Thursday, May 9, 2019

Softub, Revisited

Our $300 Softub is getting old.   Should we repair it or replace it?

Years ago, we bought a used Softub on Craigslist for $300.   The guy who had it got it from his sister.  He thought it didn't work because when he plugged it in, hot water didn't come rushing out of the jets.   It doesn't work that way.  It runs on 110v, so you can plug it in without an electrician.   And the heat from the motor heats it up, over time - like in 24 hours - to 100-105 DEGF.

For what it is, it works fine.  Since it is made of foam covered with vinyl, one person can lift it (when empty).  We strapped it to the roof of the X5 (with cardboard on the corners, as the manufacturer suggests) and drove it home like a giant hat.

There are cheaper knock-off tubs that are inflatable, but they are junk - just kiddie-pools with a heater.  They spring a leak and then they are toast.  You see them for sale at discount stores - not even worth bringing home.  You can see the attraction, though - the prices start at about $400 or so, and don't run much higher.  This is about 1/10th the cost of a new Softub.

But the Softub has one Achilles's heel, and that is the liner is made of vinyl.  Like a vinyl liner pool, eventually the vinyl gets older and cracks, and if you use too much chlorine or bromine, that accelerates the process.  Eventually, the liner has to be replaced. Ours is at least a decade old, and that is about the life expectancy of a vinyl liner pool, and I suspect, a vinyl-liner hot tub as well.

A few years back, you could order liners from a dealer or even online, and install them yourself. It was not easy to do, but not impossible, either.  There were YouTube videos on how to do it.   But in the last few years, it is harder and harder to find liners for these tubs - and in fact, impossible now.  The number of dealers has dried up - there is really only one in every State, and I think some States have none. The dealers no longer sell liners - but will install one for about $750. The manufacturer will install one, provided you box up the tub and ship it to Massachusetts.  Or, you can buy a  new tub for $3895 - which is apparently what they really want you to do.

I talked to the manufacturer and a couple of current and former dealers.  The manufacturer was quite snarky about it.   I tried to go on their website, but it was full of 404 errors - like when you click on "contact a local dealer".   I tried the "chat" mode but all that did was tell me to call the company.  So I called the company, and they gave me the name of two dealers, both of which are at least a 3-5 hour drive from here.   One dealer said they no longer install liners, but just replace motors (the motor package is attached to the tub with two hoses, so they basically are doing no technical service at all).

The other said they could do liners for $750, but they are a good drive away from here, and shipping would just be ridiculous.  Maybe next year when we go to Florida, we can strap the tub to the back of the truck.  Maybe.  Sorry I didn't think of it this year!    I found a former dealer online who was selling parts - they only had a limited selection. They lost their franchise and didn't seem all that keen on the Softub people.   And the reason why is Softub has raised their wholesale prices dramatically - to the point where dealers have a narrow markup on them.  And one dealer put it - "I carry two lines, Softub and a high-end line.  Both cost me the same wholesale, but one sells for thousands more retail.  Guess which one I push to my customers?"

Softub has a new German boyfriend! 

What is going on with Softub?  Turns out, they don't want our business.   Apparently most of their business is now in Europe, where these sell for $6000 or more. So they basically are giving the middle-finger to their US customers, now that they have a new German boyfriend. 

Of course, if Trump's trade war takes off, and Germany slaps 25% duties on imported hot tubs (hey, they did it with chickens - back in the 1960's and it is still in place today!) they may find themselves in a bit of a pickle.  Oh, sure, they'll come crawling back to us, once they find out that Helmut is abusive.   Question is, do we take them back?   This situation is interesting, as it illustrates how trade wars can hurt American companies, as well as American consumers.

Harley Davidson and Airstream sell a lot of products overseas, too - at premium prices as "luxury" purchases - perhaps that is why they have fuck-you pricing on their products for American consumers - they really don't want our business, when a Japanese businessman will pay well over list price, just to impress his neighbors.  But then again, maybe they don't have a choice.  Since you and I can still buy cheap shit from China, we aren't going to pay top dollar for an "American" made product produced - in all places - in Taxachusetts.  Yea, that's a low-cost manufacturing site, even by US standards!  The sarcasm light is lit.  So they have to rely on an overseas market, as Americans cannot afford products made in... America. This is where we are going with tariffs as well as with high labor and overhead costs.  Make the damn things in Alabama - maybe then, they could compete.

All that being said, it leaves me in a bit of a conundrum.   Do I throw $750 at this old tub next year and have a new liner put in?  Or do I save the money for a new tub when this one eventually starts leaking?   And if I get a new tub, do I buy a Softub?   At $3850, it seems like a pricey kind of deal.  And are there other options?

Turns out there are (thank you capitalism!).  Other manufacturers are jumping into the 110v plug-and-play hot tub space, including the Lifesmart tub, which is about $1500 cheaper than a new Softub (with free shipping on eBay or Amazon) and they don't have vinyl liners.  Or the Essential Jets model, for even less.   Interesting.

The great thing is, our current tub is working fine, but we can anticipate that it will fail over time.  This is not our first hot tub rodeo - these things do fail over time, and often are more expensive to repair than they are worth.  After a decade or so, pumps fail, heaters break, cabinets rot, and people eventually saw them up and haul them away.   A Softub, made of vinyl, is at least easier to dispose of.

But all appliances have a design life, and anticipating their eventual failure and budgeting for this is a smart thing to do.  We read all the time in the "oh woe is me!" media about some schmuck who ran up credit card debt due to "unexpected home repairs" that a rational person would expect.   Worse are folks who throw hundreds of dollars at appliances trying to repair them at the end of their design life.  It is simply cheaper and easier to put that money toward a new appliance (or find a lightly used one for sale at bargain prices).

So, we'll keep our eyes open.  I have a Google "search" open for the term "softub" and occasionally I get a hit or two from Craigslist or eBay. Usually it is people selling the motor/heater module (which detaches) as their tub liner wore out and they decided it wasn't worth spending the money to repair it.

I'll keep researching this, and when the time comes, I'll know what I want to buy.  I am thinking that repairing the existing tub isn't worthwhile - we might be traveling to Florida next year, but what a hassle, to carry a hot tub all the way to Palm Beach and back (!!).   And $750 (plus $500 for a new cover) goes a long way toward the purchase price of a newer "plug and play" hard-sided tub.  In fact, it covers more than half.

Stay tuned.

UPDATE:  I found this company on eBay selling replacement Softub liners.  It is an interesting option!  However the price does not include seals and installation tools.  A friend of ours has a newer softub that they want to sell, so that may be an option for us.

UPDATE:  We bought a new tub, made of plastic (like a kayak) instead of vinyl.  It was about $3000 and some change and can work on 110V or 220V.  It seems to work well.  What pushed us to replace the SoftTub was the motor burned out.  RIP Softub!  We loved you, particularly for $300!