Backyard swimming pool rentals: Making a splash with some environmental public health risks
In 2018 a California start-up company developed a website allowing private backyard pool rentals to members of the public. Similar to the concept of other types of short-term rentals, homeowners can advertise their pools at a rate they decide, and users of the website can book it for their desired time. The site currently operates in the United States (U.S.), Australia, and Canada. In the U.S., the website has over 250,000 users and more than 10,000 pools available to be rented.
In Canada, at the time of writing, there are over 40 private pools listed for rent in Toronto, Mississauga, Kitchener-Waterloo, Ottawa, and Vancouver, and this number appears to be increasing. Although the website has been around since 2018, the COVID-19 pandemic caused many public pools to close or operate at reduced capacity, thus making it difficult for people to book swim times for themselves and their families. Backyard pool rentals are attractive to the community because this can be an economical means to host events. However, this also means more people will be in the backyard pool than typical usage, thereby raising some public health concerns.
Public health considerations for backyard pool rentals
The idea of renting out a backyard pool may seem attractive from both a financial and ease-of-access perspective. However, homeowners and pool renters need to be aware of health and safety considerations. In many Canadian cities there is little to no oversight of such informal and unregulated arrangements. Some concerns include the risks of recreational water illnesses and safety concerns (e.g., drowning and injuries) for which pool owners may be held liable.
Recreational Water Illnesses (RWIs)
Unlike public pool operators who are trained in proper pool water disinfection, private pool owners may have little knowledge to maintain pool chemistry properly. Swimming in poor quality water may significantly increase the risk of illness, with a common RWIs being acute gastrointestinal illness. Between 2015-2019, 208 outbreaks associated with treated recreational water were reported to the US Centers for Disease.
Chlorine and pH are important factors in removing bacteria that cause gastrointestinal illness, and both need to be properly maintained at all times to reduce the risk of illness to bathers. However, chlorine levels in a pool can be difficult to maintain, and its balance can depend on UV exposure, environmental inputs (e.g., dirt), and organic inputs (e.g., amount of dirt, skin, debris and fecal matter from swimmers’ bodies) which can increase the chlorine demand. This means operators need to add more chlorine to compensate for the increased bather load. Residential pool owners may not be knowledgeable in maintaining levels when user numbers exceed their typical usage capacity, such as when large groups of people rent their pool. The key issues are understanding dosing requirements based on bather load and applying the appropriate techniques to adjust water quality.
Pool owners also need to know how to adjust chlorine levels for safety in a rental situation. Manually adding chlorine is the traditional method for chlorine disinfection used by residential pool owners, but this method may easily result in an over or under chlorinated pool. Adapting to variable bather load such as in rental arrangements may pose a challenge to residential pool owners, who typically has limited understanding of chlorine demand.
Some rental pools offer access to washroom facilities, while others do not. In cases where the pool is rented for extended periods and no access to a washroom, pool renters may defecate/urinate in the pool or in the immediate vicinity, thereby creating unsanitary conditions and increased risks for RWIs.
Drowning and other injuries
Most provinces and territories have regulations and guidelines that call for important safety features (e.g., self-latching gates), life saving equipment and lifeguard supervision. Absence of trained supervision and lack of proper life saving equipment are environmental risk factors that influence the risk of and the outcome from drowning. Unlike public pool operators, private pool owners are not required to have lifesaving equipment or supervision at their pool, and/or their pools may lack features (handrails, non-slip surfaces) that increase the risk of drowning and injury. The Ontario Life Saving Society created a guidance document that focuses on safety priorities for privately owned backyard swimming pools, albeit not designed for private pool rental situations.
Alcohol and drug consumption may also influence the risk of drowning in private pools. Alcohol was involved or suspected in 39% of swimming drownings in 15-24 year olds and 41% for those aged 45 and older in Canada between 2011-2015. Most public pools prohibit the consumption of alcohol, but this may not be the case with all private pools. Some pool renters may be interested in renting a pool for hosting a party where alcohol consumption may be involved and there may not be oversight and/or safety measures put in place by party hosts.
Noise and by-law complaints
Other public health considerations include concerns regarding excessive noise, drunk and disorderly conduct, and illegal street parking. Pool owners do not typically have control over the intent of pool rentals. In the case of rental by a group of people intending it for a party, excessive noise could arise and become a nuisance to the surrounding neighbourhood. While some jurisdictions may have noise by-laws in place, ambiguities within these by-laws often make it challenging to specifically address noise from private pool parties.
Private pool renting introduces additional increased risk and liability to pool owners. If a pool renter slips, trips, or falls and becomes injured, the pool owner could be held responsible and sued by the person injured. While the pool renting website offers up to $1million in liability insurance for hosts, this insurance is not applicable to Canadian hosts. A fine print for the U.S. hosts refers to limitations to the liability coverage, and an injured renter may still file a lawsuit or claim against the pool owner. Most standard homeowner insurance policies do not cover “business” uses of a home as would apply when renting out a private pool.
Responses in other jurisdictions
Several states and cities in the US have banned backyard pool rentals. Currently, the New York Sanitary Code prohibits private backyard pool rentals and violators could be fined up to $2,000 USD. Even if a private owner does not charge a member of the public to use the pool, it is still considered a violation under the code. The Township of Howell in New Jersey recently updated its by-law to prohibit the renting of private swimming pools. In contrast, the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection elected not to pursue regulation after pushback from the private sector.
From an initial scan, there is currently no specific Canadian legislation that addresses backyard swimming pool rentals. However, in some jurisdictions swimming pool regulations may be applied to these situations. For example, Manitoba Regulation 132- the Swimming Pool and Other Water Recreational Facilities, under the Public Health Act, includes a broad definition of a public swimming pool that encompasses the rental of a private pool to a member of the public, requiring the owner of the pool to apply for a permit. To receive the permit, the facility would have to meet all the requirements of the regulations and would be subject to routine inspections. If a person were to operate a pool without a permit a health hazard closure order could be issued.
In other Canadian jurisdictions, where the legislation provides a narrower definition of a public pool it does not allow existing legislation to be applied to these types of situations. Cities including Toronto, Ottawa, and Vancouver have short-term rental by-laws, they are intended for regulating dwellings only. Councillors from the City of Mississauga and Toronto have publicly discussed an intention to regulate backyard pool rentals, but no by-laws have been enacted to date.
Summary and recommendations
Private pool rentals are a new trend in Canada and appear to be quickly gaining traction. While the idea may be incentivizing to some members of the community, allowing public access to private pools presents some health and safety risks. The main issues with private pool rentals are related but not be limited to:
- Lack of awareness and knowledge to adjust pool chemicals and maintain proper pool water chemistry when bather loads, and the pool’s intended use differs from case to case.
- Lack of safety equipment and other safety provisions on private pool premises.
- Lack of oversight and/or control of users’ behaviours that may increase their risk of injuries and harm.
Although swimming pools are an excellent way to promote exercise and recreation, private pool rentals present health and safety risks. Water sanitation challenges faced by pools owners could increase in RWIs/community outbreaks and complaints where environmental public health professionals may be required to follow up.
Canada does not currently have regulations or by-laws that specifically address private pool rentals, although use of these pools may reclassify these pools as public pools in some jurisdictions. Considering the minimal oversight on this new practice and the potential implications, in addition to risk communication and education, environmental public health professionals should consider lobbying governments to influence policies that regulate private pool rentals, where there is currently no oversight. In the long-term, regulation of private pools like that developed for short-term rentals may be necessary to protect public health and safety.
Christy Lalonde is a fourth-year student in the Bachelor of Environmental Public Health program at Conestoga College, Ontario. Christy worked as a Student Public Health Inspector for her local public health unit and is passionate about creating healthier communities.
Christy would like to extend a sincere thank you to her professor Dr. Wendy Pons.