Materials, savvy installation improve the experience
By Julie Knudson
In-ground spas built in conjunction with a swimming pool are beautiful. They share materials and aesthetics with the pool, and they can integrate with the rest of the environment. But there are downfalls: In-ground spas, with their typically straight walls and sometimes rough seating surfaces, may not be very comfortable, and the jets often provide less hydrotherapy than expected. For customers who want a consistent look across their pool and spa, builders can give them better comfort and hydrotherapy benefits without sacrificing aesthetics.
Concrete spas bring unique challenges, concerns
Customers see clear benefits from in-ground concrete spas. “We always hear that they look great,” says Jake Ricks, senior marketing manager at Bullfrog Spas in Bluffdale, Utah. “They’re able to style them exactly the way they’d like and they can pick out whatever colors and finishes they want on them.” Of primary concern, however, is that in-ground spas are lacking when it comes to comfort. “Essentially, most custom in-grounds are built with seats at 90-degree angles,” Ricks says. “They don’t have a lot of the comfort customers might get from a portable spa or something that’s more molded and shaped.”
A lack of therapy benefits also creates issues. Customers want to replicate the setup of a portable spa, leading to requests for more jets than the equipment can handle. “You have to look at the hydraulics,” warns Chris Harpham, manager at Sunbelt Hot Tubs in Houston, Texas. In addition to portable spas, Sunbelt manufactures acrylic shells designed to be installed in-ground. “Which pumps you’re using? How far is the spa from the equipment? There are several factors that go into figuring out what it’s going to take to get enough water to those jets.” The problem is compounded when a customer has a pump they want to use but it isn’t designed to support the high head pressure that’s required. “It’s just not going to work right unless you have the right pumps,” Harpham explains.
Find solutions that keep customers happy today and tomorrow
To get around the challenges that come along with concrete in-ground spas, installers need to be ready to steer people towards the right equipment for the job. “You tell me which system you’re using and I can look at their pump curves and tell you which pumps they make that are acceptable for what you’re going to need,” Harpham says. Gravity feed–style pumps, for example, typically don’t work properly with an in-ground installation. “Use pumps that are designed to pull vertically,” Harpham explains. This approach helps ensure customers get the best hydrotherapy benefits possible from their new in-ground spa.
Another solution addresses concerns about both comfort and hydrotherapy benefits, and that’s to install a portable spa in the ground. Bullfrog Spas offers the SpaVault, which is designed to fit the company’s spas specifically and keeps prices more consumer friendly. “It’s still a construction project, but it simplifies the installation of a portable spa below ground,” Ricks explains. The SpaVault offers aesthetics that closely match a concrete spa’s, with good sightlines in the yard and clean integration into the landscape. Customers can also reap the therapy benefits of a portable spa, with increased comfort and more jets. Once a customer experiences a SpaVault, Ricks says, “They would never have a spa any other way after they do one this way.”
Still another solution is acrylic shells constructed specifically for an in-ground application, like what Sunbelt offers. Another manufacturer, Sedona Spas, started offering an in-ground building process for acrylic spas over 12 years ago, successfully side-stepping the landscaping problem acrylic spas create. “We build a seat wall and set the spa in it — we excavate, pour footings and then build it out of cinder blocks,” says owner Ross Herman. “On one side its left open and we put in an equipment module so we can access everything above ground.”
The development of the Sedona in-ground acrylic spa started when Herman was living on a golf course and didn’t like the idea of the eyesore a portable spa would create if he put one in his backyard. Looking back at his previous experience managing a custom deck company, he recalled that they used to sink the spas halfway into the decking and saw no reason why that couldn’t be done in the ground, too. Herman immediately sought out a patent (U.S. Patent No. 6,381,768), anticipating that his idea would inspire copies.
“We basically retain all of the advantages, energy efficiency and performance of portable spas, but with an in-ground application,” Herman says. He thinks of concrete spas as more of a water feature. “They have minimal jets, aren’t as comfortable as the mold in an acrylic shell, the equipment is remote with reduced efficiency, they’re more expensive to build and more expensive to operate.” Utilizing the benefits of an acrylic spa, Sedona’s offering marries the best of both worlds, comfort and visual appeal, for less overall cost. “We can finish it in a million different ways that match any background design. It’s no longer an eyesore sitting above the ground.”
Sedona builds the spas in Phoenix and then sells them to pool builders or directly to the homeowner, with specifications provided to the hired contractor for construction. While Sedona’s market is primarily in Arizona, sales have occurred out of state on many occasions, including as far away as Maine. Because of its connection to local pool builders and contractors, Sedona has in-ground acrylic spa models in display homes and pool builder shows, in addition to the Sedona factory and showroom.
Harpham says installers need to be mindful of some issues on in-ground projects. Controls should be designed and built to suit an in-ground application. The selection of electric or gas heaters, rather than being a simple matter of choice, must be made based on the availability of utilities where the in-ground will be placed. “Plumbing features into the very bottom of the spa, such as a foot dome, is also probably a bad idea because you don’t want any vertical-type plumbing down there,” Harpham explains. Access becomes nearly impossible once everything is buried in the ground, with masonry sand packing it all in tight. “It’s not terribly serviceable,” Harpham says. “You want to be realistic when it comes to that, too.”