Exceptional Values in Portable Spas

New regulations that establish minimum energy-efficiency standards for portable spas won’t increase the cost of a spa or slash your energy bills. But new models that use DC motors to power some components can make a spa run slightly more efficiently than models that use only AC motors can.

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How are manufacturers keeping a lid on the amount of electricity that their portable spas use? Among other things, they’re putting a new lid on the spa itself. First-time laws that are designed to set minimum efficiency requirements for portable spas (also known as above-ground hot tubs) mean that the latest spas have more air-tight covers and better cabinet insulation than ever before.

The good news is that the changes that were triggered by new regulations haven’t contributed to cost increases for consumers, manufacturers tell Consumers Digest. But other changes to portable spas might drive up the price that you pay by at least $1,500. Manufacturers are adding direct current (DC) motors, so a single motor can power the massage jets for only one seat or power the spa’s circulation system. One manufacturer even uses solar panels to help to power some of its spas’ functions.

STANDARD LIMITS. California Energy Commission’s (CEC) regulations, which took effect in 2009, amount to the nation’s first energy requirements for portable spas. CEC regulations vary based on the number of gallons that each spa holds, but in general they are designed to limit the amount of electricity that a spa uses when it operates in standby mode with the spa cover in place (rather than when the spa is in use).

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For instance, based on CEC requirements, a spa that has a 400-gallon capacity (which is the industry average) can’t use more than 2,379 kilowatt hours of electricity in a year to maintain a water temperature of approximately 105 degrees Farenheit when it’s in standby mode. Based on our math and the national average price of electricity, that amounts to 63 cents per day for standby-mode electricity use. There are no independent figures that indicate how much electricity that a spa typically used in standby mode before the regulations took effect, so we can’t say whether the regulations have triggered a significant improvement in energy use for consumers.

But the changes appear to be a small step toward making portable spas at least slightly more energy-efficient. Manufacturers responded to CEC regulations by creating tighter, more insulated hinges on the folding covers of their spas and adding extra insulation to the covers and inside of the cabinets that surround the spa tub. These changes are designed to decrease heat loss.

Consumers in every state will be affected by California law, because manufacturers whose products have national distribution say it’s far too complicated and expensive to make a separate line of products for one state. So portable-spa-makers build their products to California specifications and sell them in all states.

Florida, New York and Oregon have followed California’s lead in requiring minimum spa-efficiency standards for standby mode. Arizona will follow suit in 2012, and other states are expected to do the same in the years ahead. This is good news, because it would force regional manufacturers who don’t distribute in California to follow similar guidelines.

Manufacturers tell us that you might notice that there’s an extra inch or so of thickness in new covers, but they say the weight hasn’t noticeably increased.

You also won’t feel an effect on your wallet either. The increased insulation in covers and cabinets hasn’t driven up the cost of spas, but it also isn’t likely to drive down the cost of your electric bill either, experts tell us.

California regulations aren’t necessarily designed to make any single spa dramatically more efficient than it was before the regulations took effect. But because the new guidelines create universal limits for energy consumption in standby mode, CEC believes that the amount of energy that spas use nationwide will drop (although it has no statistics to confirm this).

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