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
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
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.