One of the toughest things about fixing a portable spa is diagnosing the problem. Not only are there many manufacturers, but also each one now offers several different models. Every year brings new spas with the latest controllers and diagnostic mechanisms.
To avoid common pitfalls that may arise, service technicians must first collect all the necessary information, sort through the basics and then pinpoint the culprit. Here, experts offer advice on how to diagnose a problem spa.
Before you disassemble anything, start with the basics. That means taking a few minutes to listen to the homeowners. To save time and money for your clients (and yourself), start with a preliminary screening. During the initial call, ask your customers to give a detailed description of how their spas have changed.
If the issue sounds simple, your customers may be able to pinpoint and repair it without a service visit. Otherwise, send a technician, and make sure it’s someone experienced in the area of the suspected malfunction. There’s nothing worse for customers than discovering that their repair tech isn’t familiar with the equipment.
Prior to the visit, ask the owner to make some basic checks. For instance, if the customer says the high-limit switch tripped, the spa should be heated before you arrive. Then, you can quickly measure how warm it gets before it shuts off. It beats standing around waiting for the spa to heat.
Once on site, the tech should speak with the clients again to get a better sense of the issue, too. Often, by asking them to share how things happened in chronological order, the problem will be readily apparent. It’s important to ask pointed questions, and don’t settle for vague answers. If you ask when the customer last cleaned the filter, it’s not enough to hear, “Recently” or “Don’t worry about it.” Evasiveness usually means they don’t know.
Again, a couple of preliminary checks can help determine how the spa is used. Many techs start by first lifting up the cover, which tells them all about the water’s chemical makeup — the discoloration in the cover will give the entire history of the spa. For example, water with a low pH level burns the cover, so the center would be white. That should signal to the tech to go directly to the heater to look for any chemical damage at the heating point.
In such cases, odds are the problem will reappear if customers aren’t reminded about maintaining proper water-chemistry levels. After handling the immediate repair, be sure to discuss spa chemistry and customize a maintenance routine based on the owner’s usage.
Also, the filter should be checked early on. A clogged filter can cause a number of failures. If you suspect that a pressure switch needs replacing, for instance, it really could be the filter’s fault. If the filter’s dirty, there may not be enough water pressure throughout the system, causing the switch to be triggered. If the filter hasn’t been replaced in more than two years, many techs advise changing it — regardless of whether it turns out to be the culprit.
Finally, check for the simple things that aren’t always obvious. For example, older-model spas include a magnetic interlock on the door. If the door isn’t closed, the spa won’t work.
Pinpoint the problem accurately
There’s a term some spa-repair techs use to describe colleagues who replace part after part until the unit works properly. They’re called “parts jockeys,” and many service managers discourage that approach.
Constant parts replacement saves neither time nor money, many service pros say. Customers may grow impatient waiting for this trial-and-error method to bear fruit. Meanwhile, the costs for unnecessary parts can quickly escalate.
Some techs will simply replace the problematic component without isolating the problem. If the heater isn’t working, for example, they may just install a new one. But, in many cases, it’s not the heater that’s defective. It could be a relay three or four switches back that’s just not giving the heater power.
Or, it could be a thermostat. Either way, zero in on the problem by following a pre-determined diagnostic protocol you’ve established for each basic set of symptoms.
For instance, if the GFCI trips repeatedly, consider disconnecting the heater. If the GFCI doesn’t trip, then you know it was the heater. If it wasn’t the heater, move on down the line and disconnect the air blower. If the GFCI doesn’t trip now, then the air blower was at fault. But if it still trips, the next thing you disconnect is the flow switch… and so on.
Begin by checking the main component itself. Use a voltmeter or multimeter to determine whether the pump, heater, blower or another piece of equipment is receiving power. If it is, you’ve found your problem. If not, then a switch or relay likely isn’t transferring the current.
Depending on the symptom, you may want to consult an electrical blueprint for the spa, if one is available.
Then you can see which series of switches and relays are involved. Next, work back from the main component, checking each relay or switch in the control box.
Certain areas are tougher to inspect than others. When confronted with a spa that’s more than a few years old, it may be difficult to tell when a circuit board is causing the problem or whether it’s the topside control.
The diagnostic mechanism will provide a code, but that could apply to either component. For such tricky diagnoses, plug in separate units to see if they work. Many techs bring along additional topsides for testing purposes. They disconnect the client’s topside, plug in theirs and, if they get the same reaction, then it’s the board that’s bad. If it works with the new topside, it’s the topside that’s bad.
In some instances, the problem may not be a faulty part at all. If the system doesn’t heat, it could be a restricted flow. Check the plumbing for leaves or other debris that may have caused a clog. This is often the case when a flow switch or pressure switch isn’t working. It may detect that not enough flow is moving through the heater and block heater activation. This also keeps the heater from burning out or catching fire.
If the unit contains a pressure switch, a little sand or dirt may also plug it up, preventing the heater from sensing the system pressure.
Close it out
After the repair, conduct a full diagnostic assessment of the spa. Among other items, check the chemical balance, the heater terminal at the bulkhead fittings, the air-check valves, jet selectors and buttons. Look for burned wires. Evaluate every screw in the pack to make sure they’re all tight. Make sure all the wire connections are proper. Also, remember to test the ground fault protection during each visit. If you notice something that could cause another failure, notify the customer. These checks and precautions only take a few extra minutes, but it’s worth the trouble.