The Truth About Pool Electrocution

Over the past few years, instances of pool electrocution have seemed more and more prevalent. There have been approximately 60 deaths in the years between 1990-2003 that have been attributed to pool electrocution, a phenomenon that occurs all over the world that mostly affects small children.

Last spring, a young boy in Miami was killed in a public pool because of a transformer was wired incorrectly into a 12 volt light. The ground wire to the pool lamp was carrying 120 volts from a non-GFCI protected switch which corroded the lamp equipment and released the voltage into the pool and shocked the boy when he jumped into the water.

Several children were sent to the hospital after grabbing a pool handrail and receiving a nasty shock as they entered a public pool in Florida. That incident was caused by faulty grounding and bonding in the pump room that caused an unsafe current to go through the bonding wire into all metal fixtures—handrails, ladders, and the underwater pool lights.

An older man died in Houston in an attempt to rescue an 11-year-old from a hotel pool over Labor Day weekend in 2013. The pool’s resident contractor did work on the pool lights with a permit that was not up to code.

In almost all of these cases, either the wiring, grounding, or bonding (or any combination thereof) was done incorrectly. A GFCI (ground-fault circuit interrupter) would have prevented the tragedy. A GFCI monitors the amount of current flowing from hot to neutral and if it detects an imbalance, it trips the circuit. It can detect a mismatch as little as 4 or 5 milliamps and reacts as quickly as one-thirtieth of a second.

Most of the time, it’s not the pool light that’s the problem, but the electricity flowing through to the other equipment. It flows through the bonding wire that connects all the metal components together—the pump, heater, lights, slide legs, dive stand, and handrail. Faulty bonding/grounding is the cause of many pool electrocution incidents.

Pool lights don’t have to be on to be a potential hazard. In fact, most problems come from incorrectly grounded or bonded lights, not from lights that are improperly powered. This can send electricity through a pool light even if it’s not on during the daytime. Anything that has electricity running to it AND is underwater is a potential hazard.

How do I make sure my pool is safe?

There’s only so much you can do about a pool over which you do not have dominion. If you’re worried about your children using a public pool, you can ask a manager about whether or not the electrical work has all been up to code, but I’m not sure if you can depend on that person to be 100% forthcoming. But when you have your own pool, there are a few things you can make sure of:

If you haven’t already, you can make the switch from 120V lights to 12V pool lights that run through a pool light transformer. The transformer works in conjunction with the GFCI protected circuit breaker and the pool light junction box and steps the voltage way from 120 to 12. The 12V lights are safer when installed properly by a licensed electrician.

ALWAYS get a permit when performing electrical work in your pool, pool lamp replacements included. A permit may cost some money, but it means that someone will have to check your work and be sure that it is safe.

There are a few electrical related pool jobs that are DIY friendly, like replacing pool light bulbs. If you have to replace the whole lamp socket or are upgrading to LED pool lights, you’ll want to get a licensed electrician to do the work. Electricians can help you install low voltage pool lights that work alongside a transformer on a GFCI circuit that is grounded and bonded.

Pool lights reach the end of their service life at around 20-30 years. Get a licensed electrician to replace them when they stop working.

Building Permits for Your Pool

If you think your pool was built without permits or wired by someone who may not have known what they’re doing, hire an electrician that can certify its safety or bring it up to code. If you purchase a house that has a pool built before 1975, do the same.

In the event that someone has been shocked in the pool, don’t use a metal pole like the ones that attach to your skimmer or pool brushes—they’ll conduct electricity and shock the user. Likewise, don’t go jumping into the water, as the person jumping in also runs a risk of serious injury.

Instead, shut off all the power to the pool at the breaker box before making an attempt to save the victim. Work quickly as they have probably become submerged in the water.

To sum up, remember that anything electrical used in conjunction with water can be very dangerous, but it doesn’t have to be life threatening. Whether you’re building a pool, repairing electrical elements, or bringing an older pool up to code, just make sure whoever works on it is doing proper wiring, grounding, and bonding. Your pool light breakers and other power outlets SHOULD be on a GFCI protected circuit. Get a permit for any electrical work needed around the pool to protect yourself and your loved ones.

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Nigel McHugh
January 6, 2020

Can you rescue a child from a pool that you think has been electrocuted or will you just become a victim yourself, if there is the slightest contact from the water that is now charged?


January 5, 2017

Hi shannon, you might try methylcobalamin injections. It heals the nerve sheath that has probably been damaged.

Shannon Colhoun
December 3, 2016

Dear Angie,
I was severely injured by electric shock in a swimming pool. It felt like I was slammed into a wall and pain ripped through every part of me like sharp teeth. I was able to pull myself out and then was paralyzed in agony. I have been recovering for 7 months. This happened in my apartment complex swimming pool where there’s clear evidence of all the kinds of problems like those you mentioned in your article.
Your article does an excellent job of helping me understand more what happened to me.
Thank you for your knowledge. If there’s anything else you can advise/can think of to tell me that may be useful to my recovery and electrical understanding please let me know.

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