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The ‘Coolest Nerd in the Industry’ 

AquaStar’s Steve Barnes sets the standard

“Life isn’t a destination; it’s a journey,” says Steve Barnes, abiding by the sentiment often attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson. The director of science and compliance at AquaStar Pool Products, an equipment manufacturer in Ventura, California, Barnes’ journey as one of the foremost experts on safety drains, a standards consensus-builder/writer and an industry association volunteer spans 40 years dedicated to making the pool experience safe and enjoyable.  

“Steve embodies everything that we do at AquaStar, and his passion to raise the bar in our industry is unparalleled,” says Todd Pieri, AquaStar’s chief operating officer.

Steve embodies everything we do at AquaStar, and his passion to raise the bar in our industry is unparalleled.”

Todd Pieri, AquaStar

Barnes’ early path took a detour from his planned career in aviation maintenance to another keen interest: swimming pools. Fascinated by the mechanical intricacies of pools from the ground up (including the backyard dig at his parent’s home when he was 9), he entered the field as a research and development technician in 1984. 

“And I’ve never left [the industry],” he says, moving on to positions with other companies such as Pentair Aquatic Systems before joining AquaStar in 2014.

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As part of a tightly knit group of innovators at AquaStar, Barnes is responsible for product compliance, future products and standards research. “We’re always pushing forward, and Steve is in on the first phase of each product,” says Olaf Mjelde, president and founder of AquaStar.

“I try to make sure we meet the letter of the standards but also their intent and spirit — especially as I’m one of the people who have written a lot of them,” Barnes says. 

He’s seen in-house as someone who “keeps us on the straight and narrow,” Pieri says. “If we’re going to talk the talk, we have to walk the walk. We call him the coolest nerd in the industry. … But, he is our residential cool nerd.”

Barnes designed AquaStar’s state-of-the-art laboratory for certifying products and circulation systems to various codes and standards. The lab and most of the testing are run by Barnes’ wife, Suzanne Barnes, the company’s lab technician.

AquaStar has also been supportive of Barnes’ work with the Pool & Hot Tub Alliance, where he was a long-time chair of the technical committee, which played a pivotal role in developing ANSI pool standards. Currently, he serves as chair of the association’s newly formed standards process committee, focusing on his interest in the standards development process. 

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Steve Barnes

“Steve’s impact on the industry is immeasurable,” says Steven Getzoff, outside national counsel for PHTA. “We’ve worked together on many government relations initiatives over the years, which have probably saved the industry hundreds of millions of dollars while at the same time advancing safety and energy efficiency.”

Meanwhile, the honors and awards have rolled in. In fall 2023, Barnes was inducted into the Pool Nation Hall of Fame, and in 2022, he received the PHTA’s Chairman’s Award. He’s also the holder of 21 patents.

Barnes is especially proud of one standard from early in his career — the ANSI/APSP/ICC-16 2017 American National Standard for Suction Outlet Fitting Assemblies for Use in Pools, Spas and Hot Tubs. It involved changes to swimming pool drain covers that have saved many lives over the years. The original standard from 1987 used a 16-inch ponytail test but “did not deal with finger entrapment, where the holes would trap fingers, or the body, where if you lay on the drain, it could hold you down,” he says. Barnes helped design the new tests to address five suction entrapment fitting-related hazards and did the prototyping of the tests on the drains, which later became the standard and, ultimately, federal law. 

Hands down, if I retired today, I could say I made a difference.”

Steve Barnes, AquaStar

“Hands down, if I retired today, I could say I made a difference,” he says.

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Barnes has also traveled an interesting, parallel path that also needed his safety and compliance expertise: pyrotechnical operator, choreographer and producer of firework shows, roles he played for 37 years before retiring in 2018. 

“My focus — going back to starting as that lab tech — has always been how can we get the product in the field safely and efficiently.”

And so, for Barnes, the journey continues. There are always new AquaStar products, new standards or existing standards to revise. 

“Working on standards by definition is finding common ground,” Barnes says. “And this whole experience has been extremely enjoyable and rewarding.”

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