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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

(continued from page 3)

Having a unit with two pumps may make sense, however, if a spa is equipped with scores of hydrojets. Typically in deluxe spas, an energy-efficient small pump continuously circulates, filters and heats the water, while two other pumps activate the jets.

The average buyer might not want to take the time to study such specifications as the square footage of filters, the kilowatt ratings of electric heaters and the RPMs of a blower. But before you start thinking about a shell's color (remember, most spas are covered during the day, and used at night when those vibrant greens and sapphires can't be appreciated), it's still vital to check out how that skid pack fits within the spa cabinet. In other words, "open the hood."

Kneeling down on a showroom floor to display the guts of a Coleman spa, Mike Kimmerly, a service technician with Crystal Pools and Spas in Madison, Wisconsin, says, "Heaters do cause a lot of problems because they're coming into contact with old, chemically treated and aggressive water. So you want a flow-through heater, meaning the jet pump is moving water through it at a high speed. That will alleviate corrosion and stagnant water pockets. Buyers should also stay away from all mechanical switches. Instead, you want soft-touch electronic controls. Finally, top-loading filters are the only way to go. That way there's no plumbing to remove, no draining to change the filter."

Besides buying good equipment, Kimmerly adds, the best way to avoid expensive repairs is making sure that the water's pH remains balanced (not too acidic or alkaline).

Paying attention to a spa's insulation is also a priority. Here a debate rages as to what lining will best keep water hot and also muffle the sound of the motors. While Sundance and Hot Springs utilize a fully foamed liner, Coleman touts a "thermal lock" insulation method that essentially employs less foam to trap air into contained areas. Each company predictably insists its insulation is preferable. But they all emphasize avoiding plastic and wood liners, as these materials crack, shrink and rot.

"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."

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