By Debra Wood
Today’s swim spas offer aerobic exercise versatility and the chance to relax.
The term “swim spa” may seem counterintuitive at first blush, but those already enjoying the benefits of these compact units know better. Swim spas have evolved from a niche fitness luxury item to one of the most versatile products available today, they appeal to consumers who want to exercise—to train for an athletic event, improve health and well-being, or rehabilitate an injury. The latest swim spas provide the most realistic swimming experience yet, come in various depths and lengths, and offer accompanying soak areas where the water temperature can be independently regulated. The options are all there; it’s up to you to find the perfect combination for your needs.
What’s In a Name?
While swim spas may appear to be oversized hot tubs, they’re actually lap swimming simulators that offer the health benefits of swimming without requiring the space of a lap pool (or the maintenance). The units deliver a steady stream of water that lets people swim or walk against a current. Unlike swimmers in a pool, swim spa users can customize a routine by manipulating the spa’s variable-speed motors, making the workout as easy or strenuous as they desire. Manufacturers continually refine their swim spa products, researching water flow and adjusting shell design to decrease water turbulence and make the swimming experience more natural.
Most manufacturers use one of three methods to produce current, and each delivers a slightly different experience. Some use a paddlewheel, which pulls water from the back and generates a wide, deep, smooth current, with the water returning under the swim area. Alternatively, a propeller system also delivers a steady flow but generally is not as wide a current—water along the side walls stays calm, giving swimmers a place to rest. Finally, jet or nozzle systems allow for greater adjustment of current direction but sometimes do not produce as wide or deep a current.
“They all have strengths and weaknesses, depending on how you use the swim spa,” says David Biles, chief operating officer of Endless Pools in Aston, Pa. “A paddlewheel or propeller with a broad flow and lower resistance generally produces a better current for swimming.”
Ultimately, it’s up to you, the swimmer. Personal preference plays a large role in determining the best system; choose the one you feel most comfortable using. And, like hot tub purchases, the best way to figure out what you prefer is to give each a try at a dealership before making your decision. Wet tests are common, if not expected, so bring your swimsuit when you get serious about making a purchase.
More than a Swim Spa
Recognizing that consumers want more from their swim spas than just a place to swim, manufacturers have deepened some units for walking and aerobics and added other exercise options, such as treadmills, aqua bikes, exercise bars, and rowing equipment, to let users work different muscle groups. “There are a number of clearly demonstrated benefits gained from aquatic exercise, and that’s the underutilized part of a swim spa—aquatic exercise is just as important as swimming for fitness or rehabilitation,” says Bob Lauter, president of Master Spas and Exerswim of Fort Wayne, Ind. With so many options, the latest swim spas have actually become virtual underwater gyms, allowing users to vary their aerobic exercise routines while still enjoying the reduced joint stress that water exercise offers.
But today’s swim spas aren’t just places to get in a good workout. Appealing to a broader customer base, manufacturers now combine swim spa technology with hydrotherapy and lounge seats, much like the features of a traditional hot tub.
“It makes the unit multifunctional,” Lauter says. “One person may want the swim spa for swimming or aquatic exercise, but the whole household can benefit from the therapy aspect.”
Sometimes these areas are separated from the swim area to provide a warm-water massage, while the exercise area stays cool enough for a safe workout. It’s not necessarily an issue of one or the other, however. People can still enjoy the benefits of hydrotherapy if the water is kept at a comfortable swimming temperature (82 degrees to 85 degrees), Lauter says.
Like their hot tub cousins, swim spas also offer plenty of extras to heighten the experience. Various water features and entertainment options, including waterproof stereo systems, can be installed to enhance the enjoyment of a workout or a relaxing soak. Some models come with transducers, which send the sounds through the shell into the water.
What About Installation, Price, and Operating Costs?
Typically featuring an acrylic or fiberglass shell (though some have an aluminum or steel shell with a vinyl liner), swim spas can be installed inside and outdoors. Manufacturers produce special units for indoor use that fit through doorways. Depending on the unit, swim spas can be installed aboveground and fully or partially inground. Maintenance-free synthetic cabinetry in a variety of colors makes aboveground units more visually appealing. Indoors or out, most swim spas (not including modular units designed specifically for indoor use) must be lifted onto a reinforced-concrete pad by a crane to install properly.
Operating costs vary by model, depending on size and settings of the current. Some units also come with ozone generators and sanitizer generating systems to help keep the water clean and limit the amount of sanitizing chemicals required to keep the water safe and sparkling.
Experts agree that one sure way to reduce operating costs is to invest in a unit that is well insulated. When deciding on a model, ask the dealer to remove one of the side panels so you can inspect the insulation. Most models will have a thick layer of high-density foam to protect against heat loss.
Like hot tubs, swim spas should be covered whenever not in use. Covers trap heat, prevent chemical loss, and keep water from evaporating quickly. An added bonus: Covers prevent debris from entering the water, reducing cleaning time. Biles estimates that consumers can save half of their operating costs by investing in and using a cover. Even if your model of choice doesn’t come with a cover, purchasing one pays for itself in the long run and is generally considered well worth the extra money.
Swim spa costs vary, depending on the style, size, and add-ons. Smaller models start at around $15,000, while top-of-the-line units, offering the most versatility and state-of-the-art swimming experience, can run as much as $42,000. A well-functioning unit, one that produces a strong, reliable current, will cost around $20,000.
5 Things to Know Before You Buy
Location, Location, Location. Where you want to place the swim spa may determine what units you can consider, especially if you want an indoor unit.
Is Versatility Important? Hydrotherapy and swimming or aerobic workouts typically take place in different temperatures. Heating the water up to soak, or cooling it down to exercise, takes time and can become costly. If you’re interested in using it both ways routinely, consider a model with separate areas.
Get Current. Paddlewheels, propellers, and jets produce different water streams. Test each system to your comfort level.
Your Exercise Routine. If you’re purely a swimmer, a shallower unit will work—but if you want to do water aerobics or walk into the current, you’ll need a deeper model.
Prices and Features. Vary Some models may be cheaper because they don’t come with extras or as much insulation. A cover, for instance, is essential for keeping operating costs down but does not always come standard.
Accessorize Your Swim Spa
Today’s swim spas are more than just exercise units; they come with all the bells and whistles you’d expect to find on a top-of-line hot tub, including:
• Therapy seats with hydrotherapy massage jets
• Dual heaters, which keep the soaking area hot and the swimming section cool
• Stereo systems
• Underwater lighting
• Exercise equipment—bikes, treadmills, elliptical machines, rowing machines, exercise bars, floor mirrors
• Handrails and steps
• Safety covers and locking devices
• Tile, coping, and decking to customize the installation
Photo courtesy of Master Spas.