Finding the Best | Type of Hot Tubs | Basic vs. Fancy | Energy Use | Top Picks | Portable & Inflatable | Location and Cleaning | Our Sources
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 $350 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, which is 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 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
types of hot tubs
There are four basic types of hot tubs. The most popular is the above-ground,
prefabricated hot tub that's typically made from molded acrylic backed by
fiberglass or ABS plastic -- these are often referred to as "plug and play."
A cabinet of wood or a durable synthetic lookalike surrounds the tub. Some
newer models are made entirely from rotationally molded plastic called rotomold,
or "roto" for short. This material is tough, lightweight, inexpensive,
and comes in a variety of colors. It's generally used only for smaller tubs
that hold a maximum of six people. Still less common are above-ground tubs made
of stainless steel, which is attractive and durable, but very expensive.
Prices for an above-ground tub can start at $2,000 for a basic rotomold
spa and go up to $17,000-plus for a high-end acrylic hot tub with a genuine
wood cabinet and lots of features. In addition, above-ground spas must be
installed on a level, stable surface like a concrete pad, and some models
require a 220-volt outlet. If you already have the necessary electrical outlets,
plumbing, and a suitable site, installation costs can be fairly minimal,
otherwise all but the handiest of DIYers will need to budget for the services
of a qualified electrician, plumber, and mason or contractor.
Above-ground hot tubs are often labeled as portable, and technically
they are. A small roto spa can be set up on the deck during the summer and
stored in the basement in the winter. That said, at 225 pounds and up, these
tubs are still fairly difficult to move. A more truly portable option is a
soft-sided, inflatable hot tub. Generally made of vinyl, these tubs arrive
deflated and can easily be installed on any level surface, indoors or out. Just
inflate the tub with the accompanying motor and fill from a hose, then plug in
the heater. Vinyl tubs are not only easy to take with you when you move but can
also be transported to a party or on a camping trip. They're also by far the
least expensive type of hot tub; several models are available online for less
But there are some downsides with inflatable hot tubs. The vinyl
material is easily damaged, and inflatable spas usually rely on blowers rather
than the hot water jets found in more upscale choices. The aesthetics of an
inflatable hot tub -- think oversized blow-up kiddie pool -- have drawn some scorn
Wooden hot tubs are the third choice among above-ground spas. These models
hearken back to the hot tub's origins as a wooden wine cask. Typically built
using redwood, cedar or teak, these spas often have a simple round design with
bench seating. Because they're shipped in pieces and assembled on site, they
can be carried through doorways and up or down stairs to their final location;
bulky acrylic tubs may not fit through narrow spaces.
The appeal of wooden tubs lies mainly in their durable construction and
attractive appearance. Although they lack the contoured seating found in other
spa types, they tend to be deeper, increasing the amount of legroom and the
effects of buoyancy. Because they hold a greater volume of water, however, they're
very heavy and must sit on a base of solid concrete or a specially engineered
and reinforced deck. Unlike most other hot tubs, wooden tubs may be heated with
gas or wood as well as electricity. They generally range in price from $4,000
to $9,500 for a complete system.
In-ground hot tubs are the most expensive because professional
installation requires excavation as well as plumbing and electrical work. Total
costs range between $15,000 and $20,000. They're typically made of gunite or
poured concrete, and sometimes have a decorative tile overlay. They may not
have as many jets or be as energy-efficient as above-ground tubs, but you can
opt for a gas heater to save on long-term energy costs. Because in-ground spas
are permanent, they can potentially raise the value of your home. The downside,
of course, is you can't take it with you if you move.
can be basic or fully-featured
What sets a hot tub apart from a simple bathtub is its water jets. First
used on the original Jacuzzi tubs in 1968, the standard water jet pushes water
in a straight line so it hits a single spot at a steady speed. Modern tubs
offer a variety of options. Swirl jets move water in a circular pattern and
moving massage jets oscillate the water along a line. Shoulder jets installed
above the water line direct a stream against the shoulders, and they may be
paired with pillow jets that massage the neck. Mini jets can be clustered to
create a multi-action massage against a specific area.
When choosing a hot tub, don't assume that more jets are always better. Experts
say it's far more important for the jets to be placed where you'll find them
most comfortable, and that varies from person to person. Some people like a
powerful massage while others prefer a gentle swirl of water around tired
muscles. The best way to find the right setup, is to do a "wet test" of
any hot tub before you buy. Many spa retailers will allow you to test the spas
in their showroom; however, if you're buying online or from a department store or
big-box home improvement store (like Home Depot) you'll just have to take your
chances unless you're already familiar with the model you're interested in. If
you are buying from a specialty retailer, you may be able to customize the
location of jets in a higher-end tub to meet your particular needs, but even
jets in a standardized placement might be adjustable. This would allow you to
switch individual jets on or off or adjust their flow to create your ideal
Note that inflatable hot tubs and even some very cheap above-ground
models might lack water jets altogether. As noted in the above discussion of hot
tub types, these use air blowers to agitate the water in the tub. User reviews
of such hot tubs say that these blowers often do a good job of replicating the
swirl of water in a standard hot tub, though not the massaging action or other
benefits of water jets. The other downside is that we've seen reports that the
bubbling action can cool the water down fairly fast -- limiting usage to a half
hour or less according to some reports. Some also gripe that the blowers can be
Seating is another factor to consider. Obviously, the number of people a
tub can accommodate will depend on its size: The smallest tubs hold just two
people while the largest can fit a party of 10. Seat position and shape are important,
as well. For example, the size of the footwell -- the space for feet below the
seats -- will affect how crowded the tub feels when full of people. Simple
bench seats, often found in traditional wooden hot tubs, are easy to move
around on and accommodate larger groups. Molded seats offer more support but
may not fit all bodies. Special lounger seats allow you to sprawl full length,
but they take up a lot of space. Again, if you can, test the tub in person to
make sure the seats are comfortable for you.
Besides the basic arrangement of seats and jets, hot tubs now offer a wide
variety of amenities. Some models come with both interior and exterior
lighting, multiple pumps and molded headrests. High-end tubs might include
built-in sound systems and even TV sets, all controlled from a panel on the tub
itself. There are even hot tubs with waterfalls and built-in workout equipment.
And, while it might seem mundane by comparison, don't forget about steps to
make getting into and out of the hot tub easier and possibly safer. Some hot
tubs include those, with others it's an extra-cost option.
A hot tub cover keeps debris out between uses, but its most important
benefit is to significantly improve energy efficiency. The cover may come with
the tub or be sold separately. Not all hot tub covers are weather resistant,
but aftermarket PVC soft covers can be used to protect the insulated cover from
the rain and sun. Read on to learn about hot tubs and energy use for more about
insulated hot tub covers.
and energy use
Hot tubs have become much more energy efficient in recent
years, thanks largely to California Energy Commission requirements that took
effect in 2009. Yet even with these standards, a hot tub can cost $2 to $3 per
day to operate. If you use your spa a lot, it may be more energy efficient to
keep it running close to the temperature you want to keep it at -- that also
makes it more convenient to use on impulse because you don't have to wait long
for it to heat up.
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 above-ground 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. Look
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 an insulated 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 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. A
locking cover is crucial if you have children or live in an area where
neighborhood children might be able to wander into your spa's vicinity. The
most secure locking covers can only be opened with a key that you can keep in a
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. That 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.
While a hot tub's heater is the biggest energy hog, other
parts use power, as well. You can also 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. Other energy-saving
features include LED (rather than incandescent) lighting and an automatic
shutoff, which can extend the life of your hot tub.
hot tubs and spas
Not many expert sources compare brands of hot tubs, and still fewer
evaluate specific models. The one credible review of hot tub brands comes from
Spasearch, which publishes an annual list of Trade Certified Manufacturers,
awards that are based on customer satisfaction surveys and ethical business
practices. While they don't give any additional information or recommend any
specific spas from those manufacturers, the information provided can still be a
helpful in choosing a reputable spa maker.
The one question we can't address about these types of hot tubs is how
good a value they are, or even how much they cost. All -- as is the case with most
hot-tub brands mentioned by expert reviews -- are sold exclusively through
specialty retailers who are prohibited from disclosing their pricing online.
You have to contact those dealers directly to discuss pricing, options,
installation, etc. All of these manufacturers have dealer locators and often
offer online quote forms at their site.
That said, we did find a number of hot tubs available from retailers
such as Home Depot, Amazon, Lowe's, Wayfair and elsewhere. These spas are
ignored by most hot tub experts, and some recommend against them, but many
receive enough positive user feedback to indicate that they are very good
performers, especially in light of their price relative to models sold through
Chief among those are hot tubs sold under the Lifesmart brand. Lifesmart
spas aren't named at Spasearch. However, Lifesmart spas are made by Watkins
Manufacturing, which is also the maker of Hot Springs hot tubs -- a brand
that's very well regarded -- and users generally rate Lifesmart hot tubs highly
at retail sites.
For example, we saw good feedback for the (Est. $3,000) hot
tub, also known as the LS-400-DX. It features 110-volt plug in and start operation,
with 17 "therapy" water jets plus a waterfall jet. It meets the
California energy standards, so it's highly efficient. Features and extras are
limited, but a 2-inch thick locking hard cover is included. No one will mistake
the mahogany toned plastic skirt for real wood, but it doesn't draw too many
complaints for being unattractive. The company's RockSolid shell is claimed to
be tougher than shells of competing hot tubs, and user feedback doesn't
indicate any disturbing patterns regarding durability -- though the odd
complaint or two isn't unheard of.
When reviewing owner feedback, we find that this five-person spa is well
liked. Some express trepidation over making this type of purchase without
seeing the hot tub first, but most say they are more than pleased over how
things turned out. Some reviews are posted after a year or more of ownership.
If your budget is smaller, the (Est. $2,000), also known as
the LS-100-DX, looks like a good choice. This is a compact four-person tub with
sandstone-colored RockSolid shell and surround. It can hold up to four people and
features 12 water jets, a waterfall jet, and a spa light with changeable red
and blue lens caps for whichever color suits your mood or décor. It comes with
a locking cover and meets California energy standards.
Like the Lifesmart Antigua, the Lifesmart Bermuda draws very good
feedback. Overall, owners say that the Lifesmart Bermuda works well and is easy
to set up and use. Some report performance is still going strong after a year
or more. There are some negatives noted even among fans, however. One is that
while the Bermuda is rated to hold up to four people, things can get a little
tight with that many. The spa can also struggle to maintain heat in very cold
conditions. Most say that these are minor tradeoffs in exchange for the value,
energy savings and general performance they receive.
and inflatable hot tubs
Some consider most above-ground hot tubs, such as the models listed
above, to be portable, but they are large, heavy units that most won't want to
move around very often once they are set up -- and you'd have to drain them to
do so. Inflatable hot tubs are truly portable, and are relatively inexpensive,
however they have some significant downsides -- most of which seem to bother
hot tub aficionados and experts more than they bother owners, or at least those
owners who understood what they were getting.
A case in point is the (Est. $330). It has all of the
downsides of most inflatable hot tubs as outlined in our discussion of Types of Hot Tubs, including the use of air blowers instead of water jets, less
durable construction, and an aesthetic that screams kiddie pool more than it
Most owners, however, don't seem to care. They love the Lay-Z-Spa's
relative value as it's one of the least expensive hot tubs you can buy. Owners also
like the easy set up and low maintenance. Some note that it takes some time for
the water to warm up completely. Once warm, the Coleman does a surprisingly
good job of maintaining its temperature, most say, though things cool off when
the air blower is going. Keep in mind that this hot tub is not designed for use
at air temperatures below 40 degrees -- something that disappoints some users. Several
say that they are surprised at how effective the air bubbles are at providing a
satisfying water massage. There are no interior seats, and while Coleman hot
tub is rated to hold up to six people, reviewers say that two to four is more
realistic. Among the included accessories are an inflatable hot tub cover, a
padded ground cloth and a floater to hold pool chemicals for water sanitation.
The Lay-Z-Spa is covered by a one-year warranty.
put your new hot tub, and how to keep it clean
Before you buy a new hot tub, you need a place to put it. Most portable
and above-ground tubs can be installed indoors or outdoors, but they take up a
lot of space. On the plus side, keeping a hot tub indoors or in a sheltered
location outside, such as a covered patio, means that you can use it in any
kind of weather, and you won't have to worry about damage from wind or sun.
Whether your installation site is indoors or outdoors, it must meet a few basic
- Accessibility. Your hot
tub must fit into the space you choose and be able to pass through any gates, doors
or hallways along the way. This isn't a problem with an inflatable spa or a
kit-built wood hot tub, but if you buy a rigid tub, take careful measurements
to make sure it fits. Once it's in place, you'll need enough room around the hot
tub for entering and exiting safely, and performing any cleaning, routine
maintenance or repairs. If your spa is outdoors, you'll want to install it in a
place where debris from trees, bushes and other sources isn't likely to fall
into the water.
- A strong, level surface. A hot
tub filled with water is very heavy, and it must sit on a foundation strong
enough to support its weight. Experts say the best support is a pad of
reinforced concrete, but you can also use a base of patio blocks or a
ready-made plastic spa pad. No matter what you use, it's important to make sure
the surface is level. If you want your hot tub on a deck, consult a contractor to
ensure your deck is structurally strong enough to handle the weight. You may
need to add reinforcement.
- Electrical requirements. Your hot
tub must be within reach of an outlet. If you need to use an extension cord,
make sure it's rated to handle the current draw of your spa's pump and heater
with room to spare. A standard outlet will work if your tub uses 110-volt power,
but a 220-volt spa will require a special outlet -- and likely the services of
an electrician to install the circuit. The location of the switch is also
important: It should be visible from the spa, but at least 5 feet away so that
it's not splashed.
- Ventilation. Hot tubs
create a great deal of heat and moisture. If you plan to install one indoors,
the room must be vented to prevent the growth of mold and mildew, and to keep
walls and floorboards from rotting. Ask a contractor whether the ventilation in
your room is adequate. A floor drain is also a good idea, since water is bound
to splash or spill out of the spa, and even a small leak can leave a great deal
of water on the floor.
- Safety. Like pools, spas can pose
a drowning danger for children. A determined child can work even a heavy cover
off a hot tub. Be sure that young children are never left unattended in a yard
with a spa; for an extra layer of protection, invest in a locking cover.
Once your hot tub is installed, it requires regular care to keep it
clean and running smoothly. Spas should be covered when not in use for safety
reasons and to conserve heat and reduce evaporation. A skimmer is handy for
scooping out stray debris, and you should brush the sides and bottom of the tub
weekly to clear away dirt and prevent algae growth. About once every three
months, drain the water from the hot tub and clean its entire surface.
A 600-gallon hot tub with just five people in it will accumulate body
oils from dirt at the same rate as a standard swimming pool with 250 people in
it. The filter is the first line of defense in keeping the water clean and most
will last one to two years, but they must be cleaned on a regular schedule. The
instructions included with your hot tub should explain how to do this.
The filter can't do the job on its own, however; just as with a swimming
pool, you'll also need to use a chemical treatment to kill bacteria and keep
the water at the proper pH level (between 7.4 and 7.6). If the pH is too high
or too low, it can irritate your skin and eyes or damage the tub's plumbing.
You must also monitor the level of calcium in the water, which can leave scaly
deposits on the equipment. Experts recommend testing your spa water at least
once a week. The simplest method is to use a test strip that will show results
Chlorine is still the most popular chemical treatment for hot tubs, but
some sanitizing systems use other chemicals such as bromine or natural minerals
and enzymes. One newer form of water treatment is a saltwater system, which
uses salt and a diamond electrode to create a chemical reaction in the water
that helps cleanse it. Many newer hot tubs include an ozone generator or "ozonator"
that produces ozone in the water. This won't eliminate the need for chemical
treatment, but it can greatly reduce the amount of chemicals required. However,
as discussed in our report on Air Purifiers, ozone is a dangerous gas
and its use is controversial -- and probably to be avoided if your hot tub is
in an enclosed space.
review sources and ratings
Not many expert sources compare brands of hot tubs, and only retail
sellers, like Home Depot, Amazon and Wayfair, allow
customers to evaluate specific models. That makes Spasearch, which
publishes an annual list of Trade Certified Manufacturers, an invaluable
resource. Buying guides from the Better Business Bureau and Better Homes and Gardens were also helpful in compiling this report.