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Water World: Shopping for Spas and Whirlpools

To Keep from Taking a Bath, Shop for Spas and Whirlpools with Your Mind and Not Your Passions
Edward Kiersh
From the Print Edition:
Michael Richards, Sep/Oct 97

Lying in a bubbly spa, her bare shoulders eased back to enjoy the full pressure of the 100 gallon per minute Volcano jets, Ms. Dimension One is having her neck massaged. While the NeckFlex jet pillow targets this model's tired muscles, her eyes glow seductively. A beatific smile settles over her tanned face. She's clearly feeling the therapeutic benefits of sitting submerged in three feet of rushing whitewater, amid a designer collection of Stress Melter lounges, bucket seats and digital message boards.

She's not alone, however.

In the hot water world of hydrotherapy, where every spa and whirlpool manufacturer claims to be "Mr. Magic Touch," there are scores of vixens in splashy brochures. All sport only a towel, smile provocatively, and while pointing to the latest "revolutionary" air jet or control panel, promote a unit that supposedly delivers a perfect massage.

While soaking in your own warm, bubbling spa is ideal for kicking back and relieving muscle tension, buying one can still mean taking a bath in the most pejorative sense. Even though today's portable spas and inground units are technologically superior to their leaky 1960s counterparts, it's easy to be dazzled by shiny-colored spa shells, dual high-powered motors and a multitude of air jets. Navigating these waters demands a few self-imposed reality checks and guidelines.

"Instead of thinking about how they're actually going to use a spa, too many buyers get soaked because they get too excited by the visuals, the sexy nonsense like the number of contoured bucket seats and air jets," bemoans Gary Kudisch, a Hot Springs Spas of South Florida salesman who's been in the spa business for 30 years.

Standing in an alley behind his Fort Lauderdale, Florida, showroom, near a work area dubbed the "cemetery," Kudisch points to several unusable units from various manufacturers, and adds, "This is what's left after people buy spas that are just good looking. They get hammered by 'slam, bam, thank you ma'am' salesmen mainly because they didn't take the time to answer that first big question: whether they're buying a spa for relaxation, hydrotherapy or partying."

Use is partially influenced by the size of a buyer's backyard, budgetary constraints and the permanence of his residence or lifestyle. Constructing an in-ground spa, with its elaborate wiring system, makes financial sense only if a buyer plans to live in a particular house awhile and doesn't mind the inconvenience of pre-heating the unit before every use. Portables, which account for 85 to 90 percent of spa sales, offer far more spontaneous soaks. They should be viewed as simple home appliances, needing only to be plugged into an electrical outlet to maintain a continuous flow of hot water. While portables require no plumbing and can be easily transported, built-in spas need a separate shelter for their support system. Since the wiring has to be buried, installation is costly, disruptive and time-consuming. All spas require some maintenance, and yet they're user-friendly, as they only have to be drained periodically, and can be easily kept clean by using automatically dispensed water sanitizers.

Many buyers still prefer built-ins, since they often double as fountains or ponds in gardens and courtyards. In stark contrast to cascading waterfalls and the other visually exciting possibilities of a built-in, portables are boxy-looking tubs. Though they can be covered by gazebos and other decorative structures, many still seem out of place sitting next to richly landscaped swimming pools.

But no matter what route is taken--a $3,000 to $25,000 in-ground or a $1,800 to $8,800 portable--a spa's size and styling are the most important factors affecting its daily use. With portables, the design and seating configurations are so limitless that "with all these new colors and contours, it's as if Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren and Giorgio Armani are all plunging into these waters at the same time," says one northern California dealer.

From the intimate two-person, 200-gallon "Jetsetter," to the six-adult "Chair-man" and even roomier shells with an arsenal of 50 jets and "zones" for individualized massages, portable spas come in a dizzying array of colors, exterior finishes and seating capacities.

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