For many techs, a failure of one or more spa functions can become a frustrating guessing game. Troubleshooting begins with observing the symptoms and then going step-by-step through the system to resolve the issue.
1. Know what you’re up against
There are three basic types of systems that control portable spas. Within these, there are usually only five or six components that are critical to the basic functions of the spa. It matters little whether the system uses a solid-state PCB, air switches or other electromechanical devices to accomplish control, the functions remain the same.
Everything else in the spa is an accessory (lights, blowers, ozonators, stereos, booster pumps, etc.) and usually has no bearing on these basic functions. That’s not to say that accessories can’t affect these functions, but recognizing that they aren’t critical allows you to isolate them to test the basic operation.
System One: Dual-speed primary pump
In this system, the pump moves water through the manifold during filtration and hydrotherapy. The control determines which speed will be selected, and the service connected determines whether the heater will be selected with only low or both low and high pump speeds.
System Two: Two single-speed pumps
In this system, the circulation pump can be at fractional horsepower (example: 1/10 hp) and run 24 hours a day, if power is applied to the system. There are no filter cycles, and it heats whenever there is a call from the sensor. (Be aware that more and more electronic systems with circuit boards now use what is called “summer settings.” When heat rises two or three degrees above a set temperature, the circulation pump turns off. It will turn back on once the temperature dips one degree below the setting. This should be stated in the owner’s manual.) Here, the jet pump is not plumbed through the heating manifold and has nothing to do with temperature control.
System Three: One single-speed pump and no heater (heat-recovery system)
These systems use heat from the running pump motor or friction from water in the plumbing to increase water temperature. The pump runs any time the sensor calls for heat. It also runs if there is a filter cycle selected. The operation of the pump is critical to this tub’s operation.
2. IDENTIFY THE REAL PROBLEM
Nothing wastes more time than troubleshooting something that isn’t actually related to the real problem. To eliminate this possibility, you need to communicate with the customers to understand what they are seeing and also recreate the issue yourself so that you have a firsthand example of the symptoms leading to the failure.
Take the following steps:
1. If possible, have the customer operate the system to demonstrate the issue.
2. Operate the system yourself and run through as many functions as possible to ensure you see “all” the problems (Example: A reported problem of no heat becomes pretty clear if there’s no water flow at all, regardless of pump speed selected).
3. Visually inspect the cabinet and tub area for obvious problems (loose or burnt wiring, leaking plumbing, broken or missing hardware, etc.). Even if unrelated, it gives you a good understanding of the condition of the tub and items that likely will need to be corrected at some point.
3. BEGIN TESTING
Test the system to isolate the failed component/components. For the purposes of this article, success will be measured by correctly identifying the failed equipment component (electrical service, wiring connection, control system or load).
Usually the issue can be categorized into one of three types of problems:
1. Nothing works
2. Something doesn’t turn on
3. Something doesn’t turn off
While it’s impossible to cover every scenario one might encounter, the following examples should give a good idea of the flow of tests that are necessary to isolate each of the problems.
Problem 1A: Nothing works
While this issue is often perceived as intimidating because you have only one indication, this really is the simplest to isolate to an equipment component. There are only a few components that can disable every function in a spa.
Breaker, fuse or GFCI fails immediately upon start-up:
1. If the device is internal to the control system:
a. Check for proper voltage from service reaching the control system. If voltage is not correct (240VAC from L1Black to L2Red and 120VAC from Neutral White to L1 and L2, 120VAC from ground to L1 and L2, 0VAC from ground to neutral) and the breaker/GFCI is “set,” call a licensed electrician to evaluate service.
b. Remove power and disconnect all load devices from the control system including both heater wires.
c. Replace the fuse or reset breaker/GFCI.
d. If the device stays set, power down and reconnect one load device at a time until the failure recurs. (Remember that you can’t heat without a pump running, so connect the pump motor before the element wires.)
e. The last load connected before the symptom recurs is suspect. (Be sure to inspect the wiring between the control and load device before replacing anything.)
2. If the device is external to the control system (service breaker or GFCI):
a. Remove power and disconnect all load devices from the control system including both heater wires.
b. Replace the fuse or reset breaker/GFCI.
c. If the device stays set, power down and reconnect one load device at a time until failure recurs. (Remember that you can’t heat without a pump running so connect the pump motor before the element wires.)
The last load connect before the symptom recurs is suspect. (Be sure to inspect wiring between control and load device before replacing anything.)
3. If the device continues to trip with all loads disconnected, remove the service wiring from the control system and isolate it from shorting together or to ground.
a. Reset the breaker/GFCI.
b. If the device stays set, remove the control for evaluation by a qualified technician. Remember to shut off service and tag out the breaker.
c. If the device continues to trip with the control disconnected, call a licensed electrician to evaluate the electrical service.
Problem 1B: Everything works fine for a time, and then nothing works.
This is a little more difficult to isolate because it can be tough to “catch it” when it fails. It’s most important to determine what is operating when the problem occurs. Another indicator will be which of the safety devices fails when the issue occurs.
Breaker, fuse or GFCI fails after running for an unspecified time:
1. Check for proper voltage from service reaching the control system.
a. If voltage is not correct (240VAC from L1Black to L2Red and 120VAC from Neutral White to L1 and L2, 120VAC from ground to L1 and L2, 0VAC from ground to neutral) and the breaker/GFCI is “set,” call a licensed electrician to evaluate service.
b. If the GFCI or breaker is failing intermittently, but (when set) the voltage is correct reaching the control, then:
• Remove power and disconnect all loads except for the main pump and heater (blower, ozone, light, etc.).
• Run the unit for approximately the same time. If the unit fails again during this test, the issue is either the heater or the main pump. Disconnect the heater and repeat the test.
• If the GFCI doesn’t trip with the heater disconnected, then the heater is likely the issue. If it fails again, then the main pump is suspect. If the unit continues to fail after both have been isolated, check for loose hardware or wiring causing a short inside the control. If none are apparent, then the control may need to be evaluated by a qualified repair facility.
• Inspect the suspected load for obvious shorting to ground. (Be sure to include the connecting wiring in your inspection). Replace as appropriate.
• If the unit does not fail with the accessories disconnected, reconnect one device and repeat the test. Continue reconnecting accessory loads until a failure recurs.
• The last load you connect prior to the issue reoccurring is suspect. (Be sure to inspect wiring between control and load device before replacing anything.)
c. If the system fuse is failing and the voltage is correct reaching the control, then:
• Disregard the heater because it’s usually not protected by the system fuse.
• Turn off the power and disconnect all load connections and replace system fuse.
• Reapply the power and operate the system. If the fuse fails again, check for loose hardwire or shorted wiring inside the control. If nothing obvious is found, the control may need to be checked out by a qualified repair facility.
• If fuse remains good, reconnect each load and allow the system to run for an appropriate time. Continue connecting loads and running system until the issue recurs.
• The last load you connect before the fuse fails again is suspect. (Be sure to inspect wiring between control and load device before replacing anything.)
Note: An alternate method for evaluating load performance is to perform an amp draw check on the suspected device.
Problem 2: Something doesn’t turn on
1. Ensure proper voltage is reaching the control (see previous examples).
2. Identify the device that should be running and ensure the control is calling for it to operate. (Most units with a topside have an indicator that lights when the device is selected.) Also, see that no errors are being reported (errors will have to be cleared for most devices to operate).
3. Go to the device and measure for voltage reaching the device.
4. If the voltage is good, then the device is suspect.
5. If the voltage is bad, go to the control and measure for voltage on the wires leading to the control receptacle. (Especially with solid-state controls, you should not attempt to read voltage by disconnecting the load wiring. Many manufacturers now use snubbing circuits that will give a false reading if not connected to a load device.)
6. If the voltage is good at the control receptacle connections, then the receptacle wiring or cable is suspect.
7. If the voltage is bad, the control needs to be serviced by a qualified repair facility.
Problem 3: Something doesn’t turn off
1. Ensure proper voltage is reaching the control (see previous examples).
2. Ensure that the control is properly set for the desired operation and that there are no errors reported. (Some errors such as “Freeze” can hold on certain load devices until the situation is resolved.)
3. If the control is properly set and there are no errors, the issue is inside the control. It is impossible for load devices or connections to fail “on.” The control may have to be evaluated by a qualified repair facility.
Willie Wise is the former technical director at Spa Parts Plus in Prescott Valley, Ariz.