Last week parliament passed the Building (Pools) Amendment Act, repealing the Fencing of Swimming Pools Act 1987. One of the most significant changes is that from January 1, 2017, spa pools will no longer have to be fenced. This will be welcome news for a lot of people; there are over 100,000 spa pools in New Zealand.

I lived for nearly twenty years in a place with a swimming pool and a spa pool, so I am familiar with some of the issues that can arise with pool fencing. I'm pretty certain that this new legislation (which was designed, in part, to "reduce the compliance burden") will be well received by home owners.

The main purpose of pool fencing legislation is to prevent young children from drowning. This Act has a key target market in mind; it is particularly interested in the welfare of "unsupervised children". The owners of the country's estimated 60,000 in-ground swimming pools are legally required to help ensure the safety of these children through pool fencing.

But implementing such a large-scale safety-net for a boutique target market comes with its own set of challenges and quirks. Here are five traps for unwary pool owners.


1. Boundary fences

We once installed a tall wooden fence that was to serve as both pool fencing and a boundary fence at the edge of our property. When this fence was inspected, the inspector pointed out that the horizontal timber beams on the reverse side could be used as toeholds which might enable a child to access our pool area. That was a rookie mistake which we fixed right away.

The irony of this situation was that the neighbouring property on the other side of the fence had a swimming pool which had absolutely no fencing around it. So an unsupervised child could have wandered up that property's driveway and easily accessed the open water. This hypothetical child wouldn't have needed to climb our new fence to be in any danger; conditions were already treacherous.

2. Shifting goal posts

More than twenty years ago, when we moved into the house with the spa pool, we purchased a lockable cover for it. It was sturdy, it was heavy, it was expensive and it complied with the pool fencing standards.

Well, actually, it complied with the pool fencing standards until ... it didn't comply with the pool fencing standards. Upon one inspection we were advised that lockable covers were no longer sufficient. We needed to install pool fencing or empty the spa pool. We chose the latter option since retro-fitting pool fencing is seldom an elegant solution. Anyway, who wants to sit in a spa pool while surrounded by vertical powder-coated bars?

3. Garden beds

I know of one pool that was installed complete with brand new 1.20m-high pool fencing which complied until the outside garden beds were planted. The addition of extra layers of soil and bark effectively reduced the height of the fencing. Ouch. That was poor planning.

4. It's an art

Having undergone almost twenty years' worth of pool inspections at a previous property, I've decided that pool fencing is more of an art than a science. Every pool inspector has his or her own eye for detail. Just because your fencing met the standards at the last inspection, it does not mean it will be signed off next time.

Even when nothing has changed or deteriorated in the intervening period, a visit by a different inspector with a fresh set of eyes can discover a new weakness that could potentially to be exploited by unsupervised children. Passing one inspection is no guarantee the next one will proceed smoothly.

5. Chicken wire

Some pool inspectors have little regard for aesthetics. Let's say the home owners chose a stylish mix of materials for their pool zone: perhaps it was decided that natural stone, cedar and glass would be a harmonious combination.

All is well until a pool inspector finds a hitherto unidentified toehold that could tempt an unsupervised child. For the pool fencing to comply, this toehold must be rendered unusable. So, what is the best way of preventing an agile intruder intent on an unauthorised swim from harnessing the power of this toehold? Well, according to an astonishing number of pool inspectors, the answer is often to install some well positioned chicken wire.

Never mind that it is pretty much guaranteed to ruin the vibe of any residential pool area, chicken wire is frequently recommended as the solution to a problem you didn't know you had. But I reckon that, unless you're wanting to channel the design aesthetic of the humble chicken coop, there are probably less unsightly ways of fixing pool fencing issues.