This story on low-cost spa pad alternatives begins by way of a personal account:

My brother Gary bought a hot tub last month. I drove down to his place and accompanied him in the venture, because I’m from the industry and know something about spas, and because these apparently legitimate endeavors are easy to justify to our spouses while providing a good opportunity to hang out and drink beer.

He’s been considering the purchase for years, but the outlay is pushing his financial envelope. He’s retired, middle class, and this investment will eat up the lion’s share of his disposable income for the year. But he and his wife Ella love hot water.

At AQUA, we often talk about the high end of the market, but this story is mostly about serving the customer who has just enough to afford the basics.

When it comes to money, my brother’s as tight fisted as Rocky Balboa in a street brawl. He’ll squeeze a dollar until that eagle starts to screech before he lets it go. He’s looking to save money any way he can.

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At a glance, Costco seemed to him like the best value, so we made the journey to the giant box. But somewhere during our spa discussion there, the lonely reality of a Costco purchase began to gave him the chills. He doesn’t know much about hot tubs, and the idea of having one dumped in his driveway, the driver disappearing in a cloud of dust and leaving him standing alone, packing slip fluttering in the breeze, was too much. He needed the reassurance of a dealer.

So we went to Angie’s Pool & Spa, a small retailer not far from his house. They carry Strong Spas and Saratoga Spas, and, after some back and forth and some thinking, we began to zero in on a $5,300 Strong Spa for four with some nice lights and a lounger. It was then, for the first time, that someone mentioned a “spa pad” and how much it would likely cost.

Suddenly, the whole project came under threat. The $5,300 for the spa was already a bit of a reach. A poured concrete slab was going to push the total bill well above what he ever imagined shelling out. For him, getting something solid under that spa for a few hundred bucks became essential to the purchase.

So we started looking at alternatives.

STURDY

There are several synthetic, off-the-shelf products available to help customers like my brother in this situation and, by extension, help dealers close a sale. Or, where the customer’s budget has an absolute limit, shift some of that budget from the spa pad to the spa.

The main consideration (besides cost) is structural integrity and durability. Anything placed under a hot tub will have to support some serious weight. A filled, 400-gallon spa weighs up to two tons, and the load is uneven because of the spa’s changing depth due to loungers, foot wells, etc. However, the overall downward force is distributed over a relatively large area, so the spa pad psi for this example case — a 400 gallon, 7-by-7-foot spa — is less than 1 pound per square inch overall, which is less than the pressure exerted underfoot by an average human being.

In truth, the compression strength of a concrete spa pad is engineering overkill. The cause of concrete pad failure is most often flaws in its construction and maintenance.

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Most of the synthetic spa pads on the market come as a package of panels to be assembled onsite. They can be loaded into the customer’s trunk or pickup bed at the end of the spa transaction for a fraction of the cost of a poured concrete pad. A short internet search found prices in the $400 - $500 range for an average-size pad, three examples of which are listed below for context.

One option is the SmartDeck from Leisure Concepts, which consists of a set of interlocking panels that can be placed on grass, gravel, dirt or existing wood or stone.

Confer Plastics makes the Handi-Spa pad, a set of panels each measuring 32 inches by 48 inches, and 2-inches thick. Creating an 8-foot square pad requires six Handi-Spa pads.

And Iowat makes the HandiGrid, which, as the name implies, is a grid that acts as a form for gravel to support the spa. It holds the gravel secure as water drains through, producing a strong, flexible pad.

THE VALUE PROPOSITION

Synthetic pads only make sense for a certain clientele. For example, in an upscale market like Vail, Colo., or Bellevue, Wash., one finds very few customers looking to put plastic under a spa. One dealer we talked to has seen little opportunity to sell this product because her clients simply have a more developed backyard space.

Renee Huston, co-owner of Patio Pleasures, Sun Prairie, Wisc., sells hot tubs in a growing suburban area with an average home sales price of $260,000. As a backyard specialty retailer in this environment, the spa pad conversation begins earlier in the process.

“It’s one of the first questions we ask,” she says, “‘Tell me about your space.’ From that point we know what kind of setup they have. I would say that 90 percent of our customers here already have a concrete pad, and the other 10 percent have already done some research and have a clear idea of what direction they want to take.

“Most of them have enough personal experience to understand what they will need; they’ve talked to enough people and seen enough installations, or they’ve done a lot of research online. So if they want a concrete slab we refer them to local companies that do them. Once in a while somebody will buy the plastic ones that come in sections and you fit them together, but we don’t see a lot of those.”

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In the right market, however, synthetic spa pads make a lot of sense for dealers, says Jon Charron of the Iowat Group, Ottawa, Canada. For customers with a firm limit on their budget, if they spend less on the pad, they’ll have more for the spa. And, if the store can retail the synthetic pad, there’s a small added profit there, too.

“So far, from the dealers we’ve talked to, they’re closing more deals by offering this product because there’s a low cost advantage,” Charron says. “People can do their own spa pad and save money.

“Without that alternative, with the hot tub getting ready to sell, the customer says, ‘OK, does that price include a hot tub pad?’ and the dealer has to say, ‘No, that’s another $1,500.’ (Here in Ottawa, that $1,500 is a minimum. It varies from place to place and depending on the type of surface they want.) So now you’re increasing the customer’s hot tub price by at least $1,500.

“So we’re giving the customer the option to do something themselves without the need for concrete.”

P.S. Gary went with sand under pavers in the end. Two weekends of digging, driving and hauling, but it was the cheapest of them all. That’s my brother.

A Better Place For Plastic Shopping Bags

Discarded plastic shopping bags are a blight on the urban landscape. Plastic bags dumped at sea are a menace to fish and nature lovers alike. Even the ones that make it to the local landfill resist the normal process of breakdown and decay. So Iowat’s engineering feat of making its synthetic pad grids out of recycled plastic shopping bags is a significant accomplishment.

And like green efforts throughout the industry, it’s both good for the planet and good for business, says Charron. While concern for the environment is universal, he says, young people are particularly interested in making a green choice in a purchase. “They like to buy for a cause — to support something they believe in.”

Charron also believes millennials want to put their own stamp on their living space, which attracts them to Iowat’s HandiGrids, which allow some flexibility and creativity for an inexpensive spa pad.

“Customers have an unlimited variety of surfaces that they can infill the grids with or put on top. We’ve seen clients use permeable patio pavers over the grids.

We’ve seen people grow grass through the grids so it looks like the hot tub is just sitting on grass, but it’s actually sitting on a reinforced gravel bed,” he says.

The systems are permeable so rain and water drain through, which solves a common problem with concrete pads. Channeling runoff properly is always an issue, but, in some cases, rainwater running off the edge of a concrete pad and into the soil or the compacted base can erode and undermine the base over time.

 

Scott Webb is Executive Editor of AQUA Magazine.