If you're thinking about buying an inflatable pool to lounge around in on hot summer days, there's more to it than just breaking out the air pump and positioning the hose.
We investigate the rules around inflatable pools so you're aware of your responsibilities – and can make sure your loved ones stay water-safe this summer.
Before you take the plunge
Inexpensive, portable and easy to assemble, inflatable pools are a seasonal fixture for many Aussies in summer, offering cool relief on hot days in the privacy of the backyard.
But before you rush out to buy one, there are some important safety factors to think about.
Key safety factors
As well as supervising children in the inflatable pool at all times, you'll also need to abide by strict pool fencing laws – or be slugged with hefty fines.
But these laws are strict for a very good reason. "Young children are the age group at highest risk of drowning," says Alison Mahony, national manager of research and policy at Royal Life Saving Society Australia (RLSSA).
"Between 1 July 2002 and 30 June 2021, 532 children aged nought to four years died from drowning in Australia and swimming pools are the leading location for drowning in this age group, accounting for more than half of all deaths (52%)."
As well as supervising children in the inflatable pool at all times, you'll also need to abide by strict pool fencing laws – or be slugged with hefty fines
According to Mahony, an accidental fall into the water is the leading activity before drowning (77%). In almost all of these deaths, either the supervising adult was temporarily absent, or there had been no supervising adult in the first place.
"We also know that for every drowning death in this age group, another eight children are admitted to hospital following a non-fatal drowning and tragically, some of these children will suffer lifelong health complications," she says.
"Supervision is critical to prevent drowning but, unfortunately, supervision can and does fail. A correctly installed and appropriately maintained pool fence is the next line of defence working to keep your child safe from drowning."
If your pool can be filled to a depth of 30cm, you need a pool fence.
Do inflatable pools need a pool fence?
In Australia, if you have a portable or inflatable pool that can be filled to a depth of 30cm and is used by people, you need to install a pool fence. Other water sources such as irrigation channels and fishponds, where people don't swim, don't share the same regulations.
But pool-fencing regulations do vary according to where you live. Check out the specific requirements for your state or territory below:
Local council laws may also vary slightly from state and territory regulations, so contact your local council about fencing requirements in your jurisdiction before you install a portable backyard pool.
If you don't abide by the rules and are caught by your local council with incorrectly installed pool fencing that doesn't comply with Australian standards – or even no fence at all – you may get a fine.
What kind of fence do I need?
There are all sorts of pool fences on the market, but not all of them will be suitable for protection around an inflatable pool.
If your inflatable pool is a temporary fixture in your garden, you don't need to invest in and install a permanent fence structure made of steel, glass or aluminium. But you still must meet all fencing laws for your jurisdiction while the inflatable pool is in place and filled with water.
Measurements you need to know about
All pool fences, including those for paddling pools capable of holding 30cm of water, must be at least 120cm tall.
The gap between the bottom of the fence and the ground must be no more than 10cm and there must be a 30cm space between the barrier and the pool area. This is to make sure there are no gaps wide enough for a toddler to squeeze through.
The fence must not have footholds for climbing, must be strong enough to stop a child forcing a gap in the bars or mesh, and must be made of materials and welds sturdy enough to withstand a heavy knock.
Not all pool fences are suitable for protection around an inflatable pool
Get the gate right
Gates must also adhere to strict guidelines. They must be self-closing and self-latching, with the latching device at least 150cm from the ground, and must not open towards the pool, but away from it. Read more about pool-fence safety standards.
RLSA's Alison Mahony says pool fencing, be it temporary or permanent, should be checked regularly to make sure it's in good working order.
"Unfortunately, children have died from drowning as a result of a pool gate being propped open, perhaps to allow easy access for adults or pets," she says.
"However, this also allows young children to wander into a pool area unaccompanied by an adult. Never prop the pool gate open."
Can I use a portable pool fence?
Yes. Portable pool fences are designed for temporary use around above-ground and inflatable pools. They still have to meet the same pool-fencing standards as any other pool fence or gate, but take care to secure them properly to the ground.
Portable pool fences can be cheaper than permanent fences. But they can still be a hefty outlay, even for small wading pools, which are subject to the same safety laws as bigger ones. So before you splash the cash, work out whether investing in any kind of pool and fence will be worth it.
"Portable pool fencing is often used during pool construction, and can cost from $100 per panel but they must still comply with the same pool fencing standards as permanent fixtures," says Kim Gilmour, household expert at CHOICE.
"There are no shortcuts for keeping your children safe, and not having a fence at all isn't worth the risk. Instead, look for alternative ways to keep cool this summer with other water-based toys like the childhood slip-n-slide or visit a friend with a pool."
Beware of unsafe models
Gilmour also warns of the risks of buying cheap pool fences and inflatable pools, both instore and online, as they may not comply with Australian Standards.
"If buying from an online marketplace, such as eBay, and the pool's depth is 30cm or more, ensure that the description or any photos clearly state that pool fencing laws apply," she says. "If it doesn't, that's a sign the pool itself may not be compliant."
Pool fence recall in 2018
Make sure any portable pool fence you buy also meets Australian standards, as not all of them do.
In 2018, after a CHOICE investigation and safety-test failures, a portable pool fence available from Clark Rubber, called the Be Safe Portable Pool Fence, was recalled nationwide for failing to meet safety standards and letting children gain access to backyard swimming pools.
"With pool fences, always look for compliance with Australian Standard AS1926.1 – Safety Barriers for Swimming Pools," says Gilmour.
Supervise children in and around the pool at all times.
Other safety considerations
Read warning labels on pools and fences
Under Australian consumer law, pool and pool-fence manufacturers and retailers must provide clear warning labels and instructions with these products. Use this information, together with information from your local council about your responsibilities for safe use of the pool.
The ACCC takes rules and regulations around water safety very seriously. If products don't comply, retailers can be dealt big fines. In August 2021, the Federal Court ordered sports warehouse Decathlon (Australia) to pay penalties of $1.5 million for selling 66 portable pools, which were more than 30cm deep, without these mandatory warnings.
Beware of electrical hazards
If you're using a water pump or any other electric equipment around your pool, look out for frayed or damaged wires, which could make contact with the water and cause electrocution. Make sure all electrical equipment is at least two metres from the pool's edge.
Empty and pack away the pool when it's not in use
Be sure to empty and put away your inflatable pool when you're not using it – . Even empty, it may still pose a safety risk for children. "It is important inflatable pools are stored away so that they cannot fill up with rainwater or sprinkler water and pose a drowning risk to children in the area," says Mahony.
Actively supervise children
Although pool fences can help, your first line of safety is to supervise children in and around the pool at all times. Drowning in young children is quick and silent. Portable pools pose the same drowning hazard as inground pools, so active supervision is paramount.
"We know that children are curious about their surroundings and eager to explore, so it is essential they are supervised by an adult at all times in and around the water," says Mahony.
"Active supervision means giving the task of supervision your full attention, staying within arms' reach of children and avoiding all distractions. Parents and carers should also know CPR and have the skills to respond in an emergency."