Hot Tubs: The Sofa in Outdoor Living Rooms

Expand the scope of jobs — and create good word of mouth — by adding hot tubs to your projects.

Hot-tub sales once again are growing across the country, companies report, and builders and remodelers would do well to know how this equipment can aid the projects they're creating. With sales spurred by both an increase in remodeling work and the popularity of outdoor living in general, hot tubs are, well, hot.

"Outdoor living is huge, and hot tubs are becoming a part of that," says Kathleen Carlson, senior vice president of sales and marketing for the nine-store Aqua Quip retail chain in Seattle and a member of the Retail Council and board of directors of the Association of Pool & Spa Professionals (APSP). "Remodelers should definitely bring up the idea of including a hot tub and suggest options."

Many homeowners think of hot tubs only for Sunbelt locations or resorts, but they are flourishing across the country, says Steve Gorlin, president of Gorlin Pools & Spas in Lakehurst, N.J., and the chairman of APSP. "Hot tubs have deep roots in California, but sales are constantly going up in my area and throughout the Northeast," he says. Sales have been flat in past years, but they've begun inching up again, he notes, and that interest is coming from across the nation.

"You might think it would be stronger in the Sun Belt, but that's not the case," he says. "Many homeowners in other areas are seeing hot tubs at ski resorts and other vacation spots. They come in tired and cold and get into a hot tub, and they're sitting in heaven."

Not for Adults Only

Many customers originally are drawn to hot tubs for their therapy and relaxation aspects, Kathleen says, but they end up enjoying it for another reason. "Many end up using it for the quality family time it provides," she says. "As parents, we used to try to sneak into our hot tub without the kids. But we finally gave up because they always wanted to join us." That type of relaxing experience with children can't be duplicated, she says. "Contractors should be sure that they put the hot tub in an advantageous position so the entire family can use it because many customers won't even realize that benefit before they get it."

"Most families opt for a 7- or 8-foot square model, which comfortably seats five to six people, providing room for most family members or a few guests. Keeping out other "guests" requires a cover, notably an ASTM-approved version with clips to secure it, says Steve. "You don't want any accidents when you're not around." A cover also will help insulate the water, both to hold in heat so it warms up more quickly when in use and to avoid evaporation, which occurs faster when there is a bigger discrepancy between the air temperature and water temperature.

Hot tubs overall are energy efficient, he notes, particularly the portable types that feature insulation on the sides and bottom. Temperatures typically are set between 100 degrees F and 104 degrees F, the highest allowed by law. Some energy can be saved if the temperature is set at 100 degrees and then brought up to 104 degrees when needed, but it costs little to heat a tub on an on-going basis, he says.

"The tubs are so well insulated that with the proper cover, especially in the summer, the water nearly maintains its temperature without the heater coming on." Kathleen agrees: "They're like a big thermos bottle."

Maintenance also has gotten easier in recent years. They require about 10 minutes of maintenance per week, Steve estimates. A key reason is the commonly used 24-hour 1/3-hp circulation pump, which continually cleans the water while using little energy. Kathleen estimates that a typical hot tub costs $15 to $25 per month to operate.

Steve suggests throwing about 1/2 ounce of chlorinated "shock" into the water just before getting in each time (which he does daily, he says). He also tests the water once per week to check the sanitizer's efficiency, pH balance, alkalinity, calcium level and other chemical balances. "They tend to stay even, unless you have a large party of people using it," he says. He suggests draining the tub every three to four months, wiping down the sides and refilling it. Bringing the water up to the proper temperature again takes about 24 hours, he estimates.

Installation Considerations

Although hot tubs are easy to install, contractors do about 70 percent of the installations in his area, Steve says, owing to two key factors. The tubs can be difficult to maneuver after delivery, and not all decks can support the added weight. "If it's going into an open backyard, a homeowner can handle the installation," he says. "It's not technically difficult, but there usually are obstacles," particularly when going up steps or through gate openings onto a deck.

The deck also may need to be reinforced, unless it was designed for the addition of the tub during its construction. A filled 7 x 7-foot tub can weigh 3,500 pounds — not counting the occupants. Kathleen notes that the weight is spread out over a large space. "If the deck was built right, it can handle the weight in most cases," she says. Even so, Steve always pulls permits to have the inspector ensure the deck will support the weight.

Hot tubs create a great add-on amenity for projects that involve a patio, deck or addition. Builders who discuss them with their clients gain an advantage not only in considering every aspect of the homeowners' comfort but in creating a larger project — and adding another way the customer can show it off to potential future customers.

Craig A. Shutt is a Chicago-based freelance writer.

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