Although often taken for granted, hot tub covers are in many ways indispensable — so much so, in fact, that it’s rare to find an outdoor hot tub that doesn’t have one.

Covers are essential for heat retention, cleanliness, safety, security and overall enjoyment. Because they are so integral to the operation and service life of hot tubs, taking proper care of covers is crucial.

When properly maintained, covers can provide years of durable service. Yet for all of their tremendous value and utility, many covers don’t last as long as they should because of lapses in common sense and forces of nature.

THE HUMAN FACTOR

According to hot tub maintenance experts, covers face a surprising set of threats to their longevity. Although routine care and maintenance is fairly simple, once a cover becomes damaged, it’s only a matter of time until it will need to be replaced.

“The No. 1 cause of damage to hot tub covers and lifts is humans. It’s us, we do it,” says Dan Stebner, president of Sun Peaks Aquatics in Sun Peaks, B.C. “Of course, there are environmental factors that can ruin a cover, but in my 22 years of experience, the biggest threat to the life of a cover is misuse and abuse.”

Sometimes, he explains, the damage can be the result of something as simple as repeatedly yanking too hard on the handles when opening the cover, especially when it’s covered with snow. Other misguided hot tub owners step and sit on the cover (an especially common habit when hot tub guests take a photo together).

“However it happens,” he says, “once you penetrate that marine-grade vinyl or break the foam, that’s the beginning of the cover’s death rattle. At that point, it won’t be long before they’ll need to replace the cover, which is expensive. That’s why it’s important the hot tub owners understand how to remove the cover — or how not to remove the cover — and they need to know that you need to clear the snow and ice from the cover before you lift it. That all sounds simple enough, but many users are either lazy or they just don’t think about it.”

In a completely different way, even well-meaning hot tub owners can inadvertently cause damage simply by using the wrong products on their covers. “It’s very common for people to use a petroleum-based product like Armor All on their lids to make it look shiny,” Stebner says. “They don’t realize that it will actually work to break down the vinyl.”

And, perhaps the most critical human error of all is the decision to purchase an inexpensive cover in the first place. “You never save money in the long run buying a cheap hot tub cover,” Stebner says. “We see this all the time: Someone will buy an expensive lid with an inch and a half of foam and then install it in a place where it can’t handle the snow load. Or it might be a product with a low-grade vinyl that doesn’t stand up to the elements. You have to choose the right cover for your situation, and that’s almost never going to be the least-expensive option.” 

ELEMENTAL WEAR

After human missteps, exposure to sun, snow and wind are common causes of cover failures.

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“We’re located at a high elevation here in the Aspen area and UV is a major problem for hot tub covers,” says Juliet Phelps, co-owner of Ajax Pool & Spa in Aspen, Colo. “The more UV rays, the more you have to use a cover-care product with UV protection. We recommend cover clean-and-care service every four months, six at the most. It’s not that hard to do; you just clean the cover and generously sponge-mop the product on it and let it dry. If you don’t do that, even the best-quality vinyl will break down quickly because of the UV.”

As is true of human misuse, environmental hazards come in many different forms. High winds, for example, can wreak havoc on hot tub covers, especially those that are not properly secured with safety straps or other locking mechanisms. “Up here on the ski slopes, a high wind can lift up a cover and make it fly off the side of the mountain like a kite,” Phelps says. “We’ve had clients with vacation homes show up and wonder why we removed their cover because it’s nowhere in sight. And let’s face it, a flying hot tub cover can cause a lot of damage and can be pretty darn dangerous.”

And if the hot tub is in a wooded area prone to high winds, it’s especially hazardous, according to Stebner. “Falling tree branches in heavy winds can not only destroy the cover — they can destroy the entire hot tub,” he says. “It’s happened only a few times in my experience, but I’ve seen hot tubs that look like giant smashed tea cups because they’ve been crushed by a falling limb.”

Another far less dramatic but more common issue with overhanging trees is the sap, cones and other debris that lands on cover. “That’s a major issue,” Stebner says. “Once that material sets on the cover, it can be difficult to clean and it can deteriorate the vinyl and again, once the vinyl is damaged, you’ve significantly reduced the life of the cover.”

Because ice and snow often contribute to cover damage, along with aforementioned falling debris and UV light, Stebner strongly advocates locating hot tubs beneath a gazebo, patio cover, roof overhang or other sheltering structure. “It’s really just common sense,” he says. “Where you locate the hot tub can have everything to do with the life of the cover. If it’s exposed beneath large trees, you’re going to have issues with debris just like you would if you located a pool underneath flowering foliage. Some type of overhead structure will prevent snow accumulation, provide shade from UV and debris won’t fall on it. If you have a hot tub out in the wide open, there are different ways that’s going to reduce its lifespan.”

CREATURE DISCOMFORTS

Although not a major issue in densely populated areas, members of the animal kingdom do on occasion visit hot tubs located in more-natural settings.

“Bears are a major issue in our area,” Phelps says. “I know it sounds strange, but it turns out that bears are attracted to the smell of vinyl because it’s similar to the scent of ant eggs, which they love. And based on what I’ve read, they can pick up the scent from a mile away. Also, they like to chew on covers because of the way it feels on their teeth. They come onto the property, rip the cover off and then you have a ‘soaker.’”

According to Phelps, not only do bears enjoy having their way with vinyl, they also like to stea covers to use in their hibernation dens. “We’ve seen that especially on properties by streams and rivers where bears like to make their nests. They will remove the cover and drag it all the way down to hill to their den where they’ll sleep on it all winter.”

The only solution, she says, is to turn to covers that are made with materials other than vinyl. But bears aren’t the only creatures that “poach” hot tubs.

“We also have an issue with Goldilocks,” Phelps says. “It’s very common in this area where there a lot of vacation homes for people to come on to our clients’ properties and use their hot tubs while they’re not there.” And, as she points out, trespassing hot tub users are not the most conscientious bathers, often leaving behind nasty evidence. “I’ll leave that to your imagination,” she says. “It’s amazing what some people think they can get away with when no one is around. That’s why it’s important to have a secure locking mechanism on your cover.”

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On a completely different scale, rodents will also invade hot tubs, especially with covers that are not properly fitted. “If you put a cover on a deck and the skirt is too long and it kind of ruffles or bunches up, mice can get under there, and that’s not a good thing either. So when you have a spa at deck level, you have to measure the cover so that it’s a tight fit around the edges.”

LOCKING DOWN

Adequately locking a cover is a key step for maintenance and longevity. But it’s also important for another very big reason.

“Safety is a huge concern, just like it is with pools,” Stebner says. “No one ever wants a child to be injured in their hot tub, or worse. The problem is that while pool safety is a subject we hear about all the time, with all sorts of products devoted to preventing accidents, that’s not true of the hot tub market. So many of the straps on covers are just made of fabric, which can be easily ripped away.”

“I found a new product that we’re using now that’s a lock-and-key system,” Phelps says. “We used to use I-bolts and cords with padlocks, which looked cheap. The product we’re using now is reinforced with steel straps and looks great. When you sell a bunch of them, you can get a master key so you can get into all of them for service when the customers aren’t there. Hot tub covers should be sold with safety straps and locks for safety, security and peace of mind.” 

Eric Herman is Senior Editor of AQUA Magazine.