There’s a reason more repair techs work on inground spas than portable hot tubs. In addition to the fact that everything under the skirt is packed tight and foamed solid, which can make access difficult, the units can be attractive to critters who like the warm, moist environment.
For this reason, hot-tub repair techs are a tough, knowledgeable bunch. Here, veteran spa professionals provide four valuable tips to help in many situations.
1) Take photos to start
The biggest challenge of portable-spa repair is the fact that so much is packed into a small space. Not only are there several pieces of equipment to circulate and heat the water and power the jets, but there also are yards of plumbing. And Murphy’s Law very much comes into play: Chances are, the needed repair will take place in an area far from the access panel.
Because of this, putting everything back the way one found it can be a challenge. If there’s a chance that a repair will take more than one visit, it often helps to take a photo of any area where there’s a repair taking place, or even if things are being pulled out to access the affected area. This provides an instant road map for how to put everything together once the repair’s completed.
“Even though I might know the blue wire goes here and the red wire goes there, I’m going to take a picture before I unplug them, just so I have back up,” says Bryan Chrissan, owner of Clear Valley Pool Service in Temecula, Calif. “Even labels could get ruined and wet, and the marker might run off if it takes a couple weeks for the repair. So I take pictures just in case my memory doesn’t work in two weeks.”
2) Ensure long-lasting plumbing fixes
Because the plumbing is packed so tightly in the unit, most pipe repairs need to be done right the first time.
“You don’t want to do work and find out that it leaks,” says Pierre Braun, owner of San Diego-based Bronco Spas. “It’s harder to fix a repair because now you have to go further down into it. There’s no pipe to cut off and couple onto because you already put the fitting as close to one place [or piece of equipment], so you have to figure you have one chance and must do it right the first time. Don’t rush it.”
One problem can arise, for instance, if flexible PVC pipe is cut too short. When it’s cut just long enough to fill the gap between couplers, it will likely shrink over time, which can cause leaks. “The plumbing starts shrinking, and then is pulling on everything,” Braun says.
To avoid this, Braun cuts the pipe a little longer to allow for shrinking. The extra length depends on the length of the pipe being added. The longer the run, the more extra should be included. If, for instance, Braun is connecting a piece of plumbing that measures about 6 inches, he will add another 1/8- to ¼ inch. If it gets to be about 3 feet long, he’ll leave about ½ inch extra.
No matter what kind of plumbing is used, the joints should be as durable as possible. Pipe and couplers should be cleaned to remove any dirt or residue from the insulating foam so the glue forms an airtight bond. Also consider using deep socket fittings, which are longer so there’s more surface area bonding with the existing pipe.
3) Get proactive when locating leaks
Finding leaks can present a challenge.
The homeowner may notice a puddle on the floor, which would lead one to believe the leak is nearby. However, if the floor is sloped even a little, or if the leaked water clings to a circuitous run of plumbing before letting go onto the floor, that puddle could be nowhere near the leak’s source.
“You could be starting on this side and the leak could be clear on the other side,” Chrissan says. “It’s just not hitting the ground until it gets over there.”
But there are a few signs techs can read to help direct them. For one thing, if the water inside the tub drops until it reaches a particular level, the leak most likely springs from one of the jets placed at that level. “So that can minimize [the potential source] from 30 jets to maybe four jets,” says Scott Hisaw, manager of Spa Parts Depot in San Diego.
If the spa’s been empty for a long time, the source could be dried-out seals.
Techs also can dig around the foam until they find the wet spots and push past it. Once you get to the end of the wet area, you’re probably close. Other times, the technician must follow the trail.
If that’s not working, and it seems the leak is near the footwell — the hardest part to access — the tub may need to be flipped over for investigation. If there are two or three technicians on site, it may be easy. But some work solo.
To do this job alone, techs can empty the hot tub, then raise it on two layers of cinderblocks — one row at a time — using a half-ton floor jack.
“From there, you fill the water back up again and run the spa, put it under pressure, and then look for the leak at the bottom of the spa,” says John Brooks, owner of Advanced Pool and Spa Services in Temecula, Calif.
Regardless of where the leak is, be sure to warn customers that there could be more. “Sometimes you have to fix that leak to find out if there are any others,” Braun says. “There could be a leak right next to another, and they’re both dripping.”
4) Try to use existing foam
Technicians differ in how they handle the foam that’s been cut out to make a repair. Some prefer to dispose of it and replace it with a spray foam purchased from a hardware store. Others like to retain at least the dry foam that was originally placed in the spa and puzzle it together.
Hisaw advocates a combination of the two approaches. Hang on to the original foam, then put it back, using the spray foam as a binder.
“Buy the [spray] foam packs from Home Depot or Lowe’s,” he says. “... Push the chunks [of original foam] and spray as you’re pushing it in. The harder you push it and pack it in, the more dense it gets.”