Basic Hot Tub and Spa Maintenance

Easy Water Care
Products to make maintenance easy, and keep pools and spas crystal clear
by Debra Wood for Pool & Spa Living magazine.

Caring for a spa or hot tub can be intimidating. But keeping its water clean, shimmering and inviting can be a cinch.

The key is regular testing to ensure water is properly sanitized and balanced. Sanitizers such as chlorine, bromine and other chemicals keep water clean, clear and safe; balance refers to pH, alkalinity, and hardness (and properly balanced water keeps the sanitizer working effectively). When in the proper ranges, water is least likely to become cloudy, form scale or lead to surface staining and equipment problems.

You'll get some help from the pump and filter, which circulate water for clarity and to trap oils, dirt and other particles that make your pool or hot tub dirty. Cleaning your filter periodically, according to manufacturer specifications, is your first line of defense. You'll also need to brush the pool sides and bottom weekly to prevent algae growth and remove debris such as dirt and leaves; expect to spend about 15 minutes brushing, depending on the pool size and its automatic cleaning features.

But water care products are also needed. Here's what you should know:

Testing

Even if the water looks great, it may not contain enough sanitizer or be properly balanced. It needs to be tested at least once a week -- and more often after a swim party or inclement weather.

Tests should be done to measure pH, which is the balance of water acid and alkaline; chlorine or other sanitizer residual; total alkalinity; and calcium hardness. Cyanuric acid levels, mineral content, total dissolved solids and acid or base demand tests are also performed as needed.

Various testing kits are available. There are manual or electric devices, but test strips are becoming more common; simply dip the strips into water and within seconds, you can get reasonably accurate readings.

When collecting test water in a container, submerge it upside-down about a foot deep, then turn right side-up to fill it. Obtain the sample away from a return jet; you may want to test in multiple locations to discover any differing levels within the pool or hot tub. For instance, test in both the deep and shallow ends of a pool. Since maintaining enough active chlorine can be more difficult in the shallow end, this is a good area to test. For extra reassurance, take a water sample to your pool professional at the start of the season to test all these levels and give you recommendations on how to adjust your water.

Sanitizing

Several sanitizing systems can rid your water of bacteria and algae. Chlorine remains the most popular, but some people rely on other products because they feel smoother on skin and are less damaging to swimsuits.

Always choose an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)-registered sanitizer and stick with the same family of products. Registered products will have an "EPA Reg. No." and an "EPA Establishment No." printed on the label -- usually on the back. Seek the advice of your pool professional or hot tub manufacturer when selecting any water chemicals. Sanitizing options include:

  • Chlorine (in liquid, granular or tablet form) sanitizes, killing bacteria and algae, and oxidizes, removing unwanted organic elements, such as oils, urine, sweat and dead bacteria, from the water. Stabilizer, in solid trichlor formulations, helps prevent the sun from breaking down chlorine too quickly. Keep free available chlorine between 1-4 ppm in pools and 2-10 ppm in spas. A chlorine odor or irritated eyes indicates the water lacks enough free available chlorine. To remedy this, you'll need more chlorine, not less, in the form of shock.
  • Bromine is primarily reserved for indoor pools and spas, due to its instability in sunlight. It also produces less of an odor and is more effective at high pH levels, common in spas. Maintain bromine levels between 2-10 ppm for both pools and spas.
  • Biguanide, an all-liquid system, remains stable in sunlight and at higher temperatures. A hydrogen peroxide solution oxidizes water and removes organic materials.
  • Mineral systems release ions into the water to inhibit bacteria growth. Water flows through a mineral cartridge placed in the filter or inline, releasing silver and copper ions into the water. Use these products may reduce the amounts of chlorine or bromine required to maintain the water at their required ppm levels.

Costs for the different systems vary, depending on spa size and environment. A larger spa in a stormy climate, and/or with a high bather load, requires more chemicals (and therefore costs more) than a smaller spa sheltered from the elements and used only occasionally.

Water Balance

For your sanitizing system to work properly, the water must stay balanced. Some tips:

pH should stay between 7.2 and 7.8, with an ideal range 7.4-7.6. A low pH level indicates acidic water, which can begin to dissolve some pool surfaces, creating roughness and promoting algae growth. Low pH can also corrode metal parts of equipment, pipe fittings and pump connections, releasing sulfates that can produce brown and black stains on the walls and floor. Acidic water can also eat away of some plastic parts; lower the sanitizing effectiveness of chlorine; and cause dry or itchy skin, burning eyes, and fade swimsuits.

High pH causes calcium in water to combine with carbonates in the water, forming scaly calcifications that trap dust and dirt, and turn black over time. This causes water to turn cloudy or murky, as the filter loses its ability to trap dirt. And like low pH, bathers can experience burning eyes and skin irritations, and chlorine loses its power to act on foreign particles.

  1. Total alkalinity level should be between 60-180 ppm to keep pH levels stable. Sodium carbonate and sodium bicarbonate can raise total alkalinity; muriatic acid or sodium bisulfate can lower it. Do not use muriatic acid in a hot tub, as it could damage the shell.
  2. Calcium levels should be between 150-250 ppm for spas. Improper levels can lead to scale or corrosion. Add fresh water to lower the calcium hardness, and calcium chloride to raise it.
  3. Total dissolved solids (TDS) should never exceed 1,500 ppm. TDS refers to the concentration of chemicals, bather waste and other solids that can accumulate in the water. If too high, it can interfere with the sanitizer's ability to control bacteria; diluting water will reduce this level.

Is Your Water Balanced?

Because a hot tub holds a smaller volume of water, there can be a higher concentration of contaminants, making the balancing act trickier. So when doing hot tub and spa water maintenance, add small amounts of chemicals at a time, let them circulate and then recheck the water. Hot tub pH rises above the ideal level more easily, causing decreased sanitizer effectiveness. High levels of total dissolved solids may also develop.

If the chemicals fall out of balance, you can always drain the water and start anew.


Easy Spa Cleaning

The dirty little secret of owning a hot tub? You have to keep it clean. Fortunately, technical advances have considerably shortened the time it takes to maintain today's hot tubs, while innovative products like ozonators and simulated wood cabinetry make cleaning your hot tub quick and simple.

It is critical for your health and for your spa enjoyment to keep the hot tub water fresh and sanitized. Therefore, before buying a spa, consider the maintenance options. The most common method to disinfect the water is through daily testing and the addition of chemicals. Installing an ozonator, however, is becoming more popular. Either way, a regular spa maintenance regimen will provide you with the peace of mind to really relax and enjoy the time in your tub.

Steps to a Sparkling Clean Spa

Know which chemicals to use and test your water frequently.

Your hot tub manufacturer's representative can best recommend the proper chemicals and instruct you on their use. He or she is likely to provide you with a complete hot tub maintenance education. Ask for a chemical formula based on the spa model, size and your intended average use, i.e., how often and how many people will typically use the hot tub. You will need to add more chemicals if your usage and numbers increase. On the other hand, if you go on vacation, the addition of chemicals will obviously drop during that time.

Be sure to follow the measurements and instructions exactly and store chemicals out of the reach of children and pets.

When the spa is delivered, most dealers will include a firsthand chemical start-up lesson. These few minutes will save you a lot of time playing junior scientist later. In the future, if service questions arise, do not hesitate to contact customer service. The company's representatives are trained in the art of water chemistry and they will walk you through the process of getting back on track.

Consider installing an ozonator to diminish the time, effort and amount of chemicals it takes to maintain your hot tub.

An ozonator automatically disperses ozone into the water and helps sanitize naturally, resulting in less work on your part. Though more expensive upfront, an ozonator may actually pay for itself because it will lessen the amount of chemicals you need to add.

Rinse the filter cartridge with a garden hose once every two to four weeks (depending on how often you use your spa) to prevent cloudy water, maintain proper water flow and extend the life of the filter cartridge. Experts recommend that you replace the filter once a year or when you can no longer get it clean based on the manufacturer's instructions. It is a good idea to purchase two filter cartridges and alternate them, inserting a clean one while the other one is being washed. This allows each one to dry completely and last longer.

Flush and clean your plumbing lines once every six months (right before you drain the spa) to eliminate bacteria and mildew that may have accumulated.

No matter how clean you keep the water, chemicals will sanitize only the water, not the plumbing lines.

Drain and clean the spa shell about once every three months.

This ensures the life of the shell and prevents a scum line from forming at the waterline. Make sure to use the cleanser recommended by the manufacturer to avoid scratching or bleaching the color from your spa shell.

Attend to the exterior.

If you have a cabinet made of pure wood, you should sand, stain and seal it at least twice a year. Sanding eliminates splintering, staining revives the cabinet's color and sealant adds a layer of weather protection. If you have simulated wood paneling, the only cleaning it requires is an occasional spray with the garden hose.

Clean and protect your spa cover about once a month.

For the underside of the cover, simply rinse it with a hose and let it air-dry to avoid affecting the hot tub water chemistry. For the exterior of the cover, use cleaner and a protectant recommended by your hot tub manufacturer.


Water Care Glossary
Some basic terms to help understand the lingo of spa water care and technology:

Acid: A pH below neutral; also refers to a liquid or dry chemical to lower the pH

Alkaline: A pH above neutral; also a chemical used to raise water pH

Balance: A range where the properties of the water are ideal and will not corrode or form scale

Biguanide: A chlorine alternative sanitizing system

Bromine: A halogen sanitizer, effective at higher pH but not stabile in sunlight

Calcium hardness: The amount of calcium suspended in the water

Catalytic cell: In pool and spa water treatment, this is a box containing electrodes that break apart ions so they can join other ions to form algae- and bacteria-killing chlorine

Chelating agent: A product that binds to metals for their removal

Chlorine: A popular and effective sanitizer and oxidizer that kills algae and bacteria and destroys suspended dirt particles in water

Corona discharge: A method of making ozone

Cynauric Acid: A chlorine stabilizer

Flocculant: A product to bind particles together so they can be vacuumed out of the pool

Free available chlorine: The amount of chlorine available to sanitize

Ionizer: A device to produce minerals that help sanitize the water

Oxidize: To remove oils, lotions and other unwanted elements from the water by changing them chemically

Ozonator: A device that produces ozone

Ozone: A short-acting sanitizer and oxidizer made from oxygen

pH: The abbreviation for potential hydrogen, this indicates the acidity or alkalinity of pool or spa water.

ppm: parts per million

Salt chlorine generator: A device that turns ordinary salt into chlorine, a sanitizer

Sanitize: Kill bacteria or inhibit bacteria and algae growth

Sanitizer residual: The amount of active chemical available to sanitize

Sequestering agent: A product to coagulate particles and remove minerals or metals from the water

Shock treatment: The addition of chemicals to eliminate unhealthy water conditions; ""shocking"" chemically changes oils, lotions and other unwanted elements so they can be removed from water

Stabilizer: A product added to chlorine that helps it resist breaking down in sunlight

Total alkalinity: The amount of alkaline elements in the pool

Total dissolved solids (TDS): The amount of inert elements in the water

Ultraviolet: Wavelengths shorter than visible light used for making ozone

A more extensive glossary can be found here

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