Are Outdoor Hot Tubs Hard to Maintain? 9 Things You Should Know

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Thinking about having a hot tub installed in your backyard? You can find plenty of good deals on hot tubs, sometimes even including the initial installation.

But what happens after that? The more challenging part of getting an outdoor hot tub is the ongoing work you have to do to maintain it.

Fortunately, hot tubs are not too hard to maintain once you master a few basic skills. You need to learn how to to perform weekly checks of the water balance and add necessary chemicals, clean and change the filters monthly, and fully replace the water every 3-4 months.

If you don't feel like taking all of this on yourself, you can always hire a service to handle it for you. But once you know the common tasks associated with running your hot tub—and come up with a plan for addressing them—it can honestly be done pretty easily by most people.

1. Setting up your hot tub

When you first install and fill a hot tub, you can’t just get right in—there’s a process you have to follow before it’s ready for use. This is called balancing the water.

If you’re lucky enough to have a professional to complete the installation for you, you can skip this section. But if not, here’s what you’ll need to do:

  • Let your hot tub heat up to a temperature of 100°F (don’t skip this step—chemicals may not work properly if added to cooler water)
  • Add metal free to remove metals from the water which can stain equipment. Circulate for 30 minutes.
  • Add calcium chloride to raise your water’s calcium hardness to 150-250 ppm. You can check your local municipal water supply to find out what the natural hardness of the water is in your area to get an idea of how much you'll need to add. Circulate for 20 minutes.
  • Add sodium bicarbonate to raise the water’s total alkalinity (TA) until it’s within the range of 100-120 ppm. Circulate for 30 minutes.
  • Test the pH, and then add either pH up (alkaline) or pH down (acid) until it’s within the range of 7.2-7.8. Circulate for 30 minutes.
  • Add your sanitizer up to the appropriate levels. You’re aiming for 1-4 ppm for chlorine, and 2-6 ppm for bromine.
  • Shock your spa, and then wait for the sanitizer reading to drop to a safe level. Once it measures in the above ranges, your spa is ready to use!

2. Treating the water

You need to test your water one to three times a week to make sure everything is within the above ranges. The easiest way to do this is with some test strips (something like this JNW Direct 100-pack should be plenty to get you started), although there are more advanced testing kit options which can give you more accurate results.

While the initial process of balancing your water can take several hours, the weekly checks that you need to do more frequently are much less involved.

You’ll find yourself needing to add small amounts of chemicals to adjust things here and there, but don’t worry; it’s not going to be the hours-long process you had to go through when you initially filled the tub for the first time.

3. Shocking the spa after use

Every time you use the spa (or once a week if you use it less frequently than that) you need to use what’s called a shock treatment. This is what allows your sanitizer to work properly.

How sanitizer works is that when pollutants or tiny particles of dirt are introduced to the water, your sanitizer will bind to these particles. Eventually, all of your sanitizer will be used up, bound to the particles that get introduced to the spa through regular use.

The purpose of shock treatment is to kill all the bad stuff that your sanitizer has attached itself to, which releases the sanitizer so it can be useful again.

And that’s why it’s important to remember to shock your spa—if you don’t do this, after a while it will seem like your sanitizer has stopped working, and you’ll start to get cloudy water and algae or a pond-like smell.

4. Dealing with cloudy water or foam

Speaking of cloudy water, there are a few issues you might run into with your water as a spa owner. Usually, but not always, these are the result of sanitizer being too low. Checking your sanitizer levels should always be the first thing you do if you experience any of these issues.

Sometimes though, it could be that your sanitizer is fine, but you’ve introduced some other agent (often a small amount of shampoo, body wash or other detergent, or a buildup of lotion) that’s creating foam or cloudiness. In this case, there are products you can use which can help to banish foam or cloudy water:

5. Changing the filters

Most hot tubs come with a cartridge filtration system, which means there will be one or more removable filter cartridges. These are designed to catch dirt and debris before it can get sucked into your hot tub’s equipment, where it could do serious damage.

Over time, these filters fill up with grime, which means you need to clean them. At a minimum, you’ll want to remove the filter once every two weeks and give it a quick rinse it with a garden hose, and then to do a deep clean once a month.

As the monthly clean will involve soaking your filter for a couple of hours or overnight, it’s a good idea to have an extra set of filters so you’ve always got a clean one on hand to rotate into your spa.

You should completely replace a filter after 1 to 2 years of use, or sooner if you notice holes or tears or other deterioration in the fabric.

6. Changing the water

Although you can maintain sanitary water in a hot tub for several months by carefully managing the balance of chemicals, it will eventually fill up contaminants or Total Dissolved Solids (TDS).

If you notice your chemicals not working as well or becoming hard to balance, that’s a good sign the water needs to be replaced. This means draining all of the existing water, and refilling it afresh.

Exactly when you need to do this will depend on how much usage your spa gets, but fully replacing the water every 3 to 4 months is a good guideline.

You’ll want to set aside a full day for this process, as it can take several hours of waiting around for each chemical to circulate, and then testing again, before you can move onto the next step.

This drain and refill process is exactly the same as the steps you need to follow when setting up your hot tub for the first time. That means waiting for the water to heat up, and then balancing the water that comes from your hose until it has the right chemical levels required to be safe for a hot tub.

7. Keeping the cover in good condition

One of the most important (and overlooked) factors in keeping your hot tub sanitary is the cover. Any time you’re not using the spa, the cover is there to keep heat in, and dirt or the elements out.

A cover in bad condition won’t do its job properly. What’s more, covers are expensive to replace—they can set you back several hundred dollars.

You can save yourself time, money, and headaches by following a few simple steps to protect and maintain your cover in great condition for as long as possible.

8. Paying the electricity bill

One of the first things would-be hot tub owners want to know is how much it will affect their energy costs. And yes, it’s no secret that running a hot tub will add a bit more to your bills than you’re used to.

Energy costs will vary depending on your local climate, but in general you can expect to pay $50-$100 per month to power a hot tub.

Although not technically maintenance, this extra cost is definitely something you should factor in when you’re deciding if getting a spa is worth it for you.

9. Winterizing your spa in cold weather

If you live somewhere it doesn’t freeze, or if you want to keep using your hot tub throughout the winter, you won’t need to worry about this step.

But if you’d rather shut down your hot tub over winter—which many people do to avoid the additional energy costs it will incur—this is an important maintenance step you don’t want to miss.

Winterizing is the process of completing clearing your hot tub of all water so that it can’t freeze, and therefore burst or crack any pipes.

Here’s a brief overview of how to winterize a spa:

  • First, turn off the power to your hot tub. You can do this at the GFCI breaker in your breaker box.
  • Next, drain it of all its water in the usual way by removing the drainage plug.
  • Drain any water from each of your pumps.
  • You can then use a shop vac with hose attachment to suck/blow any excess standing water from each line through the jets.
  • To be extra safe you should add hot tub antifreeze to each pump as well as into your filter casing.
  • Finally, put the cover back on your hot tub once you can be sure there is no water left inside to freeze and cause damage during the cold weather.

Now your hot tub will be safe and protected from freezing temperatures throughout the winter, so you can avoid any nasty (not to mention expensive) surprises when you go to fill it back up in the spring!

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