Three separate hot tub dealers in separate New Jersey counties recently hit the same roadblock.

The obstruction was nothing tangible — no unstable foundation or tight quarters to negotiate.

Instead, the trouble came in the form of local building officials citing a provision in the 2008 National Electrical Code that requires an equipotential bonding grid around portable hot tubs.

“The problem [with the rule is] when you’re talking about existing structures, and someone puts a portable tub on a concrete deck, you’re tearing up the whole patio to put down the grid.” says Larry Caniglia, executive director of the Northeast Spa & Pool Association in Hamilton, N.J.

Fortunately, a favorable advisory opinion from the state Department of Community Affairs granted a temporary stay of sorts. “But it’s a ticking time bomb because we don’t know how long that is going to last,” Caniglia adds. “That could change, literally, in a matter of a few months.”

The landscape for portable hot tubs has become a tricky one, as a slew of new and proposed legislation could dramatically impact the industry. Following is a selection of local and national developments that have advocates keeping a watchful eye.

New Jersey and the NEC

The issue: For NESPA, the main point of contention in the 2008 NEC centered on existing structures. To that end, Caniglia, in his request for an opinion from the DCA, revisited the 2005 standard, which is still referenced throughout much of the country.

In it, he noted, an equipotential bonding grid must be included under paved walking surfaces (concrete, for example) for 1 meter beyond the walls of the vessel. If a portable spa was installed on an unpaved surface (a wood deck or grass, for example), a bonding grid wasn’t necessary. What’s more, for portable spas on paved surfaces, the state had allowed alternatives to the grid — for example, rubber matting.

The 2008 NEC, however, created a snag. That’s because language in the new code was altered to include paved and unpaved surfaces as requiring the grids — not an issue for new construction, Caniglia says, but problematic when it comes to existing permanent structures.

“We don’t think they realized when they were writing it that they were talking about new structures, not existing ones,” he says.

Therefore, when the installation doesn’t involve new construction, Caniglia argued, it should fall under what’s called a renovation code. Requirements for the project then would revert back to the 2005 NEC, which permits the addition of rubber matting or other nonconductive measures as bonding.

The DCA agreed, and in late April code specialist Suzanne Borek issued an advisory that essentially confirmed NESPA’s stance — that portable hot tub installations on existing structures should not be subject to the 2008 NEC requirement for equipotential bonding grids.

What’s next: In early June, NESPA was working with the Association of Pool & Spa Professionals on a request for a Tentative Interim Amendment from the National Fire Protection Association. That TIA would convey that the exact requirement for the bonding grid only applies to new structures, provided the portable hot tub conforms to UL 1563 standards.

This guidance from the NFPA could be presented to local code officials in the event they cite the 2008 NEC during enforcement. It also would empower the state to issue its own modification of the NEC. In the most recent case, that’s precisely what it did through the DCA. And it worked.

“All three dealers were successful in using the letter, and the local code official agreed,” Caniglia says. “They allowed them to put the hot tubs in. So it’s not conclusive, but it’s very persuasive for the local officials to use that.” 

The ramifications, he explains, reach far beyond the Garden State: “It’ll start local, then it’ll spread — it will affect every state that adopts the 2008 NEC, so it’s going to be across the country. We just figure if we can get ahead of this thing, at least here in New Jersey, we’re that much better off.”

Title 20 ripple effects

The issue: On the books since January 2006, California’s Title 20 established portable hot tub energy requirements, among other standards. A year later, the state of Oregon followed suit, enacting legislation that mirrored California’s in both its benchmarks and (hotly contested) testing methods.

A set of amendments developed by APSP and adopted by the Golden State in December 2008 further clarified Title 20 requirements. The changes have resulted in more hot tubs meeting California’s efficiency standards.

Today, a handful of states across the country (including Florida, Washington and New Jersey) are beginning to address energy-efficiency standards for various appliances, including portable hot tubs. And Title 20 figures to serve as a bellwether, as it did for Oregon.

But it’s not just in statehouses that Title 20’s impact is being felt. The U.S. Senate’s energy committee adopted these latest amendments and incorporated the language into Senate Bill 1462, the American Clean Energy Leadership.  

The comprehensive legislation contains provisions for increasing efficiency in buildings, major equipment and appliances, including hot tubs. If signed into law, it would take effect in 2012. Among relevant changes to the bill spearheaded by APSP were the inclusion of swim-spas, the recognition of APSP-14 once it receives ANSI approval, and altering the definition of portable hot tubs to include the term “factory-built.”

“We needed to make that distinction when we talk about portable versus in-ground spas,” says Carvin DiGiovanni, senior director, technical and standards at APSP. “For portable hot tubs, it’s more along the lines of looking at it as an appliance. And when you talk about it being an appliance, to a designer or an enforcement official it has the connotation of being a self-contained unit. So you want to keep it separate from pools, and that’s why ‘factory-built’ has to be part of that definition.”

What’s next: Once APSP’s standards committee has refined APSP-14, it is put through a technical accuracy review. Afterward, it is presented to the American National Standards Institute, where it goes through a balloting process.

APSP doesn’t expect much controversy, and officials are optimistic that APSP-14 will be approved by ANSI by fall 2010.

The association is keeping close watch over states that move ahead on proposed energy legislation; and officials have said they’ll be addressed case-by-case. But the goal at this point is making sure any future proposals or test protocols conform to the APSP-14 standard and federal guidelines, DiGiovanni says.

VGB and portable spas

The issue: Dating back to late 2007, hot tub manufacturers were left wondering whether their products would be subject to anti-entrapment provisions under the federal Virginia Graeme Baker Pool and Spa Safety Act. At stake were a number of potential requirements, including a 3-foot separation for multiple drains, installation of backup devices, and replacement of existing drain covers with VGB-compliant equipment.

But in February, relief came in the form of a technical guidance document from the Consumer Product Safety Commission. The document established minimum eligibility requirements that states would have to meet in order to qualify for grant monies, and it included one key provision:

“Portable spas certified to UL 1563 by a Nationally Recognized Testing Laboratory are considered to comply with the entrapment prevention provisions of the Act.”

The decision to exempt portable hot tubs from the requirements imposed on swimming pools and in-ground spas was more than a year in the making, as APSP officials first testified before Congress on spa manufacturers’ behalf in December 2008.

What’s next: Not much in the immediate future. Barring any revised interpretations by the CPSC or reversals of previous rulings, the law is pretty straightforward in its requirements for portable hot tubs.

As for the industry’s role, the objective is simple: “You try to do the right thing,” DiGiovanni says. “Standards are becoming more important as we move forward, and they’re also becoming the targets of criticism. If something goes wrong, the first thing you look at is the standard and whether it was followed. So we have to make sure we’ve got the science to back up what we’re saying.”