Things to Consider
Things to Consider When Shopping for a New Spa
It’s hard to find reliable sources when doing research about hot tubs. Most “hot tub shopping advice” articles are nothing more than a sales pitch “advising” the reader to buy their brand, focusing on their specific brand name’s strengths and special features.
Genuinely unbiased articles on the subject are most often composed by writers who possess only academic knowledge on the subject. They are usually written by people who have done some research but haven’t dedicated their lives to the business. Since they haven’t invested too much time and energy on the topic, and since they aren’t passionate about the subject, the information tends to be ambiguous, too theoretical and often quite inaccurate.
Since we deal with so many manufacturers and quality levels, we can remain objective when we compare the different brand names. This page doesn’t try to prove “our tubs are the best” – the purpose is to inform, not to manipulate. We’re not getting our information from some promotional material provided by our hot tub suppliers – the information on this page is based on years of hands-on experience with used hot tubs and the feedback of hundreds of hot tub owners we have interacted with. Whether you choose to buy from us or from somewhere else, below are some things we think you should be aware of when shopping for a new hot tub. We hope you find it helpful.
- Getting What You Pay For
Just because it’s really expensive doesn’t guarantee it’s a high-quality spa, but generally speaking, a low price tag almost always means a low-quality spa.
If the dealer’s sales pitch is largely based on “how affordable” their brand is, consider it to be a “red flag”. Cheap tubs are cheap for a reason. That reason is that the factory cuts corners to save time and money. It costs more and takes longer to make a high quality spa, so obviously it costs the manufacturer, the dealer and ultimately the buyer more money.
A cheap hot tub isn’t usually a better deal. A well-built hot tub will perform better, run more efficiently, feel more comfortable and outlast a poorly built hot tub by many, many years.
- Companies Change
Sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse.
There are several local brands that I used to promote with confidence that I now advise people to avoid. Likewise, there are some brands I previously disliked which I’ve come to respect and appreciate as they’ve evolved.
Just because a brand has been good in the past doesn’t mean they’re still good – they’re just riding on their good reputation from the past. Some companies have made some big cost-cutting changes lately, but it may take several years for the consequences to catch up with them.
Conversely, some companies may start off “bad” but slowly improve over the years.
Other manufacturers go through an embarrassing “bad stage” (like Harley Davidson, Firestone and Toyota) but make the necessary changes to correct the problems and are better off for it.
Also, often factories get acquired and taken over by other companies who make cost-cutting changes but keep the brand name because it’s already well-recognized by consumers. Same “name”, same molds, but essentially a totally different product by a new manufacturer.
So don’t put too much stock on any particular brand’s good reputation or bad revies, as things can change pretty quickly in this business.
- Misleading Big Box Store Branding.
I’ve learned one can’t always trust a brand name if it’s being sold at a big box store or online.
Online vendors and big box store versions and of a “good brand” may be a cheaper price-point equivalent of what you’d buy from a proper dealer.
I learned this the hard way. I bought a trusted brand name chainsaw from a big box store and when it had problems I brought it to the dealer to service/fix. The guy said, “this isn’t a standard Husqvarna – this is a cheap model made exclusively for Canadian Tire. They are junk and aren’t worth fixing”.
I’ve heard the same from people in the electronics business, and I know it’s also true when it comes to hot tubs.
Big box store hot tubs are price-point models made exclusively for that particular store, and use lower quality materials and cheaper equipment. The engineering, performance and workmanship is inferior to what’s being sold at an official dealer’s store. If you like a brand being sold at a big box store, it’s worth paying the extra money to get a better version of it from an official hot tub dealer.
By the way, Hot Tubs Galore also sells “cheap” options, but we’ll be “straight up” with you about the poor quality, and if you still want it, fine, but consider yourself warned.
- Internet Research Results (Online Reviews, Ratings)
As someone who’s familiar with pretty much all the brands out there, I’m often confounded by the “unfairness” and inaccuracies of online reviews/ratings. Some are ridiculously over-rated, while some are unfairly attacked. I suspect foul play. Here are a few things to consider:
- There are ways to “cheat” the system. I know, for example, one company that requires all their staff (at the factory and in their stores) to write a positive review, and encourages employees to get as many friends and family as possible to leave reviews & ratings, whether or not they own a hot tub. Also, many dealers are required by their Franchise to follow up with their clients a few months later to ask for a review, so they’ll get ten times more positive reviews than those who never ask.
- “Good” reviews are often posted too soon. It takes a few years to form an accurate assessment of the quality, reliability and performance of a product that’s supposed to offer many years of service. Many consumers are asked by the retailer to leave a review soon after their purchase, when everything is still fresh and new. If/when things go wrong later on, it doesn’t occur to them to retract the good review they left a couple years ago.
- Consumers are more likely to leave a negative review if they’re unsatisfied than leave a positive review if they’re satisfied. So by default, most companies will get more negative reviews than positive reviews.
- Do the math. The “best selling hot tub in North America” is going to get ten times more negative reviews than a brand that sells only 10% as many spas in any given year.
- Most angry reviews have more to do with the retailer selling the product than the brand itself. If a retailer takes care of a problem quickly and professionally, it’s unlikely their client will be angry enough to write a bad review about the brand of hot tub they sell. Likewise, a hot tub retailer that neglects their clients and provides bad customer service is much more likely to have a client complain about the brand they represent, even if both brands have similar track records for reliability.
- “Good quality” isn’t synonymous with “good warranty”. There are some lousy brands out there that are always breaking down, but the manufacturer has an excellent warranty policy and since the consumers get their problems fixed quickly, the buyers don’t feel compelled to write a nasty review. Likewise, there are some good quality hot tubs that hardly ever break down, but when they do, it’s like pulling teeth to try get the factory to honour their warranty, so that brand gets lots of flaming angry reviews.
- A good PR team doesn’t mean a good product, and vice versa. Some companies hire “damage control professionals” to keep an eye on and manage online ratings and reviews. They’ll throw money at any people writing bad reviews to “satisfy them”, while other companies won’t negotiate with terrorists and get bombed for it.
Several years ago Hot Tubs Galore had a bad rating with the BBB because a couple psychopaths wrote false accusations about us to the BBB, and made unreasonable demands for “compensation”. They posted attacks on Craigslist, and wrote outright lies online.
One of them even came onto my property to intimidate my family while I was away, trying to pressure me to give them exorbitant amounts of money to “go away”.
When I refused to comply with their unreasonable demands, they took me to court and I won hands down. The ruling was that I was 100% in the right, and they were asked to remove all negative comments and complaints with the BBB and online. They didn’t do it, and I have no way to enforce it.
Maybe I should have given in and paid them off, but on principle, I can’t stand rewarding evil.
But that was years ago and my rating with BBB crept back up to A+ again.
- Companies have very little recourse when it comes to online attacks. Even false accusations can start rumors that cost companies millions of dollars in damaged reputation. Other than paying the person to shut up, there’s not much that can be done. Writing in a reply explaining their side of the story won’t make things right in the eyes of the “researcher”. And these posted complaints can linger for years and years online.
- Sales Staff Don’t Usually Lie, But…
While out of town in a different province, I went into a few hot tub stores to see what they were selling and how they were selling them. A salesman from one of the top three manufacturers beamed with enthusiasm and spoke with great conviction about the advantages of their hot tubs over “the other guys”. As he spoke, he made claims about their spas and made accusations against other brand names that I knew to be inaccurate and it made me feel indignant.
But as he went on with his presentation, it slowly occurred to me that he wasn’t trying to deceive me – he simply didn’t know any better! After all, he was not really in the hot tub business – he was in the sales business, and just happened to be applying his skills to hot tubs. He really wasn’t qualified to compare his store’s brand name with the other brand names out there. In fact, he didn’t know very much about his own company’s jets, plumbing, insulation, materials, manufacturing techniques and performance, never mind the “other guys”. All he knew was based on what his store had trained him to say.
He was a genuinely nice guy, just doing his job. Based on what he knew, he was sincerely convinced that his store had the very best deal in town. I wish him all the best. I know that sounds kind of patronizing, but it feels better to smugly pat someone’s head than to spitefully paddle their backside.
- Good Marketing Versus Good Quality
The ability to build a good product and the ability to advertise effectively are not necessarily related. Just because a manufacturer does an excellent job promoting their spas, and just because a brand is “well known” doesn’t necessarily mean that their product is superior. I know some obscure-yet-great manufacturers that do a terrible job marketing their spas, and vice versa.
A well-known brand name doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good brand name. Consumers are naturally drawn to well-known businesses that put out full-page ads and have cutting-edge interactive websites, nice-looking facilities in high-traffic areas and hire physically attractive staff and professionally trained salespeople. That’s why hot tub stores do all that stuff. But although good exposure and effective promotion always increase sales, they don’t always accurately reflect the actual quality of the tub brand being promoted!
A wise shopper should judge a business by their product quality, their price and their track record for integrity, not their marketing, familiarity, presentation or aesthetics.
- Bad Spas In Good Stores (this one’s very important!)
Cheap junky tubs aren’t limited to big box stores and liquidation centres. Some top quality spa stores carry them as their “economy line”. Watch for the word “by”.
For instance, let’s say that ACME Spas are a genuinely excellent product, but their stuff is kind of pricey. So their stores also offer an inexpensive line of hot tubs that they bring in from USA which they market as “The ‘ACE’ Line ByACME”.
Here’s what happens: The salesperson shows the shopper one of their high-end tubs and explains how their line of hot tub is superior in design, quality and workmanship, and offers convincing evidence of reliability and customer satisfaction.
It’s all true. But the price is higher than the client can justify spending. Rather than letting the potential buyer walk away, a salesperson might then show them a more economical alternative to the models being featured in the sales pitch. The potential client assumes that everything they just heard from the salesperson also applies to these cheaper spas, but it’s not so!
These less expensive tubs bear the ACME logo, but these are not actually ACME products – they’re just imported by ACME and offered as an option for clients who cannot afford a “real” ACME product. But since the tub has an ACME sticker on it somewhere (eg: “the Ace Line by ACME”), and since the client trusts the ACME brand name, and since they are in an ACME retail store, they don’t realize that these lower priced options are basically the same kind of low-end tubs being sold elsewhere under a different brand name for even cheaper!
But don’t get mad at the salesperson for trying to trick you – he or she may not even be aware of it – they’re just going through the routine as they were trained to do.
- Fly-By-Nights and Death Throes
Since getting into this business in 1997, I’ve seen literally dozens of hot tub stores come and go. It’s not uncommon for a hot tub place to pop up overnight, then disappear a couple years later as quickly as it came. I’ve also seen some stores suddenly vanish after being in business for many years. Most of them had been struggling financially for a long time, but finally came to a point where they couldn’t hold on any longer.
Based on the information I have to work with, it would be safe to say that at least half of the stores out there are struggling, and half of those are in serious financial trouble, pretending to be “just fine”.
Having run two hot tub retail stores in the past, I know how hard it is to keep the employees fed and the bills paid. If a hot tub store has cheaper pricing than anyone else for a similar product and/or is offering free extended warranties and extras not offered elsewhere, it might be a sign of desperation – perhaps that store is in its death throes and might not be around for much longer.
Or worse, the store may be dumping as many hot tubs as possible before sneaking off in the night with a fistful of cash. Consider the location and how “settled” they look. How much money have they invested in their place lately? How easy would it be for them to just walk away from it all? Does the owner’s life revolve around hot tubs, or is he just a business guy who bought into a hot tub franchise?
Ask yourself, “is it possible for someone to come after dark to load everything up with a forklift and be gone before sunrise? I’ve seen it happen time and time again, and even as I type this paragraph, I know from one of their employees that another “long standing” store is planning to do just that in the next month or so.
I’m not saying that you can’t trust anyone out there and you should only buy from me – I’m just saying, keep your eyes open and listen to your gut. If something smells fishy or sounds too good to be true, or if you get a nervous/stressed vibe off someone trying to sell you a hot tub, you might want to listen to your instincts that something isn’t right.
- Manufacturing Location
American or Canadian made hot tubs tend to be far superior to imported spas. Beware of misleading claims. “USA product” or “Made in Canada” can actually mean “engineered and fabricated in China, assembled in Florida”, or “Assembled in Canada”
As mentioned elsewhere on our website, for a while we experimented with selling low-end tubs because there seemed to be such an eager market for them.
One of the low-end brands we used to sell had the “Made in Canada” sticker on it because it was assembled locally. But the truth was, although it had high-end domestic components and quality jets (a big improvement over what the big box stores sold), the shell and plumbing were actually designed and fabricated overseas. The hot tubs looked great but they were far inferior to the other stuff we sold.
I invite you to come to our showroom and see for yourself what I’m talking about.
Note: Certain hot tub stores adamantly deny they carry imported products because legally they can get away with it, and there’s no way for the consumer to know otherwise. Some trained sales staff aren’t even aware of this fact.
- The “Us Versus Them” Game
There is a big difference between good and bad brand names. But amongst similar quality brand names, the rivalry is usually over issues that have more to do with marketing and personal preference than performance and longevity. Usually the benefits of one over the other are not nearly as important as they make it seem.
“Our shells are re-enforced with steel-mesh”
“Our tubs have heavy-duty molded bases”
“We use only high density, open-cel foam”
“Our premium models have a silver-plated titanium flux capacitor hand-crafted by monks in the Himalayas”
Cool. But needless and irrelevant.
If the different manufacturers you are considering make similar quality spas, don’t allow these little technical details confuse you or distract you from the more important issues that you will live with every day, such as size, dimensions, seating layout, jet patterns, special features and overall design.
- Different Brand Names, Same Manufacturer
Sometimes competing hot tub stores are actually selling pretty much the same product under different brand names. For instance, two manufacturers I work with actually make tubs for several different spa companies.
Some of these brand names are far more popular than others, depending on how successfully they promote themselves. Some manufacturers have a “default” brand name, but if I paid them to do so, I could have them stamp and label the hot tubs they send me with my own brand name and I could market them as a different product. If I were a very good businessman, my brand name might end up being more popular than the default name my manufacturer uses. Isn’t that a hoot?
- What You DON’T See Matters
It only makes sense that most people make their decision based on what they can see – the exterior of a hot tub. However, when it comes to quality, performance, workmanship and reliability, the things that really matter may not be seen or mentioned on the showroom floor.
Check out our “Defining Quality” webpage for more on this
Read the fine print! The policy often lets the company off the hook for the most common problems.
But more important than the wording itself is the integrity of the company. Some companies may not have an over-the-top sounding warranty, but they have an excellent track record for prompt service “with a smile” and going way beyond what’s legally required of them.
I also know and have worked with manufacturers who make all kinds of promises but when there are problems, it’s like pulling teeth to try get them to honour their warranty.
- Standard Versus Exclusive Features
The more unique parts and features in a particular model, the more dealer-reliant you become, with model-specific parts that are eventually discontinued.
As the years go by, a hot tub with special features or brand-name-specific parts becomes increasingly more tricky to repair (have you heard of the term “planned obsolescence”?). As a result, spas with unique features and dealer-only parts tend to depreciate quickly and are hard to resell.
For example, one of the most popular brand names in BC are currently making hot tubs that come with jets that are immediately obsolete. They make them at the factory to put in their tubs they sell but we were astonished to discover that their own parts & repair store does not have replacement jets for them!
It’s best to go with spas that use jets, spa packs and filters that are not unique to that particular hot tub brand name. And when it comes to plumbing, as repair guys, we love it when a hot tub uses regular plumbing parts with normal threads in standard sizes.
- Simple Versus Complex
Many of the newer models are needlessly sophisticated (that’s a nice way of saying complicated). NASA’s Mars Rover was intentionally built as low-tech and simple as possible to increase reliability and longevity.
Any hot tub brand name that offers all kinds of fancy upgrades (chrome jets, stereo, LED lights, waterfalls, ozonator, multi-pump systems, etc.) as “standard features” should be immediately suspect.
The most trusted brand names tend to be more conservative, less “blingy”, and embrace the “KISS” attitude (acronym for “Keep It Simple Stupid”).
Having said that, if you are one of those people that like cool features and fun upgrades, there’s certainly nothing wrong with that if you go with a quality manufacturer. Just keep in mind that that it’s usually the cheap & trashy ones that come “standard” all blinged out with bells and whistles.
The super-flashy eye-catching ones may capture your imagination, but they often have the worst track record for performance, reliability and integrity. Kind of like the night club scene.
- Hot Tub Shells
Conventional hot tub shells are made of fiberglass with a thin film of acrylic over it, which gives it color and texture. For the most part, shells themselves are rarely an issue – it’s the acrylic skin that matters.
Some manufacturers use thinner gauge acrylic than others. Some use better materials and more effective techniques to properly bond the acrylic to the fiberglass to prevent blistering and delamination.
Poorly designed hot tubs and/or sloppy manufacturing techniques can result in the acrylic to be over-stretched in certain areas, especially in the deep seats and floor corners. Sometimes the film is literally paper-thin. If water and/or air get between the fiberglass and the acrylic skin, it can begin to blister or delaminate.
The damage on a too-thin layer is sometimes triggered by a scratch or puncture from a foreign object dropped into the water, which can void the warranty.
- 17. Horsepower and Jet Pressure
Higher horsepower isn’t always a good thing – it can create undue stress on the pump, plumbing and jets.
A jet can only allow so many gallons per minute to flow through it no matter how much pressure it’s under (like trying to force an hourglass by pushing the sand on top). Applying too much pressure may cause “high blood pressure” in the system which creates undue stress on the plumbing and jet
Another thing to note is that horsepower rating is usually based on “peak power”, which measures the initial power surge when the motor first kicks in. After that, the pressure drops off significantly.
Some motors have a proportionately higher peak power than others. Several factors determine the strength of a pump, so horsepower stats don’t always accurately represent the actual working jet pressure.
More important than brute horsepower is plumbing design. Efficient transfer of water is all about physics. A good system has short-as-possible runs, uses high-flow pipes and hoses, and eliminates “T” joints and sharp angles. That’s why some higher end hot tubs can get away with a smaller pump while other manufacturers have to compensate for poor plumbing by putting in a big motor.
Inefficient plumbing reduces jet pressure, stresses the joints and strains the hoses so that there is a much higher chance of leaks developing.
In a poorly designed hot tub, some jets are considerably weaker than others due to a poorly designed arterial system. A good spa manufacturer has done the math to figure out how to provide equally strong pressure to each jet.
- Experimental New Technologies and Unproven Theories
Marketing new tubs requires that manufacturers give the clients a sense of progress by coming up with “new features” and “breakthrough, revolutionary technology” for next year’s models.
New concepts tend to draw a lot of attention and excitement, but unless you’ve got good reason to deviate from what’s standard in the industry, it’s wise to be skeptical about options based on theories that aren’t tried and true.
- Sanitizing Systems (Ozone, Saltwater, Ultraviolet, etc.)
Which system works best? Although I have done some research on the subject, I admit that I am not an expert in this field. The way I see it, as the politically incorrect saying goes, “There’s more than one way to skin a cat”.
A whole essay can be written on this subject, but to keep it simple, I’ll just say that if you’re dealing with a high quality manufacturer, these new systems all seem to work pretty good, and are a great option for people who want to reduce the need for chemicals in their spa water.
- Insulation Value
Hot tub retailers have a heyday with this one! Although a high quality hot tub will be more efficient than a poor quality one, the truth is that if you stick with a good brand, for south-western BC weather, the difference between one style and another will not make a huge difference in your heating bill.
Other things such as covers, pumps, plumbing, outside temperature, exposure to wind and frequency of use make WAAAY more of a difference than how a brand insulates its tubs.
- Number of Jets
First time buyers tend to place too much priority on the number of jets. Most of the artfully laid out jetting nowadays is designed more for “wow’ appeal than for practical purposes.
Although we do offer spa models with loads of jets for those who want them, keep in mind that that return customers almost always go for something more basic the second time around.
- Jet placement
What’s the point of a hundred jets if they aren’t strategically placed for effective and soothing massage?
Some spa models have jets placed in such a way that they don’t make sense – they either miss your body completely or even worse, can be located at pressure points that are actually annoying.
Jets that aren’t being appreciated are useless and wasteful.
- Jet Clustering
One might imagine that a seat that sports twenty jets against your back might give you four times the massage than one with only five jets. But if you get too many gets pushing against you at the same time, you lose the massage effect.
Instead of feeling twenty pressure points against your back all you feel is a general current that pushes you away from the wall – especially if the jets are placed too closely together.
Some cheaper tubs have tongue-and-groove panels that are literally one quarter as thick as a high-quality spa would use, and they are often glued or stapled on very sloppily.
Artificial wood is considerably more durable and lower maintenance than real cedar but there’s a huge difference between the good stuff and the bad stuff.
Some brands use a cheap stamped “foam board” that’s very brittle, and slowly deteriorates over time. Rats love to gnaw at certain materials but couldn’t be bothered with others.
Panels made up of tongue & groove slats are more labour intensive to build and install at the factory than screwing on a single large stamped panel for the whole side of the tub cabinet, but tongue & groove skirting is better for a couple reasons. First off, the design allows for expansion and contraction so they can swell and shrink without buckling the panel or straining the screws that hold the panel in place. Secondly, if the skirt is damaged for whatever reason, you can replace only the small broken slat instead of having to order a whole big panel to repair it.
- Comfortable Seating
Hot tub marketing research proves that people are more prone to buy a spa that they’ve climbed into, so manufacturers try to make them feel comfortable when a shopper climbs into a display model on the showroom floor.
Sometimes features like foam padding, detailed “ergonomic” sculpting, and “lean back” seating are introduced to give the spa model “comfort appeal” when you sit in them without water. Salespeople gush about “see how comfortable it is” because it sells tubs.
But it’s extremely important to keep in mind that everything changes when it’s full of water because of the buoyancy factor and jet currents. Try to imagine neutral buoyancy while you sit in the different seats and how that would effect how it feels.
- Great For One or Two, Good Enough For a Crowd
When one or two people are in a hot tub, it’s nice to close your eyes and really focus on the massage. But when the hot tub is full of people, they’re not there for therapeutic massage – they’re there to socialize. So the more people in a tub, the less important jetting becomes.
Hot swirling water is usually good enough for group tubbing – not every seat has to offer an amazing jet cluster. If budget is an issue, you can get away with a simpler tub that takes that into consideration.
Instead of having eight incredibly-jetted seats, you might consider choosing a simpler spa that only has a couple of really nicely jetted seats, with more modestly jetted “overflow seating” for guests. That way you can save money and entertain guests without compromising your own comfort.
Note: It’s always best to have more seats than the number of people using the tub, or else it can feel claustrophobic.
- Seating Heights and Contours
Poorly designed tubs don’t take into consideration different body-types. Some tubs are uncomfortable for tall people or too deep for children and short people. Large people sometimes feel squished by restrictive contours.
A good tub has a variety of heights and widths that accommodate different sizes and shapes.
- Cooling Stations Versus All-Or-Nothing
When the body is submerged up to the neck in hot water, it’s only a matter of time before the body overheats and needs to cool off. When that happens, a person has to take part of his/her body out of the hot water to cool it down.
When a hot tub only has deep seats, the person has to sit on the edge of the tub, exposing pretty much all of their body to the elements. In cold weather, this can be too much, too fast. Plus it can be uncomfortable and even dangerous to sit on the narrow ledge of a home spa.
A well laid out hot tub has places to sit inside the tub that can serve as “cooling stations”. These can be higher seats, access steps and/or the calf/feet section of the lounger that allow different percentages of the body to be exposed to the cooling air.
- Priorities for Colors & Patterns
The interior shell is the main visual focus when shopping for a hot tub in a showroom, but keep in mind that once it’s installed, the shell itself is almost completely covered with water and the crown can only be seen when the hot tub is in use, which is usually after dark.
Almost always (ie: unless you’re in the hot tub using it), the hot tub has the cover on, which means that when it comes to matching the hot tub to the house, the skirting and cover colours are far more important than the shell’s colour and pattern.
If you have any advice or insights about choosing a hot tub that you would like to share, please let us know. If it makes sense, we’d love to add it to this web page.
For more information, check out our New Hot Tubs section, then get in touch with your Greater Vancouver spa experts for quotes, specs and more!
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