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Ways to cool down the cost of running a hot tub

Hot tubs have become more efficient in recent years, thanks largely to California Energy Commission requirements that took effect in 2009. Yet even with these new standards, a hot tub still costs about a dollar a day to operate. Even in standby mode, a tub will use 63 cents' worth of energy just to keep the water warm. Editors at Spasearch magazine say it's not worth turning off the tub's heater tub to save energy between uses; it actually uses more power to bring the water back up to temperature the next time you hop in. Most of the energy a hot tub uses goes into heating the water, so anything that helps keep the water warm will also cut operating costs.

According to Spasearch editors, insulation is the most important factor in preventing heat loss. There are three main types of insulation for hot tubs.

  • Basic insulation is a thin layer of polyurethane foam applied to the underside of the hot tub shell. Most of the space under the tub is empty air, which makes it easier to access the plumbing. Basic insulation is inexpensive but won't do much to control heating costs, especially in standby mode.
  • Layered or blanket insulation combines basic insulation with an additional layer of foam on the inside of the cabinet. The best blanket insulation has multiple layers of high R-value material on all four walls. If the spa has removable walls, the insulation can be moved aside for maintenance.
  • Full-foam insulation is a thick layer of solid foam that completely fills the space under the tub. More than 70 percent of hot tubs on the market use this type of insulation. In addition to slowing heat loss, it provides soundproofing benefits, and helps support the plumbing and the tub itself. Editors at Spasearch recommend looking for closed-cell foam, which will insulate better because it can't absorb water.

Of course, insulating the sides of the tub can help only so much if the water itself is exposed to air, which makes a cover essential. A typical cover has a core of polystyrene foam wrapped in polyethylene plastic. The foam varies in density from 1 to 2 pounds per cubic foot. A cover of high-density foam will weigh more, but will also be stronger and insulate better. Ideally, the plastic outer coat should also be thick and well sealed so moisture can't penetrate the foam.

Most covers fold in half for storage with a gap between the two halves, but a sealing gasket can improve the insulating power by as much as 5 percent. The best covers also have a generous "skirt" that completely covers the edges of the spa. If your hot tub is outdoors, the cover should have tie-downs made of nylon webbing sewn into it at several spots to keep it in place.

Other features of a hot tub can help keep the heat in. For instance, the pump generates a significant amount of heat during use, so some models recycle this heat into the tub. It can be used to either heat the tub's pipes or produce a stream of warm air directed into the water. Hot tubs with an economy mode automatically lower the water temperature when the tub isn't in use without shutting off the heater completely. As the editors at Spasearch note, it's important to make sure your tub's heater puts most of the heat it produces into the water.

While a hot tub's heater is the biggest energy hog, other parts use power, as well. Spasearch editors say you can save energy by avoiding oversized pumps, which don't actually improve performance. Instead, opt for either one high-powered pump or multiple pumps that use less power. Consumers Digest reports that pumps running on direct-current motors use up to 64 percent less power than alternating-current motor pumps, but they're more costly and tend to be found only on high-end spas. Other energy-saving features include LED lighting and an automatic shutoff, which can extend the life of your hot tub.

Elsewhere in this report:

Best Hot Tubs: We evaluate and compare the four basic types of hot tubs: above-ground, inflatable, wooden and in-ground.

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.

Comparing Hot Tub Brands: Which hot tub brands do professionals and users like best? 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.

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