Hot Tubs and Spas Introduction
Few things are more relaxing than a soak in a hot tub or spa. The warm water and jets have a soothing effect on the mind and body and can be used for muscle relaxation or hydrotherapy. Hot tubs can also be a source of entertainment, allowing family members and guests to socialize in a comfortable atmosphere.
Unlike pools, the water temperature in hot tubs and spas allows for year-round outdoor use -- even in the coldest of climates. They can also be installed within a home for protection from the elements or additional privacy. Whether inside or out, a hot tub or spa can provide decades of enjoyment when properly maintained and increase the resale value of your home.
This BuyerZone Hot Tubs and Spas Buyer's Guide includes the latest trends and data as well as common purchase considerations, including:
- What hot tub sizes to look for
- Popular features
- How to choose a good hot tub dealer
- Hot tub prices to expect
- Hot tub maintenance tips
Once you know what to look for, we can also help you find qualified hot tub dealers in your area. Just fill out our free hot tubs price quotes request form and we'll match you with reputable local hot tub dealers.
Ready to get started? Your first step in buying a hot tub is figuring out how many people you want to accommodate. Use this rundown on types and sizes to plan ahead accordingly.
Basic Types of Spas and Hot Tubs
Most of the hot tub market today is dominated by spas. Technically, the term "hot tub" refers to the older, wooden tubs with bench seating but the terms are fairly interchangeable. Because wooden hot tubs have increased maintenance requirements as well as higher purchasing and operating costs, they are less common today. That said, some buyers still strongly prefer the aesthetics of a wooden hot tub.
The most common type of spa purchased today is a molded acrylic shell with built-in seating and water jets. Beneath the shell, you’ll often find fiberglass or wooden framing and a composite or synthetic cabinet. One or more motors pipe water to the jets for massage and relaxation, and to filters and other cleaning systems to maintain the water quality.
Buyers who don't want to permanently mount their hot tub in one spot can choose portable spas. These preassembled tubs sit above ground and accommodate anywhere from 1 to 10 people, incorporating a system of motors and jets similar to their full-sized counterparts.
Small portable spas and hot tubs seat one or two people and hold approximately 100 gallons of water. The largest models seat nine or more and hold approximately 500 to 1,000 gallons. Depths are usually in the 3-foot range and most are 3 feet to 9 feet in diameter. Square tubs are the most common, but hot tubs and spas are also available in round, oval, rectangular, or triangular shapes.
A 7-by-7-foot tub is a common size and typically seats 4 to 6 people. It's worth noting that the number of people who can share a hot tub isn't a fixed number as it depends on how friendly your hot tubbers are with each other, among other factors. In general though, you'll often find that filling a hot tub to its rated capacity results in a lack of foot space.
There are two primary options for heating the water in your hot tub: electricity or gas. Electric heating is used in between 80% to 95% of all portable hot tubs currently sold throughout the United States. In comparison, their gas-powered counterparts are found in only 5% to 20% of installations. However, gas heating is used almost exclusively in the construction of larger, in-ground tubs as they have the potential to reduce operating costs over the long run.
Some buyers look for wood-fired, solar, or propane heaters for their spas and hot tubs. If you have a strong preference for one of these alternative heating methods, be prepared to spend extra -- potentially, a lot extra. You may even have to buy a kit or aftermarket add-on to convert the tub yourself.
In general, you'll need 220v service to power the pumps in a hot tub – regardless of what you use to heat the water -- so you'll probably need a professional electrician to do the wiring.
Insulation and cabinet
The spa shell is the innermost layer that holds the water. The outside -- known as the "cabinet" -- is typically made of synthetic material that replicates wood. The primary reason for the use of synthetics is the significant maintenance required to keep a real wood cabinet in shape. Of course, real wood hot tubs usually feature wooden cabinets as well, both of which require additional maintenance.
Between the shell and the cabinet is a layer of insulation designed to contain the heat of the water. The best choice for energy efficiency is full-foam insulation, a sprayable foam that fills the interior spaces, including those around pipes and motors.
Full-foam insulation can make it somewhat more difficult to repair internal leaks. However, since it stabilizes internal pipes and prevents vibration from working them loose, it reduces the likelihood that those leaks will occur. It also helps reduce motor noise.
Once you've figured out the dimensions of your tub, it's time to consider the extra bells and whistles. And with some of the add-ons listed below, your hot tub can be transformed into an at-home spa experience.
Hot Tub and Spa Features
Hot tub and spa models range from very basic to luxurious. The model that's right for your home depends on how you plan to use the tub -- and how often.
To get started, are you looking for quiet relaxation or an entertainment spot for socializing? If your goal is an occasional getaway in the backyard, you may not need to spend extra on a fancy model. Instead, focus on the essential features for comfort and efficiency available in a basic tub.
If you have a large family or plan to spend a lot of time in your spa, a high-end model may be worth the investment. High-end hot tubs may have digital lighting and sound systems or even include flat-screen TVs and DVD players, in addition to all the standard features you'd find in traditional spas.
Jets are one of the most popular features of hot tubs. They force powerful streams of water throughout the tub to create a massaging effect. Manufacturers can equip their tubs with a wide variety of different jets -- swirl, whirlpool, moving, adjustable, and many more -- all of which provide different types of water flow.
Jets are a personal preference. You may even want different jets at different times or on different body parts. Therefore selecting a model that incorporates a wide variety of jets is usually your best bet. Some hot tubs even feature interchangeable jets, making it easy to swap in alternate jets to change the experience.
Some hot tubs come with more than 50 jets while others only have only a dozen. But don't be wowed by tubs that feature an extremely high number of jets. Most users find a smaller number of powerful jets much more relaxing than dozens of tiny, less powerful ones -- a fact that's reflected in the dominance of models with hydrotherapy features and other characteristics associated with stronger jets.
While the jets shape the water flow as it enters the tub, the real power behind them comes from the pumps inside your hot tub. Smaller tubs may have only one pump, but the popular 6- to 7-foot models usually have two pumps in the 2 to 5 horsepower range. Larger tubs often have three or more pumps.
Power isn't everything though. More high-power pumps means increased energy costs, potentially more noise, and a higher purchase price. Striking a balance is important. So watch out for dealers who stress power over other features.
Covers help keep the tub free of debris, prevent children or pets from falling in, and improve energy efficiency by trapping heat when it's not in use.
If you need extra safety, look for covers that are listed with ASTM (the American Society of Testing and Materials) and UL (Underwriters Laboratories). If insulation is important, know that covers are rated by thickness and often include two measurements, one for the middle and one for the sides. For example, a 4- by 2-inch taper cover is generally a good insulator, sloping from 4 inches thick in the middle to 2 inches thick at the edges. If you're in need of even more padding, covers also come in a 5- by 3-inch taper and a 6- by 4-inch taper.
Those on the lookout for ways to trim costs may want to consider a thicker cover, especially if you plan on using the tub regularly. The warmer you can keep the water during downtime, the less energy will be required to heat it back up to your preferred temperature.
Covers can be heavy and awkward to move, so many larger covers include built-in lifters that help you move them.
- Lights: Used to illuminate the interior and exterior of the tub for nighttime use. LED lights use less electricity and some types let you choose different colors.
- Waterfalls and fountains: These liquid effects add the calming sound of falling water to high-end tubs and range from simple waterfalls that flow into the spa to jets that spray steams of water up and over the heads of tub occupants.
- Digital control panels: Used to control heaters, jets, lighting, sound, and entertainment systems. Plus, some manufacturers provide a second remote control panel that lets you heat up the tub from inside your house.
- Lounge seats: Most mid-sized to large hot tubs include at least one lounge seat that's designed for comfort and hydrotherapy, allowing the user to lie back and relax. However, some buyers prefer a hot tub where all the seats are upright, facing each other. On the other hand, you may want a tub that includes two lounge seats so multiple people can enjoy the relaxation they provide.
- Cup holders/coolers: Not surprisingly, many people like to enjoy cold beverages while using their hot tubs. Built-in cup holders provide a place to rest your drink and can really help you and your guests enjoy your purchase that much more.
One of the biggest challenges in owning a hot tub is the maintenance – an aspect that’s critical to the health of the bathers. Before settling on a particular model or a dealer’s support package, here are a few things to know in advance that may influence your purchase decision.
Even tubs and spas with advanced filtration systems require regular chemical treatments for sanitation. The water that people soak in is a breeding ground for germs. And without proper maintenance, your hot tub can turn into an "oversized Petri dish," posing some serious health risks. Your exact sanitation needs will vary considerably based on "bather load"(the number of bodies in the tub over a set period of time).
Closely monitor the pH level of your tub water and add chemicals regularly to keep it in balance. The chemicals most often used for sanitation are chlorine and bromine.
Occasionally, you'll also have to perform a "shock" treatment by using a large amount of chemicals to restore the proper chemical balance. Hot tubs and spas are not safe for use up to several days after a shock treatment. For further sanitation, expect to drain the tub completely a couple times per year.
Besides chemicals, there are a few other water management components to consider:
- Hot tub filtration systems: Help maintain a clean tub by filtering out debris and forcing in clean water.
- Ozonators/ozone purification systems: Use ultraviolet light to create ozone, a natural antimicrobial.
- Ionization systems: Add zinc, copper, or silver ions to the water to remove impurities and inhibit growth of bacteria or algae.
Keep in mind that these types of water management features help reduce the amount of chemicals you have to use -- by as much as 70% in some cases -- but do not eliminate their use. True "chemical-free" hot tubs are not yet a feasible option.
A quality dealer should be able to walk you through the steps of proper sanitation and supply a chemical kit that contains all the substances you'll need to keep your hot tub clean.
They should also offer a service plan that includes free basic testing on a regular basis or more thorough ongoing maintenance programs for a set service fee. The key is to find the maintenance system that's most convenient for you and stick with it.
Hot tub dealers have a few unique traits you should be on the lookout for – benefits that can save you some costly expenses now and in the long-run. So your next step is to find a local dealer that can provide a combination of quality products and customer support.
Choosing a Spa Dealer
Choosing a spa dealer is a critical part of your purchase decision. The combination of water, electrical controls, motors, and exposure to the elements leads to the eventual necessity of service and repairs -- a need that makes you dependent upon a reliable dealer. Here’s a checklist for choosing the best one:
- In-house service. Look for spa dealers who provide service calls, as opposed to those who pass them off on a third party. You want the specialized expertise and reliability of dealer repairs, not a third party that has a large customer base to deal with and only a general level of knowledge.
- Delivery. It’s also best to choose a dealer that handles their own deliveries. Those who outsource delivery may not consider the challenges specific to your location when they sell you the tub -- narrow entryways or unsuitable supports would be two prime examples. These and a host of other logistical hiccups can lead to a big "uh-oh" moment when the delivery arrives if not taken into account in advance.
- Solid track record. Choosing an established dealer is also important. A spa dealership can be an attractive business opportunity for people looking to make a quick buck -- until they discover the burden of ongoing support. The industry has a small but steady number of dealerships opening and closing quickly. Look for a dealer who’s been in business for 10 years or more, demonstrating a commitment to hot tub and spa sales and quality service.
- Product lines. A related consideration is the strength of the manufacturers the dealer represents. New hot tubs come with warranties that can cover the equipment for 1 to 10 years and the shell for 5 to 20 years. But that warranty is only as good as the manufacturer that supports it.
Choosing a spa dealer who offers the best service and warranties may cost you more up front. But in the long run, even one substantial repair can make up the difference. Take the time to check references, including those supplied by the dealer, as well as any neighbors or friends who have used the same dealer.
Keep these costs (and potential bargaining points) in mind when talking with a dealer.
Used Hot Tub Prices and New Hot Tub Prices
Hot tub and spa prices vary widely, depending on the size and features. You could spend as little as $3,000 for a basic portable model that seats three or more or $15,000 for a huge, top-of-the-line model that seats 10 and has digital lighting and sound. Most portable models fall somewhere in the $4,000 to $8,000 range. For those interested in below-ground tubs, they start at $18,000 and get spendy in a hurry depending on the materials used as well as the complexity involved with the masonry.
For more specific examples, take a look at what other BuyerZone users paid for their hot tubs.
Don’t forget though: the purchase price isn’t the end of your expenses – and with cheaper tubs, just the beginning. Be sure to budget for shipping and installation, sanitation, upkeep, and the energy it will take to power your hot tub or spa. Water maintenance supplies like chemicals and replacement filters typically cost between $90 and $110 per year (or about $10 a month), depending on the tub and usage. In addition, you can expect to pay anywhere between $25 and $100 per month in power costs.
The wide range in power costs highlights an important buying consideration. This is where you’ll find a vast disparity between a low-cost hot tub at a big-box retailer and one produced by a major manufacturer sold through a reputable dealer.
Compare a $4,000 generic model with a $7,000 equivalent produced by almost any major brand and you'll see that the cheaper model will have significantly less insulation. That means heating will cost $100 or more per month in electricity, compared to $25 to $35 per month for the higher quality model. That difference will mean the $3,000 you "saved" on the purchase will be offset in less than three years, and you'll still be paying $100+ per month after that.
Used hot tubs
The market for used hot tubs is relatively small for a couple of reasons. Tubs that are permanently set into decks or belowground are not good candidates for resale, and portable tubs often get moved from one home to the next. However, if you can find a used hot tub that fits your needs, you can save quite a bit of money—potentially thousands of dollars on higher-end models.
Just be sure to test it before buying. In particular, make sure you see the tub filled with water and up to temperature, as small leaks or heating-element failures can be hard to spot. Most importantly, though the cheapies you find on craigslist are often tempting, you should still buy your used tub from a reputable dealer, enabling you to return the tub or get necessary repairs in case anything does go wrong.
Shipping and installation
There are a few things you’ll need to do to prepare for the delivery of your hot tub or spa. First, it helps to have a level surface selected for the tub, usually a concrete slab, porch, or deck that’s been designed to bear the hot tub’s weight. Next, if the model you select requires electrical wiring, it’s not a bad idea to have that work done in advance so you can start enjoying your tub or spa as soon as possible. Plus, it may facilitate access for the electrician, reducing hassle and subsequent hourly costs.
If not included in the price, delivery and setup can run several hundred dollars. Not surprisingly, shipping and installation costs also vary depending on the model you select. A hot tub that’s assembled on-site will cost a lot more to install than a one-piece plastic spa. Inset tubs or spas will cost more than aboveground models.
Make sure the dealer you choose carefully walks you through the delivery and installation requirements so you wind up with the most complete estimate.
In addition to cost, we’ve collected some tips and advice on how to find the best hot tub, gathered from current BuyerZone customers (and a few of our favorite hot tub dealers). Here’s what worked for them.
Spa Tub Buying Tips
One of the key steps in buying a spa tub is also one of the most fun: wet testing. All this really means is visiting the dealership and being prepared to take a test soak. By spending 10 to 20 minutes in the tub you’re evaluating, you’ll get a good sense of the action of the jets, the comfort of the seats, and the noise level of the whole spa.
Once you've narrowed your choices down to a couple of models, wet testing is the best way to really compare them. When you start to get overwhelmed with facts and figures about the number of jets, water flow ratings, and motor horsepower, keep this option in mind.
Know what you want and can afford before talking to a dealer. If you haven't decided on a budget or thought about the features you can do without, you may end up with a spa tub that’s more expensive than you actually need. Be wary of dealers who try to upsell you on a model outside your price range.
Talk to friends or family who own hot tubs or spas before making your purchase. Ask what they like and don't like about the models they chose, and what they would do differently if purchasing new ones.
Avoid last-minute surprises. When getting price quotes on spa tubs, make sure the estimates include all aspects of the purchase: the tub itself, delivery, and installation, including electrical and water hookups.
Consider how much personal time and energy you want to spend on maintenance and upkeep. Ask dealers which models involve the most and the least upkeep. Then be realistic about how much you’re willing to do—and how often.
Ask a hot tub dealer to help you estimate the total cost. This is where you’ll factor in maintaining a hot tub or spa on a monthly or yearly basis. The figure won’t be exact, but you’ll get a reasonable idea of what to expect.
Check the warranty. Most generic tubs only include a 1-year manufacturer warranty, in comparison to spas from major manufacturers that that typically come backed by a 10-year warranty.This is another reason that spending a little extra up front for a brand name can pay off in the long run.
Shop multiple hot tub dealers before choosing one. Have a list of questions ready and trust your instincts if a dealer only seems interested in making a quick sale. Check the company's record with the Better Business Bureau and other consumer agencies.