Soak It In
The next generation of hot tubs and spas are more energy efficient and completely customizable.
By Debra Wood
For years, Mike Stimak has suffered from a bad back. He tried a number of remedies with varying degrees of success, mostly short-lived. Four years ago, he turned to hydrotherapy. His hot tub’s pulsating jets, warm water, and ergonomic seating massage his aching muscles, relieving his troubled back. And while hydrotherapy was his primary reason for purchase, Stimak says his unit also provides a centerpiece when entertaining friends and family.
Hot tubs make for versatile investments. Some are intimately designed for two, while others can host small groups. Some focus on aiding aching joints and muscles; others come loaded with entertaining accessories.
Before you buy a hot tub, think about the ways you want to use it. If the primary objective is stretching and soothing aching muscles, be sure the unit is deep enough and wide enough to complete a routine. When the goal is romance or quiet time to reflect, you might consider a smaller unit, while homeowners with a large family or plans for entertaining might opt for a larger model. Ask yourself where the hot tub will go, as this will also affect size. What is your budget? The key is to identify what you want out of your hot tub first, then buy according to your needs.
Once you have an idea of what you’re looking for, consider what add-ons you want. Every hot tub model is different: Some come with bells and whistles already in place (and are likely to cost more upfront), while others allow you to accessorize easily (but require you to purchase add-ons). Investigate available options, such as water features, lighting, music systems, and other entertainment accessories.
LED lighting, for instance, offers greater color flexibility and lasts longer than traditional incandescent bulbs, saving energy and money. Some include built-in places to hold cold drinks or warm towels, adding convenience to an otherwise cosmetic feature.
The latest entertainment options for portable spas include stereo systems, HDTVs and DVD players, and MP3 player docking stations. Sound systems are sometimes built into the hot tub shell, reducing clutter. Many feature waterproof pop-up speakers. ”They allows spa users to listen to their favorite music or the big game while relaxing in their spa or entertaining in their backyard,” says Samantha Weiser, brand manager of Hot Spring® Spas. “A wireless transmitter allows you to dock an iPod® indoors, away from splashing water and wet hands. You can even wirelessly transmit virtually any audio source—such as satellite radio, your television, audio files, and more.”
Put ‘Em To the Test
Once you have narrowed the field of possible hot tubs and spas to a select few, try them out. Most quality dealers have hot tubs set up for customers who want to experience the units before you buy. (Don’t worry, they’ll have a place for you to change in and out of your swimwear.) “If the dealer doesn’t have the unit [that you are interested in buying] running, it’s not unheard of for them to set it up so the customer can test it before buying,” says Sam Collins, senior vice president of Marquis Spas. “A soak goes a long way with helping make a decision and being happy with the purchase.” The dealer should stay nearby to answer questions and point out features, but he or she will not join you for a soak.
Typically, you can stay as long as you like, so don’t be timid. Test the lounge chairs and other seating, the various therapy jets, and any other features available. Some hot tubs and spas are plumbed to allow individual adjustment of the jets, usually facilitated by a remote control, so the person in one seat can enjoy a robust rubdown while another selects a mild swirl. Jets are positioned to provide foot, back, and neck massages. The water stream may be wavelike, pulsating, or a combination. “If the jets are located and designed in such a way that they can provide an overall body massage, the test soak should leave you fresh and energized,” says Karen Lynam, marketing manager for Caldera Spas. “Lounge seats should be contoured to allow you to fully relax without struggling to resist the effects of buoyancy; and the footwell should be spacious, so that you can comfortably stretch out your legs without crowding others. A seat designed with a gentle curve to cradle your body will deliver superior comfort from head to toe.”
Pop the Hood
What’s on the inside of a hot tub or portable spa is equally as important as the exterior. On the more practical side, some hot tubs come with an ozonator to eliminate water contaminants, a mineral ionization system to inhibit bacterial growth, or an automatic sanitizing system to help keep the water clean. Energy efficiency is equally important. Investing in an efficient hot tub saves money in the long run, so don’t skimp on these features: high-density foam for insulation; heat recovery units that capture heat generated from the pump and use it to keep the water warm; highly efficient, multi-speed pumps; and a densely insulated cover all work in concert to reduce the hot tub’s energy cost. “Heat retention is key,” Collins says. “The better you are at keeping the water hot and not allowing the heat to escape, the less energy you will consume.”
Photo courtesy of Emerald Spa Corporation
5 Things to Know Before You Buy
Size Matters. Once you establish your budget, consider how large a spa you need. A single person doesn’t need an eight-seat model unless he or she entertains often.
Maintain It. Maintenance isn’t hard, but don’t be surprised by the upkeep schedule, which includes treating and replacing the water and cleaning the filter.
Location, Location, Location. Where you plan to put the hot tub may limit the number of models to consider and affect how easily it can be serviced. Placing the hot tub in the ground, for instance, may add to service costs, since any repairs will involve digging to reach the unit.
Package Deals. Some models come loaded with extras. Dealers may also offer bargains for those who want every latest accessory. If you’re more selective about add-ons, buy a model that allows you to accessorize a la carte.
Know Your Maker. Not all manufacturers are created equal. Investigate a company’s reputation—check the Better Business Bureau—and inquire about the warranty, which is only as valuable as the manufacturer is sound. Ask for references, and call owners to inquire about service experiences after the purchase and overall performance of their unit.
Whether installed indoors or out, operating a hot tub requires energy to operate the pumps and heater, chemicals to keep the water clean, and periodic replacement of the water—but a few time-tested tips can help put money in your pocket for more important purchases, like that new bathing suit you’ve had your eye on.
Don’t Go Too Big. Size your hot tub for your needs. A two- or three-seat hot tub will bring as much joy to a couple as a six- or eight-seat spa and cost less to operate.
Look for Low Speeds. A low-speed pump, coupled with a heat recovery unit, circulates warm water to use less energy.
Wrap It Up. Buy a spa with a high quality insulation system, such as high-density foam, which will keep water warmer longer and reduce your heating needs.
Cover Up, Too. Invest in an insulated cover to hold in the warm water and chemicals.
Add On…Selectively. Evaluate which entertainment extras you really want and will use. An LED-lit water feature may be ideal for nighttime soakers, while others may get more use out of a music system.
Hot tubs are easy to use and set up, but there is a little leg work to be done before you can kick back and let the jets melt your troubles away.
1. Prepare the site before delivery. The homeowner is often responsible for leveling the hot tub site and putting in a reinforced-concrete or prefabricated spa pad, if needed. Use a level to ensure the pad is evenly situated. It’s hard to adjust a hot tub once it is full of water, but it’s easy to see the tilt of the water when the unit isn’t level.
2. Think about airflow. If you’re placing your spa inside, check to make sure the space can handle the increased moisture and need for ventilation. When in doubt, hire a ventilation expert to assess the space and make any needed adjustments to the home’s mechanical system.
3. Know your power needs. Depending on the unit, your hot tub may require a dedicated electrical outlet, with a ground fault circuit interrupter and an approved disconnect, installed by an electrician. Sometimes your dealer will handle arranging for the outlet, so be sure to ask at the time of purchase.
4. Get legal. Installation may require a building permit, and local laws may necessitate fencing or some other method of ensuring limited access. Check with your municipality before you buy so you’re not surprised later.