Hot tub or swim spa, what is the difference?

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Since 1990, HydroTher Hot Tubs have been the #1 choice of architects, consultants, designers and facility operators for commercial aquatic applications.

By Melinda Herber

An increasing number of manufacturers now have a swim spa line.

Retailers that have had customers ask to test a swim spa but cannot oblige because they do not carry them could be missing an emerging wave of new buyers. Although swim spas are not new to the hot tub industry, an increasing number of manufacturers now have a swim spa line. The reason for this is because these units serve the niche fitness market—one for which most consumers did not know they were looking for until seeing them in action.

Unfortunately, most retailers think the same and may not even show these products or give them a second thought. In fact, many have never considered a swim spa to be part of the hot tub market and, as a result, believe they take up too much space to display in the showroom. These retailers should reconsider. After all, today’s swim spas offer both fitness and relaxation, with many having built-in therapeutic seats.

Retailers can determine whether a hot tub or swim spa best suits their client by asking “who,” “what,” and “where” questions. The answers will also help customers realize for themselves what it is they are looking for. Many retailers will agree; however, if the product is not on the show floor it likely will not sell. Therefore, the way retailers show these products vary. In fact, a significant number display them outside the store so customers can see the swim spa in action without taking up too much space in the showroom.

Smaller footprint means choosing carefully

Retailers can determine whether a hot tub or swim spa best suits their client by asking “who,” “what,” and “where” questions.

Anyone who has purchased a newer home has seen the transition to smaller housing footprints now being employed by developers. According to TheRedPin, a brokerage-meets-online housing database, the average lot size in the Greater Toronto Area in 2015 was 418 m2 (4498 sf). As a result, backyards are becoming smaller as housing developers strive to put more homes on any given property area to increase their selling capacity. Similar trends have been recorded south of the border as well. The U.S. Census Bureau’s Survey of Construction (SOC) reported the median lot of a new single-family detached home sold in 2015 has decreased to less than 800 m2 (8600 sf), the lowest since these statistics were first tracked. To put this in perspective, envision a football field with roughly 5.6 homes on it.

Therefore, to ensure the consumer gets what they want when they are looking for a swim spa or hot tub, the retailer needs to know what they are thinking.

For customers who want it all (e.g. large capacity, therapy value, and swimming ability) a pool might not be feasible based on their location and/or budget. That said, a swim spa could be the answer to these dilemmas.

A customer who has their heart set on a pool and spa combination, a swim spa is perhaps the right choice. Direct those who are simply looking for hydrotherapy benefits towards a hot tub. The customer can convey this to the retailer by first identifying the “who.”

Who is the real decision-maker?

If the customer really wants to be submerged in water and plans to use it for exercise, chances are they are looking for a swim spa.

Today, there are plenty of budding athletes, wannabe weekend warriors, and an aging population looking for aquatic therapy and/or fitness because it is kind to aching joints. The importance of knowing “who” will use the hot tub or swim spa is key to finding the right fit.

Hot tubs and swim spas are not a one-size-fits-all category; they each have a specific customer. Hot tubs are used for soaking, massage, and relaxing, while swim spas are used for exercise, training, and recovery. Despite the similarities between the two products, they have a separate set of traits—one for athletes and one for pleasure-seekers. Swim spas not only offer lots of room for exercise, but also have captain or trainer seats at one end for individual and targeted therapy. By taking all of this into consideration, a retailer can identify what unit will benefit the customer the most and which to sell them.


What is the big deal?

Learning “what” the customer will use the swim spa or hot tub for will help retailers better understand the customer’s needs. For instance, is it for therapy or active fitness, rehabilitation, sports training, or just the occasional soak?

First off, if the customer really wants to be submerged in water and plans to use it for exercise, chances are they are looking for a swim spa, not a hot tub. With many manufacturers building exercise equipment into the vessel, from rowing kits to belts and tethers that keep the bather in the swim lane, the fitness aspect of the swim spa is a great choice. Today, most swim spas have stainless steel equipment that is resistant to rust and allows bathers to swim with, or against, the water flow.

Some manufacturers even have an expert spokesperson, such as an Ironman® champion or professional swimmer, who provide input into the swim spa’s design and even provide rigorous exercise routines which take users—from novice to serious athletes—through a variety of training elements to add to their daily routine.

Hot tub users are interested in the therapeutic benefits of soaking in hot water to relieve achy joints and sore muscles. They are available in many shapes and sizes and include a number of different therapy seats and treatments.

Today’s hot tub designs offer deep-tissue and shiatsu-like massages, with some high-end products integrating beauty treatments or built-in aromatherapy dispensers. Additional features include ozonators, stereos, and built-in chemical systems. Once it is determined what the vessel will be used for, retailers will get a better idea of what the customer really wants.

It is all about location

Hot tubs are used for soaking, massage, and relaxing.

Knowing where to put the hot tub or swim spa can be another factor in the customer’s purchase decision. More often than not, it is going outside; therefore, the following should be considered:

The customer should consider all of these factors before they decide where to put the unit. In fact, the location the customer has in mind may actually dictate the size of the hot tub/swim spa that can be installed.

A retailer will need to investigate the site before delivery to determine accessibility. In some cases, a crane is used in the delivery process of a swim spa. Deliveries that are more complicated may result in the need to shut down the road and acquire a permit from the city or township. In any case, retailers should be sure to use a reputable, insured crane company, as lifting a 1362-kg (3000-lbs) unit over a two-storey house is a nail-biting experience for the consumer and it should never be taken lightly.


On the other hand, a smaller crew can move hot tubs, as these units are typically put on their side and rolled into the backyard with little to no hassle. Some hot tubs are small enough to put on an existing concrete pad that has electrical connections nearby, as some are equipped with a 120-v plug-in for ease of installation. Size does matter when it comes to delivery, but again, a retailer wants to be sure the customer gets a unit that suits their lifestyle, not something that is easier to deliver. Swim spas provide a better profit margin despite being more costly to deliver.

When does the customer need it?

Swim spas can be used for exercise, training, and rehabilitation.

Retailers should plan every step of the delivery to avoid any last minute hassles; therefore, it should be confirmed at the time of sale when the customer needs their swim spa or hot tub installed and consider what the lead time is for other services. For example, most manufacturers require the installation of a 152-mm (6-in.) cement pad, not the typical 102-mm (4-in.) pad, which creates additional cure time and complexity. Swim spas are often placed into a vault or sunken into a newly built deck. Depending on the installation type and the retailer’s capabilities, some may find himself/herself at the mercy of a general contractor, crane operator, or deck builder. In this case, the timeline is based on the subcontractor and not the retailer.

Some manufacturers have longer lead times for swim spas versus hot tubs. This could increase the time it takes to have it delivered and filled with water for the customer. It is a good idea for retailers to start planning early for summer home shows, as there might be an extended lead time, and this way the product will be on hand for those customers expecting immediate delivery.

Meeting customer expectations

Addressing customer expectations is extremely important, after all a 5.2- to 5.8-m (17- to 19-ft) vessel will require additional accessories such as steps to access the cover.

Addressing customer expectations is extremely important, after all a 5.2- to 5.8-m (17- to 19-ft) vessel will require additional accessories such as steps to access the cover and an extended cover lift apparatus versus a standard removal system. Some manufacturers also offer modular components such as benches and multi-tiered steps with handrails.

As most above-ground swim spas are between 1219 and 1600 mm (48 and 63 in.) tall, filling the unit can take hours to complete and it could be up to 24 hours before the customer can use their swim spa.

Reviewing water care and operational procedures with the client is also essential to keeping the customer happy. For instance, unlike a hot tub, the water temperature in a swim spa is lower when it is being used for exercise purposes as opposed to therapeutic use. When the customer understands what is involved to keep their hot tub/swim spa water clean and clear, they will be more satisfied with their purchase.

Failing to tell a customer to check their water two to three times per week is irresponsible and puts the customer’s safety at risk. New swim spa or hot tub owners should be given a water maintenance tutorial, emphasizing water balance and sanitization. It will not only make the customer’s life easier, but also ensure the retailer is not constantly on the phone with an unhappy swim spa/hot tub owner. In fact, some retailers offer weekend classes in water care and offer free water testing. These types of programs make sense as the retailer has a captive audience. Further, should the results of a customer’s water test reveal the need for additional chlorine or bromine, they will typically buy their water maintenance products from the retailer, rather than a big-box store.


In comparison to swim spas, hot tubs typically have higher water temperatures which require the same water maintenance, but in much smaller doses. Swim spas or hot tubs equipped with an automatic dispenser or inline system can significantly reduce the need to add sanitizers manually. Retailers must advocate regular swim spa/hot tub water maintenance, whether customers use them or not, as this will keep the water ready for when they do decide to take a dip.

For swim spa purchases, retailers should instruct their customers to keep the water temperature between 27 and 29 C (80 and 85 F) for fitness purposes. They should also be advised to check with their doctor prior to a fitness routine.

Traditionally, hot tubs are kept at a higher temperature and customers should not try to exercise in anything above 29 C (85 F). Doing so can cause early fatigue and raise the body’s core temperature, which can cause hyperthermia. The warning signs of this include dizziness, lightheadedness, and rapid heartbeat.

Leave an opening

After a retailer helps a client select a vessel, install it, and ensure they are satisfied, many may start to refer new customers.

Finally, retailers should find themselves a reputable manufacturer to work with—especially one with swim spa experience. The manufacturer should not only be an expert at building them, but also be aware of the retailer’s unique shipping and receiving requirements. There is nothing more frustrating than working with a company that does not know how to package and handle a large unit. Hidden damage is always frustrating and, in some cases, can result in the customer balking at the purchase.

Knowing the manufacturer and their reputation is essential; whether they are the retailer’s hot tub supplier, swim spa supplier, or both. Some retailers have entered the swim spa category without really thinking it through as to how it will arrive and how to display it. For instance, getting a 2.4-m (8-ft) swim spa on its side is easy, but not horizontally. Another consideration for retailers, if the plan is to display the unit on the showroom floor, is if their entrance can accommodate a swim spa. Most swim spas have a bow to the sides to prevent warping, which makes it virtually impossible to turn it on its side.

It can be both

After a retailer helps a client select a vessel, install it, and ensure they are satisfied, many may start to refer new customers. A retailer who takes the time to determine their client’s needs (between a swim spa and a hot tub), helps them understand the differences between the two products, and finds them exactly what they are looking for will likely open the door to instant referrals to family and friends.

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