Inflatable hot tubs – are they worth the hassle?

One spring evening I drove 150 miles to meet an enterprising gentleman who – anticipating that the COVID lockdown would continue another year – had bought up a number of inflatable hot tubs the previous winter, anticipating the demand from landlocked Brits. I ended up paying him 150% of the retail price to get one immediately, rather than wait the 6-8 weeks most retailers were quoting. I didn’t regret it.

Why inflatable?

Price and space were our two considerations. We looked at a few ‘proper’ (fixed) hot tubs, and we’d be looking at spending £4,500+ for something we probably wouldn’t use for half the year, and we weren’t sure about giving up space in the garden permanently. You can find very good inflatable models well under £1,000 (supply issues notwithstanding) so we plumped for a Bestway Helsinki which seats 6-8 people apparently – I think 8 is pushing it but 6 is realistic – which comes with everything you need for set-up but not maintenance.

For a smaller model, we previously hired the LazySpa Hawaii 6 person hot tub. The set up and maintenance for these is pretty similar so it’s a case of how big do you need your hot tub to be, based on family size and how many people will realistically need to use it at the same time.

What you’ll need to maintain a hot tub

You’ll need to budget another £150+ for bits and pieces, as keeping a hot tub clean and hygienic needs a bit of work, and most of what you need for maintenance will not be provided as part of the package when you buy a hot tub. You will definitely need:

  • A rubber mat / ‘floor protector’ – this is primarily to reduce heat escaping through the floor (and thus help with your energy bills) but also prevents the tub getting scraped if you’re installing it on concrete or rough paving.
  • A net to pick up stuff that falls in (expect a lot of kamikaze insects)
  • A pool hoover / underwater vacuum to pick up stuff that falls to the bottom of the tub
  • Chemicals are critical to keep the hot tub hygienic in between refills – I would highly recommend getting a chemical starter kit for hot tubs which you can find in DIY stores and contain everything you need. But if you want to be DIY about it, you’ll need:
    • Chlorine – you have a couple of options (I use both to reduce work):
      • Slow-release tablets help maintain chlorine levels over time without constant dosing
      • Fast-action tablets or granules quickly bring levels up after filling the hot tub with fresh water – you could also use them periodically instead of slow-release tablets, but it’s a bit of faff and I’m not sure you save any money
    • Sodium carbonate (called ‘pH plus’ or ‘pH increaser’) – which you may need every now and then to prevent the water becoming acidic
    • Sodium hydrogen sulphate (called ‘pH minus’ or ‘pH reducer’) – which you may need to prevent the water becoming too alkaline
    • Silicone antifoam emulsion (called ‘foam remover’ or ‘antifoam’) – which you may need if shampoo or soap on people’s bodies ends up causing too much foam in the hot tub
    • Test strips to check chlorine and pH levels
  • A hose to fill up the hot tub and to drain it periodically – more on this below
  • Spare filters to avoid faff – more on this below too

Setting it up

This was surprisingly straightforward: there is a single unit that combines a water heater, filter & air pump which you first use to inflate the hot tub and lid, and then connect to the inflated tub to heat & filter the water when in use (it also pumps air through for the jacuzzi feature). You’ll then need to use the provided foot pump to get the air pressure to the right level, after which you can fill up the tub with water (so make sure your hose can reach). The unit will need to be plugged into the mains, so you will need to plan for that too. You may want to consider installing a weatherproof outdoor electrical socket to avoid running wires through open windows.

Maintenance / the faff

I must say I wasn’t prepared for the faff, but it wasn’t too bad in the end. Once heated up you can use it immediately before adding chlorine, but you’ll want to add chlorine within 3-4 days to prevent the water getting dodgy. The manual recommends emptying and refilling a treated hot tub every 6 weeks or so, but you may be able to extend this: I fill the water near the max level, and the kids jump and splash around a lot which can result in 10-20% of the water being expelled. I then top it up with fresh water and so it keeps things a bit fresher than just having the same water in there for over a month.

You will need the net after each use to take out hair, dirt/fabric and anything that’s fallen in, and you’ll likely need the pool hoover / underwater vacuum most days to pick up any dirt that’s fallen to the bottom. Filters will get clogged pretty quickly if you don’t do this and ruin the fun.

Filters can be the biggest annoyance even if you’re using the net and vacuum often. Unlike the big expensive fixed hot tubs, these ones have small filters that get clogged quickly after a few days (could even be 2 days of regular use). Once clogged the heating unit will turn off, so you have to take immediate action. You can clean them out and reuse them a few times, but it’s a big faff and not a great use of your weekend given replacement filters are not that expensive – so I simply bulk-buy replacement filters and replace them every few days or after a couple of days’ heavy use.

However, emptying it will eventually become unavoidable and the whole process (don’t forget this is a lot of water – around 1,400 litres on the larger models – so don’t expect this to be quick) takes about half a day: you connect a hose and let it drain, but since the connector is a little above the bottom of the hot tub, it doesn’t take all the water out. You then have to lift the hot tub up and let the rest pour out. This is your opportunity to give it a scrub (shouldn’t be much if you’ve been cleaning throughout) before you refill it. You’ll then need to connect everything back up again (you’ll have to unplug and disconnect the heating unit before you can tip the tub on its side for the earlier step) and let it heat up overnight.

Energy usage

This is pretty high, like having a kettle on for half the day. However, turning it off until you need it can be impractical, as it takes a long time to heat the water up – around 1 degree per hour for the larger 1,400 litre models – so the best you can do to economise is look at the weather forecast (if you trust it!) and turn it on the day before.

Was it worth it?

Yes – it’s definitely made staying at home more fun and gave the hot summer days an almost-real holiday feel. The maintenance faff gave me some pause but having gone through it, it’s much less daunting now. I don’t think I’d upgrade to a permanent/fixed one though – not sure we have the weather for it!

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