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.

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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.

Wi-Fi- and cloud-connected controls allow you to monitor the spa and change water temperature, cleaning cycles, jet settings and lighting remotely. We believe that such capabilities might come in handy, for instance, if you want to activate the spa on your way home from work or if you want to monitor a vacation-home spa that’s hundreds of miles away. The latter capability is particularly beneficial if the spa is located in an area that’s prone to freezing temperatures, because the spa’s shell could crack if the water heater failed.

TOUCH UP. Spa manufacturers increasingly incorporate touch-screen control panels for spas, some of which can be detached, so you can activate the spa from inside your home.

TOUCH UP. Spa manufacturers increasingly incorporate touch-screen control panels for spas, some of which can be detached, so you can activate the spa from inside your home.

Watkins Manufacturing

Caldera and Hot Spring (both owned by Watkins Manufacturing) go a step further by allowing technicians or dealers to monitor and diagnose spas through the Wi-Fi module. However, you’ll pay at least $250 per year to subscribe to that service. Jacuzzi’s system doesn’t allow for remote diagnostics, but it automatically sends to a designated dealer an email alert that includes information that helps a dealer’s service technician to assess the problem before the technician arrives to fix it. Users select a dealer to receive those alerts via the settings screen in Jacuzzi’s app, where a list of authorized Jacuzzi dealers is provided based on ZIP codes. If you have a preferred technician or dealer who isn’t associated with Jacuzzi, you should know that the company says unauthorized dealers can’t be added to its system. Jacuzzi’s email-alert service is free.

SPA SOUND. It’s no surprise to us that spa audio systems, like most audio systems these days, incorporate the latest wireless capabilities. Nineteen manufacturers have spas that include audio systems that can stream music via Bluetooth technology from devices such as a smartphone or tablet.

In the past 3 years, manufacturers increasingly added Bluetooth-enabled receivers that are integrated into the spa’s enclosure and are controlled through the spa’s LCD or touch-screen control panel. The most basic control panel allows you to adjust the speaker volume or skip between audio tracks, while other control panels display album art and track information and provide playback controls that are similar to those that are found on a smartphone or certain vehicles’ smart-entertainment system.

You’ll pay at least $800 to add as an option an integrated Bluetooth-enabled receiver that’s controlled through the spa’s primary control panel. (The cost includes built-in speakers.) Artesian Spas, Caldera, Emerald Spas, Hot Spring, Jacuzzi, LA Spas and Sundance Spas provide such an option. Bullfrog International says it plans to unveil similar systems in 2015.

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MOTOR MIXUP. Meanwhile, three manufacturers introduced in 2014 spas that incorporate motors for spa pumps that they say are more efficient than are the spa motors that they used previously. Cal Spas, Saratoga Spas and Viking Spas say the motors consume fewer amps than previous motors did and, thus, use less energy to produce the same amount of water flow and pressure to jets. However, two independent engineers whom we interviewed say that, although such efficiency is possible, the more-efficient motors won’t deliver a noticeable difference in operating costs.

Viking Spas says its new motors draw 30 percent less energy when they operate. Cal Spas says its new motors draw 50 percent less energy. Saratoga Spas didn’t quantify the efficiency changes of its new motors. The company tells Consumers Digest that the primary benefit of its new motors is that they last longer than previous motors did, although the company didn’t say how much longer. All of the manufacturers say their new motors don’t add to the cost of their spas.

Unfortunately, we can’t tell you how much that the new motors will reduce your cost to operate the spa, because no manufacturer provided us with statistics or estimates. Three independent engineers back manufacturers’ claims that it’s difficult to determine such estimates, because too many variables (how often you operate the spa, the duration that you operate it, and jet settings) influence how much energy that a spa consumes.

Gary Fernstrom, who is an independent energy-efficiency engineering consultant who helps California Energy Commission to establish efficiency standards for spas, says some of the new motors that are sold to spa manufacturers are 12 percent to 15 percent more efficient than previous motors were, but he believes the motors likely will reduce a spa’s overall energy use only by a tiny percentage.

Meanwhile, the number of models that plug into a 120-volt, or standard, outlet has increased by 39 percent over the past 4 years. Models that plug into a 120-volt outlet draw half as much energy as do conventional models that require a 240-volt outlet. However, models that plug into a 120-volt outlet have fewer motors and smaller motors than do models that plug into a 240-volt outlet, which means that they have about half as many hydrotherapy jets. In addition, models that plug into a 120-volt outlet can’t run heaters and jets simultaneously, as models that plug into 240-volt outlets can.

Nonetheless, 120-volt spas deliver additional savings for consumers beyond their lower power consumption. The least expensive model that plugs into a 120-volt outlet that we found starts at $2,199. The least expensive model of similar size and capacity that requires a 240-volt outlet costs $3,295, or a difference of $1,096. Furthermore, you have to pay an electrician to add a 240-volt electrical outlet, which typically costs about $700. We believe that you might want to let that cost difference soak in for a while before you make a decision.

Drew Vass is a regular contributor to Consumers Digest. He has written about a wide range of home-improvement topics, including home-heating systems, power tools, and bathroom and kitchen remodeling.

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