) (www):
Had a lot of experience with these.

Put an iron fence up. Nice. Until the ex's teens kept propping the gates open because it was just too inconvenient to open them.

Put alarms on the gates that would sound if they were opened. Teens thought that was inconvenient, too, and took the batteries out. So I put a lock on the gates and told them to climb over if they wanted. When they learned the rudiments of safety the locks would come off. They learned quickly.

Had an alarm that floated in the pool and would be set off by ripples. It was plagued with false alarms in windstorms. They had a version, BTW, that would transmit to an in-house receiver.

Teach em how to swim, or get someone to do it -- until then, you'll be under a heck of a lot of stress. Little kids fall in, they go right to the bottom, and can't figure out what to do from there.
4.8.2008 12:21am
Soronel Haetir (mail):
A note about my feelings regarding safety conciousness in general:

have to wonder if the absolute risk aversion that seems to be growing isn't counter-productive. Letting children do some activities with a level of risk (riding a bike, old style playground equipment) seems like it would teach the lesson f being more careful. Most experience some minor injur (scraped knees, etc), a few break bones and a very few are killed. This seems like a worthwhile trade in return for not having teenagers who will do pretty much anything once free from supervision.

As for the loaded shotgun, that doesn't particularly bother me. May just be a function of the area I grew up in, but having a loaded rifle by the door is something I can remember back to when I was five or so.

4.8.2008 12:30am
Bruce McCullough (mail):
Simply pretend that the house+lot is a boat, and the pool is the water: put life jackets on them, the kind with the big collar so that IF they fall in, they float face up.
4.8.2008 12:42am
kimsch (mail) (www):
Life vests. If you go there only occasionally, just put them in life vests when they are outside. Is this an in-ground or above ground pool?
4.8.2008 12:50am
Dave Hardy (mail) (www):
Life vests. If you go there only occasionally, just put them in life vests when they are outside.

Problem is kids that age are REALLY good at slipping away. You may only think they are inside.

put life jackets on them, the kind with the big collar so that IF they fall in, they float face up.

Think those are designed to cope with a risk not present here, that a person may be unconscious when they go into the water, thus unable to hold their face up.
4.8.2008 2:05am
Dave Hardy (mail) (www):

I quite agree as a generality. Kids will get scraped and bruised; it's part of growing up. Got my first scar when under 6, my second and biggest at 8, and the rest of the collection later. No big deal.

Problem with pools and shotguns at age 3.5 is that the first mistake is very likely to be the last. With ones like that, it's good to be risk-adverse until they are in condition (swimming or trained in gun safety).
4.8.2008 2:14am
Soronel Haetir (mail):
Well, there are risks and there are risks. I'd agree that bikes and playground equipment aren't in the same league as pools and firearms. I was responding more to the motorcycle post earlier and the apparent attitude that any crash on a bike is a bad thing.
4.8.2008 3:38am
Anonymous Reader:

I have to second the katch-a-kid recommendation. Check out the website: It looks very rugged and semi-nonobtrusive.

DISCLAIMER: I have not seen the product in person, but the website has good information and it seems reputable.

Anonymous Reader
4.8.2008 6:35am
Nick P.:
Even if an alarm functions perfectly, it can't be as effective as a fence or cover. How quickly can a 3-year old drown? Can you be sure that you can run down the stairs and out the door in time?

Anyway, what kind of irresponsible loser has an unfenced pool?
4.8.2008 10:44am
"Unloaded in a unsafe"--best typo so far.
4.8.2008 11:11am
The Turtle works, but consider offering to fund a fence with a self-closing self-latching gate, especially if your kid(s) are more the testing type than the blindly obedient type.

The nets are better than nothing, and possibly more aesthetically acceptable to the pool owner, but the hooks are toe-killers.
4.8.2008 11:16am
Lone Sloane (mail):
I own a pool, and have two kids....

Forget pool alarms. Consumer reports has it right, even the good ones are poor.

Get a fence. We used a removable nylon-mesh fence. They require professional installation (have to drill holes in the deck for the aluminum uprights, and properly measure the sections) but were well worth it.

A quick search for "pool fence" will show you several examples.
4.8.2008 11:19am
Richard Aubrey (mail):
No such thing.
Eyes on kids 24-7.
I have a relative who, at a motel pool, reached down for his drink, only to look up at the lifeguard retrieving his motionless son. Thirty seconds, he said.
What will you do when the alarm sounds?
Rush out there and get a drowned kid?
4.8.2008 11:53am
BZ (mail):
And as a pool-owner who raised kids with one, let me add a couple of points:

1) Kids who fall in pools are SILENT. There is usually no thrashing or screaming or noise of any sort.

2) Consumer Reports is correct about pool alarms being useless.

3) Fencing is nice, pool covers are better, automatic pool covers are best.

4) Don't forget the path from the HOUSE to the pool. We put a fence between our patio and the pool, with a latch on the gate on the POOL side. That way, even if the kids got out of the house into the patio, they didn't get immediately to the pool. This is especially true if you get a temporary fence for your friends' pool; if you're going to fence anything, protect the direct path to the pool.

5) The best defense is to drown-proof your kids. YMCAs offer drown-proofing for kids so young they cannot walk. Drown-proof training requires parental participation, but it is easy and fun. The essence of drown-proofing is not to teach kids to swim; it is to teach kids how not to panic. Every pool has steps or a ladder, so if the kid is trained (and training does stick very well at that age), they can reach safety.
4.8.2008 12:01pm
Glenn W. Bowen (mail):
Drowning, I believe, is the second or third most probable child killer.

I don't think it's legal anywhere in the US to have an unfenced pool, unless it's an above-ground.

A call to the Y and lessons if appropriate are a good idea- I attended when I was six years old.

I'd agree that bikes and playground equipment aren't in the same league as pools and firearms.

Bikes and pools trump firearms, each. Auto accidents lead.
4.8.2008 12:42pm
Soronel Haetir (mail):
My point is that some risks should be sought out. If you let a kid learn that falling over or crashing while riding a bike hurts they learn a valuable lesson. The same with playground equipment. Cars don't have that same learning potential because the child's actions are not so nearly involved with any potential outcome.
4.8.2008 2:36pm
Dave Hardy (mail) (www):
I have a relative who, at a motel pool, reached down for his drink, only to look up at the lifeguard retrieving his motionless son. Thirty seconds, he said.

Problem in fresh water drowning is that if the person gets water in their lungs, it goes right to the bloodstream, just as O2 would. Which screws up the blood electrolytes and stops the heart.

Swimming lessons -- I recall my parents saying that I could swim before I could walk. Easier, doesn't require balance and the musculature to walk upright. I know I had my kids swimming by 4.
4.8.2008 4:36pm
There is no need to send a kid out uninformed to learn bike riding just so he can learn the lessons of crashing. Bike riding is inherently plenty dangerous as it is. Is there any kid that doesn't crash their bike multiple times even after learning to ride? Also while the large majority of learning crashes only result in minor scrapes and bruises, a non-negligible number lead to more serious injuries, like nerve damage to a broken wrist, ligament damage to the knee, or brain damage. Letting a kid ride a bike at all is dangerous enough without guaranteeing crashes in the beginning.

Letting them learn on a razor scooter is a great idea I hadn't thought of. With a bike you have this thing between your legs that makes it hard to jump off and gets you all tangled up when you go down. With a razor you can jump off with ease any time you're going less than running speed. It's still a good idea to tell the kid how to balance and turn though.
4.8.2008 7:59pm
Mark Gaughan (mail):
I agree with Richard Aubrey, there is no such thing Eugene.
I'm raising my grandson. He's 16 yrs. old now and knows how to swim. Before he learned how to though, I was always by his side whenever we went somewhere where there was a pool. He was safe and he loved me hanging out with him too. It was win-win!
4.8.2008 10:26pm
TRex (mail):
Tell your kids there is a snake in the pool. They will steer clear.

And keep an eye on them just in case.
4.9.2008 12:22am