Finding the perfect hot tub
Just hearing the words "hot tub" can conjure up visions of sheer luxury or good times with close friends. But hot tubs can offer benefits beyond just fun and relaxation. Many people find a nice soak in a bubbling hot tub can help to relieve the stresses of the day. Others find relief from lower back pain or after exercising. There are a few scientific-based studies that back up these anecdotal experiences, although, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), "There is lack of evidences for the mechanism on how hydrotherapy improves these diseases, which is one of the limitations of hydrotherapy, and further studies are required to find the mechanism of hydrotherapy on various diseases."
Still, if it makes you feel good, and there is no reason to avoid hot water -- such as pregnancy or heart disease -- a hot tub can be a very enjoyable way to relax and socialize.
Owning a hot tub has its drawbacks, however, and the most obvious one is cost. Prices range from less than $400 for an inflatable model to upward of $20,000 for a top-of-the-line in-ground spa. Yet the costs of ownership don't end with purchase. Owners must also pay for water, the energy to heat the water, and chemicals to keep the tub clean. Maintenance is another factor: You can't just climb in when you feel like a good soak and ignore your spa the rest of the time, or you'll put yourself at risk for painful or itchy skin reactions. Keeping a hot tub in good condition requires covering it between uses, testing the water frequently and adjusting its chemical content, cleaning the tub and filters, and draining and refilling it every few months. Still, many owners say the delights of soaking in a warm, bubbling tub are worth the hassle.
The first hot tubs -- simply large wooden wine casks filled with hot water -- became popular in California in the 1960s. In 1968, Roy Jacuzzi introduced the Jacuzzi tub, which incorporated jets of hot water to provide a soothing massage. Other manufacturers soon followed suit, designing more sophisticated tubs made of molded fiberglass or plastic. They called their creations "spas" to distinguish them from the old-fashioned wooden hot tub. Today, most retailers and consumers use the terms "hot tub" and "spa" interchangeably. The term "Jacuzzi" is occasionally treated as a general-purpose name for hot tubs, but it's actually a trademarked brand name.
No matter what you call them, hot tubs have come a long way since their inception. A modern hot tub has several parts:
- The shell or tub surface. It may be made from wood, molded acrylic, fiberglass, thermal plastic, poured concrete or air-blown concrete known as gunite. Inflatable spas are generally made from vinyl.
- The skirt or cabinet. This is the outer box that encloses an above-ground tub. It may be made from wood or synthetic materials.
- Insulation. This fills all or part of the space between the shell and the cabinet. The better the insulation, the less energy the tub will use.
- Seating. Wooden tubs may feature simple bench-style seats, while newer molded tubs offer a variety of contoured seats. Seats may be upright or reclining, and may provide extra head, neck or arm support.
- Jets. The number and placement of water jets varies widely. Inflatable spas often use air blowers rather than water jets to bubble the water.
- Heater. Most spa heaters run on electricity, but some are fueled by natural gas or wood.
- Pump. The pump keeps the water circulating through the jets and filters. Some tubs have two-speed pumps, with the higher speed for jet action and the lower speed for circulation. Others combine a single one-speed pump with a smaller circulation pump.
- Filter. There are several types of hot tub filters. Cartridge filters are the most common, but larger tubs may use filters of sand or diatomaceous earth. Those filters are more efficient but much harder to clean.
- Controls. A simple control panel allows users to adjust the water temperature, and turn jets on and off. Fancier hot tubs may include controls for adjusting the pressure of individual jets, activating lights and even playing music.
Experts say the best hot tub is the one that best fits your lifestyle, which is a very personal decision. That may explain why most consumer publications don't test or rate hot tubs. However, a few professional sites and publications, such as Spasearch magazine and the Pool & Patio page at About.com recommend specific brands based on owner feedback, while retail sites like HomeDepot.com and Amazon.com host consumer reviews of some prefabricated and inflatable models. Our editors discuss the major types of hot tubs, along with features, energy use, shopping options, and what you need to know about installation and maintenance to help you zero in on the perfect hot tub for your needs and budget.