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Although portable spas dominate the residential hot water market, concrete leads the way in commercial settings, where building codes and sizing needs give custom concrete hot tubs the advantage. There's a Canadian manufacturer, however, that's trying to change that perception a little.
HydroTher, an acrylic hot tub manufacturer based in Mississauga, Ont., is making inroads into the commercial market by offering a line designed for high-use and commercial code compliance. According to manager Ross Middleton, the company sees a solid niche for its acrylic spas in the commercial market.
"We're not targeting the companies that specialize in large concrete commercial projects," he explains. "We're looking for the companies that are doing mostly residential, but always has a motel or condominium development in their area where they can step into the commercial side of the market. Our hot tubs make going in that direction easier for those companies."
While HyrdoTher's hot tubs are suitable for both new installations and replacement, in many of these smaller commercial properties, he explains, there may be an aging concrete spa with failing plumbing or a cracked structure that would be prohibitively expensive to repair or replace with another concrete vessel.
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"HydroTher is great as a replacement product," Middleton says. "If you have to go in and dig up lines and replace those lines, it's expensive and it's a lot of work. So many of those companies might shy away from it. With an acrylic hot tub, you can often put it inside of that concrete shell, run some lines and away you go. We're working to reach the smaller contractors that might not be comfortable building a large concrete hot tub from new, so this is a replacement product that can help open that market."
"It definitely opens up the market," says Stan Goodreau, president of Colorado Custom Spas. "Our business is primarily residential, but this enables us to work with condominiums, hotels and gymnasiums. There are customers who might not have the space or the budget for a large concrete spa, so we're able to offer an alternative."
One of the chief advantages of going acrylic is the reduced weight. "We would come into play if you want it up on a patio or on the 25th floor of a building or on a raised deck," Middleton says. "If you're doing a remodel, for example, the acrylic spa is easy to crane into place."
Ease of installation is another factor that prompts some commercial contractors to go the acrylic route. According to Florent Leger, technical director for Aquatechno Spécialistes Aquatiques in Montreal, building concrete hot tubs can be a challenge even for the most accomplished contractors.
"With concrete you have the forms, structural steel, and you have to work in small spaces. All of that can be difficult and expensive," he says. "These spas come ready to drop into the ground. It's pre-plumbed and very easy to install. You can have it full of water and running very quickly by comparison and there are fewer potential problems later on."
Ease of maintenance of an acrylic hot tub is a significant factor for commercial owners and managers. "Whether the surface is paint or plaster or exposed aggregate, water chemistry is going to impact the performance of the surface," Leger says.
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"Acrylic is much more resistant. We have had very few issues with these spas. In fact, the only thing we've had to do is repaint the black lines, which can fade over time. That's obviously an extremely minor issue."
In addition, the flexibility of acrylic shells can offer greater resistance to damage from shifting soil conditions. "All concrete is going to expand and contract, and it's going to crack at some point. When you have a leak it can be a major project to repair because the lines are set in concrete," Goodreau says. "With HydroTher, the plumbing is accessible and can be easily fixed in a very short time.
"Humans are creatures of habit, and when using the spa is a part of their lives, it becomes urgent," Goodreau adds. "With concrete spas, major repairs can take weeks. With the acrylic spas, we can finish the repair in a few days or less."
Another upside is the greater comfort that pre-manufactured acrylic hot tubs offer. As Middleton points out, seating in concrete commercial hot tubs comprises benches set at 90-degree angles. By contrast, molded acrylic spas are made with far-more-comfortable contours.
"It's very difficult to create contoured seating in concrete," Leger says. "You can have the best finisher in the world and it's never going to be perfectly even. Molded hot tubs eliminate that issue because they're delivered perfect every time."
And there is the reduced cost of the finished product. Middleton is reluctant to offer specifics, as there are so many variables that could impact cost comparisons, but he does say it's not unusual for HydroTher's hot tubs to be roughly half the cost of concrete vessels of the same size.
When it comes to the number of jets, Middleton moderates expectations that may come from residential pre-manufactured hot tubs. "In residential hot tubs, you can have as many jets as you want or can afford," he says. "In commercial work, there are code requirements for turnover and flow rate, so we're limited to the number of jets. On our biggest tub we have 13 jets and on our smallest tub we have five."
Where concrete holds an advantage over acrylic is in its size and design flexibility. Not only can concrete spas be as big as needed — sometimes rivaling the size of small swimming pools — they can be any shape, whereas acrylic spas will always be constrained by the molds used to manufacture them. "Our smallest model holds five to six people, our largest is 12 to 13."
There are key differences between HydroTher's line of hot tubs and those made strictly for residential use. As mentioned above, commercial vessels must comply with a variety of building and health codes that can vary significantly from place to place. "We've designed and engineered our hot tubs to conform with just about all codes and standards in North America," Middleton says.
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The company's shells are made with acrylic that's different that you find in most residential units. "We use a thicker acrylic that's more durable than most residential hot tubs because commercial hot tubs can be subject to more abuse."
In terms of hydraulics and circulation, the equipment is sold as a standalone equipment pack with upsized filters, pumps and plumbing balanced to provide required turnover and flow rates. "Safety is always a big concern," Goodreau says. "HydroTher's spas are engineered and made with all the correct flow rates and balanced suction lines. That's another big advantage because they take that issue out of the equation."
Knowing that high-use commercial hot tubs can also face high levels of dirt and debris, the systems are designed with bottom suction grates and wide-mouth skimmers that work to eliminate surface debris and dirt settling on the floor. Middleton says all HydroTher hot tubs are 100-percent VGB compliant and come with multiple safety suction inlets.
For all of these reasons and more, Middleton says, "We believe there's a place for these hot tubs in the commercial market and with dealers who might shy away from commercial work otherwise."
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