An introduction to hot tubs
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. Studies find that the combination of hot water and massage known as hydrotherapy can improve health in a variety of ways. Research being conducted by the National Swimming Pool Foundation reports that soaking in hot water can improve blood flow to internal organs, including the heart. A study published in the journal Sleep shows that soaking in a hot tub before bedtime can help people sleep more deeply. It can also ease stress, soothe sore muscles and relieve pressure on joints.
Owning a hot tub has its drawbacks, however, and the most obvious one is cost. Prices range from as little as $600 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 it 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. Keeping a hot tub in good condition requires covering it between uses, testing the water, 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 powered by fossil fuels or even 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. These 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.
- Cover. This is generally a hinged piece of plastic-coated foam used to cover the tub when it's not in use. The cover may come with the tub or be sold separately.
Experts say the best hot tub is the one that's most comfortable for you, which is a very personal decision. That may explain why most consumer publications don't test or rate hot tubs. However, a few professional publications such as Spasearch magazine and the Pool & Patio page at About.com recommend specific brands based on owner feedback, and retail sites like HomeDepot.com and Amazon.com post consumer reviews. In this report ConsumerSearch.com covers the major types of hot tubs, features, energy use, shopping options, and what you need to know about installation and maintenance. Along with our discussion of the top-rated brands, this information can help you determine which hot tub might suit you best.
Elsewhere in this report:
Types of Hot Tubs: We examine the different types of hot tubs: above-ground molded tubs, portable tubs, traditional wood tubs and in-ground tubs.
Hot Tub Features: We explore the many hot tub features available, including jets, seating, lighting and other extras.
Hot Tubs and Energy Use: We discuss how much it costs to operate a hot tub and what features will help reduce that cost, including insulation, covers and more efficient pumps.
Comparing Hot Tub Brands: Which hot tub brands do professionals and users like best? ConsumerSearch.com names the top three highest-rated hot tub brands.
Where to Buy Hot Tubs: We explain the pros and cons of shopping for a hot tub from a local dealer, a big-box store, the Internet, a home show and factory direct.
Hot Tub Installation and Maintenance: We list issues to consider when installing and maintaining a hot tub, including structural support, electrical needs, ventilation, cleaning and water treatment.
Buying Guide: We discuss the most important features for any hot tub, and how to choose the right model for you.
Our Sources: Links to the expert and user reviews we used to select the top hot tubs, along with our assessment of each reviewer's expertise, credibility and helpfulness.