Local inventor takes on pool safety

chawes@bradenton.comJuly 22, 2011 

CORTEZ -- Steve Beckham has invented machines to help major corporations like Frito-Lay, Anheuser-Busch and Cargill.

But his latest invention is all about families and a recreational setting that, especially in Florida, is common: public swimming pools, spas and whirlpools.

Beckham and his company, Play It Safe Technologies LLC, have just released the Safe Shield APS-120. It’s an automatic pool pump shutoff system with a price tag of $750 intended to make it nearly impossible for people to get caught in pool drain outlets.

“The last thing you think when you go into a public swimming pool or a spa, is that there’s something in there that might kill you,” Beckham said from his Cortez home.

The death of a 7-year-old girl in 2002 inspired the U.S. government to pay special attention to the drains of pools, spas and whirlpools. Virginia Graeme Baker, who had first learned to swim at age 3, drowned after she became pinned to the bottom of a friend’s hot tub near Fairfax, Va., by the suction of the pool’s drain.

Six years later, her death inspired the Virginia Graeme Baker Act, which required all of the country’s public swimming pools, spas and whirlpools to have unobstructable drain covers. The law also requires pools with only one drain cover to have at least one of several additional devices installed that further protects against entrapment.

One of those anti-entrapment devices is an automatic pump shut-off system, and Beckham is convinced that the one he invented is superior to other shut-off systems already out there.

“For most of them, every time you have a power outage or clean your pool filter, you have to recalibrate them,” he says. “But once the APS-120 is installed, there’s no additional maintenance or calibration required.

“I’m not going to belittle my competitors. Their products work fine; they’re just not user-friendly.”

Back-up anti-entrapment devices like the APS-120 became even more important earlier this year, after the Consumer Products Safety Commission recalled 1 million pool drain covers that were previously considered unblockable.

“We found that in some cases, these things were mismarked and had to be rechecked,” says Kathleen Reilly, public affairs specialist with the Consumer Products Safety Commission. “Situations most at risk would be shallow pools, single main-drain pools, kiddie pools and wading pools.”

It’s impossible to tell exactly how many pools nationwide could benefit from Beckham’s invention, largely because many complied with the Virginia Graeme Baker Act by installing two drains, a move that guards against too much suction pressure building in just one drain.

In addition, Florida updated its regulations several years prior to passage of the federal act. But Beckham says there are still hundreds of thousands of pools and spas that may benefit from his invention.

“There are still a lot of pools and spas that thought they were compliant but aren’t because they had the rug pulled out from under them with the recall,” Beckham said.

Private residents who have children using their pools frequently might also feel more comfortable with an automatic pump shutoff system installed, Beckham says. In fact, he has one installed on his own home pool.

Beckham, a former professor at Purdue University who already owns numerous patents, has one pending for the APS 120. The device is certified by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers and NSF International, two of the country’s premier verifiers that products meet safety standards.

“There are certain features that Play It Safe’s product may have that are extremely, or even more, desirable than other structures or systems,” said Richard Martin, a spokesperson for the NSF. “But we’re trying not to be opinion-based. We state the facts of whether a product complies with standards. We make sure users have confidence in products. We’re not here to recommend or suggest that people do something a certain way.”

Beckham began working on the APS-120 in 2008 at the encouragement of his business partner, Rex Cowan, and says a basic lawn irrigation system inspired him to use a switchable neutral, which ensures external electrical wiring does not pose a danger of electrocution.

Beckham’s company has invested $50,000 in the invention, which is manufactured by a plant in the Midwest. Just this week, he began marketing it on Amazon and launched the Play It Safe Technologies website.

“Now we’re waiting for that good news/bad news situation for a start-up company,” Beckham says, “which is, ‘I’ve got 100 orders; how will I get them all built?’”

Christine Hawes, Herald business writer, can be reached at (941) 745-7081.

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