I got a call this weekend from BigHeadMan, a superhero friend of mine since first grade. We took cape flying class together, and he always excelled at more of the intellectual parts of being a superhero, as well as being a hellava good guy. Anyway, he is re-doing his deck and asked for my opinion on hot tubs, being that WifeGirl and I have had one for 10 year now.
Here’s what I’ve learned in the past 10 years:
1. Buy a high quality, fully insulated tub. This translates into spending more money up front, but it will pay for itself very quickly. We had neighbors who bought a no name, discount club hot tub. They told us it cost them up to $500 per month in electricity to run. In contrast, we estimate that ours costs less than $5 per month. (At the same time we were moving from incandescent bulbs to compact fluorescent bulbs, so our electricity actually went down, but we think the estimate is pretty good.) There are two companies that I know of that make fully insulated tubs, Sundance and Watkins Manufacturing (who make Hot Spring, Solana, Limelight, and Tiger River brands). If you are saving even $50 per month in electricity over a lower quality spa, this will quickly pay for the extra money you may have spent up front. Ours is so well insulated that when it snows, if we don’t clear off the snow from the cover, it remains on the cover just as long as the snow on the surrounding deck. We bought a Hot Spring Sovereign with a pearl shell.
2. Make sure you wet-test it first. All of the dealers will let you sit in the tub without water and see what it feels like. While this can give you a general idea, you really need to sit in it with water and with the jets operating. You may find that the seats are not comfortable when water is present, or that you float out of some of the seats, or that the jets are too strong or too weak or not positioned well. All reputable dealers are happy to let you try them out. Ideally, they will invite you back when the store is closed so that you can relax and compare a few. (This was our son’s favorite part of the process.)
3. Realistically judge how many people will use the tub. Many companies will try to sell you the largest, and most expensive spa they have. But realistically, 90% of the time there will be only one or two people in it. Decide based on your needs but underestimate your needs a bit. We chose a 6-person spa, but it is actually a little cozy with 6 people in it. This is not a problem, because in the 10 years we’ve had it this only happened one time. Typically it is just HomeOwnerMan and WifeGirl in it, and occasionally SonBoy.
4. Make sure it has a good foundation to sit on. We were rebuilding our deck when we got the spa, so I designed the deck around the specs of the hot tub. We made a portion of the deck so that the tub sat on a poured concrete slab and the rim of it sat flush with the deck. That way, you don’t have to climb into the tub, but rather descend into the tub. The biggest benefit of this, though, was the concrete slab. Spas hold between one and two tons of water, so there is a lot of weight to consider. If it goes on a deck, you typically have to reinforce the structure to carry the load. And even with the reinforcement, the deck can shift or sag over time. This puts stress on the spa shell, which is molded plastic or fiberglass, and can cause it to crack over time. With the slab (which we poured with structural rebar in it), the spa has had a stable, level surface on which to sit. Our shell is in as good shape as when it was new.
5. Get an ozonator. An ozonator is a device which creates ozone (yes the same stuff we nearly depleted in the 1970s with hairspray and deodorant). Ozone is effective at killing bacteria and viruses in water, and can greatly reduce the amount of chemicals you need in your spa. When we bought our tubs, ozonators were basically long UV lights that had a life expectancy of only 200 hours or so. Then they were ineffective. So we opted to not buy one, and figured we’d pay a little extra for chemicals but each time we had to replace the UV bulb we would spend a lot of money. Soon corona-discharge ozonators came out and were a clear advance in ozonators. We bought and installed one ourselves for about $179, and we have never had problems with it since. It produces a constant supply of ozone bubbles which keeps the water clean, crisp, and fresh.
6. When it comes to chemicals, use the “K.I.S.S.” method. We were told that there were a lot of harsh chemicals out there and that we wanted something easy on the skin. We researched it a lot, and decided on Baqua-Spa, a system of several chemicals that centered around biguanide. The Baqua-spa system was not cheap and required a Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering along with a Meteorology degree and some Theology thrown in to get it just right. The water was never clear. Foam was frequently a problem. pH was hard to regulate. We spoke to others who used it, and they told us we were using too much, so we cut way back. This helped, but still the water was never crystal clear from the moment we added the first bit of Baqua-spa.
Another friend, who incidentally told us about the ozonator, recommended chlorine. He told us that he used about 3 teaspoons of chlorine when he started his tub with new water, and then one teaspoon each time they were finished using the tub. That’s it. We started doing this, and the water is crystal clear for months. We used to change the water every 2-3 months; now we change it twice a year, and even then it is clear. Chlorine is cheap and easy. Keep it simple, stupid.
7. Buy good filters. We spent the extra money on low maintenance ceramic filters. These last many years (we replaced ours for the first time after 8 years). But the real value in them is that they can be put into your dishwasher and cleaned on a no heat cycle using no detergent. We stop the cycle once or twice to re-position the four filters which ensures thorough cleaning, but they require no other maintenance. We have spoken to spa owners who must hose off their filters weekly or monthly and replace them yearly. We clean them once every 2 months or so effortlessly in the dishwasher.
8. Get your water tested. This sort of goes along with #6, but each time you start up your spa after cleaning. put your initial chemicals in, let it circulate and heat over night, and then take a sample of the water to a reputable local pool/spa dealer. They may charge you a nominal fee for testing, but they can immediately tell you if your pH is off or if any of the other readings is out of whack. We used to buy test kits, but they are not very accurate, go bad quickly, and are expensive. And if you own a kit you tend to mess with the water too much. Remember – K.I.S.S.
9. Buy a small sump pump for emptying. This was good advice that our dealer gave us. For about $75 at your home center you can buy a pump that will empty your spa in less than a half hour. This greatly cuts down cleaning time. Want to empty it even faster, run the sump pump and set up a second hose as a syphon, provided your tub is a little above ground level or you live on a hill. It really works and will amaze the kids.
10. No abrasives, and hardly any soap when cleaning. All you really need is a teflon-safe scrub pad and some warm water. For stubborn stains at the water line, a little dot of Softscrub might help.
11. A few other things.
Buy a good lid, and yes, buy good lifters. Our lid is in need of replacement, and the lifters are starting to show wear. But they are 10 years old.
No glass in the tub. If you are drinking beer, drink from a can or cup. If you are a wine drinker, a plastic cup will have to do. If you are a scotch drinker, have your scotch after you get out of the tub.
Drink lots of water while in the tub. Yes, you sweat while you are in it.
Avoid body lotions and perfume. They gum up the works and are frankly unpleasant to be around. Make that friend of yours shower before she gets in, or you will have a slick of that garbage she wears on every surface of the tub and you’ll have to empty it prematurely.
Don’t buy the gimmicks. They put everything from sound systems to fountains in them, mostly aimed at driving up the price. You don’t need ’em.
Enjoy some time to yourself. Go sit in the hot tub when the sun is coming up and everyone else is still asleep. It is a great way to start the day.
Enjoy the time with your family. We’ve found that we have our most deep conversations while relaxing in the spa. That is worth its weight in gold.