Updated: June 8, 2015

Spa and Hot Tub Maintenance and Care

Adding a spa or hot tub to your home can be a real luxury, and an expensive a luxury. A good spa can cost $6,000-$15,000, while you can find low-end spas for $3000-$6000. Whatever you decide to buy, with that kind of investment it is important to keep your hot tub in top running condition. Caring for a hot tub is different than caring for a swimming pool. While a pool has 10s of thousands of gallons of water in it, a spa has only 300-500 gallons. And unlike a bathtub that you drain after each use, your hot tub holds the same water in it day after, bather after hot sweaty bather. As we'll discuss in this guide, keeping your hot tub clean takes work, but once you get the hang of it, most people can perform their spa maintenance in just 10-15 minutes per week. Read below for details on pH balance, alkalinity levels, chlorine and sanitizers, and oxidizers.
hot tub chemicals


Spa Sanitizers - Chlorine, Bromine, Ozone

One of the most important tools in keeping your hot tub clean is using the proper amount of sanitizer. Just like in a pool, sanitizer in a spa (like chlorine) disinfects the water and kills bacteria and microbes that want to live in the water. Since your hot tub is smaller than a pool, you of course use a lower concentration of chlorine in your hot tub. Apart from chlorine, there are also a few other popular spa sanitizing chemicals and systems. Bromine is similar to chlorine but is less harsh on the skin and does not smell as strongly. In fact, the bromine tablets you can put in your spa are made of chlorine and sodium bromide. Most bromine solutions use a floating "brominator" that allows the bromine tablet to slowly dissolve into the water over time. Another popular sanitizer is ozone from an ozonator. An ozonator is a special piece of equipment inside the motor compartment of your hot tub that produces ozone (O3). Ozone is released into the spa water to oxidize and destroy bacteria and other contaminants (viruses, algae, yeast, cologne, sun tan lotion, saliva, urine, etc). Ozone is pretty short lived (it only lasts about 15 minutes before converting back to regular O2 oxygen) and cannot do all the sanitizing work in your spa, so some lighter use of bromine is still required to maintain the health of your water. There are UV ozonators and solid state corona discharge (CD) ozonators - the CD types use a lot less energy and are hardier. If your tub did not come with an ozonator, they are pretty simple to add on as an aftermarket device costing about $100-$150 (check out SpaDepot.com). Amazon also carries most hot tub and spa chemicals, making shopping online easy.

Most newer, higher end hot tubs come with ozonators -- be sure to ask your spa reseller to include one in your spa. They help reduce (but not REMOVE) your need for chlorine and other caustic sanitizing chemicals, which is a good thing for everyone. So those are your basic choices when it comes to keeping nasty creatures out of your spa - hopefully get an ozonator, and then decide if you want to use chlorine or bromine to maintain a good sanitizer level in your water (we prefer bromine tabs).

Cleaning your Hot Tub - Balancing Your Water

How do I balance my spa water? Hot tubs tend to accumulate everything found on people's body, from perspiration to deodorants to soaps and shampoos to body oils and other natural organic materials. Since you don't drain the tub after each use, you have to find a way to keep the water clean and to keep bacteria and other yucky stuff from growing in your warm water. To keep your hot tub water clean, you have to regularly test it, measure the levels of various chemicals, and then add additional chemicals as needed to keep your water healthy. This is called balancing your water. The first item at hand is the pH level. For those of you that have forgotten your high school chemistry, pH measures the acidity of the water by measuring the balance of positive hydrogen ions (H+). A neutral solution has a pH of 7, while lower values are considered acidic and higher values are considered basic. Your goal for your hot tub is to have the pH be in a range just above 7 -- about 7.2 - 7.8. If your water is too acidic, it can corrode your plumbing and damage seals (and your skin!). If the pH is too high, you can get alkaline scaling and build up in your tub and the plumbing equipment. So keep your water within the recommended guidelines. Total Alkalinity (TA) is the other important measure to keep an eye on. Your goal for TA is 80-120 PPM. TA measures the waters ability to resist pH changes by neutralizing acid, acting as a buffer for your spa water. If your TA is high, it is hard to change the pH of your water. This is good if you have your water at the right pH level, not so good if it is not. You can increase your TA by adding simple sodium bicarbonate to your water (baking soda - check out this site for details). Always add small amounts of chemicals at a time, then retest. It is tough to remove excess chemicals from your water, but easy to add a little more. You can also use commercial products like Leisure Time Spa Up or Spa Down to change the pH and TA levels in your hot tub. Soda ash can be added to increase pH while not affecting TA.

To test your water balance in your spa, you will use little test strips that you buy from Amazon or your spa supply shop. They look like little strips of plastics with colored squares glued to them. The 3 or 4 squares on them each test for different chemical conditions - alkalinity, pH, sanitizer PPM, and Calcium levels in the water. You swivel the strip around in the water 3 or 4 times, about 6 inches below the surface, then lift the strip up (do NOT shake the water off it) and compare it to the color chart on the container it came it. Match up the color on the strip to the provided color scales to get your readings for pH, TA, etc. If you find your water is not in the balanced levels, then you need to adjust your water with various chemicals.

After you keep your water clean, you need to drain and refill your water every 3-4 months. No one wants to sit in that chemical bath for too long! You also need to clean your filter monthly and replace it annually. A dirty worn-out filter leaves you with dirty worn-out water -- not something you want.

Oxidizer Shock Treatment

The third piece to keeping nice clear water in your spa is to "shock" or oxidize the water regularly. You shock your water by adding a shocker to break down any left over dead organic goodies killed by your sanitizer -- the shocker also breaks down soaps and shampoos and other materials, allowing the filter to get rid of them permanently. Consider shock treatment to be like the big garbage truck for your hot tub -- it breaks down and gets rid of any remaining junk in your hot tub. If the truck doesn't come by to get rid of this garbage, it becomes food for future bacteria and algae and viruses. So even sanitizing your water is not enough -- that kills these organic creatures, but doesn't break them down enough to eliminate them -- that is what the oxidizer shock does. You should shock your water weekly at a minimum, or after each use of the tub if you use it more than 2-3 times per week. OxySpa, OZ, or Leisure Time Renew are examples of oxidizer shockers.

Buying spa chemicals

There are many good online sites where you can buy chemicals for your spa or hot tub - we've highlighted some links to Amazon above. Your local spa dealer would love to sell you chemical supplies, but their dinosaur-era retails model calls for charging you 50% more than their online competitors -- not acceptable. Shop around, check prices, and if online prices are MUCH better, visit those merchants instead of your local spa dealer. What are the best spa chemical sites? We like SpaDepot.com - they carry everything and at prices about 1/3 lower than the local spa dealer -- they sell spa covers, spa filters, balancing chemicals, test strips, spa cleaners, accessory kits, and everything else from steps to pumps and blowers. Very good site, and quick service. PoolsInc.com is another good site for buying supplies for your hot tub online. They sell sanitizers, shockers, fragrances, balancers, you name it. Most of these chemical products are generic and exactly the same from one reseller to the next - find the best price and service, and stick with it.