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Hot Spots! Exceptional Values in Portable Spas

Today’s portable spas increasingly incorporate touch-screen control panels and the capability to control settings through a smartphone. However, spas that incorporate new motors that power the jets likely won’t reduce your energy costs dramatically.

Cal Spas

Some days, you don’t want to go outside to activate a snow-covered portable spa, or you’re too relaxed to jump out of the spa to load another CD into its audio system. Maybe you don’t have the patience to navigate push-button control panels that activate heaters and jets blindly. Fortunately, manufacturers introduced features on their latest spas that make each of those tasks easier to accomplish or, in some cases, obsolete.

Today’s newest spas incorporate wireless Internet connectivity, so you can activate and monitor your spa through a smartphone or tablet computer. Manufacturers increasingly add Bluetooth-enabled audio receivers that allow you to stream music and touch-screen control panels that allow you to change settings, such as water temperature, by tapping or swiping with a finger.

We found no changes in construction materials or increased jet power by manufacturers, but new motors that are designed to work more efficiently than previous motors did appear to deliver negligible cost savings, experts tell us.

TOUCH AND GO. Hot Spring and Master Spas added touch-screen control panels to some of their spas in 2014, and Bullfrog International and Jacuzzi followed suit in January 2015. Artesian Spas tells us that it plans to introduce models that have touch-screen control panels in “mid-to-late 2015” but provides no specifics. Bullfrog International, Hot Spring and Jacuzzi say their touch screens are made of glass, which allows for the same touch-and-swipe operation that’s found on smartphones.

Manufacturers say touch-screen control panels make it easier to adjust the spa’s settings, because the panel displays more information on its menu-based interface than do conventional control panels. Conventional spa control panels typically display only water temperature and have buttons that toggle on and off to activate a few basic settings, such as those on heaters, jets or cleaning cycles. Touch-screen control panels are capable of showing desired (target) temperature, the current time, reminders and other text-based messages.

You can detach Hot Spring’s touch-screen panel from the spa, so you can control the spa remotely as long as the panel is within 30 feet of the spa. That’s a nice option if you want to fire up the spa on a cold day from the comfort of your warm home.

Based on our hands-on evaluation of Hot Spring’s touch-screen control panel, we believe that such panels are more intuitive to use than are conventional panels, because the interface is just as easy to navigate as a touch screen that’s on a smartphone or tablet. Furthermore, the touch screen is just as responsive when it’s wet (from steam or from water that we splashed on it) as it is when it’s dry.  

Touch screens are standard features on models that cost as little as $6,250. Master Spas was the only manufacturer that was willing to assign a value to its touch screens, estimating that the feature adds about $240 to the price of its spas.

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REMOTE CONTROL. Detachable touch screens that allow you to control your spa remotely are great, but you can extend that reach considerably if you buy a spa or add a module to your existing spa that allows you to control the spa through your smartphone or tablet. In January 2015, Jacuzzi introduced a spa that incorporates a module that delivers Wi-Fi connectivity as a standard feature. Jacuzzi says the MSRP for the J-500 likely would fall between $18,000 and $19,500. A representative for the company says it hasn’t determined a value for its Wi-Fi features. Eleven other manufacturers introduced Wi-Fi-connected modules that can be connected to your existing spa’s control panel and that cost at least $300.

Each manufacturer’s module is controlled through a free Apple iOS or Google Android mobile application from your smartphone or tablet. Consequently, you can control your spa from anywhere that’s within the range of your home’s Wi-Fi router. However, you’ll have to spend at least $3 for an additional cloud-based app and as much as $300 per year for a subscription-based service that allows you to monitor and control the spa from anywhere that you have a Wi-Fi connection.

We found five spa manufacturers—Dynasty Spas, Emerald Spas, Jacuzzi, LA Spas and Sundance Spas (owned by Jacuzzi)—that at press time didn’t assess fees beyond the cost of their apps. However, at least two of those manufacturers—Emerald Spas and Jacuzzi—say they likely will switch to a subscription-based service, although neither provided a timetable. Two other manufacturers, Artesian Spas and Bullfrog International, say they provide Internet control free the first year after purchase, then charge $24 per year for the service.