Hot Tubs Review
Why Buy a Hot Tub?
There are three main reasons people buy a hot tub – for leisure, for health or for strengthening.
Leisure spas are used for relaxing at the end of a long day. They may become the centerpiece of a get-together with family and friends, a backyard party or a relaxing weekend.
Health spas focus on relieving pain and tension in your body due to illness or physical ailments. Some medical providers will even prescribe a hot tub as part of your treatment regime. If you have a hot tub prescription you may be entitled to a reimbursement on your income tax return, or the cost may be covered by your insurance company.
Hot tubs used for strengthening or exercise purposes are also called swim spas. These are very long and designed with powerful water streams to help build muscle while you swim. Other strengthening hot tubs are smaller and include underwater treadmills that give you impressive resistance while your workout.
While this article has general information about leisure and health hot tubs, we also have a helpful buying guide for swim spas that will walk you through information you should know prior to investing in.
This guide covers everything you need to know about leisure and therapeutic hot tub spas, including:
- Spa parts and how they work
- Important considerations before you buy
- Popular brands
- How to find a reputable dealer
For more assistance in choosing a spa, browse our other articles on hot tubs.
Spa Parts & How They Work
When you request a quote from a hot tub manufacture, the base price generally includes the shell, or the basic body of the spa, and a vinyl cover. Spa equipment and accessories, including jet streams and filtration systems, are added to the base cost to construct a custom hot tub for your individual needs. Here are a few of the most common parts and accessories, how they work and which ones are optional.
Shell: The shell of the hot tub is the basic body. Spa shells come in many shapes and colors, and what you choose will depend on the number of seats you want and other personal preferences. Experts suggest purchasing a shell that is a little rough rather than smooth to minimize the risk of slipping in the spa. Typically, a shell's outside panels can be upgraded to include customized spa cabinets that give you extra storage space for spa equipment while also improving the aesthetic look of your spa. Spa cabinets come in multiple colors and finishes, allowing you to create a custom spa to match your backyard decor.
Shells come in a variety of sizes, which include the following:
Small units are big enough for a couple of people, so they work well for relaxing alone or entertaining a few close friends. A small model is also ideal for therapeutic use, particularly if only one person will be using it the majority of the time.
Medium sized hot tubs are more for leisure and hold up to six people. This is the standard spa size found in most showrooms. However, with the right jets and other necessary extras, medium units can be used for both entertaining guests and for medical therapies.
Large hot tub units hold more than six people. These typically need to be custom made. While seven- to eight-seater spas are typical for large hot tubs, there are designs big enough to hold 10 or more people. Many large units can be equipped with the necessary jets and extra features to create a hot tub for strength training or exercising, as well.
Covers: All new hot tubs come with a basic cover, usually made of a lightweight vinyl that either ties down around your hot tub or has elastic that fits over the top of the spa shell. These covers keep debris out of your spa, eliminating the need to scoop out leaves, branches and bugs before each use.
You may decide to invest in a heavier cover to help better seal in the heat of the water. Escaping steam means your cover isn't sealing in heat, causing the unit to use more electricity in order to maintain the temperature. Custom fitted covers will ensure your spa is sealed tightly when not in use and minimize the cost of heating the hot tub. Covers equipped with a lift make it easier to open the spa when you are ready to use it and are especially helpful if you are by yourself or might find it difficult to take off, fold or replace a traditional cover.
Heavier covers are also a good way to keep young, curious children from falling into the spa when there isn't an adult around. Some cover styles come with locks to make it difficult for children or others to access the hot tub without you there.
Jets: Jets are the part of the spa that shoot either water or air to create the bubbling water streams. Air jets have several of benefits over water jets: Air jets don't require as much maintenance as water jets, they are cheaper because they are less complex, and they have more force to create a powerful water stream. However, water jets are better if you're using your spa for medical purposes since they offer the greatest benefits for water massaging and hydrotherapy needs.
The number of jets in a tub vary, from simple packages of eight or 12 jets to package of 50 jets or more. Some jets remain stationary while others can be repositioned to hit certain parts of your body. With many custom models, you can mix and match jet packs to create stations throughout your spa, allowing for one user to receive therapeutic massage on one part of the body while another user is also benefitting from other therapy jets.
There are many types of jets, some designed for specific medical benefits. Oscillating, pulsating and kneading jet streams give soothing relief for both topical and deep tissue pain. Each type of jet will require a different amount of water and force behind it.
For leisure spas, jets around the top perimeter of the tub are usually adequate. For lower back, leg or full body pain, consider having jets paced near the bottom of the pool to create a more therapeutic massage experience. As you design your hot tub, dealers will be able to point you to a jet pack that will accomplish what you expect from your hot tub.
Pumps: The hot tub pump is the engine of your spa. It connects to the water pipe and pulls water through the filtration system then pushes it through the heating element and into the hot tub. It is also the force behind your jet streams.
The two most common pump types are circulation pumps and center discharge pumps. The main difference is how they connect to the water pipe. Also, center discharge pumps tend to be larger. There aren’t any advantages of one pump over the other. The type of pump you need depends on the hot tub you purchase.
The manufacturer's design and the number of jets you have will dictate the type and number of pumps you need.
A few small jets require only a small amount of water to pass through them, while more jets need more water and force. Installing more than 30 or 40 jets may require a second or even a third pump. The same holds true for the type of jet you purchase. Some jets that are designed for deep tissue massage may need more water force behind them, increasing the need for a second pump.
Some manufacturers suggest using a diverter – valves that split the water into various sections of your spa, rather than adding another pump. This allows each section to get the necessary force, but it usually means turning off one set of jet streams before using another in order to get the amount of force behind each jet stream and maximize its benefits. This is usually seen as a cost-effective alternative to purchasing multiple pumps, but doesn’t provide the overall relaxing experience to everyone using the hot tub. A good hot tub dealer will be able to help you determine the best pump for your unit and whether a diverter is an effective choice.
Filtration Systems: The filtration system of your hot tub cleans and purifies your spa water during and between uses, removing even small particles from the water and ensuring that the hot tub is always ready to use. Cleaning systems use chemicals, typically chlorine or bromine, the same as are used in pool filters.
Most filters have cartridges that need to be replaced at least once a year, and this replacement is the top reason for hot tub service calls. The cost of these cartridges and how often you have to replace them is an expense to keep in mind when choosing a pump and filtration system for your spa.
There are several water purification systems that can be used in addition to a standard chemical cleaning system. The most common are ionizers. Silver, copper and zinc ionization devices send small amounts of these metals into the water to help eliminate mold, bacteria, viruses and algae. While there won’t be a difference in the overall cleanliness of your spa, the biggest benefit to using an ionizer is that it reduces the amount of chemicals needed to perform the water filtration.
Pillows: Spa pillows are optional accessories to help improve your overall spa experience. They range from small neck supports to seat cushions to full sofa-style designs. Some pillows offer extra support for hydrotherapy sessions. Others simply enhance the relaxing lounge experience.
Stereo: Some spas support integrated audio systems, letting you add music to your moments of relaxation and upping the wow factor of your next block party. Some styles are installed directly into the spa itself, with underwater speakers and water resistance receivers. Others are portable, floating systems that you can remove when you're finished with them. Audio systems can include radios, CD players or wireless Bluetooth stereos that stream your playlists from your smartphone.
Lighting: Some spas come with basic lighting to help you easily see the control panel. Additional lighting can set a fun or romantic mood or increase the visual appeal of your hot tub. LED lights can outline the perimeter of your spa, or waterproof lights can be installed on the inside of your spa to shine through the water. Keep in mind that extra lights may increase the power needed to run the hot tub, and they may also increase the overall temperature of your hot tub water. Ask your dealer about these specifics for the types of lights you're considering.
Other Extras: Some optional extras include towel racks, waterfalls, and steps and railings. Other options include fragrant oils or beads that you add directly to the spa water, though these should be used with air jet streams since water jets may become clogged with the oil or soapy residue left behind when using some types of scents.
Purchasing a hot tub from a big box store outlet will limit the features you can choose since these retailers generally sell readymade units rather than individualized, custom spas. A local hot tub dealer is better equipped to help you through the buying process to ensure your hot tub meets your specific needs. Dealers will also ensure all the parts of your spa meet industry standards and were manufactured in a properly regulated facility.
Important Considerations Before You Buy
After determining the features you want to include with your spa, there are a few important points to consider before heading into the hot tub showroom for your final purchase.
Indoor vs. Outdoor
If you plan to house your hot tub unit inside, make sure the room is well ventilated. Otherwise, moisture will collect and increase the possibility of mold or equipment failure. Plus, the water or surrounding room may get too hot, both of which pose health and safety risks.
For outdoor spas, it is best to place the unit on a concrete slab. This is especially true in colder climates. Ground that freezes and thaws will move, causing the shell to crack. A concrete slab protects the spa from shifting, but it also further insulates the hot tub during cold winter months. If you choose to forgo the concrete, experts suggest digging a hole at least four feet deep – below the frost line – to help insulate the tub and reduce the risk of cracking.
Spa decks are a nice feature, but they can cause problems in cooler areas because the deck captures cold air and keeps it around the spa. In cooler temperatures, the spa needs more power to maintain heat, and it can even crack. If you do choose to build a spa deck, make sure to factor in the total weight of the spa when filled with both water and the maximum number of people to ensure your deck is strong enough.
Hire the Professionals
When it comes to installing your hot tub, it is important to know that some extra professional help may be needed.
If you purchase a hot tub from a dealer, the delivery and basic setup are usually included in your purchase price. This includes bringing the spa from the showroom floor and placing it in your yard. Any additional setup, including plumbing and electrical, will require a certified professional. Attempting to setup the spa yourself can result in damage (which won't be covered by your warranty) and safety risks of electrocution or fire.
Portable spas don’t require you to hook up any plumbing because they are easy to place and fill with your garden hose. If you need to move the unit to another spot, it can be done without having to worry about unhooking pipes. However, some models do require additional plumbing installation in order for the unit to work correctly. This should be done by a certified plumber. If you purchase a spa that needs additional plumbing, your dealer can give you a list of recommended plumbers in your area.
You will need to be able to plug your hot tub into a power source. Because of the amount of electricity needed to run a spa, it may be necessary to run extra wiring to your electrical box. This should be done by a certified electrician. Hot tub dealers don't have a certified electrician on staff to help when installing your spa, but most can provide you with a list of reputable professionals in your area. Any holes that are drilled into your spa's encasement or cabinets for electrical purposes should be professionally puttied to discourage mice from getting in to the side of your hot tub, building nests and creating electrical problems, or even a fire hazard.
Consider, too, the logistics of placing your newly purchased hot tub in the backyard, especially if the gate or space between your house and your neighbor's is particularly narrow. In these cases, it is necessary to hire a crane and professional driver to lift your hot tub into place. Your dealer should have a list of contracted crane operators in your area and will usually work the cost of hiring this professional into the overall cost of your spa as part of the installation cost.
Signs of a High-Quality Hot Tub
Sometimes it's difficult to differentiate between the best hot tubs and something that looks like a quality spa, but is really a bust. As a good rule of thumb, if it seems like a too-good-to-be-true deal, it probably is. Below are a few points on how to spot a hot tub spa that may be a little subpar.
Inflatable spas are by far the lowest of quality, because, unlike the best spas, the outside shells are not built to endure a lot of bumps and abuse and will eventually puncture. While inflatable hot tubs are cheap options, and they are easy to take down and move, they don't come with the jet streams and other features necessary to meet any therapeutic needs.
One thing to look for is where the components, especially the pumps, are made. Stay away from products that have been imported from outside of the U.S. where manufacturing of these parts is not as closely regulated. Often these cheaper parts run hotter and use more electricity, both of which will end up costing you more in the end in both maintenance and replacement costs.
Another telltale sign is the insulation of the hot tub. Ask a dealer to remove the side panel of the spa. A good quality hot tub will use an insulation foam that is thick and covers every part of the unit between the outside panel and the shell. Lesser quality spas may have only a few panels with insulation behind them or use thermal wraps (or blanket insulation) that simply wraps around the spa shell. Both of these lower-quality insulations create open areas for heat to escape, making it more expensive to use your hot tub and increasing the need for maintenance and repairs compared to higher-quality spas.
Pricing is something to consider, as well. Truthfully, be cautious about purchasing a unit under $5,000. These, typically, are imports made with cheaper materials and under less stringent regulations. Often these hot tubs break within a few months of purchase, especially during the cold winter months, and experience cracking and leaks that end up costing you more in repairs than the original cost of the unit.
High-quality hot tubs will typically last a minimum of 10 years, while lower quality units can require extensive repairs or replacement within two to three years.
Here is a list of some top hot tub brands that meet or exceed standards within the hot tub industry and continually offer high-quality spas.
- Bullfrog: Bullfrog lets your custom design your hot tub, allowing you to choose from four different series, with some big enough to accommodate up to 10 people. It also offers custom JetPacks you can add to the jets that come standard with each model. Each spa comes with computerized controls, and you can remotely control the spa through a mini remote pad or from your smart phone. Extra features include audio systems and spa cabinets in a variety of colors and finishes. Both leisure and therapy spas are available.
- Caldera: Caldera has three different spa series available – for leisure, therapy and hydrotherapy – with some models capable of seating eight adults. One unique feature of Caldera Spas is CoolZone, a feature capable of heating and cooling the water, both of which have unique therapeutic advantages. Other extras include lifting covers, wireless entertainment systems and remote monitoring.
- Cal Spas: Cal Spas has five different spa series for both above-ground and in-ground installation. The company also offers swim spas models. Its 10 jet options, both water and air, let you design a hot tub for leisure or therapy, including all body hydrotherapy. Extra feature options include audio packages and spa-side accessories such as bars, privacy screens and spa cabinets.
- Dimension One: Dimension One has four different collections designed for luxury, enjoyment, therapeutic benefits and strength conditioning. Some models are designed to sit up to seven people, while others comfortably seat two. The hot tubs are constructed to be energy efficient, and several aspects are created with recycled materials. Dimension One features the Vision Sanitizing System, which helps clean and sanitize spa water without the need for harsh chemicals.
- Hot Spring Spas: Hot Spring features four different series focused mainly on leisure, with seating options ranging from two to seven adults. Hydromassage jet options help relax your muscles along with the rest of your body. Water care systems include traditional pumps, non-chlorine cleaning systems and salt water systems. You can also get accessories such as spa lift covers, side steps and remote monitoring systems.
- Jacuzzi: Jacuzzi is a well-known hot tub brand with 22 models from five different collections, some units big enough to seat nine adults. Accessories include covers, floating sound systems and advanced water purification systems. A trade-in program is also available that will give you a credit for your old Jacuzzi hot tub toward a newer model.
- Master Spas: Master Spas offers one of the biggest inventories of spa accessories in the industry, with over 25 different control panels, nearly two dozen lift covers and a variety of hot tub pillows, all giving you the ability to design a custom hot tub to meet your specific needs. Master Spas features six different hot tub series, including swim spas. The largest unit comfortably seats eight people, while other models are equipped with massage jets to meet therapeutic needs.
- South Seas Spas: South Seas has two series, its Standard series and its Deluxe series. Within these series, there are over 15 different models to choose from, including units that seat up to eight people. Extra features include stereo systems, LED lighting and waterfall features. South Seas also lets you choose Icynene foam insulation, one of the best hot tub insulations available.
- Sundance Spas: Some of the 20 models of Sundance Spas are large enough to seat eight people. Its models are divided into four different series and feature a variety of jets, covers, lighting and water purification options. The SunSmart app connects you through its Wi-Fi Cloud Control System, allowing you to control your Sundance Spa hot tub from your smartphone. The app is available for both Android and iPhone devices.
- ThermoSpas: ThermoSpas lets you design your own hot tub. You can start by choosing a hot tub based on how many people you need to seat, or choose from one of three series, including its Fitness Series that features swim spa designs. ThermoSpas have jet stream options to fit your particular needs, whether you are looking for a therapeutic or an entertaining spa. There are several shell colors to choose from with extra options available, including cabinets, mood lighting and stereo sound systems.
Find a Reputable Dealer
While it is possible to walk into a big box store, such as Costco or Walmart, and purchase a hot tub, the unit will more often than not be very basic and not as high quality as a spa you purchase from a dealer. When you work with a dealer, you can more easily inspect the hot tub you wish to buy for any flaws or subpar equipment, and you can custom design a spa that has the extra features and accessories you want, especially if you're purchasing a hot tub for medical needs. Dealers also offer longer and more inclusive warranties.
Plus, dealers of popular brands are regulated by the spa manufacturers to ensure you get quality service and products that reflect the positive image of the company brand.
The hot tub companies we've featured here have tools on their websites to help you find a dealer in your area. You can also fill out a simple questionnaire on BuyerZone, our sister company. BuyerZone will match you with a reputable dealer near you who will be able to help you construct and install a high-quality hot tub.