Thursday, June 11, 2009

Hot Tubs on a budget

Our Hot Tub is now over a decade old and still going strong, for the time being.  It has given us many years of service at a fairly affordable price.

As we have seen in my blog, it is possible to overpay for goods or services dramatically. We are not talking merely 10%, or even 20% here, or even paying double for what something is worth, but in some examples (such as virtual fax services) paying thirteen times as much for the same goods or services.

Nowhere more is this true that with hot tubs. Many, if not most consumers spend two to four times more than they should, for these simple devices.

As I noted in the preface of my blog, the goal of this blog is not how to recycle pocket lint to save money, but how to live well for less money. A hot tub is, no doubt, a luxury item. And one way to save a lot of money on a hot tub is to not buy one in the first place. However, such an approach to savings takes no imagination and thus is not worthy of mention. Yes, one can live cheaply by living a monk-like existance. But that is hardly living.

A hot tub is a fun toy to have, as it can be relaxing and also help with sore muscles, back problems, neck problems, and the like. It reduces stress and can also be fun for socializing. Presuming you have really thought this out and want to own one, there are ways you can own a hot tub for far less than you think.

1. Don't Impulse Buy:

The first step is to really think this out. Buying a hot tub at a trade show, the State Fair, or a Hot Tub Store on impulse is often a very bad decision. Impulse buying in general is a bad idea, and impulse buying expensive items doubly so.

The Hot Tub rip-off artists, like the RV and Boat set, love to sell to people at trade shows and fairs, as the customer is often not sophisiticated, nor have they done any research. If you can convince a customer that something costs more than it is worth, and not let them do the background research, you can easily double or triple the price of an item without them knowing it.

2. Don't Finance a Hot Tub:

I have noted before in my Rips Offs article about Hot Tub and Pool Table stores. These stores thrive in suburban areas and offer these relatively inexpensive commodities at outrageous prices. People buy them at these prices because they offer financing.

Thus, for example, a consumer is conned into buying a $3,000 hot tub for nearly $10,000, on the premise that it is "Only $99 a month!". Never mind that the consumer financing note adds another $2000 to $5000 to the price. Suddently, a $3000 hot tub is now over $15,000.

Hot Tubs are fairly inexpensive to acquire, as we shall see. If your finances make it difficult to buy an item that is a few thousand dollars, then that is probably a good indication you should not be buying a hot tub in the first place, but rather get your financial house in order first. These are, after all, a luxury item. You can do without.

3. What is a Hot Tub?

Understanding how these things are made and built will better help you understand how much they are worth and what can go wrong with them.

As the name implies, a hot tub is little more than a container filled with hot water. The main part of the tub is the shell, usually molded fiberglass or plastic. This is set in a wood or wood product frame, and then filled with expanding foam. A cover keeps the heat in.

The mechanicals are not complicated. A pump circulates water through the tub, through a filter cartridge, and through a heating element. A simple timer and thermostat maintains temperature of the tub.

These basic components are common to all hot tubs, and when one of them breaks, it can be expensive if not impossible to repair. Leaks are the number 1 killer of hot tubs. Once the liner cracks, or a leak develops internally (in the plumbing, surrounded by all that foam) the tub is pretty much done for.

The pump and heater will wear out, eventually, and these can be expensive items to replace, particularly if you have to hire someone to do it.

4. What About Accessories?

Of course, many tubs have other features as well, and salesmen sell these as necessary and essential, and of course, they add to the price. A two speed pump can provide a high pressure massage through numerous jets. Many people, when shopping for hot tubs, look at pump horsepower and number of jets as one criterion of shopping.

While this is a good way of comparing apples to oranges, don't get too obsessed with pump power and jets. After owning a tub for 12 years, the primary feature we find we like is.... a container filled with hot water. The idea that you can get a "hydromassage" from numerous jets blasting your body is sort of overstated. Want a massage? Hire a massage therapist. A hot tub will help relax your muscles simply because it is hot, not because the water is "jetting" onto your body.

These massage jet heads also tend to wear out over time, as the plastic becomes brittle due to exposure to chlorine and bromine. I have gone so far as to replace such jets, but the effort is largely futile and expensive.

Another feature common to most tubs is the blower. This is a feature commonly shown off at trade shows and hot tub showrooms, as it produces that dramatic bubbling effect that we think of when we think of "hot tubs". The blower simply blows air through a number of holes in the tub, causing the water to churn. What does this do for you? Largely nothing except look cool. It can be useful in causing impurities to foam up at the surface (where they can be easily removed) and it can be used to cool down an overheated tub. But as a feature you'd want to use while in the tub, it is far down the list. The bubbler tends to cause the chlorine or bromime in the water to mist, and make everyone sneeze or cough. After 12 years, we find the most enjoyable aspect of the tub is just the hot water - with all the pumps and machines OFF.

Ozone gnerators were a popular item, and our tub came with one. Supposedly they help treat the water and purify it. Ours died after several years and we never replaced it. And the water was just as clear as before. A deer whistle? Perhaps. But perhaps a dangerous one. Ozone is nothing to mess around with. Free radical oxygen is dangerous to humans. I am not sure generating it is even safe.

The latest gimmick is the chlorine generator, which is also pushed for pool use. The theory is simple, you take salt (NaCl) and take it apart electronically to generate chlorine. So you don't need to buy chlorine. But you do need to buy salt. Hot tubs use very little in the way of chemicals (or should, anyway) so I am not sure there is any savings to these.

Other items are just nonsense. Fiber optic lighting is cool, but not really necessary and not worth paying a lot for. Our hot tub came with a single 24 volt bulb, and a series of colored lenses you could put over it. The only good one was blue. Red made the hot tub look like a pool of boiling blood. Yellow, well, it looked like a urinal. Green made it appear that the tub had an algae problem. Blue was the only color that made the tub look cool and inviting.

The colored lenses eventually got old and cracked. One day the bulb burned out and I realized that it was the same bulb as in my lawn lights. You can buy these in colored versions for a couple of bucks at your local home improvement store. A lower wattage blue bulb provided a cool and subdued light than the higher wattage white bulb with a blue lens did not. So yes, fiber optic lighting is cool, but a colored bulb works well, too. And you'll often find you want the lights out, particularly at night, if you are in there naked.

Other accessories are a total waste. Built-in stereos and televisions are sort of silly, not to mention electrocution hazards. And I question how long a pop-up TeeVee will last in the chemical environment of a tub. If you want music, put boom box near the tub (but not so near it can fall in - usually at least 6-8 feet away is best). Get one with an IR remote, if you want to control the volume from in the tub.

5. Chemicals

Over-chemicaling a tub is a common occurrence. A hot tub is much smaller than a pool, and only minute amounts of chlorine and other chemicals are needed. I say chlorine, as I think bromine is a poor choice for hot tubs.

We were sold on bromine originally, as we were told that it would not cause ladies' hair to discolor. However, the same thing can happen in a pool, and we have few friends who have had discoloration problems due to pool use.

Bromine is more expensive than chlorine and harder to find. You usually have to buy it at a hot tub supply place, and it is priced accordingly. Chlorine, on the other hand, can be found at the pool section in WalMart or a wholesale club.

Some hot tub stores caution against using "pool chemicals" in a hot tub. However, the chemicals are the same, it is only the concentrations that must be monitored. It takes very little chemical to "balance" a hot tub, and usually less is more. If the pH or Chlorine levels are low, add a little and retest after a few hours, rather than dump in chemicals for a quick result. If you are not careful, you could turn your tub into a chemical bath.

Pool chlorine pucks (3" size) are generally too large for hot tub use.  But minute amounts of shock, ph Up and pool clarifier will work well in a hot tub.

In the last decade, we have seen the development of items that make maintaining your hot tub easier than ever. Test strips have replaced awkward chemical test kits, allowing you to monitor your hot tub without a lot of hassle and counting of drops. Just swirl the test strip in the water, shake it off and compare it to the chart.

Hot tub chemistry is not difficult. Chlorine (or bromine, which is just more expensive, not more effective) kills off bacteria and thus "sanitizes" the tub. The chlorine level should be kept in the "good" range specified by the test kit. Usually, a small, slow dissolving 1" puck in the intake basket will do this well. Occasionally, the water should be "shocked" with a large dose of fast dissolving chlorine, to prevent buildup of bacteria. And of course, you always have the option (unlike a pool) of occasionally draining and refilling the tub, although I find that enough splashes out over time and topping off insures that the tub water is cycled.

pH can be adjusted by using minute amounts of acid or alkaline. Again, only small amounts are necessary, and if you dump a lot of pH UP in the tub, then a dose of pH down, you are basically creating a chemical bath. Use small amounts and wait a few hours before testing.

Other levels, such as hardness, etc. can be important, if you have really bad source water. However, in most instances, such testing and obsession is not necessary. The point is to enjoy the tub, not obsess over it, and most new owners tend to over-chemical, with disastrous results.

I find that once the tub is balanced, it takes little effort.  I can feel when the water is starting to go south and add more chlorine.  I haven't tested mine for weeks at a time.  Once you become more relaxed with it, it is a lot less hassle and stress.

A little clarifier is useful on occasion, if the tub becomes cloudy. Clarifier (pool clarifier works well) attracts small dirt molecules to your filter, and thus makes the water crystal clear.

The filter on your tub is important. Most today are cartridge filters, which can last a long time. It is tempting to change these often, but for the most part, they can be removed and rinsed off, over and over again, with a new filter being installed only once a season, if that. Most filters cartridges are available online at low prices, too.

6. The Cover

I touched on the cover earlier and it deserves expanding on for several reasons. First, it is one item necessary to keeping the tub hot and clean and also keeping your energy bills low. Second, it is a wear item and will need replacement several times through the life of the tub.

For these reasons, it pays to buy a "standard sized" hot tub (a little smaller than 8 feet by 8 feet) as you can buy replacements cheaply online or at stores. Odd-sized or odd-shaped tubs are hard to find covers for, and as a result, replacement covers can be exorbitantly expensive. Even a "standard" hot tub cover is a few hundred dollars, delivered. So avoid the jumbo rectangular tub if you can. And the savings in going to a "small" odd-shaped tub are often lost in cover replacement.

Covers eventually get waterlogged and then collapse. To prevent this, keep them clean and apply some armor-all to the outside vinyl once a year. Buy a cover bracket (again, not paying hot tub store prices) to help you get it on and off. Covers can be awkward and heavy, and if you toss off the cover and let it fall on the ground, chances are, it will not last long. Our cover bracket is a simple affair that cost $200 and has a air strut like a hatchback. You fold the cover open, slide it onto the bracket, and then it hinges down out of the way.

But expect to buy a new cover every 3-5 years depending on use. Cheap covers, by the way, can wear out quickly. And thin covers provide little heat retention.

7. What about those tubs at the home improvement store?

Some of these are good deals, some not. Again, compare horsepower, heater size, number of jets, and overall size.

Some home improvement tubs have cheap covers and low power motors. This is not bad in and of itself, but it pays to compare feature for feature. On the other hand, don't let a hot tub salesman convince you that it is worth paying $6000 for basically the same tub that Home Depot wants $3000 for.

A good hot tub should run on 220V by the way, otherwise it will take forever to heat and may, ironically, use more energy. The only exception to this rule is the portable tub.

8. Installing a Hot Tub

One thing many folks don't take into account is that a hot tub needs to be installed. Years ago, the "built-in" hot tub was more common, and when installed, it meant that a shell would be built into a deck, with plumbing and wiring installed separately. Today, most tubs are the stand-alone kind, which require only placement and wiring.

Factor in the cost of installation when buying a hot tub.

To begin with, you need a place to put it. This sounds simple, but can be complicated. Most porches, decks, patios and the like are ill-suited for a hot tub. A hot tub needs to be on a flat level surface, and most concrete patios are designed to angle away from a house. A hot tub on such a surface may have an uneven water level.

Decks and porches suffer from the same problem and in addition, usually cannot support the load involved. Most decks need to be reinforced with 6" x 6" support beams before they will hold up a hot tub.

One inexpensive alternative is to place four 4" x 6" beams (8 feet long) on the ground, making a square. Drill holes in the beams and drive three or  four foot sections of steel re-bar into the holes and into the ground to secure the beams. Use angle brackets in the corners to make a solid square of wood.

Then fill the space with 6" of gravel, packing it down firmly and leveling it off. Such a platform is not only inexpensive, it provides even support for the tub, and can be easily leveled. It is also easier to run wiring underneath the tub, where the flexconduit often enters.

We used such a system (recommended by our dealer) and placed the hot tub next to our deck, which allowed us to step into the tub from the deck at an almost level entry point. If you are accessing the tub from the ground level, build a set of steps next to the tub to make entry easier.

Wiring is another issue, and unless you are comfortable running 220V wires, you should hire an electrician. Hot tubs require heavy duty wiring, often 40 to 60 amps, which means big (and expensive) copper. The copper alone can cost a few hundred dollars. You will need a three wire copper lead, usually 4 gauge or bigger, with a ground wire in addition. Using three wires with no ground is a bad idea, as is going to cheaper aluminum wiring.

A service disconnect should be located near the tub so that a serviceman can disconnect the power. But it should not be so near as to allow someone in the tub or near the tub to touch it. Consult local codes as well.

The cost of copper wiring, a service disconnect, conduit, and a circuit breaker, can run $200 to $300 just in materials. This doesn't include the cost of an electrician, should you decide to hire one. So remember that cost when looking at a used hot tub. Even a "free" hot tub is going to cost you something, and many "free" tubs are free because the owner bought them used and never got around to doing the wiring part.

9. Moving a Hot Tub

If you buy a tub, how do you get it home and how do you get it to the location you want? Hot tubs are heavy and hard to move. But it can be done. I've even moved one single-handed, although I do not recommend it, as you could easily hurt yourself in the process.

A flatbed truck or U-haul box van is probably best. Moving a tub any distance on its side or at an angle in a pickup truck could crack the shell, particularly on an older tub. Our dealer delivered the tub on a flatbed truck. I later moved it in a U-Haul truck.

Although heavy, a hot tub is more bulky than anything else. It can be "rolled" into place by placing it on its side, wrapped in its original cardboard box, or by laying out cardboard or other padding in the path. Once on its side, you can then push the hot tub, end for end, to "roll" it into place, usually with two or three people on each end while "rolling" it. Pry bars and the like can be used to push the tub into position once it is close, being careful, of course, to use a board against the tub to prevent marring.

10. Where to buy new?

The key is to find a dealer who sells hot tubs at reasonable prices. Chances are, this is not the guy with the loud radio ads, who shows up at the trade shows or the State Fair. You have to look, but good deals are out there. We bought our tub from a dealer who operated out of several storage lockers. He father was a distributor, and she sold the tubs at reasonable prices. The big box stores may be another good place to look, as well as the Internet. The key, of course, is to do the research and compare features, rather than go to an aggressive dealer and be "sold" something "on time".

11. What About Used Hot Tubs?

These can be a good deal or a nightmare. Remember that with a used tub, you have to move it and install it yourself, and as a result, they are not worth much. However, since most folks overpaid for these things, they tend to think they are worth more than they are.

So, Joe Paycheck spends $10,000 on a hot tub worth maybe $3500, and, 10 years later, he thinks that $3500 is a "fair" price for a well-used tub. The problem is, he probably still owes that much on the loan, so you can never talk the likes of him into reality.

After several years, a hot tub starts to wear out. The cabinet may start to rot (lifetime warranties notwithstanding) and the pump or heater may wear out. The covers caves in and the plastic jets get brittle and jam and no longer "massage."  A tub with a number of issues like this is really worth nothing, as you could spend thousands of dollars moving it, installing it, and repairing it, and end up with a worn out tub that will probably crack in a year or two.

If you are handy and can install it yourself, a used hot tub could be a good deal if it was attractively priced. By attractively, I mean $1000 or LESS, in most cases, far less.  $500 or less is probably a fair price for a used hot tube in working condition, that you have to move.   If the operation cannot be demonstrated, assume it is broken.  If it has any broken components, probably it is worth little, and you are doing the owner a favor by hauling it away.

12. How Long Does a Hot Tub Last?

In theory, they could last forever. However in reality, the plastic parts react with the chlorine or bromine and become brittle after a few years. The pump and heater need to be replaced, and the covers need replacement regularly. Once the outer cabinet starts to rot, the end is not far behind. You can patch and paint and forestall the inevitable with some luck and handyman skills, but every manufactured product has an end game, it seems.

Leaks are the death-knell of a hot tub, and for this reason, I would not even consider a used tub that leaks. If the shell is cracked, forget it, it is not cost-effective to repair. If the internal plumbing (underneath all that insulation) starts to leak, it is a nightmare to repair. You'd have to turn the tub on its side, dig into the insulation, find the leak, repair it, and then re-foam the underside. Once one leak starts, no doubt other parts will leak shortly thereafter.

Most tubs are toast after a decade, some may last as long as 15 to 20 years with gentle care. But eventually, there comes a point where it is cheaper to just get a new one, particularly at an attractive price, than repair the old one. Keep that in mind when looking at used tubs (why is the owner selling it anyway?) and also when yours gets older.

13. What about Portable or Soft Tubs?

These can be an inexpensive alternative to a large tub. Most are plastic, either foam sided or inflatable, and can be filled with water. A small pump and heater, usually 110 volts, will circulate and filter the water and heat it. Usually there are few if any jets. But such tubs do provide the "hot" in hot tub and may be all you need. Most can be found inexpensively, particularly used. While these are a nice alternative, don't pay too much for them.

My neighbors have one of these and report they are very satisfied with it. After many years, the heater appears to have gone bad on theirs, but again, this is typical of hot tub maintenance (and why a hot tub that needs a heater, a pump, and a cover is not worth anything). As it is round, they can move it indoors when they are not using it. As it runs on 110V, it is easy to install.

I recently purchased one of these models (Softub) for a vacation home, used, for $300, which is about 1/10th the retail purchase price new. It was easy to move and easy to install. Set it up, add water and plug it in. At the price we paid for it, it was a good bargain and may give many years of service if treated properly. However, as it is made of vinyl (like a vinyl lined swimming pool) it does have to be treated carefully and once the cover, motor, and liner are nearly shot, it is not worth repairing.

It is not nearly as large as our standard fiberglass hot tub at our other home, but then again, we didn't pay as much for it, either.

An interesting feature of the "Soft Tub" is that it uses motor heat to heat the water.  It is slow to heat, initially, but once at temperature, it holds heat and is fairly efficient.  A clever design, and yes, I would buy another one, at the right price.

Inflatable tubs are really cheap, but a case of "you get what you pay for" as they don't last long.  Our Softub, bought used, is just starting to wear out after a decade of use.  Sadly, Softub no longer sells liners, but requires that you return the product to the factory for re-lining.

14. What about Whirlpool Bath Tubs (Spa Tubs?)

I have two of these (they came with my houses) and in my opinion, they are an utter waste. Again, the idea that a jet of water will "massage" you is somewhat overstated. Most do not have a heating element (often this is an extra-cost option, and most do not opt for it, as most are installed by contractors). As a result, when you get in, the water may be hot initially, but then quickly cools down to a "lukewarm tub". Since you have already drained your hot water heater, it is hard to re-heat these with more water. And since they are drained with each use, they result in staggering water bills or dried-out wells.

Most of these spa tubs are installed for the look and are rarely used. People expect to see them in modern bathrooms, but most folks end up using the stall shower instead, and the "spa tub" becomes a huge laundry hamper. I would save my money for a real hot tub - the spa bath tub is no realistic alternative.

* * *

By doing your research and taking the initiative, you can have nice things in your life and not spend a fortune doing it. Often the difference between "wealth" and "poverty" has less to do with how much you MAKE than with how you SPEND it. I've seen folks who make more money that I do have far, far less, because they squander most of their income through bad deals. Spending $10,000 on a hot tub when you can get one for a couple of grand (or less) is a case in point.