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Primer on Pool and Spa Styles



Pool

There are no easy answers to the question of which size, shape, and type of construction will best meet your needs, when it comes time to choosing the style of pool for your home.

Today, because of modern materials, engineering, and building techniques, there are countless type of pools, spas, fountains, and ponds. Many pool builders keep a photo library of their installations along with contact numbers for the owners. A visit to some of these pools will provide you with a first-hand look at styles that might suit your needs and taste.

There are a variety of factors to consider; personal tastes, pool use, the conditions of the site, the types of construction available in your area-and, of course, your budget. Do research by speaking to pool owners in your neighborhood, and, if possible, visiting some award-winning sites.

Pool Size and Shape

Personal tastes and how the pool will be used are the most important considerations. Geographical area, weather conditions, site conditions and landscape requirements will affect your decision on the size and shape of your pool. Water fitness and therapy are other common uses for pools. If you are interested in either activity, a smaller pool will suffice.

Personal Needs

Choose a pool that can accommodate all types of swimming activity. To satisfy those who enjoy swimming laps, the pool should feature a long, straight section with parallel ends. Your family falls into both these groups, For example, the shallow, short leg of an L-shaped pool can be large enough for the frolickers, and the other leg can be long enough for the lap swimmers.

The architectural layout that "form follows function" applies particularly to a pool's size and shape. If you plan to have a diving area, there is considerable debate over what constitutes safe depth and diving well size. Pool and spa experts recommend a pool depth of 9 feet that extends 25 feet for maximum safety. Contact one of the following organizations: National Spa and Pool Institute; United States Diving, Inc.; National Swimming Pool Foundation for more information about pool and spa building, safety and other guidelines.

Many pool users splash and play in shallow water and do little, if any, swimming. For this purpose, figure a minimum depth of 36 inches, increasing to 4 or 5 feet. Do not consider building wading pool just because you have small children, they quickly outgrow it and take to the main pool with the rest of the family. You can build a separate wading pool that can later be converted into a garden pond, or install a platform, available commercially, that converts spas into wading pools.

Regular and daily swimmers-those who use the pool often for exercise need a depth of at least 31/2 to 4 feet so they don't touch bottom while swimming, and can safely negotiate tumble turns at the pool's ends. There is an alternative for serious swimmers with neither the space nor desire for a long pool. You can exercise well by swimming against a current generated by a separate pumping system.

If the pool will be a training center for competitive swimmers, make the length 75 feet. Then they can develop a style usable for competitive meets. Width is not critical-some lap pools in side yards are just wide enough for one swimmer 10 feet.

Pool Size

Pool can be of any size and shape but the area available will be the most important factor as to how big pool can be constructed.

Calculating a pool's area in square feet is the first step in determining data such as pool gallons, maximum bather loads.

Most experts agree that a pool measuring at least 16 by 32 feet is needed for a full range of play activities. The trend-which began in the late 1970s is toward smaller pools. There are a great many residential swimming pools in the United States and world that range from 450 square feet i.e. 15 by 30 feet in dimension to 800 square feet i.e. 20 by 40 feet in size.

Shallower pools with flat-bottom are also becoming common, with home owners opting for slope ratio of 1: 12, with a water depth of 4 feet. The exception being for diving, and some specialized uses such as some types of therapy, Scuba, or synchronized swimming, a deep section actually increases maintenance costs and safety risks is often unnecessary.

A small pool is cheaper to filter and heat, and takes less effort to maintain and requires less water and chemicals, and small can be very beautiful too. Pool and Spa builders and professionals observing these trends attribute them not only to lower installation costs, but also to smaller lots, condominium and townhouse living, and economy of operation and maintenance. Though the trend is to smaller pools these days, you should choose a pool that's large enough to accommodate your needs.

Pool Shape

Free form pools can be of any shape or size. A naturalistic pool is also usually simple in shape. The simpler the shape of your pool, the better it will blend into a landscaped setting and enhance the appearance of your property.

Pool Shapes developed from squares, rectangles, circles, ovals, and other simple geometric figures will not compete with the landscaping. But making it so much a part of nature that there is hardly any delineation between the pool and its environment usually requires the skill of a top landscape architect. A point to consider is that a naturalistic pool is not easy to integrate into a residential lot, may require more maintenance if plants are used close to the pool, and will probably be more expensive.

If your lot is small and wedge-shaped, for example, your pool will also have to be wedge-shaped. Or to integrate a tree or other natural feature that's valuable to you, you may need to plan for a bend in one side of a pool. Unusual pool shapes are difficult to plan well because they compete with the other elements in your landscape. But sometimes an unusual shape is the best, or only, choice. Whatever your situation, always plan your pool carefully before installation and set aside extra space for access and poolside activities.

Capacity Calculations

Capacity calculations involves calculating surface area and volume of the pool or spa. The next sections describes in detail all the capacity calculations.

Calculating Surface Area

Calculating a pool's area in square feet is the first step in determining data such as pool gallons, maximum bather load and others.

Geometric Formulas

A simple method of calculating pool size is the use of geometric formulas. Following are the basic formulas and calculations to determine surface areas;

A  

Area

L    

Length

Width

Height

r

Radius

d

Diameter

Pi 3.14 constant

Area of a square or rectangle

A = L x W

Area of a right triangle

A = (L x W)/2

Area of a circle

A = Pi x  r x r

Calculating Volume

The cubic volume can be calculated by including the depth of the pool with the surface area. For accurate calculations, the pool should be divided into various areas according to the depth. The sections below explains how to calculate the volume of your pool or spa.

Square or rectangular - Constant Depth

Length x width x depth x 7.5 = volume (in gallons)

Length times width gives the surface area of the pool. Multiplying that by the depth gives the volume in cubic feet. Since there are 7.5 gallons in each cubic foot, multiply the cubic feet of the pool by 7.5 to arrive at the volume of the pool (expressed in gallons).

Square or rectangular - Variable Depth Pools

Length x width x average depth x 7.5 = volume (in gallons)

Length times width gives the surface area of the pool. Multiplying that by the average depth gives the volume in cubic feet. Since there are 7.5 gallons in each cubic foot, multiply the cubic feet of the pool by 7.5 to arrive at the volume of the pool (expressed in gallons).

Measure the length, width, and average depth of the pool, rounding each measurement off to the nearest foot or percentage of one foot. One inch equals 0.0833 feet. Therefore, multiply the number of inches in your measurements by 0.0833 to get the appropriate percentage of one foot.

Example: 25 ft, 9 in. = 25 ft + (9 in. x 0.0833)
= 25 + 0.75
= 25.75 ft

If the shallow end is 3 feet and the deep end is 9 feet, and assuming the slope of the pool bottom is gradual and even, then the average depth is 6 feet.

Average depth = ( Depth at the shallow end + Depth at the deep end ) / 2

Average depth = ( 3 + 9 ) / 2 = 6 feet.

If most of the pool is only 3 or 4 feet and then a small area drops off suddenly to 10 feet, you will have a different average depth. In such a case, you might want to treat the pool as two parts. Measure the length, width, and average depth of the shallow section, then take the same measurements for the deeper section. Calculate the volume of the shallow section and add that to the volume you calculate for the deeper section.

Make sure to use the actual water depth in your calculations, not the depth of the container. For example, the hot tub depicted in Figure 2 is 4 feet deep, but the water is only filled to about 3 feet. Using 4 feet in this calculation will result in a volume 33 percent greater than the actual amount of water. This could mean serious errors when adding chemicals for example, which are administered based on the volume of water in question. There might be a time when you want to know the potential volume, if filled to the brim. Then, of course, you would use the actual depth (or average depth) measurement. In the example, that was 4 feet.

Length x width x average depth x 7.5 = volume (in gallons)

25.75 ft x 10 ft x 6 ft x 7.5 = 11,587.5 gallons

Circular

The formula:

3.14 x radius squared x average depth x 7.5 = volume (in gallons)

The number 3.14, refers to pi, which is a mathematical constant. The radius is one-half the diameter, so measure the distance across the broadest part of the circle and divide it in half to arrive at the radius. Squared means multiplied by itself, so multiply the radius by itself. For example, if you measure the radius as 5 feet, multiply 5 feet by 5 feet to arrive at 25 feet.

Use the hot tub to calculate the volume of a round container. Let's do the tricky part first. The diameter of the tub is 10 feet. Half of that is 5 feet. Squared (multiplied by itself) means 5 feet times 5 feet equals 25 square feet. Knowing this, you can return to the formula:

3.14 x radius squared x average depth x 7.5 = volume (in gallons)

3.14 x 25 ft x 3 ft x 7.5 = 1766.25 gallons

In measuring the capacity of a circular spa, you might need to calculate two or three areas within the spa and add them together to arrive at a total volume. An empty circular spa looks like an upside-down wedding cake, because of the seats. Therefore, you might want to treat it as two separate volumes-the volume above the seat line and the volume below. In the wooden hot tub, where there is actually water above and below the seats, the tub can be measured as if there are no seats because this difference is negligible.

Kidney or irregular shapes

There are two methods used to calculate the capacity of irregular shapes. First, you can imagine the pool or spa as a combination of smaller, regular shapes. Measure these various areas and use the calculations described previously for each square or rectangular area and for each circular area. Add these volumes together to determine the total capacity.

0.45 x (A+B) x length x average depth x 7.5 = volume (in gallons)

The total of measurement A plus measurement B multiplied by 0.45 multiplied by the length gives you the surface area of the kidney shape. (A + B = 18 feet). The rest of the calculations you are now familiar with. Try this volume calculation:

0.45 x (A+B) x length x average depth x 7.5 = volume (in gallons)

0.45 x 18 ft x 25 ft x 5 ft x 7.5 = 7593.75 gallons

Parts Per Million (ppm)

One of the most important calculation you will use is parts per million (ppm). The amount of solids and liquids in the water is measured in parts per million, as in three parts of chlorine in every one million parts of water (or 3 ppm).

To aid in understanding the formulas and terminology used, following is the list of common terms and their equivalents

Square foot (sq. ft.) =  12 inch wide x 12 inch long

Cubic foot (cu. ft.) =  12 inch wide x 12 inch long x 12 inch high

Cubic yard (cu. yd.) = 36 inch wide x 36 inch long x 36 inch high

One cubic foot of water contains 7.48 gallons

One cubic foot of water weighs 62.4 pounds

One gallon of water weighs 8.33 pounds

One part per million (ppm) represents 8.3 pounds of chemical per million gallons of water.

However, one gallon of chlorine, for example, poured into one million gallons of water does not equal 1 ppm. That is because the two liquids are not of equal density. This becomes obvious since a gallon of water weighs 8.3 pounds but a gallon of chlorine weighs 10 pounds (in a 15 percent solution). The chlorine is a more dense liquid-there's more of it than an equal volume of water

Pool Types and Materials

Modern materials, engineering, and building techniques, allow countless types of pools, spas, fountains, and ponds. Here are some of the most common. You will find that others are variations of these basic types.

Concrete and Plaster

Concrete is the most popular construction materials used for swimming pools. Concrete and plaster pools are the most typical "hole-in-the-ground" pool, using steel-reinforced concrete to form a shell. Because concrete is porous, the shell is coated with plaster to hold water and for cosmetic purposes.

Its workability, strength, permanence, and flexibility of design make it ideal for innovative and interesting in-ground and hillside pools.

Concrete can be sprayed over a latticework of reinforcing steel bars (rebar) or forms, or it can be poured from a mixing truck. The sprayed types are the most common because the material is easier to work to create free-form shapes.

There are four main types of concrete constructions

  1. Gunite - Sprayed concrete types include gunite (an almost dry mix of sand and cement)
  2. Shotcrete (a wetter version of gunite).
  3. Poured concrete requires forms into which the wet concrete is poured.
  4. Masonry blocks - Sometimes, the pool walls are made of hollow block that is reinforced with rebar and filled with poured concrete, but that is not common. They are more common in countries where modern equipment is scarce.

Vinyl Lined

The development of vinyl-lined or vinyl pools has brought pool ownership within the budget of many people. Vinyl-lined pools or spas are built as metal or plastic frames (less frequently masonry blocks or pressure-treated wood is used) above the ground or set into a hole in the ground. Prefabricated panels of plastic, aluminum, or (rarely) wood are joined to the frame making a form that is then lined with heavy vinyl to create the actual pool shell.

The savings are greatest in the Northeast and Midwest because of the difficulty of building with concrete in cold climate. These pools require somewhat different treatment and maintenance methods than a concrete pool. Prefabrication and easier assembly make these pools less costly than concrete styles. Some small units are made as do-it-yourself backyard kits consisting of self-supporting aluminum or steel frames with a vinyl liner, sometimes with stairs, decks, and equipment all packaged together.

Fading due to ultraviolet light is prevented in some liners is prevented by the inclusion of ultraviolet inhibitors in the vinyl material, some also have inhibitors that prevent staining by fungi.

Fiberglass

Fiberglass pools or spas consist of a fiberglass shell resting in a hole in the ground. Above ground models are framed with metal or plastic like vinyl-lined pools. Some concrete pools are lined with fiberglass instead of plaster and, in fact, this process is becoming more popular because fiberglass requires less maintenance than plaster.

Major improvements in the construction and installation of fiberglass shells have overcome the problem of leaking, buckling and adverse reaction to soil reactions.

Some fiberglass pools or spas are assembled on-site from panels, some are an entire molded shell, and some are fiberglass walls mounted on a concrete pool bottom.

Spas, if not built with a pool or as an architectural feature in the home, are almost all some form of fiberglass shell. These can range from a shell set directly into the ground to small portable units that are self contained wooden frames with wooden skirting containing the fiberglass spa and all the equipment in one package.

The major drawback of the one piece fiberglass mold is the limitation in size and shape. Since molds are massive and expensive, manufactures offer only few models.

Inflatable

Inflatables are an inexpensive and portable solution to the swimming or spa needs of many. Zodiac, makers of the famous inflatable boat, and other manufacturers are now applying PVC technology to pools and spas.

Wood

Spas and Hot tubs are made from a variety of woods, most commonly redwood (but cedar, teak, mahogany, and more exotic woods are also used). in fact, they can be made from any wood, but those mentioned are most resistant to rot. The key to hot tub installations is a well-drained area to keep moisture (which sooner or later will rot any wood) away from the tub. Hot tub assembly and installation are discussed in a later chapter.

Unless you have unlimited funds, your budget may impose limitations on what type of pool you install. Begin by planning the pool and surroundings you'd most like to have. Then obtain at least three bids on the same plans to learn exactly what your dream will cost. Once you have chosen a contractor, sit down together to determine how you can bring the project within reach of your budget.

Often, the solution is to defer parts of the project. Because you planned both the pool and the surroundings, you can eliminate those parts of the project that can be added later with the least amount of increased effort and cost. A gazebo, for example, can be built anytime. And with fiber optic technology, even underwater lighting is easily added after the pool has been installed.

The only absolute about the costs of the various pool types is that the portable above-ground pool with a vinyl liner is easier to install and considerably less expensive than any type of permanent pool construction.

The cost of a permanent pool varies widely, depending on a number of factors-size, shape, type and quality of construction, equipment, surface options, location, and the competitive situation among local pool builders.

Of the two most popular types of pools built in the U.S.-the air sprayed mortar, or gunite, pool and the vinyl-lined pool-the gunite pool is the more expensive. The difference is not great in the Sunbelt states, but it is in the colder northern climes, where more steel reinforcing rods and a thicker shell are needed to withstand frost pressure. In general, building your own pool requires a lot of hard work and skill, especially for plumbing and electrical installation. It is a job that is best left to a qualified professional.

Pool Budget

Unless you have unlimited funds, your budget may impose limitations on what type of pool you install. Begin by planning the pool and surroundings you'd most like to have. Then obtain at least three bids on the same plans to learn exactly what your dream will cost. Once you have chosen a contractor, sit down together to determine how you can bring the project within reach of your budget.

Often, the solution is to defer parts of the project. Because you planned both the pool and the surroundings, you can eliminate those parts of the project that can be added later with the least amount of increased effort and cost. A gazebo, for example, can be built anytime. And with fiber optic technology, even underwater lighting is easily added after the pool has been installed.

The only absolute about the costs of the various pool types is that the portable above-ground pool with a vinyl liner is easier to install and considerably less expensive than any type of permanent pool construction.

The cost of a permanent pool varies widely, depending on a number of factors-size, shape, type and quality of construction, equipment, surface options, location, and the competitive situation among local pool builders.

Of the two most popular types of pools built in the U.S.-the air sprayed mortar, or gunite, pool and the vinyl-lined pool-the gunite pool is the more expensive. The difference is not great in the Sunbelt states, but it is in the colder northern climes, where more steel reinforcing rods and a thicker shell are needed to withstand frost pressure. In general, building your own pool requires a lot of hard work and skill, especially for plumbing and electrical installation. It is a job that is best left to a qualified professional.

Spa

Spa Choices

The term "spa" is commonly used both for wooden tubs and for the various acrylic and thermoplastic vessels on the market. The hot tub was the earliest type of spa used on a aide scale by homeowners. Once a rare sight in homes, spas have become increasingly more common in recent years. Even if you don't own one, chances are you've experienced a pleasurable soak in a friend's spa or in one at a hotel or resort.

A hot tub-really just a wooden spa-offers the natural beauty of wood. Surrounded by a wooden deck, it too can have the appearance of an in-ground installation. For a contemporary look, choose a portable or in-ground spa. Apart from the factory molded shell shown at right, in-ground models can be made of concrete and are constructed on site.

Natural Hot Tubs:

Whether it's made of redwood, cedar, teak, or another wood, a hot tub also boasts a classic beauty. Soft and rustic, hot tubs derive their appeal from their smooth wood surfaces. And no wonder: The tub's simple lines reflect a barrel design that has remained unchanged for centuries. With a greater capacity than most other spas, hot tubs give a deep soak, which some people prefer. A tub that's 4 feet deep can immerse you up to your neck, thanks in part to more spartan seating options usually just a bench around the sides-compared to the body-conforming contours typical of other spa seats.

Tub lovers often comment that the wood surrounding their soak feels good to touch. With a hot tub, you have some flexibility in the number and placement of hydrojets. Or you may choose to have no jets at all, opting instead for a gentle soak in warm, still water.For all the natural luxury of wood, however, some hot tubs have given their owners problems after a few years, mainly due to neglect. For example, if the tub is drained and allowed to dry for more than two days, leaks can develop between the staves when the tub is refilled. This is because stave edges will no longer swell evenly to create a continuous seal. And proper water maintenance, necessary for any kind of spa, is especially important for a hot tub. When cleaning, be sure to disinfect above the waterline to remove any pathogenic organisms, such as bacteria, that spread disease.

Plastic Spas:

Spas fall into two general categories: in-ground and portable. The first-the older and more traditional type-is sunk in the ground or placed in a deck, and the work is usually performed by a contractor. The sleek, contemporary whirlpool spas of today depart completely from the rustic simplicity of hot tub designs.

The spa choices are dazzling, running the gamut from small, two-person portables to tiled and landscaped installations of splendid proportions. The portable, or self-contained, spa comes as a complete unit, including its support equipment, and doesn't need to be permanently installed.

Spa shells:

Today, spa shells are usually made from acrylic. Large acrylic sheets are heated, laid in a mold, and pulled to fit its contours with a vacuum. The cooled shell is then backed with fiberglass for strength. The result: a slick, glossy, and easy to clean material that is available in colors to suit any taste.

Poured concrete, gunite, and shotcrete are the traditional materials for in-ground spas; concrete is still commonly used for a spa installed at the same time as a concrete swimming pool. But for spa that stand alone, concrete has been largely superseded by fiberglass and plastic.

A good acrylic spa should give reliable service for years, though it may get nicked and scratched along the way. Occasionally, more serious problems develop. Unless carefully engineered and molded, an acrylic shell can become quite thin at sharp corners and susceptible to damage. And if anything goes wrong when the fiberglass backing is applied, it can lead to delamination between acrylic and backing later on. A careful visual inspection will turn up any flaws, but the surest test of quality is the manufacturer's reputation.

Portable Spas

A portable spa is truly self-contained. Set-up time and expense for these units is designed to be minimal. A recent addition to the gallery of hot water products, the portable spa seems well in tune with today's mobile lifestyle.

They can be installed outdoors with nothing more than a concrete slab for support and may be run on your home's standard 120-volt current. They can even be installed inside, if proper precautions are taken to support their weight and adequate ventilation is provided.

Sizing up the benefits:

Portables typically range in size from a 4 by 5 foot spa that holds about 125 gallons to an 8 foot one that contains 500 gallons. The smallest seats two; the largest can accommodate up to eight. With an average dry weight of 300 to 500 pounds, portables can be lifted, if you have enough helpers. And because they're relatively shallow, with a water depth of between 26 and 36 inches, they will fit through a doorway, if turned on their side. You can move them from one setting to another, whether from a deck to a sunroom or from your old home to your new one.

Besides mobility, the other main advantage of the portable spa is its relatively low cost. An excellent one can be purchased for substantially less than an in-ground spa. And since it's a self-contained appliance rather than a property improvement, the portable spa usually requires no building permit (check with your local building department to be sure); nor will it raise your property taxes.

Operating the Spa:

Many portable spas run on 120 volts. But before you bring one home, be sure to check out your home's electrical system. If you have any doubt about a circuit's capacity to support a 120-volt portable spa, have it checked out by a licensed electrician.

Like the shell itself, the portable's equipment heater, filter, pump, air blower, and hydrojets-is a smaller, less powerful version of what would be necessary to support a large, in-ground spa or hot tub. Each piece of equipment is matched to the relatively small water volume of the portable, so the spa functions more economically than a spa with larger equipment and more water to heat. The quality of equipment can vary greatly from one spa to another, so take this into consideration when deciding which model you want to buy. Also make sure that the equipment is properly sized for the volume of the spa and the number of hydrojets it features.

The outlet you use for the spa must be part of a 20-amp circuit that doesn't service any other heavy-draw appliances. Nearly all portables are now equipped with ground fault circuit interrupters (GFCI); as an added precaution, ensure that the outlet or its circuit also has GFCI protection.

Another option offered by many spa manufacturers is to run the equipment on 240 volts. This is accomplished by adding a new circuit and hard-wiring the spa directly to it. You will have to hire a licensed electrician or spa contractor for this job. Although the spa will no longer be as portable, you'll gain considerable heating speed. Also, with 240 volts you can run the heater simultaneously with the hydrojets or blower for a long period of time, which is not possible with a 120-volt heater. Another advantage of a 240-volt system is that you can use a 6-kilowatt heater, which will raise water temperature more quickly than a small 120-volt, 1.5-kilowatt heater hence, a shorter wait before you can enter the spa. It also means that the spa can more easily maintain a steady temperature of I 00' to 104'E A smaller heater can have trouble keeping up with heat loss.

Gas heaters, or gas packs, for portable spas are also available; the newer units no longer require remote installation. However, with gas your portable will cease being self-contained.

In-ground Spas

The support equipment necessary for an in-ground spa always stands a short distance away, in its own housing. Although this requires more planning and construction, it allows you more choice in types and sizes of equipment. Before the advent of the hot tub and the portable spa, the only spa available was what the industry now calls in-ground. As the name implies, these spas (made originally of poured concrete or concrete block) were placed in a hole dug in the ground. Today, the term also refers to spas set into an above grade surface, such as a deck.

Shopping for an in-ground spa usually means choosing between a factory-molded shell of fiberglass reinforced acrylic and the more expensive, longer-lasting concrete shell constructed on site. But you can even get an in-ground spa made of stainless steel. Each type offers a myriad of shapes and sizes from which to choose.

If you're having a concrete swimming pool constructed at the same time, the easiest and often least expensive choice for the spa is to have it built from the same materials as the pool. It can run on the same circulation system as the pool. Although it's a less common and more expensive option, you can choose concrete for a stand-alone in-ground spa that's not part of a swimming pool. The spa will be formed on site by a pool contractor.

If you want to add only a spa, a manufactured shell is probably a better choice. You can buy the entire package-including equipment and installation-from a full service dealer, who is licensed to both sell and install the spa. An alternative is to buy a ready-made spa and the necessary support equipment from a reputable dealer, then hire a contractor recommended by the dealer to install it. Whatever type shell you choose buy the best quality equipment you can afford, and make sure it's sized appropriately for the spa.

Whether the shell is made of fiberglass-reinforced acrylic or concrete, an in-ground spa installation requires tearing up the garden-or deck-to some extent. Plumbing and wiring lines need to be buried or hidden, and support equipment has to be sheltered. Often the shell is fully or partially recessed into an excavation. Now is a good time to consider any other landscaping changes you want to make to your yard, since there's going to be a lot of work going on there anyway.

While most pool companies do provide a design service, if the spa is only one element of a major redesign for your entire yard, consider hiring a landscape architect or contractor who can handle everything for you.

Installing an in-ground spa involves more planning, disruption, cost, and time than purchasing and setting up an off-the-shelf portable. From the time construction starts, it may be weeks before you can enjoy your first soak. On the other hand, in-ground spas look well-integrated in their setting. They're often set in a deck or patio built expressly to surround them, their lower profile is less conspicuous, and they're likely to be professionally landscaped.

Swim Spa

If you want to work out but don't have the room for a lap pool, consider a swim spa instead. The difference is in the jets. In a swim spa, the water is propelled by strong countercurrent jets rather than by the hydrojets or paddle wheels that move the water in a spa. Without moving forward an inch, a swimmer can cover miles, simply by swimming against a constant current.

Typically between 131/2 and 15 feet long, this practical offshoot of the spa industry looks like an elongated version of any other inground spa. The water temperature in a swim spa is usually cooler, making it more conducive to an active workout. In some models, if you want a relaxing soak, you can turn on regular hydrojets and raise the water temperature. Others have a removable partition that allows you to keep the water at one end hot while the rest of the spa stays at a comfortable swimming temperature.

Generally, swim spas are about 3 feet deep, but deeper models-up to 8 feet-are available for exercising under water. They can be installed either in or above the ground. And depending on the model you buy, you can install it yourself or have a professional do it.

Hot Tubs

In its heyday, the hot tub sprang up just about everywhere in the West. Hundreds of thousands were built to meet the demand. Many of these tubs have since deteriorated. Some of them simply gave in to age, but others succumbed to shoddy construction from inferior materials and poor craftsmanship. Although the high tide of their popularity has ebbed considerably since the 1970s, wooden spas or "hot tubs" still remain the first choice of people who appreciate the natural beauty of wood and its harmony with garden plants and trees. Tubs are also the choice of those who want a deep soak. And for traditionalists, the wooden tub still stands unrivaled for its timeless appeal.

The most common reason for hot tubs failure, however, has been lack of adequate maintenance. Hot tubs, like any other spas, require regular maintenance. Water chemistry must be carefully controlled, the water must be changed periodically, and the tub needs to be cleaned from time to time. A hot tub should never be left empty for more than two days. If the unit is drained and allowed to dry out, the wood staves can twist and cup (lift at the edges), distorting the fit of the original coopering and making the tub unusable.

Choosing a wood:

Most tubs are made from softwoods; redwood and cedar are the most common, but cypress and teak are also used. These tub woods have been chosen because they are sturdy and fairly resistant to decay and chemical damage. In addition, they also offer splinter-free surfaces. Sleek staves of wood, forming the watertight curves of a hot tub, are the essence of its beauty. Wood, with its comforting feel and pleasantly musky fragrance, enhances the appeal of a soak, too.

Redwood is probably the most widely used wood for hot tubs, especially along its native West Coast. It's extremely resistant to decay, does not splinter, and swells easily to water tightness. For strong, flawless staves and years of tubbing pleasure, make sure that the unit is built of clear, kiln-dried, vertical-grain heartwood (not the whitish sapwood). To accept less is to risk problems in the future. A well-maintained redwood tub will last about 15 years.

Cedar, the second most commonly used tub wood, is similar to redwood. Both are porous softwoods; both are decay-resistant only if the heartwood is selected. Cedar is slightly less resistant to decay but a little more resistant to chemical damage than is redwood. However, it also has a shorter life-span than redwood.

Hardwoods such as oak and jarrah (a hardwood grown and used in Australia for wine casks and pier pilings) have sometimes been used for hot tubs, but are rarely used by commercial manufacturers.

Coopering basics:

Coopering is a traditional craft of barrel-making. Hot tubs are also built according to coopering consisting of floorboards, staves, and metal hoops, with benches and duckboards added afterward. The floorboards rest on floor joists, which, at the permanent site, in turn rest on a concrete slab. To distribute weight loads laterally, some floors use tongue-and-groove joinery, others rely on a system of dowels.

The sides of the staves are beveled to ensure a tight fit with their neighbors. A deep notch near the stave bottom, called a croze, fits it to the flooring; the lower lip of the stave is called its chine. The staves are not designed to bear the weight of the tub and should not be resting on the floor joists. When all the staves are fitted at the croze and to each other, they're held together by from two to four steel hoops. Once the hoops are tightened and the tub is filled with water, two forces make it watertight: The wood swells as it soaks up water, tightening the joints; at the same time, water pressure from within helps to align the staves.

Filling the tub:

In a newly constructed tub, the joints between the staves are not perfectly watertight, so before you can use the tub you'll need to break it in. Essentially, you keep the tub filled with water until the wood swells and seals up the joints tightly.

Fill the tub completely and let the water overflow. Wait until there is no more water seeping out between the staves. This usually takes about 24 hours. If the water continues to gush out between the staves, contact the manufacturer or your dealer; this would indicate improper milling or assembly.

Refill the tub and run the circulation system continuously for two days; scrub the insides of the tub with a stiff brush a couple of times a day Then keep draining, refilling, and scrubbing the hot tub daily, until the tannin has all leached out of the wood and the water remains clear. This will probably take a week or so.

Clean the filter, fill the tub with fresh water, and add the appropriate chemicals to treat the water. While you're filling and draining the tub, have a look for slow, seeping leaks between the staves. Such leaks are not usually along the whole length of a stave, but just for a few inches. Monitor the rate of seepage; if it slows down from one day to the next, then the leak will probably stop as the wood continues to swell. If the rate remains unchanged, you'll need to find some other way to close the leak. You can caulk with a good grade of plastic marine putty, or try the traditional method of filling the space with a bit of wool. Contact your dealer for other techniques.

Sizes and seating:

A small hot tub measures 3 or 4 feet high by 5 feet across and holds approximately 500 gallons of water. A more generous tub with a height of 4 feet and a diameter of 6 feet holds just 850 gallons. You can also buy a 5foot-high tub, if you wish.

Seating arrangements in a tub are typically more Spartan than in a molded spa shell, but they are adjustable for height, which is an advantage. A bench around the inside of higher tubs can hold from two to six people, depending on the tub's size. In shorter tubs, you sit on the floor. Benches should be attached to the tub with screws so they can be removed for maintenance and repair.

Buying your Spa

Spa and hot tub industry is still young and is changing rapidly. Although the reliability of many of its products has been proven through years of service in the swimming pool industry, the quality of its newest technology is, of course, untested. That is why it is especially important to learn as much as possible before making your purchase.

Assessing your needs:

Think about your situation and your preferences, before you start shopping, Do you want a wood tub or an acrylic shell? Talk to friends and neighbors who own one or the other; visit a showroom to see the choices. Decide about the number of people who will be soaking at one time. Do you plan to use the spa socially, or will it be a more private experience? The answer will guide you to the right shell size, seating arrangement, and equipment.

Which is best for you, an indoor or outdoor site? Obviously, for climate and privacy reasons, you may want an indoor spa; if so, you'll have to be prepared to deal with the resulting high humidity and the weight of a filled spa.

For an outdoor spa, consider how close you want it to your house and where you will place the support equipment. Also, be sure to take into account sun and wind patterns. If you expect to do a lot of entertaining, you'll probably also want to consider deciding, lighting, and landscaping around the spa or tub.

Tips for Finding Reliable Products

The only way you can be assured of choosing quality products is to find out all you can about them first. Simply by asking thoughtful questions and listening carefully to the answers, you can often tell whether or not a dealer feels confident about a product's reliability. This is also a good opportunity to ask dealers about the services they offer, as well as specific questions about delivery, installation, and warranties. Here are some questions to get you started:

  1. Ask if the dealer will back up the manufacturer's promises with a written warranty, so you'll still be covered if the manufacturer goes out of business also What kind of warranty comes with the shell and the support equipment? Ask what would void the warranty, and what's not included.
  2. Does the spa carry the seal of the International Association of Plumbing and Mechanical Officials (IAPMO)? Does support equipment carry the Underwriters Laboratories (UL) listing? Is it listed with NSF International?
  3. Does the dealer charge for delivery? Get a written agreement on how and where the spa will be delivered.
  4. Will the dealer provide written directions and all chemicals needed for good maintenance? What services are available in the future?
  5. If the spa is acrylic, how thick are the sheets used in its manufacture? A 1/8-inch thickness is the industry standard. Inspect an acrylic spa carefully for fractures, chips, or delaminated spots before you buy it.
  6. If you're buying a portable spa, how thick is the wood that makes up the skirt? Look for quality of wood, hardware, and craftsmanship.
  7. For a portable, how thick is the foam insulation sprayed inside? Some cabinets are completely filled, providing excellent insulation for both the spa and supply pipes, as well as greater structural stability.This insulation results in lower energy costs, but plumbing connections must be tested first, since these will be inaccessible once the foam is applied.To find out about operating costs for various models, ask to see documentation for comparison's sake.
  8. What kind of heater is offered? How fast will it raise the water temperature to the desired level?
  9. How big is the filter? The size you'll need depends on the size of the spa and its intended use. Is the filter easy to remove for cleaning?
  10. Are the hydrojets adjustable? Are they positioned correctly for your body? Some manufacturers offer a selection of various jet positions and types. How much noise do the hydrojets and blower make when operated together?

Warranty Protection

Your real protection, comes from the warranties supplied by manufacturers so choose a reputable dealer is the first step in ensuring that you'll get years of satisfaction from your spa. Ask to see these warranties before you actually buy the product. Read them carefully and discuss them with your dealer. You should also talk about your responsibility in keeping the warranty in force. No spa or hot tub can be expected to perform trouble-free if it's abused or if proper maintenance is neglected. Most spa manufacturers warranty different parts of their spas for different periods of time.

Spa surfaces:

Most manufacturers of acrylic spas have reduced the number of years on their warranties from as many as 10 to as few as one or two. Look for the longest warranty you can find.

Remember, however, that a warranty is only good if the manufacturer is still in business to honor it. It's a good idea to speak with your dealer about the financial stability of the manufacturer and how quickly and effectively the manufacturer has responded to claims in the past.

An important point to look at with any warranty is whether the claims will be satisfied in the field or whether the product must be shipped back to the manufacturer. Another is the question of who performs the warranty service-the dealer or a factory representative? Repairing shells can be tricky and not all dealers have the capability It's also worth discussing with your dealer whether the manufacturer you're considering will replace the spa shell if you have a serious complaint. Obviously, no manufacturer will replace your spa for a minor problem such as a small blister that shows up in a few years. A large blister, however, will encourage delamination, which would require replacement of the spa.

Structural elements:

Most manufacturers offer warranties of at least five years. This warranty does not cover problems with in-ground spas that shift or settle; that's part of the contract warranty you have with the person who installed your spa.

Equipment:

Look for a minimum one-year warranty on equipment (pumps, filters, heaters, blowers, and controls). Be sure that this period covers both parts and labor (some manufacturers only offer 90 days on labor). Also confirm before you buy that you won't have to disconnect and send in the defective equipment to get warranty service.