Buying a hot tub is a nightmare.
The truth is, there are so many side track issues, exaggerations and outright misinformation perpetuated by manufacturers and retailers alike that even an intelligent, diligent researcher does not have a hope in hell of making an educated buying decision.
Part of the problem is most of the retailers don’t really know that much about the hot tub industry or what really makes a great hot tub. For the most part, they are just regurgitating the pitch they got when they bought the line of spas they are selling.
I’ll break this down into a few sections, first lets talk about the real issues that will make the biggest difference to your hot tub buying choice, then the pitches that are all about side tracking you… I call these the spin issues, then a list of questions to ask your local retailer.
After more than 20 years in almost all aspects of this industry, I don’t know much… but I know way too much about the hot tub industry….
The Stuff that really matters
Insulation is one of the areas worth investing in when you are building/buying a hot tub. Insulation often has some of the worst misinformation surrounding it as companies try to defend using cheap materials. What matters with insulation is the R Value, the ability of a material to contain heat inside a system and for that nothing beats filling the entire hot tub cavity with foam insulation. Now one criticism you will hear is that this makes service difficult and that was true with the old foam systems, they hardened up over time and made service a nightmare if you needed to get under them. If you go with an Icynene foam though it never truly hardens and you can easily remove a portion if you need access.
These foam systems are more expensive but if you go with a cheap perimeter system you will be losing heat and money every moment it runs. If you live in colder areas it also leaves you far more vulnerable to frozen pipes and damage should you ever lose power. I always advise people to insulate at least as well as the building code in your area mandates, several “miracle” hot tub insulation systems use materials and methods that have been banned for housing. If it isn’t good enough for your house it isn’t good enough for your hot tub. The larger the difference in temperature the better insulated something needs to be.
Ok next is the Dealer…
Trust me here folks… A good industry person with 20 years under their belt who has been under the spas fixing them, selling them and designing them will have made a good choice on the line of spas he carries. They will also know how to look after you and the product in the field… If you are lucky enough to have an expert in your local market then you are golden, but the reality is most of the people in the hot tub industry are not experts… They just went shopping for hot tubs like you are now except they went to the spa industry show in las Vegas and bought in a line of hot tubs based on a sales pitch from the manufacturer… And now they are regurgitating the same pitch back to you… Ask questions… Get a feel for their industry knowledge instead of just product knowledge… Just because someone believes something to be true doesn’t mean they have an understanding of the nuances of the product, sometimes it just means they drank the Koolaid :-).
“There is no substitute for experience and a good dealer will make more difference to you than any other single factor…”
Now I will only say this a million times so listen close… components, components, components, components, components, components, components, components, components, components, components, components, components, components…
In case you missed that people, it is all about the components!!!
When we build a hot tub we can buy good solid proven track record components like Balboa heating and control systems, and Waterways jets, pumps, and fittings or we can buy inexpensive components like Rising Dragon jets, controls and filters… And there are also a whole pile of guys in the middle. but understand one thing!!!
“No hot tub company in the world really builds their own electronic control and heating systems, nor do they make their own jets, pumps or fittings…”
The idea is ludicrous really, there is no way any hot tub company, not even the giants like Master Spas and Watkins could ever build and maintain their own electronic fabrication facility nor could they build their own plastic fabrication plant. The idea is silly… All they do is have someone build the parts for them and then private label it.
“If a company is claiming that they build their own components then they are almost certainly hiding a cheap component behind a fancy label…”
If they are using the number one big brands like Balboa and Waterways then they are going to talk about components because they are using the best you can buy and want you to know it. If they are using cheap Chinese knock offs then they will talk about the side track issues, like shells, bases, and frames. In some instances even claim they build their own parts…
Shells construction can vary vastly and the way a shell is built will affect how long your spa will last…
Almost everybody uses the same shell materials but the manufacturing technique can make a drastic difference in the cost and the reliability of your hot tub main component… the shell
- Hand rolled self-supporting shells are rare, most use a band aid approach of props, supports, and steel re-enforcing to try and keep cheap shells from falling apart.
- Thick edges do not mean the whole shell is thicker, it just means they make the edge thick to give you that warm fuzzy feeling 🙂
- supports under the seats to support the shell are not a good thing they mean the shell is cheap and thin and needs supporting to hold up
The Side-track issues
This list is Huge because there are more non-issues spun into issues than anything else.
“While the manufacturers of the components like Balboa and Waterways hold many useful patents on the parts in your hot tub, Very few hot tub manufacturers hold any really significant patents…”
Base of the hot tub
The pitch from the companies that use these over engineered bases is that the base is critical to keeping moisture and vermin out of the tub and that you can put the tub right on the grass without hurting the tub. The pitch is that the overall cost of buying the product is going to be reduced by not haveing to properly prepare the ground… Folks this is just bad advice. We don’t do groundwork to protect the tub we do it to make sure the ground does not settle unevenly. If you drop a tub on the ground you will have to lift it in a few years and re-level it… Do it right the first time… no matter what the sales guy says put a patio stone base down and avoid the many issues that come with bad ground prep.
The moisture issue is solved by any vapor barrier on the base and the really important issue for controlling moisture is the base you put the tub on, make sure there is good drainage under the spa. Vermin on the other hand generally get in through the corners at either the bottom where it joins the base or the top where it meets the shell.
All you care about here is that there is a vapor barrier, and ideally, you will put a patio stone or similar base that drains well under the spa.
Some Manufacturers put super heavy-grade bases under their spa but the truth is there is little or no real value here.
The tubs with crazy moulded bases fall into one of two groups:
- Low-end tubs using cheap parts and thin shells that need a heavy grade base to hold the shell together, or use the base as a sidetrack issue to cover up a cheap component list.
- Crazy super hi-end spas that have every conceivable upgrade and you are paying the crazy Hi-end prices.
In either case, don’t put too much weight on this feature, it will not really make a difference to your spa experience or to the longevity of your hot tub.
Do not buy into that crazy pitch that you can put your tub on any flat level surface without the proper ground prep. It will not hurt the hot tub, but the ground will not settle evenly and in a couple years, you will have to lift your tub and do it properly.
On modern spas, the frame is just there to hold the skirt on, again all but the cheapest end of the market makes self-supporting shells now which simply means the shell can hold the water without support from a frame.
- Spas that use heavy frames or steel frames are usually using thin cheap shells that need to be supported.
- The frame does not need to pressure treated, it is not like your deck that is exposed to the elements, your frame is covered by the skirt and is dry and protected.
“It is dry as hell under the skirt of a hot tub, you do not care if the material is wood, pressure treated wood, or metal, you will never have a frame failure…”
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I also answer questions on our Buyers Asssitance page and help dozens of people each week by searching their market for the best brands, deals and offering advice about which marketing traps to avoid.