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
| By Edward Kiersh | From 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.

So how does a buyer wade through this water world and choose a suitable portable?

Above all, don't get distracted by the food service bars, rainbow colors and other enhancements. Ask dealers for documented information regarding operational costs, servicing and warranties, and most importantly, assess your true needs.

Larger 400- to 500-gallon spas, while costing more to heat, are practical for families with children, or with a lot of friends. Besides allowing bathers to move around, these units have so many individual jets and multitiered seating configurations that they prompt one dealer to exclaim, "They're heaven, the equivalent of having six masseuses simultaneously working on your body."

These roomier units offer seats at different depths as well as lounges and recliners of various shapes. In larger spas the jet system is also diversified, offering a variety of distinctive "feels" (or water pressures and patterns), which is key when soothing different parts of the body.

"I love larger spas; they represent true freedom," says Steve Baum, the owner of All Baths and Spas in Yonkers, New York, who has been selling spas and whirlpools for 27 years. "The cost to operate a deluxe large spa is only a few pennies more than a small unit, but the roomier ones are the only way to go. They epitomize comfort and the good life."

Yet in some instances, buying one of these models is inspired more by fantasies than by sound judgment. For even though some buyers associate these roomier spas with Bacchanalian parties and reveling, they are more realistically akin to seldom-used guest bedrooms. As Kudisch cautions, "The reality is that one to two persons generally use a spa. Sure it's great to have a large spa when entertaining. But how many parties do average people have a year? While I'm not suggesting buyers should only get two-person units, they must forget their fantasies, be flexible, and allow daily use to dictate what's purchased."

Opinion is also divided about the current "Indy 500" rage, which has manufacturers increasingly styling their shells with deeply contoured bucket seats and lounges. Some spa dealers say these seating arrangements give the shell a futuristic look, and add to the feeling that a spa is a multidimensional environment with "comfort zones." One Florida salesman insists "a lot of people like pre-assigned seats, being in one place for a specific jet system. Most spas are compartmentalized today, and these comfort zones, all offering a different jet experience, are the future."

Yet others in the industry throw cold water on the bucket seat trend. As one industry analyst contends, the deeply recessed sculpturing can weaken the strength of fiberglass shells and reduce the spontaneous movement inside a spa.

"While bucket seats are great in a Maserati, in a spa they create barriers between people," insists this critic. "These big buckets and lounges lock you into one position, and so the jets only hit certain parts of your body. That is, if your body can even fit into these restrictive contours and buckets."

Spas can be custom-built to fit your body's specifications. A local pool contractor-turned-spa maker might have a few molded shells in his showroom and be equipped to "customize" them with jets and pillows. But beware! More accustomed to building swimming pools, he'll usually offer a one-year warranty, while most established spa manufacturers (with a network of dealerships) give five and seven-year guarantees. Plumbing outlets and home centers also sell spas. But the safest approach is going to a specialist, a spa dealer.

The next step is choosing seating arrangements and other comfort features, and the only strategy to accomplish that is the "test soak." Too many people just sit in a dry spa, thinking this will help them determine if a unit is comfortable or not. But a spa has a completely different feel when your body is immersed in water, so when comparative shopping, bring a swimsuit, enter a "mood room" that dealers generally offer to provide privacy, and get wet.

"You can only tell if a cigar is good by smoking it, and it's the same with spas; buyers must try them to really judge the different soaking experiences," says Baum. "What's comfortable for a 6-foot-2-inch guy could feel terrible for a 5-foot-2-inch woman, so buyers have to move around in the water and try all the different positions and jets. It's a frightening statistic that 90 percent of all spa buyers don't take a wet 'test drive.' But even before I sell a brand, I go to the factories and soak."

Seating arrangements are a consideration when assessing feel. Though many spa manufacturers boast that their lounges and recliners are "ergonomically engineered," these "pre-assigned" and deeply recessed seating zones are confining to many bathers. At its most relaxing best, soaking is a moving experience, and it shouldn't demand the contortions of a Harry Houdini.

Enjoying ease of movement is one of Baum's comfort priorities. But he also advises buyers to take the "agitation" test, to feel the jet action in their trial soaks, and to distinguish comfort from water-pounding punishment.

Spas today are equipped with all kinds of jets, from Hot Springs' "soothing sevens for 1997" and Sundance's 14-nozzle Accu-Ssage system for upper body massages, to Dimension One's AquaPed jets that "customize foot, ankle and leg therapy needs" (many dealers will also customize jets to suit specific hydrotherapy needs). Most of these water-spouting devices can be personally adjusted, depending on a bather's preference for a simple relaxing soak or for a more intense bout of hydrotherapy.

Yet Baum, who has recently begun selling high-performance Artesian spas, still insists, "Forget all the fancy talk about 'jet systems' and 'multidirectional movements.' The only way to judge water flow--what's comfortable and what's an extreme firehose--is to get into a wet spa and feel the action. Companies are now playing a numbers game, adding more and more jets. But the only thing that counts is how these jets feel."

Pumping up jet firepower isn't the only sales trick these days. Spa manufacturers are also playing the horsepower game.

Hot water is magical only when it surges through those hydrojets at great force--and to create this heat and circulation, portables rely on equipment systems known as "skid packs." These support systems, comprising pump, filter, heater and, frequently, air blower, are built into a portable unit; generally at least two 1.5- or two-horsepower pumps are needed to propel the water in a 400-to 500-gallon spa, says Baum.

But to jazz up even their smaller spas, companies are now offering three and four-horsepower pumps. While in-ground spas usually need extra power to circulate their larger amounts of water, it's Gary Kudisch's contention that this horsepower craze is just another example of manufacturers "getting off on more gongs and whistles."

"Companies like to list a unit's 'peak,' super horsepower figures, but that's misleading the public," says Kudisch. "The only important factor is the continuous-duty, 1.5, 1.65 horsepower. That's what actually turns the water. All those fancy numbers are a lot of bull."

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."

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.