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The laboratory that will help determine the future of the hot tub industry is as modest as its task is monumental.

Each of the three test chambers has foil-covered walls, making them look like giant microwave ovens, albeit ones with exposed wires dangling here and there.

A bare-bones air conditioner hangs on the wall, and the doors are kept shut by pieces of scrap wood beneath the simple handles.

“It doesn’t look like much, but we have everything we need,” says Andrew Kean,assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the California Polytechnic Institute at San Luis Obispo, who is leading the testing.

As you read these words, the lab at Cal Poly should be in the home stretch of testing 27 spa models for compliance with California’s new, stringent energy standards — what is known as Title 20. And the testing will be completed just under the wire.

By the start of 2009, all portable spas sold in California must pass muster. Not all will. Industry insiders estimate that as many as half of all units will be on an “out list” that will spread across the country as other states follow the Golden State’s lead.

What follows is a brief recap of how the standards were originally set, an overview of how the industry is faring with compliance, and what the landscape will look like going forward.

How we got here

As dire as this seems for much of the industry, the California Energy Commission has shown a level of leniency unusual for a government enforcement agency. Title 20 went into effect Jan. 1, 2006, but the state has waited years to actually enforce the law.

Back in 2003, the CEC decided to include hot tubs in the new state appliance standards. Officials tapped San Francisco-based Pacific Gas & Electric to work out the details of industry compliance. PG&E, in turn, commissioned the Davis Energy Group, a mechanical engineering consulting firm, to study hot tubs’ energy usage.

In 2004, the Davis Energy Group tested 10 spas ranging in volume from 210 to 525 gallons. Based on its work, and without any industry input, PG&E came up with the protocols for Title 20 standards.

Those protocols quickly proved to be problematic. Much to the surprise of the hot tub industry, a whopping 80 percent of the units failed Davis’ tests, meaning that under the new standard, those spas could not be sold in California.

Several manufacturers followed suggestions from Davis Group and PG&E to meet the bar, but still failed. And a bizarre trend developed: Bigger hot tubs passed the Title 20 test more easily than smaller ones, even though they use more energy.

One of the problems was in the energy-efficiency equation. All spas require some energy for filtration, regardless of size. Title 20 allows a certain amount of this “stand-by” energy, but to adequately filter their water, smaller units use more “stand by” proportionally than larger ones do. The result is that a well-insulated 200-gallon hot tub may fail, while a less-efficient 400-gallon hot tub that enjoys more “stand by” energy leeway may pass.

Because that math now is written into law, it can’t be changed without starting the legislative process over again — something the state is not willing to do.

Where we are now

After spa professionals protested, the CEC agreed to postpone Title 20 enforcement, pending more industry input.

For various and contradictory reasons that we won’t try to address here, by the end of 2007, the industry still hadn’t come through with any significant input and CEC’s patience was wearing thin.

Spa manufacturers were put on notice that if they wanted to help determine how the “rule-making” of Title 20 would be interpreted, they had better come up with some data by Sept. 1, 2008. Otherwise, forget it.

The rules have to be finalized by mid-November, so the state can begin enforcement Jan. 1, 2009. This means Sept. 1 is the last day the hot tub industry can contribute data for PG&E to use to help hammer out the tolerance guidelines to which the industry actually will be held.

To have input meant creating a central place to test the energy efficiency of hot tubs across brands and models. The logical place was the National Pool Industry Research Center at Cal Poly.

Though raising the necessary funds to bankroll the project proved tricky, industry members stepped forward and made it happen.

The Association of Pool & Spa Professionals collected $63,000 for the project, and Dimension One Spas agreed to build the rooms that serve as the three hot tub test labs inside a Cal Poly warehouse. Then Balboa Water Group donated $150,000 in materials and manpower for the electronic testing equipment.

“Those two organizations deserve accolades for helping out the industry as a whole,” says Jeff Collins, director of operations at Softub in Valencia, Calif.

Balboa, especially, had to go the extra mile. It had planned to have its components ready for the lab by May, but Cal Poly engineers said they needed them by the start of April if all the testing was going to be done in time for the state. So Balboa had to hustle.

“We quickly pulled together a lot of our project engineers to get the job done,” says Bob Spillar, vice president of marketing at Balboa Water Group in Tustin, Calif. “It’s part of our ongoing contribution in support of the industry.”

As summer approached, the engineers at Cal Poly were busy running mock tests as spas rolled in from more than a dozen manufacturers. By the ninth version of the test, the engineers were ready to take the project live, Cal Poly’s Kean says.

The last of the tests are expected to be completed right at the Sept. 1 deadline.

Better late than never, of course, but some lament that the industry didn’t get its act together sooner, and they are still worried.

“In reality, this opportunity was afforded to us three years ago,” says Andy Tournas, president of ThermoSpas, based in Wallingford, Conn. “These are the protocols that have been handed to us, and now we’re trying to make amends after [they’ve already] been adopted.”

“A lot of our spas are not making the grade,” says Angelo Pugliese, senior engineer at Dimension One Spas in Vista, Calif. “Our contention is that [the state] is cutting out a huge percentage of the industry. You want better spas, but you don’t want to kill the industry.”

Wiggle room

But it’s not quite as grim as it may seem. The Cal Poly facility will provide California regulators with independent, unassailable data on how Title 20 is hurting the industry, and what needs to be modified.

And CEC has signaled it will allow “wiggle room” in some of the standards, based on the test results.

For example, the requirement to keep water temperature at 102 degrees in a room with an ambient temperature of 60 degrees has been controversial from day one.

The difference between life and death in California for many spas may be a proposed interpretation of Title 20 that lets the water temperature fluctuate between plus or minus 2 degrees from 102, and plus or minus 3 degrees from the ambient temperature of 60.

PG&E appears willing to embrace that more lenient standard, but it wants to see the results of the Cal Poly testing first.

“Whatever we learn at Cal Poly and however that gets worked into changing our current proposal — that will be done between now and when the rule-making is completed [in November],” says Gary Fernstrom, a recently retired senior program engineer at PG&E, who is still working with California on the spa protocol.

After the Title 20 testing is complete, APSP plans to use the results to help write what it will call Standard 14. The association hopes it will serve as a template for a reasonable energy standard for the half-dozen states poised to follow California’s lead. Oregon and New Jersey appear first on deck.

Standard 14 is a big step forward for the spa industry, Collins says. It’s much better when the industry has input into the creation of regulations with which it will have to live.

Dropping the hammer

So what happens after Jan. 1, 2009? Manufacturers will be responsible for testing their spas and self-reporting to California for Title 20 compliance. If their spas don’t pass muster, they can’t sell them in the state.

On the other hand, spas that pass the California energy standard will be certified by the state. This will give their manufacturers a selling point to put in their promotional materials for the rest of the nation or, for that matter, the world. After all, with energy costs rising, consumers should appreciate a product that treads lightly on their electricity bill.

But because we’re talking about self-testing here, what if a manufacturer testifies that a model has cleared the bar, but it actually hasn’t? A manufacturer is testifying under penalty of perjury, so big trouble could follow a fibber.

The consequences in the law are “very vague,” Fernstrom says. It requires that California take “appropriate action” against those who sell unqualified spas in the state. That action would be undertaken by CEC or the state attorney general — an ominous prospect.

“We need to make sure that the data we provide minimizes any falsification of the data,” Tournas says. “If an agency sees any manufacturer providing information that is not thoroughly accurate, we could lose the luxury of self-testing, and that could be very damaging to everyone in the industry.”

It’s important to note, however, that CEC and the attorney general have never taken “appropriate action” against a manufacturer of other products that must meet Title 20 requirements, such as air conditioners and large household appliances. Also, no energy-efficient lawsuits have ever occurred.

But to avoid ambiguity, PG&E is looking into establishing a fine structure that would come down on any scofflaws.

As for the Cal Poly facility, in 2009 it may, or may not, still be open for business.

That largely depends on whether APSP wants to continue soliciting donations to pay for ongoing testing.

Many large spa manufacturers already are compliant and have the wherewithal to test their spas for energy efficiency. But keeping the facility open would be a boon for smaller manufacturers, giving them the option of having their spas tested on, perhaps, a fee-for-service basis. Also, having an unbiased, independent testing facility would be a step up for the industry’s reputation and standards.

It’s still an open question if the university will keep the lab space available for the industry on an ad hoc testing basis. Kean calls it a “small possibility,” but is hopeful.

Pugliese is less optimistic. “Dealing with the spa industry is like herding cats,” he says. “Getting everyone to agree with something, especially when it comes to money? Good luck.”

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Legally efficient

Approximately 200 hot tubs have met California’s Title 20 requirements for energy efficiency. Here is a list of the compliant manufacturers as of a June 3 report published by the California Energy Commission.

MFG
COMPLIANT MODELS
Cal Spas
45
Watkins Manufacturing Co.
44
Artesian Spas
24
ThermoSpas
21
Bullfrog International
18
Hydropool Industries
18
Clearwater Spas
17
Master Spas Inc.
8
Dimension One Spas
5
Softub Inc.
5
Spa Manufacturer Inc.
2

Water works

As industry leaders and California regulators moved toward establishing a workable energy standard, one of the biggest points of contention concerned water. Specifically, where to set the level of water when testing?

Water volume is an important variable in the Title 20 testing regimen. Less water in a high-volume hot tub, for instance, would take less energy to heat, potentially making it easier to pass the test.

Some manufacturers who have been involved in negotiations over this matter advocated setting the line at 6 inches below the rim. Others suggested the line fall at the mid-point of a skimmer, if the hot tub has one.

The standard that won out was the number of gallons the manufacturer recommends to consumers. But that standard comes with some problems according to Andy Tournas, president of ThermoSpas in Wallingford, Conn.

Most owner manuals give approximations of how much water should be in the hot tub. However, even a tiny variable can mean the difference between passing or failing the Title 20 standard. So precision would seem to be paramount.

“If you put approximations down, you’re testing approximations,” Tournas says. “And then, sometime in the future, if there are any questions from regulators about water volume and it’s determined to be inaccurate, that could be damaging to the industry.”

Pacific Gas & Electric, which has taken the lead on the industry’s Title 20 compliance, likes the middle-of-the-skimmer standard best.

“A minus about the manufacturer’s suggested water level is that there is an incentive to overstate the volume of the tub,” says Gary Fernstrom, a former senior engineer for PG&E who is still working with the company, and the state, on Title 20. “It also makes it easier to pass the test, so we don’t think the manufacturer’s specifications represent a particularly good choice.”

Yet that is “the best we have right now,” says Angelo Pugliese, senior engineer at Dimension One Spas in Vista, Calif.

But one thing is fairly certain: Controversy about where to set the water volume will not end when the testing is over.