Imagine if, seemingly overnight, the state government said that your car did not get enough miles per gallon to be street legal. It wouldn’t matter that it’s brand-new and much more fuel-efficient than the old gas-guzzling convertible you drive on the weekends.

Imagine, too, that the state won’t tell you the models of cars it tested to set the universal standard which suddenly makes your vehicle obsolete.

This is, in essence, what the California Energy Commission did to the hot tub industry last year when it mandated that spas meet the efficiency standards for appliances — a regulation called Title 20.

The law threatens to make half of all new spas in California out of compliance. This outcome has manufacturers sweating over the future of their businesses and angry about what they see as the unfairness of it all.

“The trick is that we’re trying to design the most efficient hot tub we can that still meets the needs of customers,” says James Hedgecock, manager of business development at Dimension One Spas in Vista, Calif.

“It’s like California coming out and saying, ‘You can’t drive a car unless it gets 40 miles per gallon.’

“There are ways of passing the [Title 20] standard,” he adds. “But, if you go too far, the consumer isn’t going to want to buy the product.”

The Title 20 energy standards went into effect on Jan. 1, 2006, in the Golden State. For the most part, the entire process went unnoticed by the pool and spa industry — but it’s impossible to ignore now.

Pool & Spa News presents the story of how a single study involving less than a dozen hot tubs led to an international ripple effect from California’s Title 20 requirements.

The study that started it all

To understand the implications of the spa standard, you need to start at the beginning: the Davis Energy Group hot tub report.

In 2003, utility provider Pacific Gas & Electric of San Francisco commissioned the Davis Energy Group to begin a study on the energy consumption of hot tubs.

The Davis, Calif.-based mechanical engineering consulting firm soon started gathering data from the backyards of PG&E customers. It conducted tests on 10 spas that ranged in volume from 210- to 525 gallons. Not surprisingly, the researchers found significant discrepancies between the energy consumption of different models.

At the conclusion of the testing, the Davis report categorized spas as “the largest electrical load in homes that possess one,” assuming the homes didn’t also have pools. PG&E subsequently recommended that the California Energy Commission use Davis’ test results to set a new energy-efficiency standard for hot tubs, which the commission did on Dec. 15, 2004.

Davis came up with a formula for Title 20 standards that requires a spa’s energy consumption “not be greater than 5 (V2/3) Watts, where V = total volume in gallons.” Using this formula, a 500-gallon spa would have to consume less than 314.98 watts per hour.

When testing their own spas to prove that they conform, manufacturers must adhere to precise conditions: The spa’s cover has to be on, while the water temperature remains at 102 degrees and the ambient temperature at 60 degrees. The unit also is required to run for 72 hours.

Title 20 caught the spa industry by surprise. “There were earlier warnings that the [commission] was working on two new regulations, one dealing with pool pumps and the other with hot tubs,” says Don Burns, CEO of SPEC, the California spa and pool industry lobbying group based in Sacramento. “PG&E told us informally that it was working on it.”

Initially, Burns met with William J. Keese, the former commission chairman. “He assured me at the time that he did not expect it to move quickly,” Burns says.

But it did. And now the industry is scrambling to rectify what it considers a hastily cobbled and somewhat unfair energy-efficiency standard.

The industry’s response

Burns sent out a memo asking key players to meet in Los Angeles on Feb. 1, 2006. “It was a call to action,” he says. He also invited the Association of Pool & Spa Professionals to attend.

“We brought everyone together, including engineers, and separated them into two groups — one for hot tubs and the other for pumps,” Burns says.

The first reason for the meeting was to inform members about Title 20. The second was to figure out how to respond to the monumental changes the law was bringing to the industry.

Many of the problems centered on the fact that the spa standard was the first of its kind. There was also little data from which to create the testing needed to meet the new requirements. Manufacturers say that’s one of the reasons why trying to distinguish energy-efficient models is so tricky.

It’s also why, in the beginning, there was a lack of feedback from the spa industry.

On Feb. 23, industry representatives met with the commission and PG&E. There, California energy officials said that their projection was to eliminate 20 percent of the low-performing spas in the industry. But insiders contend that this number may be much higher.

During the 2004 hearing process, PG&E invited pump and motor manufacturers to comment. “PG&E did make an outreach effort,” says Gary Fernstrom, senior program engineer with the Department of Customer Energy Efficiency at PG&E.

In fact, some of the suggestions from those meetings were incorporated into a similar pool pumps standard. But meanwhile, controversy continues over the spa test.

Areas of improvement

The Davis report identified three areas for spa improvement: circulation systems, programmable controls and insulation — which the study calls “the single most important factor affecting spa energy efficiency.”

By improving insulation on covers and using full-foamed shells, manufacturers could cut back energy consumption a full 30 percent, the report indicates. Incorporating low-wattage circulation pumps might save as much as 15 percent in energy usage. Controls could account for another 5 percent by permitting end-users to customize settings based on anticipated usage.

A slew of complaints soon followed. The industry has argued that the percentages might have been miscalculated in real-world applications. Some companies are saying their spas aren’t passing even after following the Davis report’s compliance recommendations.

An odd test

The commission’s proposed testing methods, as contained in Section 1604 of the Title 20 regulations, also are fraught with complications. First, the Davis group conducted its tests on 10 spas in the field. However, the commission requires manufacturers to test their spas in controlled environments, such as laboratory chambers. Thus, many now question the validity of the Davis Energy Group findings because of variables that may have gone unaccounted for in an uncontrolled setting.

Second, spa companies suggest the small size of the research sample was not representative of the industry at large. Many say it may have biased the outcome of the study. The Davis Energy Group has not agreed to release the names and models of the spas used for the study.

Some spa manufacturers also believe the formula to measure standby energy is the root of the problem. “The way the amount of energy is related to volume of spas [in the spa formula], larger ones get a greater allowance than smaller ones,” Fernstrom says.

In theory, the higher-volume spa should use a lot more energy and have the same rate of succeeding as a lower-volume model. But, in fact, the formula gives larger spas more leeway to pass, according to industry experts. For example, spas smaller than 300 gallons generally cut it close to the maximum energy allowed.

One reason is that spas all require a minimum amount of energy for filtration. On smaller units, this basic usage is a larger part of the standby energy. So even if the small spa were well-insulated and highly efficient, it might not pass.

Several major spa makers have confirmed that their lower-end models are not passing the Title 20 test.

“It’s certainly going to hit the bottom of the industry harder,” says Angelo Pugliese, senior engineer at Dimension One Spas. But because most manufacturers have full lines, he thinks everyone will feel the pinch. “It eliminates a segment of our market,” he adds.

With 100 spas in stock, one manufacturer could easily spend $500,000 testing them. Plus, there’s no guarantee that most will pass. And because it takes approximately one week to monitor a single unit, manufacturers could spend up to a year testing a full inventory.

But sending spas to an outside lab is inconvenient and costly. “It’s a huge financial burden on the spa manufacturers,” Pugliese says.

As a result, several manufacturers opted to funnel thousands of dollars into building their own test chambers. Despite all of their efforts, insiders say it’s likely that half the spas currently on the market will not pass Title 20 standards.

Crossing borders

It’s been 1-1/2 years since Title 20 came on the scene. As of August, 147 spas and 11 manufacturers have been certified as having complied with Title 20, and now are listed on the commission’s Web site. The dialogue between the industry and the state is still ongoing.

Spa professionals met with state energy officials on July 13, and the California Energy Commission plans to host workshops in the fall focused on revising Title 20 in 2009. APSP hopes to get the state to adopt its spa energy standard, APSP-14.

For their part, energy officials never imagined Title 20 could be something that might potentially cripple the industry. California regulators now hint at allowing some flexibility. “It wasn’t our intention to eliminate a third or half of the products on the market,” PG&E’s Fernstrom says. “If it turns out the standard is too discriminating, we’ll recommend that it be revised.”

Meanwhile, the Title 20 spa requirements — and all of the complications that come with them — are emerging on an international scale. In this country, nearly a dozen states have adopted various components of the appliance standard. Several have spa standards in the works or pending before local legislative bodies.

In October 2006, Canada’s federal department of natural resources commissioned a study to analyze the energy consumption of hot tubs. It hired Chicago-based consulting firm Navigant Consulting Inc. to collect data on the Canadian spa market.

The consultants contacted APSP and hot tub manufacturers via conference call on Jan. 19. “A lot of manufacturers have raised concerns about [California’s] test procedure. There are [many] issues with it,” says Renata Mortazavi, senior standards engineer at the Office of Energy Efficiency, Natural Resources Canada in Ottawa.

Thus, to consider the standard, the Canadian government plans to develop its own test procedure and energy performance levels. However, Fernstrom says, “it’s extremely difficult for manufacturers to deal with 50 different regulations.”

The greatest danger right now is if state and local governments try to replicate Title 20. But because the fate of the industry relies on them to come up with one consistent set of regulations, APSP and manufacturers are trying to find a way to live with the standard.

“A good thing that is going to come out of this is an industrywide standard,” Pugliese says. “But it’s got to be a reachable one.”