Under Wraps

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A new spa cover arrives at the customer's home in pristine condition, just like the spa it will secure and insulate. But you can bet it will be replaced, perhaps several times over, before the spa finally gives out.

And some dealers, like Kim Steffenhagen, showroom manager for Benson's Pool & Patio in Middleton, Wis., have pondered this. He sells a lot of spas and a lot of replacement spa covers, and has always wondered, "Why can't they make a spa cover that lasts?"

Only a few years after that initial sale of a spa, he says, many of his customers return for replacement covers. "They can't raise their spa cover because it's full of water and weighs 200 pounds. If it's winter and they have an outside spa, the thing has turned into a big ice cube."

The answer is not as simple as better design or tougher materials. There are a number of factors that determine a spa cover's life span, and every one plays a role in determining it: from the manufacturer that makes it subject to economic and market forces; to the dealer who sells it and advises the customer on cover care; to the customer who uses (or abuses) it.

Awareness of these factors is the key to understanding the product and increasing its longevity. Indeed, few people appreciate the forces that shape, or the hazards that face, an ordinary spa cover.

Common Foes

For a spa cover, peril comes from every direction. It can be bitten to death by a dog, crushed under the weight of its owner's kids, shriveled by an unrelenting sun, or even speared by a snow shovel. But in most cases it succumbs to massive weight gain.

The cover begins putting on pounds when the polyethylene sheeting used to wrap and protect the foam core is somehow breached. Moisture is then steadily absorbed into the foam, and it becomes heavier and heavier. One day it can barely be lifted from the spa; cover death soon follows.

This plastic wrap, guardian of the core, is defeated in a number of ways, but chemicals are usually to blame.

In proper concentrations, chemicals do not cause great harm to the cover's poly-wrap. But prolonged exposure to concentrated caustic vapors emanating from the spa either causes the seals to give way or the sheeting to lose its flexibility, at which point it cracks or even splinters into pieces.

Unfortunately, that consideration is rarely foremost in a spa owner's mind when sanitizing the spa, notes Aleta Mann of Commercial Fabrics in Buffalo, N.Y. It's when chemicals are first added to the spa that they are most damaging to the cover, so she tells customers to leave the cover off for a half hour after treatment.

"Sometimes they don't want to bother with it, or lose that heat, but it makes the cover last longer."

Mann also says that water that isn't regularly balanced — and balanced correctly — is very damaging. Both acidic (low pH) and basic (high pH) water will attack a cover's petroleumbased materials.

"If any factor in the spa water balance is way off, it can really hurt the vinyl or the plastic around the foam," says Mann. "We recommend professional balancing every three weeks — or at least once a month."

While halogens and tart water are bad, ozone is the worst of the chemical foes, according to Harvey Lucas, owner of Certain Kitchen Bath & Spa in Salt Lake City. "It just eats out the bottom of those covers," he says. "Other chemicals will do that, too, just at a slower rate of speed."

Lucas believes this problem may be on the rise because of changes in standard spa equipment. "I don't know the ratio," he says, "but I would bet that 90 percent of all spas sold today have ozonators.

"Here's what happens: People adjust their ozone cycle up, and then stop using their spa for a while. So there's nothing for the ozone to do, and a layer of ozone gas builds up between the cover and the water.

"I've seen covers ruined in two months because the ozone just went crazy on it."

Physical Abuse

While harsh chemicals make a meal of the bottom of the cover, the vinyl top and foam core endure punishment from above.

Anyone who's ever manhandled a spa cover off without a lifter knows that opportunities abound for a chipped edge or corner. But based on Lucas's 20 years of experience, a spa cover's worst enemy is man's best friend.

"I talk to people all the time about why they're buying their replacement covers, and most of the time it's dogs. Dogs like to chew on covers for some reason. Or they like to jump up and dig on them."

He adds, however, that some spa cover killers are strictly regional. Like snow, but not for the reason you might think.

Lucas operates out of Salt Lake City, but a lot of his spas are up in the Park City and Deer Valley ski resorts.

When the snow falls, spa covers can get ruined. "But it's not the snow," he says. "The weight of the snow is distributed evenly. So even though there's a lot of total weight there, it doesn't damage the cover because it's spread out."

"What ruins the covers is when people go out and shovel it off — they dig into it with their snow shovels."

"It's like that saying, 'Guns don't kill people, people kill people,'" he says. "Well, snow doesn't ruin spa covers, people with snow shovels do."

A few hundred miles to the south, in Albuquerque, N.M., snow isn't the problem, but the piercing Southwestern sun is, according to Thomas Chavez, division manager for spas at Sunrooms & Spas, a local dealership.

In the general absence of rain, snow and humidity, he says, cover life is not as big an issue. "Down here, if someone takes care of a cover, it can last five to 10 years. It depends on how much sunlight it gets, because sunlight degrades the vinyl.

"But 10 years is about as much as you can get out of a cover regardless of how you treat it," he adds.

On that there is broad agreement. Ten years is indeed a ripe old age for most any cover, but with the upper Midwest's rain and snow, Steffenhagen reckons his average is more like three to five years.

Still, there is much he can do to help his customers toward the upper end of that range, and perhaps beyond. For one thing, Steffenhagen advises his customers to use a .oating blanket. This barrier between the spa water and the cover significantly reduces corrosion. (It also prevents evaporation and adds insulation.) Another good tip is to unzip the vinyl cover and let the foam air out in the summer. "When you put it back in, flip it over, just like a mattress," says Lucas. "It stops them from sagging in the middle, which can eventually damage the core foam."

He also encourages using a product called 303 Aerospace Protectant to protect them from the sun. It's commonly used on boats, and it provides excellent protection from the sun.

Lift Ticket

With the failure of the last cover fresh in mind, customers are much more attentive to spa care suggestions. Indeed, it may be time to invest in a cover lift to help protect the replacement. "If you use a cover lift," says Debbie Olson, director of sales and marketing for Leisure Concepts, Spokane, Wash., "it will definitely increase the life of your cover."

She notes that a good percentage of ruined covers are simply dropped overboard by accident, or crunched as they lie next to the spa.

It doesn't take much to crack the foam core. While the standard for spa covers demands the product support 275 pounds, that's a one-time feat, whose purpose is to prevent access to the water. After that, most spa covers are junk.

"I believe that in order to prolong the life of a cover, you need some sort of lifting device on your spa," says Lucas. "Every spa comes with a cover. It should come with a lifter, too. It should be built right into the price of the spa. And we sell a ton of lifters because we really believe that."

Market Forces

Like any product, spa cover performance is driven by design. And spa cover design has been driven by the market it serves.

What has evolved as the basic spa cover is engineering's response to a few specific demands. "People want a lightweight cover with good thermal qualities," says Mann, "and they want a vinyl look that will match the spa.

"To hold up to the weather, the hot water, the chemicals, and still be lightweight and attractive, that's what you're looking at — foam wrapped in polyethylene in a vinyl cover.

It shouldn't be too expensive, either. Particularly the first one, according to Ben Gargle, who owns Be-Lite in Anaheim, Calif. He believes that an OEM cover needs to be inexpensive because it is not a determining factor in the overall spa purchase.

"Very few people, if any, say, "I'm not going to buy Brand X Spa because of the cover. Ninety-nine percent of the people buying a spa know they're getting a cover, but they don't even see the cover they're buying until it gets to their home."

Steffenhagen agrees. The spa cover is not at all central to the conversation when the spa is initially purchased.

Amid the discussion of jets and chemicals, it may not be mentioned at all.

It's when the first one fails, and the customer returns, that the discussion of extending cover life begins.

Prolonging Life

Within the basic parameters of foam, poly-wrap and vinyl, some cover manufacturers offer a heavier, stronger cover which can better withstand the weight of a person or a dog standing on top of it.

These include a beefier foam core and other upgrades from the standard product. The Commercial Fabrics heavy-duty cover comes with fiberglass laminated on the side of the foam cores. There is no statistical evidence available, but according to Mann, these seem to handle the chemicals and punishment better.

"The foam is very resistant to water because of the fiberglass lamination," she says. "But it's a heavier, bulkier cover. Customers have to get used to that."

"Beyond that, there is a guy out West that makes an aluminum cover," she adds. "But it costs more."

That man is Ben Gargle, who, for nearly 20 years, has been making covers with a metal exoskeleton, providing a higher price-point product which he says provides a longer life.

At Be-Lite they start with a colored aluminum sheet, and laminate it directly to the foam core. Then they cut out the shape, and ring it with a aluminum all the way around the outer edge and down the center. Add a vinyl hinge, and you've got it.

"We give the customer 10 to 15 years of service as a replacement cover," he says. "We're too expensive for the OEM."

Gargle says his opportunity comes when the spa owner comes in for a second or third vinyl spa cover. At this point, they're willing to pay more for a longer-term solution. "They want to buy a cover and forget about it."

Given the variety of hazards it will face — from harsh chemicals to sharp teeth — that's a tall order for any spa cover.

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