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Do homework before plunging into spa purchase

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by Jan K. Allen

SBJ Contributing Writer

Many people dream of owning a home spa, but in a market bursting with spas of every size, color and style, many folks don't know exactly what to look for when buying a unit. It pays to do your homework, according to Debbie Smith, owner of Le Dipping Parlor Spas.

Spas are not a disposable item, Smith said. A good one should easily last 30 years or more. It pays to shop for quality, and it pays to select a dealer who has a good track record, she said.

People who have shopped around look for quality first, then price, Smith said. They want a dealer who will advise them and provide service after the sale.

It's a good idea to study the features of the units and find out which brands give the best performance. It is also wise to ask how long a dealer has carried a certain brand and why, she said.

Cheaper portable spas can start as low as $1,500 and run as high as $10,000, according to Chip Miller, salesperson for Springfield Pool and Spa.

Both Miller and Smith said about 80 percent of their spa customers install units outside, either on a concrete slab or wooden deck, and many use the units year-round. Miller said an inexpensive, non-insulated unit, set up outside, can run as much as $40 to $50 per month to operate in the winter, while a good, well-insulated spa may cost only $15 to $18 to run during colder months.

Miller said it is not uncommon for a cheaper unit to last no more than a couple of years. Except for lack of insulation, the tub itself is usually not the problem, but the pumps and heaters that supply it are usually the first things to go, he said.

While a heater may go out early from being overworked on a noninsulated model, another common reason for heater trouble is lack of maintenance.

"If people do not maintain the water balance, the heater can become covered with calcium deposits and will eventually shut down," Miller said.

Test strips are available to monitor water condition, and the water should be tested periodically, with frequency depending on usage.

Chemicals run about $15 per month, or less, and most spa owners keep a supply on hand, do their own water-balance testing and add the necessary chemicals when needed. Dealers can also provide testing and service to spa units for a fee.

While test strips make it easy to test for pH balance, some dealers, including Springfield Pool, offer free analysis for other problems, such as bacterial growth not detectable by the strips, Miller said. It is up to the customer take the water sample to the store for testing.

It is important to keep the heater and filters clean and unclogged. These simple maintenance tasks can add years to the life of the unit, local dealers said.

Although most units can run off of 110 voltage, it is recommended that the unit use 220 volts and a dedicated outlet. Most dealers do all other installation procedures, but the electricity is the responsibility of the owner, Miller said.

A well-built deck will hold a spa without reinforcement, but if the buyer is uncertain, he should check with a builder or an engineer before having a unit installed.

Spa manufacturers provide specifications on the weight of the unit when filled to capacity with water and occupied to the maximum level, Miller said.

Smith said spas have maintained their popularity, and the interest hasn't waned in recent years. She has noticed a heightened interest from people who have health problems whose doctors have recommended a spa for therapeutic purposes.

Several families are using spas as focal point in backyard decor, and contractors are finding ways to make the areas surrounding the units unique, according to Barbara Conner, co-owner of Conner Pool Company Inc. Permanent in-ground units are often highlighted by a cascading waterfall, a bubbling fountain or accented with fiber-optic lighting to make the hot tub area stand out.

Many home owners are adding elaborate landscaping, and some are doing it themselves, Conner said.

Virgil Conner constructs and will contract to maintain both swimming pools and spas. Most commonly, people want the units opened in the spring and closed in the fall by a professional and will do their own maintenance in between, Barbara Conner said.

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