Reluctant to add hot tub repairs to your menu of services? Here's a primer to help demystify these vessels and troubleshoot them safely and correctly. Even though swimming pools and hot tubs have become inexorably linked over the past two decades, many service technicians – and firms – remain reluctant to work on hot tubs.
The reasons are many. For example, hot tubs are equipped with various types of control boards (with everything from digital technology to air switches) that can be somewhat complex. Also, hot water chemistry differs from what some techs may be used to when working with conventional pools. Most off-putting is the idea of working so closely with electricity and water.
The reluctance of service companies to tackle hot tub jobs is a shame for two reasons: It cuts techs out of a good source of income, and it leaves hot tub owners frustrated. They may even start to wonder if they were wise to invest in a product no one seems to want to work on.
But with just a few troubleshooting techniques, techs can easily add hot tubs to their roster of services. Here, in the first of a two-part series on working with hot tubs, are some basic trouble-shooting procedures you can perform with an eye toward electrical safety.
The key to good hot tub troubleshooting, experts say, is asking your customer the right questions. Often the problem can be solved over the phone, and you won't even have to leave the office. "What is the customer really complaining about? They can't just call up and say, 'My spa doesn't work' because you can't troubleshoot that," says Mike Peacock, owner of CES Services, a spa repair firm in Atlanta.
The initial call is when your instincts and sleuthing abilities need to kick in. Ask specific questions to see if you can narrow down the possible causes of the trouble:
What exactly has happened to the hot tub?
When did the customer first discover the problem?
Has the function in question ever worked correctly?
Delve into the minutiae. If customers cite a problem with the water temperature, ask them if it's too hot or not hot enough. Or, maybe it doesn't get hot fast enough. Was the water hotter last month? Exactly how hot has the water been getting? Does the heater run constantly or just intermittently?
In other words, become a hot tub detective. Answers to such questions can help you figure out if the problem is within the spa's equipment pack, or if the culprit is an electrical problem.
When it comes to on-site hot tub repair, safety is a primary issue because you're dealing with electricity and water. While this is also true of pools, they are nearly always designed, built and hooked up by licensed professionals. However, with the proliferation of portable hot tubs, just about anyone can hook one up, often with dubious results. "You hear it all the time," says Eddie Secard, owner of Secard Pool & Spa in West Covina, Calif. "'Oh, my friend, Joe, will hook it up for me.' But their friend, Joe, isn't even an electrician."
Spa techs say that consumers are aware of the complexity of their hot tubs, with their motorized jets and programmable controls, but they don't seem to grasp the danger of a faulty installation.
"I call it the 'refrigerator mentality,'" says Mike Charles, owner of Maximum Comfort Pool & Spa, a retail, construction and service company in Vail, Colo. "What do you do with a refrigerator after you buy it and take it home? Nothing. You just put your beer in and take it out. But spas are one [thing] you shouldn't mess around with."
Consequently, once you arrive at the job site, begin by cutting power to the hot tub. Locate the main electrical panel and switch off the circuit breakers feeding the spa equipment, or remove the fuses. Then use a voltmeter or multimeter to confirm that the lines are dead.
"All our techs carry multimeters," says Charles. "You have to shut the breakers off, but I say don't trust any of that. Put a meter on it and make sure."
With the power safely off, begin a visual inspection of the spa and its installation. Open the equipment doors and observe. This should only take three or four minutes, but it is probably the most important part of the service call. "It's funny how often you can find the problem at this stage," says Peacock. "Maybe there's water dripping from a bulkhead fitting on the heater. Obviously, then there is something wrong. With a visual inspection, you can see that sort of thing and add the information to your analysis."
"First, look at the overall condition of the product," says Charles. "That is No. 1. Just stand there and look at it. Is it all there? Is everything intact? Has someone been tampering with it? Maybe there's a burnt wire or some other type of degradation." Next, take a closer look at the spa pack itself. (There's still no need to actually touch anything yet.) While doing this, keep your customer's complaint in mind. If it was about a lack of bubbles, look at the blower. Is it corroded? Has a pipe busted? Closely inspect the spa pack's heater, pump and control panel.
If you finish the visual inspection with no definite conclusion as to the cause of the spa's malady, investigate the possibility that it could be an electrical problem. To do this, you'll need to turn the electricity to the hot tub back on.
Once the juice is back on, check the GFCIs for proper operation. These can be found at the house control panel or on the spa itself. Simply press the test button to see if it's functioning.
If you are dealing with an older spa installation that is lacking a GFCI, be sure to advise your customers of current code requirements and the benefits of having such a device on their hot tub.
GFCIs are readily available at hardware stores. You might offer to install one for them, or recommend a local electrician to do the job.
Once the spa's components have been eliminated as the cause of the problem and you've confirmed the GFCIs are functioning, check to see if power is actually coming into the home and arriving at spa components at the proper voltage level. "It's a simple philosophy that I use," says Jim Kerr, owner of Kerr Electric Services, a Windsor, Calif.-based company specializing in spa repairs. "I use the analogy of a pyramid. At the top is the source of the electricity. You start there and work your way down. But first, I make sure I have power."
Sometimes the power makes its way to the spa components, but something has happened – such as a partial short circuit somewhere in the wiring – to diminish it.
"It's the first thing I do: Make sure it has proper voltage," says Peacock. "If you are not getting the voltage you require, there are going to be problems everywhere."
In fact, a decreased voltage level coming into the system can damage the equipment. "Voltage comes in at a specific rating," says Charles. "If it fluctuates and the voltage is lower than what is required by a component, it can damage the pump motor."
To check for correct voltage, hook a voltmeter up to the input terminal block of the component in question. This reading will tell you if power is reaching the unit. Now go back to the house's main control panel and read the voltage there with the hot tub equipment running. This will give you a number to compare against your first reading. The component reading should be only slightly lower than the one at the house.
"Voltage drops come about because wire has resistance, and every connection has resistance," says Kerr. "The longer the wire and the more the connections, the greater the resistance will be. The voltage drop should never exceed 5 percent for any wiring run. If it does, you've got a problem. Three percent is ideal."
Several things can cause voltage drops: defective breakers, loose fuses, a burned wire at the terminal, an underground wire sliced by a shovel or another application sharing the same line as the spa.
"The spa should definitely have a dedicated line," says Peacock. "If something else is on the line at the same time, such as an air conditioner, it will cause voltage drop."
To test for a dedicated line, switch off the hot tub's breaker and see which other appliances turn off as well. Of course, if it's an air conditioner that shares a line, you're likely not to notice until summertime.
"It's not always easy [checking for a dedicated line]," says Peacock. "Wiring to other appliances is frequently inside the walls of the house and not visible. Examine the wires connecting the circuit breakers to the spa equipment. That could reveal the problem."
Any other causes of voltage drop – such as burned wires or a defective breaker panel – will likely have been discovered during your visual inspection of the spa pack.
The value of asking your spa service customers the right questions should be clear by now. Using that information, you'll be able to determine if the problem is with a specific component, or is simply due to inadequate power reaching the unit. If the component is to blame, you must diagnose it and decide if it needs to be repaired or replaced.
Keep in mind that most major spa and spa-component manufacturers have technical support services readily available by telephone. These experts can help talk you through a problem and get it diagnosed and repaired.
[This article is a reprint from Pool & Spa News, January 2002.]