Arlene Stachel, co-owner of Mt. Lake Pool & Patio in Doylestown, Pa., regularly purchases large containers of outdoor furniture from China.
The price and quality make sense for her business, along with thousands of other North American pool and spa retailers who deal with Chinese manufacturers for various backyard items.
However, there is one growing product category in China that doesn’t bode as well for these dealers: hot tubs. The lenient manufacturing criteria there, combined with lower prices, pose multiple threats to the industry stateside.
“There are standards that we require in the U.S. when it comes to spas,” Stachel says. “With furniture you don’t have a lot of standards, but a chair can’t electrocute you. You can’t drown in a chair.”
American and Canadian consumers will typically bypass industry professionals to get China-made spas, which are mainly available online, at a few big-box stores — such as Home Depot Canada — and consumer home shows, so few hot tub dealers are aware of the potential problems associated with Chinese tubs.
That could soon change as these products move into direct competition with those made domestically. On the show floor at the International Pool | Spa | Patio Expo, for example, some hot tub experts were shocked to see two Chinese spa makers displaying their products. While the surrounding North American manufacturers proudly trumpeted various regulatory approvals, the China-based firms exhibited basic safety and construction deficiencies.
“When I looked at their products, I immediately saw that their suctions were just bathtub suctions,” says Don Elkington, president/CEO of Coast Spas Mfg. Inc. in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. These particular spas also didn’t have the correct voltage input needed to operate in North American electrical outlets, he adds. “How did these products even get into the country?”
Experts observing the spa-import market say that Chinese-made products do not conform to UL 1563, the Standard for Electric Hot Tubs, Spas and Associated Equipment. This regulation includes the Virginia Graeme Baker Pool and Spa Safety Act requirements applicable to portable spas, and also protects users from water leaking into equipment areas, high water temperatures, grounding/bonding problems and other safety issues.
“The Chinese are anxious to get into the market here,” says Chris Robinson, who has visited several hot tub factories in China and is business manager of Lucite Intl. Inc. in Cordova, Tenn. “They get stymied by complying with UL regulations. It’s quite expensive, time consuming and difficult to do from afar, and there isn’t anyone checking for UL ratings on things as they come into the country.”
Because of that oversight, buyers could become subject to injury, including entrapment and electrocution. The Consumer Product Safety Commission lists warnings regarding such products on its Website. However, most consumers are not aware of the UL standard, and don’t realize they should be protected. Instead, they often only see the lower price tag.
“[Chinese manufacturers] are very capable of making the spas look good, and the consumer knows they are getting a hell of a deal,” Robinson says. “They know they aren’t buying a Cadillac, but they don’t expect it not to work or their family to get electrocuted.”
Common complaints involve poor shell reinforcement, compromised piping, pumps that don’t work, jets with high lead content, and nonuniform parts that are difficult to service and replace. Making contact with the original supplier overseas when a problem arises is also a frequent headache.
“People don’t even know if there are warranties on them,” Stachel adds.
Industry experts estimate that fewer than 9,000 Chinese-made portable spas are sold in North America each year. The competition hasn’t yet significantly affected the profits of dealers because few legitimate retailers are willing to accept the risks associated with selling products that aren’t UL-approved.
Nevertheless, the mere presence of these hot tubs threatens to do far more than whittle away retailers’ profits. Problems related to these products could damage the reputation of an already struggling sector for years to come.
“What if someone gets hurt?” asks Elkington. “Consumers will say ‘the hot tub caused the problem,’ not the Chinese hot tub.”
To combat the issue, retailers should inform consumers of the need for UL 1563 compliance and direct them to reputable resources for information on recalls, such as the CPSC.
“We as an industry aren’t doing a lot to change the perception of the consumer,” Robinson says. “Individual dealers might, but we don’t have a message that we all invest in. That circles back to the enforcement of regulation and the support of [groups like] APSP to defend against that sort of thing.”
The International Hot Tub Association is in the beginning stages of a plan to lobby the government for more oversight regarding imported hot tubs, according to IHTA board member Elkington. Some industry professionals also are calling for North American spa-part suppliers to cease sales to Chinese manufacturers, saying that the practice allows hot tub makers in China to advertise that their components are “American-made.”
Editor’s Note: A prior version of this story contained information that was incorrect. Previously, there was a statement made regarding poorly constructed spas exhibited at the International Pool | Spa | Patio Expo and Aston Global Inc. was one of the firms mentioned. In fact, all of the spas currently sold by Aston Global are fully UL 1563-compliant, according to company officials. Pool & Spa News regrets the error.