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

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"I've sold them all, and I still like the full foam, especially in northern parts of the country where it gets awfully cold," says Steve Baum. "Full foam is just better because it's more resistant to heat loss. It's also quieter. Sure, when you don't have full foam, repairs of leaks are easier. Leaks, though, are rare in top-flight spas. But what's guaranteed, and never a variable, is that cold weather."
Depending on their product line, spa dealers also dispute the performance values of different acrylics. Salesmen agree only that their particular "paradise in plastic" is far more practical than the wooden tub that first achieved prominence as California "wine barrel bathing" in the 1960s. Wooden tubs do offer the natural beauty of redwood and cedar, yet critics claim they need diligent maintenance and drainage to prevent bacteria buildup within the porous, organic wood.
Acrylics, too, had their faults a decade ago. As glossy as porcelain, this material allowed manufacturers to offer a rainbow assortment of colors. Yet acrylic shells were susceptible to cracking, delamination and scratching, so they were often marbleized to hide any blemishes resulting from usage.
More recently, though, the trend has been towards an acrylic with a textured granite look, which Alan Sanderfoot, the editor of AQUA Magazine, the bible of the spa industry, calls the "most exciting development in spas today." He adds, "This material looks beautiful and doesn't hold fingerprints. The granite texture ties in with the home decorating trend of bringing the outdoors inside, plus [acrylics'] problems like blistering and delamination are a thing of the past. Acrylics scratch, but those nicks can be polished out. And as for cracking, that's now ancient history."
Salesmen will be equally reassuring. Besides offering the "hottest" deals, they conduct business in a "no problem" world, where their warranties are the "most comprehensive in the industry."
Take the time to study those warranties. Though the major manufacturers provide five-year, seven-year and even lifetime guarantees on certain features, these blanket warranties are subject to broadly defined "normal wear and tear" caveats. Spas must be maintained, especially the water chemistry, or else companies--and dealers--have a ready excuse to charge for parts and servicing.
But even though it's always wise to scrutinize the fine print, AQUA's Sanderfoot warns, "Manufacturers and their delivering a reliable product are not a consumer's main worry these days. Buyers must be a lot more wary about dealers. This is where headaches arise. For when there are problems, the manufacturer isn't around, the dealer is. He has to be knowledgeable about water chemistry problems after a sale, have a water-testing facility, and also a full range of 'after-market' products, such as pH adjusters. A warranty is only as good as the dealer who sells you the spa."
While spas offer instant gratification--already filled with hot water, they stand ready for all sorts of spritzing, soothing and soulful entertainments--many people aren't warm to the idea of having their own Baden-Baden or Evian in their backyard. They either don't have the space, are hesitant to go outside during colder weather, or prefer more privacy when bathing.
For these folks there's a warm-water alternative: the jetted bathtub, or what's commonly known as the whirlpool. Integrated with a pump, motor and jet system, $1,000 to $7,000 whirlpools have become a standard appliance in many luxury homes. An installed plumbing fixture that needs to be drained after every use, they come in sizes starting at four feet long. More exotic (and costlier) models that serve as a showpiece in master bathrooms accommodate two and three bathers. These roomier whirlpools with 150 to 200 gallons of water will allow your Dionysian fantasies to run wild. Yet playing in these jetted tubs comes with the built-in caveat of "fill time." It's hardly a sensual delight to be standing around for 20 minutes watching hot water rush into a tub. Urges can be lost, so buyers of these systems are warned by Steve Baum, "Don't drive a Miata when you can be sitting pretty in a turbo-charged Porsche.
"The whole beauty of a whirlpool is lost if it can't be filled in four to five minutes," says Baum. "And the only way to ensure that is to have an adequate [domestic] heating and fill [or faucet] system. There are units with optional in-line heaters that recirculate hot water when the pump is on. But since they raise the temperature so slowly, buying one of these is a waste of money. The much better alternative is to update the heating system in your house. Beef it up with a heater that quickly turns cold water into hot." Another concern should be the whirlpool's structure. Here the two most favored materials are porcelain-covered cast iron and acrylic.
While traditional cast-iron tubs maintain heat, and are the most durable, they are far heavier, costlier, and limited in terms of contours, colors and sizes than acrylic. It also takes longer for cast-iron units to get warm. "The buyer has to get into a unit to make sure it's not too long or short; but in general, since acrylic is the easiest material to shape, it's the most comfortable," says Baum. "Yet buyers should still see what material they like best. They have to take a trial run even if a showroom whirlpool doesn't usually have water in it. You don't want to be sliding down if the tub is too long or bending your knees if it's too short."
Since bathers can't move around in a whirlpool like they can in a spa, a key to comfort is the number and positioning of the jets. While a Top Gun arsenal of jets makes a glitzy statement, such firepower driving into your body can be harmful. A more sensible approach is to make sure the unit comes with enough adjustable back and foot jets.
As Bob Frederick, the owner of Spas of Palm Beach, in Florida, says with a chuckle, "Boys will be boys, just wanting to see a lot of high-powered action in that whirlpool. Sure it's flashy to have all these jets, but even more importantly, guys forget that their bodies are made of soft tissue. When jets are pounding away, you have to be careful."
Yet the trend is towards larger jet systems, from Jacuzzi's Sabella model with 10 jets and a three-horsepower pump to custom units with 12, 14 and even more jets. No matter how many jets there are in a whirlpool, make sure the pump horsepower is great enough to operate them.
Buyers must also check the adjustability of those jets, that is,whether the direction of flow and air/water mix can be changed. That mix determines the massage action: the more air going through the jets, the stronger the massage.
Finally, in this stressed-out world where quick muscle relief is everything, don't get saddled with a whirlpool that moves like that Miata. To really appreciate the luxurious values of a whirlpool, it must be filled quickly, and according to Baum, that means buying optional, high-volume faucets that "do a far better job than built-in fill systems.
"At minimum you want three-quarter-inch valves with 20-gallon-a-minute flow, and these type faucets are usually separate from the unit," says Baum, the self-crowned "Faucet King," who offers buyers more than 2,000 types of decorative faucets.
"You just don't want to go with the built-ins, since they take forever to fill. Plus, these fancy faucets, spouts, cascading waterfalls, whether they cost $300 or $3,000, really give a unit some pizzazz. It pays to spend the money to add these decorative touches."
Even though Baum praises Americh, Vita and Kohler for making top-of-the-line whirlpools, "to me, comfort is king, and that means the ability to luxuriously move around in a lot of water," he says. "While whirlpools have their advantages, a spa is synonymous with space, socializing and relaxing."
Whether it's a spa or a whirlpool, shop around. Get dealer references. And remember, both will be fun and soothing, if you avoid the many sharks that infest these waters.
Edward Kiersh is a frequent contributor to Cigar Aficionado. Spa Safety
A few tips for keeping your spa experiences happy ones
* An essential for safety and overall spa efficiency, a protect-ive cover prevents children from hopping into the spa, keeps leaves from clogging the system and conserves water heat. Buy a lightweight one. After seeking muscle relief in a spa, it doesn't make sense to sabotage these efforts by lifting 25 to 30 pounds of vinyl.
* Sanitize, sanitize. Spas are sexy, but only if they are rigor-ously purified, either by a bromine, chlorine, ozone or silver catalyst and other technology, or with newly popular "alternate sanitizers" that greatly reduce the dependency on chlorine and bromine. Automatic floating dispensers and monitoring systems are highly recommended to ensure water purity.
* Besides creating a romantic mood, night lighting is another vital safety feature. Spas have built-in lights, but stairs and decks should also be illuminated.
* Always make sure children are supervised. Adequate fencing, alarm systems and locking spa covers are a must. And for anyone with heart disease, diabetes, or high or low blood pressure, a doctor should be consulted before entering a spa. Never use a spa if you're under the influence of alcohol, and 15 minutes maximum is the recommended bathing time in 104 degree waters.


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