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Hot Tubs & Spas

Sunday, 21 September 2008

After a tough day at work or play, thereís nothing like a soak in a hot tub. Popular in some form or other for thousands of years, todayís hot tubs have lots of choice, from lights and jets to design and capacity. We find out all you need to know before buying this big ticket item.

   BUYING TIPS

The Basics

  • Hot tubs and spas range from $3,000-$20,000, depending on size, type, and features. Don’t forget to include electrical and maintenance costs in your budget, and also the raised premium on your home insurance.

  • A spa or a hot tub? These terms are often used interchangeably, but they are lightly different.

    • Hot tubs are made of wood and sometimes include a liner.

    • Spa tubs are made of acrylic or fibreglass and come in a variety of shapes and sizes. They are also equipped with bells and whistles like jets, lights, and moulded seating.

  • Spa tubs come in two standard types: portable and in-ground

    • Portable spa tubs are generally less expensive than in-ground. All-in-one units come equipped with all of the support equipment and skirting to hide it. They’re easy to install and can be up and running in just hours. No plumbing is required – just a garden hose. Great for small yards and spaces, they’re energy efficient. They also come in only a few standard sizes and shapes, so while buying accessories is easy, your choices are limited.

    • In-ground tubs can be customized in both shape and size, easily integrated into a deck or patio, and can enhance the landscape, especially if teamed with a pool or other features. They cost more than portable, but they can be a good investment for your home’s value. They also require professional installation.

  • Tub materials you can choose from each have advantages and disadvantages:

    • Acrylic is the most common for portable spas. The surface is non-porous, slick, shiny, durable, scratch-resistant and fairly easy to repair. They usually come in pre-formed designs but there is a large variety of shapes, sizes, colours, and finishes.

    • Rovel Thermoplastic is high-impact, weather-resistant material used for years for boat hulls, camper shells, etc. In spas it is used over a layer of ABS plastic.

    • Wood is used in traditional-style tubs. Redwood, cedar, and mahogany resist rot, and feel friendlier against the body than synthetics. However, they require more maintenance, both of the wood and the water, and must be drained and cleaned regularly.

    • Fibreglass and gel-coat were popular but develop problems over time so are no longer commonly in use.

    • Gunite, a mix of sand, cement and water, is used for in-ground tubs, which are created like swimming pools. A site is excavated, forms are put in place, and the product is applied as a spray over top. This allows for any design to be created.

    • Shotcrete is a similar material and process as gunite.

    • Concrete is, again, similar material and process to gunite, but contains gravel and is poured by hand or pumped into wooden forms, which take more time and effort and limit design.

    • Tile is labour-intensive and costly. They are often added as a decorative touch overtop a material like gunite, shotcrete or concrete. A fully-tiled spa is very expensive.

  • The seating arrangement is another important factor in your tub choice:

    • Wood hot tubs don’t have contoured seating, but feature a single bench all around the inside of the tub.

    • Spas have moulded seats shaped like a bench, chairs or loungers.

    • The fancier the seating arrangements, the more crowded your tub will feel. Two loungers and a captain’s chair might be comfy, but they take up a lot of space.

    • Try to visualize several people sharing foot space in the spa.

    • Some opt for "barrier free" spas to avoid climbing over the seating.

    • The best way to get seating you like is to soak test some models if the dealer has them set up with water. Make sure to take your bathing suit and a towel!

  • The depth of your tub changes the price and your experience. Shallow spas heat up more quickly and consume less power and water. A deeper spa gives keeps you toasty right up to your neck, which is great for winter dips.

  • The water jets, the pump and the filtration system keep your water clean and moving. Here are some tips on what to look for in the water system.

    • Jets are adjustable in mid- to –high-end spas. Simple systems allow you to turn up or down their intensity while a sequencer lets you program on, off, order, intensity, and other qualities. Too many jets may make you feel like you’re being pummelled. The intensity of the jets is determined by flow rating, horespoer, and pipe size. In the store, check that when they’re all on, they operate with lots of power. They should also be positioned well in order to reach desired pressure points (e.g. neck, shoulders, lower back, etc.)

    • The pump must be powerful enough to support the size of your tub. Some spas have two pumps – one for circulation (low horsepower) and another for jets (high horsepower). Most new spas have a two-speed pump to operate both. The pipe diameter, number of jets, and plumbing configuration also affect pump size.

    • The filtration system must be balanced to match the square footage of the tub and the gallon-per-minute flow of the pump. They should be able to handle a great volume of water than the pumps can pump. Skimmer filters, available on some tubs, only skim the top of the water, leaving heavier debris to sink to the bottom. Showering with hot water and soap helps keep the water cleaner for longer.

  • Some accessories crucial to making a good buy:

    • A light makes the spa safer and cozier in the evening hours. If you go back to buy a light later it will cost you more.

    • A cover, especially if your spa is unique in shape and size. Covers help keep debris out, conserve heat and minimize water and chemical evaporation. Flexible and rigid covers are available. Rigid covers are more expensive, but typically offer more insulating qualities.

    • If you live in an area that gets cold in winter, look for a spa with good insulation – full insulation is recommended.

  • Don’t forget to ask detailed questions about the warranty. Most major manufacturers have a minimum five year warranty on all parts, plumbing and labour. Make sure to inquire about the length of warranty, coverage and be on the lookout for extra service charges.

Other Considerations

  • Home-improvement or remodelling shows are be a good place to start your search since many of the major spa manufacturers, dealers, and service organizations are all in one place. Also, dealers may offer special show prices on spas and equipment. Do a little comparison shopping prior to the show to give you an idea of current pricing.

  • Dealers often only carry one brand, so you may need to visit more than one dealer to get a good idea of what’s available.

  • Dealers may be evasive about price, because spas can come with a lot of options – just like a car. Try to make sure the dealer has been in business for a while and has a good reputation.

Be Aware

  • Safety around a tub should be your number one concern. Some important rules to help product you and your family:

    • Have a proper enclosure securing the tub area.

    • Supervise children at all times when the tub is in use or if they are playing in the area.

    • Specialty safety products such as lock and key covers are available.

    • Avoid drinking alcohol while in hot tub. The combination of relaxation from alcohol and heat can happen quickly and you can rapidly fall asleep or dehydrate.

    • Avoid using the hot tub alone, especially if you’re very tired.

    • Pregnant women should avoid hot tubs.

    • All spa heaters are thermostatically controlled, so there is little danger of boiling yourself.

    • Most spas are certified by an organization, such as the Underwriter’s Laboratory.

   TEST CRITERIA

We looked at three different kinds of portable spa tubs at three different price points:

  • Beachcomber 550 C, family sized, seats 6 to 8 adults, 53 jet combinations: $6,495
  • Sundance Marin, a hydrotherapy tub, seats 4 to 5 adults, 31 jets: $9,495.
  • Sundance Maxxus, seats 7 to 8 adults and has 47 jets: $12,995.

   OUR TOP PICK

We both preferred the mid-range Sundance Marin. We liked the hydrotherapy features, the varied jets and its compact size. But the price was just too high for us. So for our budget we’d stick with the Beachcomber 550 C. It worked well and was more economical.

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