How To Find A Quality Hot Tub
(A technical perspective)
Congratulations on your decision to invest in a hot tub. With all the marketing and glam, it can be very hard for consumers to determine if a spa is really as good as it may appear in a brochure. In this article I will explain how to choose a quality hot tub using my service experience and common sense.
There are several things to consider that make up a quality hot tub. The shell, framing, insulation, cabinet, pumps, jets, control system, warranty, manufacture, and most importantly the dealer. I will touch on each subject and explain what to look for. While I also sell spas, I will try not to bias my opinion toward my brand.
Value: Without quality, there is not much value. Unfortunately the spa industry is full of misleading information that makes it very difficult to find a quality product. One of the most common tricks is to use inflated “suggested retail” prices, and then offer “half off” sales. This makes consumers think that they are buying an expensive high quality spa for a great price. In reality, they are getting exactly what they pay for or often paying too much for what they get! It is also impossible to tell quality based on specifications or meaningless “star ratings”. The only real way to know you are buying quality it to research the brand or see for yourself how it is made. Look for insulation (or lack thereof), quality components, plumbing and framing craftsmanship.
Shell: There are different shell materials and each one is only as good as its manufacturing process. While acrylics are the most common, there are good spa manufactures such as Nordic, Hot Springs, and Freeflow (to name a few) that use other material with great success. Not all acrylic shells are made the same though. The acrylic is actually only a thin layer that makes up the surface and color of the shell. The acrylic is bonded to a substrate to give it the required strength. The substrate is added at the spa factory after the shell is formed. This is where manufacturing can make a big difference in quality. Uncontrolled processes can result is shells with various thicknesses and thin weak spots.
TIP: A good indication of this is to look at the bottom edge of the spas lip, where the cabinet tucks behind the shell. Is the shell thickness consistent all the way around?
Insulation: Every manufacture and dealer will claim that their spas are the best insulated and most efficient around. It is important to do some research in this area so you can choose a spa that will not cost a fortune to heat. There are two basic methods of insulating, thermo-pane and full foam. Thermo-pane is when the spas cabinet is insulated, leaving a warm air space around the shell and plumbing. Full foam completely covers the shell and plumbing in a thick layer of expanding foam insulation. Each has its own advantages, and if done right will work very well. Thermo-pane is more expensive to manufacture correctly, however it can be very cheep to do poorly. Many, many lower end spas will use just a thin layer of insulation, with no consideration for air gaps and cracks that let cold air blow right into the cabinet. These can be very expensive to operate in winter, costing several times more to heat then a properly insulated spa.
TIP: Before you visit a showroom, ask the salesperson to remove a spas cabinet panel. Look at the insulation for yourself and use common sense judgment. Compare several different spa brands so that you can form an educated opinion. Is the insulation thick enough, is the cabinet air tight (for thermo-pane), would it be adequate for your home?
Title-20 Certification: Title-20 is a government standard created by the state of California. In order to be certified, spas must be tested to ensure they meet energy efficiency standards. If a spa is not title-20 certified, it may lack insulation and use much more energy to operate.
Pumps: One of the most misleading specifications that some manufactures use is pump horse power. There are different ways to rate the HP of an electric motor. Some manufactures may rate the “peak” or “break” HP, while others use “continuous” HP. Because of this, a spa that claims 6 or 7 HP might have the same pump as a different manufacture who calls it 4 or 5 HP. Jet power is also dependant on the design of the plumbing. Because of these factors, you should not compare spas based on HP ratings.
Jets: Many spa shoppers become obsessed with jet count. While everyone wants a spa with plenty of jets, more is not always better. Be aware of the size, placement, and quality of the jets. If a spa has 100 tiny jets along a flat wall where no one can comfortably sit, what’s the point? To maintain correct pressure there must be a balance between pump size, number of jets, and size of jets. Some spas may have many smaller jets, while other will have just a few large jets. The number of jets is not as important as the placement and variety. Be aware that some manufactures increase jet count by counting air injectors or using “master” jets which are one large jet with multiple nozzles. Some spas offer stainless steel jets. These can make a big difference in the look of a spa, however there is no difference in quality. The stainless steel is simply a trim piece on the jet face.
Control System: Most spas made today use electronic control systems, also known as spa packs. There are two major manufactures of spa packs, Balboa and Gecko. Each offer several different models with various features and programming options. Some large spa manufactures have custom spa packs and heater setups. It is not practical to base a purchase decision on the type or brand of spa pack, unless you really want a certain feature. Sticking with one of the major spa pack manufactures may offer an advantage when it comes to servicing. Custom spa packs will have less part availability and can be harder to troubleshoot.
Warranty: Read the fine print! To compare warranties, you must read the fine print. Read the entire warranty, don’t just pay attention to warranty length. Some important things to look for include: does it cover parts AND labor, is it pro-rated or comprehensive, how many provisions are included that can void the warranty?
Manufacture: The manufacture and dealer will be who you depend on for parts and service for years to come. There is a huge amount of national and regional manufactures out there. Without personal experience, it can be hard to gauge there integrity. Online spa forums (there are several spa message boards) and BBB ratings can be a good source of information. It can be harder to find information on smaller manufactures. People can be more apt to share complaints online, rather then write about positive experiences. You might not find a winner, but possibly weed out some losers. TIP: Beware of manufacture direct traveling spa shows. If you decide to attend one of these shows, visit some local dealers first. You will likely find that the quality, pricing, and selection (one manufacture), are nowhere near what the advertisements lead you to believe.
Dealer: The dealer is who you will rely on most for advice, training, parts (filters & chemicals), and service. Get to know your dealer, ask questions and check references. If you know more about spas then the salesperson, they won’t be too helpful in the future. Before you walk into a store, be aware that some salespeople will say just about anything to get you to put down a deposit before leaving. If they truly believe in the quality and value of what they sell, they won’t mind you shopping around.
Tip: You are in control of your purchase. That so called amazing offer will still be there next time you visit.
Best advice: Always buy your spa from Four Season Spas. Ok, so this tip might be slightly biased:)
Here is a summery of points for how to find a quality hot tub:
- Do your homework, shop around and familiarize yourself with different brands. Note differences in construction, insulation, and craftsmanship between expensive and less expensive spas.
- Closely inspect spas inside and out with cabinet panels removed. Look at framing, shell, insulation, and craftsmanship.
- Read warranties closely.
- Be aware of misleading advertising, spa shows, high pressure sales, and too good to be true “discounts”.
- Don’t make impulse purchases or get talked into buying before you are comfortable with your decision.
You can’t see a fancy showroom from your hot tub, so why pay for one?
Consider this, A regular spa dealer might sell at most 150 spas per year. If they are paying 2 salesmen $500/week, and paying 500/week for rent, insurance, electric, and advertising, then their yearly operating costs are $78,000 ($1,500 salesman and overhead X 52 weeks per year). That equals a built in expense of $520 for every spa sold before any profit is even added ($78,000 / 150 spas). Now obviously there are other factors such as income form pool or chemical sales that will help pay a dealership’s costs. I used very conservative numbers for expenses and number of spas sold per year to negate these other factors. It is common industry knowledge that typical spa dealerships must sell about 75 spas per year before they even begin to turn a profit after paying overhead. In comparison, Four Season Spas has almost no overhead. This means that more of your money goes towards your spa, not towards your dealer’s fancy showroom.