Efficiently troubleshoot spa packs

A cost-effective spa equipment repair call begins with a ringing telephone. That initial contact with the homeowner is the time to set the tone for the entire service transaction. This discussion must include painstaking and deliberate questioning to obtain a complete picture of the problem - essential to organizing a profitable response.

"This information gives us a starting point," says Douglas Dinkins, owner of Spa Inspectors in Houston. While the customer is describing the symptoms of the problem, a good technician is already thinking in terms of what may be needed at the site.

While on the phone with the homeowner, also find out if the hot tub equipment is accessible. Dinkins recently had to send two service technicians to a site to move a hot tub pushed up against a wall. "One tech could have solved the problem, but we had to send two to move to the spa to get to the equipment. We always charge extra if we have to move the spa."

Dinkins recalls one client who made the equipment of his deck-surrounded hot tub permanently accessible, but made an even costlier mistake. "We showed up at the house and found they had moved the equipment out from underneath the portable spa. They had extended the pipes and brought the equipment to the edge of the deck, so every time it rained, the equipment got wet. Hot tub equipment needs to be kept out of the elements, but this equipment had been rained on so much it was in bad condition and needed to be replaced."

Most clients leave the equipment in the spa cabinet as they're supposed to, but opening the panels to get a look at the equipment can still be an adventure. "You never know what's going to be under there," says Jim Treese, co-owner of Cape Cod Aquatics in Harwich, Mass. "I've found squirrels, snakes . . . mice are the big thing. It's kind of like sticking your head in a haunted house - you just don't know what's going to be under there."

Spa Not Heating

One of the most common problems is that a spa has stopped heating, and this could be caused by a number of things. Dinkins says he first does a visual check of the filter element. "Because probably 50 percent of the time," he says, "it's a dirty filter element that stops the heater from working. A dirty element reduces the flow of water, altering the water pressure. And if the pressure switch does not read the correct pressure, the switch will not open and it will not allow the heater to heat.

"At this point, the filter element needs to be replaced. In general, filter elements should be replaced every 12 months to two years. If homeowners would maintain the spa water chemistry and clean their filter out on a weekly basis, they can save themselves hundreds of dollars down the road."

If the filter element looks OK and the filter is clean, Dinkins checks the sensors: the thermostat, the pressure switch and the high-limit switch. "You can ohm out the sensors to see if they read correctly. If you've got the correct ohm readings on the sensors, then we know those are OK. If techs do not have ohm readings for the brand of sensor they're working on, they should contact the manufacturer of the spa pack because each brand of spa pack is going to have certain ohm readings."

If the ohm readings are off, the sensors need to be replaced. If the spa stopped heating because the high limit was tripped, you'd have to wait until the water "reached temperature" to know whether the high limit tripped early or if the thermostat is out of calibration.

"So I have a rule of thumb at my company," says Dinkins. "If a high limit tripped, they get a new thermostat and a new high limit. We replace both of them because if you replace a tripped high limit, you might not solve the problem because maybe the thermostat is out of calibration, and it's trying to heat to 120. Then the new high limit is going to trip again and the homeowner is going to be upset. So we replace both of them in one service call. They pay for two components, which are about $45 each, but it's a lot cheaper in the long run."

Finally, sometimes the spa isn't heating because the heater needs to be repaired or replaced. Removing the heater will be a lot easier, says Treese, if the spa has gate valves. "If there are gate valves that you can close, you shut down the power, close the gate valves and pull the heater out without losing any water. If there are not gate valves, you have to drain the whole hot tub to pull the heater out and then repair it, put it back in and fill the whole tub. So it's very time consuming if they don't have gate valves."

At The Board

The digital circuit boards on most modern spa packs are very reliable, "But," says Treese, "a brown out, a lightning strike or another sort of surge in the electricals can burn these boards up. Or a leak can burn them up, too. If there's bad water chemistry in the spa, the heater tube can corrode and then water will start leaking out of it. The heater tube is generally a couple inches from the circuit board, and with 240 volts going through the board, it burns it up, it's done. So something as simple as water chemistry can always cause a very expensive fix."

Assuming the circuit board is functioning properly, you can use it to determine which component is causing a problem. "Some people are intimidated by circuit boards," says Dinkins, "because they look at them and see all that stuff - the relays, contactors and diodes are all in the circuit board. What some people don't realize is the simplest thing about this system: I have power coming in and I have power going out. It's just like hydraulics. Electricity flows the same as water - it comes in and it has to go out somewhere. One of the best ways for troubleshooting anything is when you get to a house, look at your spa pack and first figure out if you have power at the system. So first, make sure your GFCI is operating properly.

"Then determine if you have power at the terminal strip where wires go into the control box," continues Dinkins. "If you have power there, go to the components. Let's say the GFCI is tripping, then what's the problem? It could be the heater, the blower, the pump, or another component. So unplug all the amp plugs on the spa pack and disconnect the heater, and now we only have power coming into the spa pack, but we're not using any components yet. So turn the system on, and if the GFCI holds, we know our control box is good. Then plug them back in one item at a time, and the item that trips the GFCI is the bad component. It's a process of elimination that can be done in less than five minutes, and it leads you to the component that needs to be replaced."

Blowers, Pumps And Phones

Another issue Dinkins occasionally deals with is water getting into a blower. "Some people will just change out the blower if water gets in it, but they haven't solved the problem," he says. "They need to check the Hartford loop and the check valve to make sure there's no water coming back, because somehow water got in the blower, and you need to figure out how it got there to really solve the problem."

One component Joe Russo, co-owner of Russo's Pool & Spa in Northlake, Ill., has had to replace quite a few times over the years is the magnetic-driven pumps many hot tubs used to have. "The biggest issue I have seen is the impeller starts to wear and then you don't get perfect rotation of the impeller, which then causes rubbing. You're getting friction from two metals, so it wears itself down and eventually stops working. In this case, we replace the whole pump because we have found that if we just replace the impeller, those consumers are calling us back in three to six months saying the issue is happening again."

No matter which component needs attention, Dinkins says one of the most valuable tools each of his service techs has with him at all times now is a cell phone with a camera. "My techs can be on site and e-mail me a photo of what's going on, and we can walk through it. And if the homeowners are there, we can give them prices immediately. We don't have to do this on all jobs, but we do it about three or four times a week. The photos also help down the road because we keep them in our computer, so we have records of what the hot tub looked like when we worked on it."

Why DIY?

Instead of calling out a professional to fix their hot tub, sometimes homeowners replace parts on their own. Dinkins has dealt with a few clients who purchased a replacement motor on either the Internet or at a local electrical supply house. "They think they can fix it themselves, but often they don't know what the horsepower or voltage is, and they don't know if it's a one-speed or a two-speed. But they go ahead and buy a motor, throw away the old one, put the new motor on and then call us and say, 'I put a new motor on, but it just won't work.' So we go out, see what's there and determine what motor they need, and they say, 'What do you mean I have to buy another one?'"

Fortunately, many hot tub owners do call service professionals when their hot tubs need some help or updates. Over the last couple years, Treese has been giving old tubs new life by retrofitting them with digital circuit boards. "Some people have an emotional connection with their old hot tubs, which are still in immaculate shape. So if they like the tub, putting in a digital board is like replacing a transmission in a car. We put in these Balboa retrofit packs, so for about $1,000, we can tear out that old pack and put in a new, digital pack with top-side controls and a brand new heater. It makes it almost a new tub - at least component-wise. I've done quite a few of those, and people are extremely happy with them. It's a whole lot cheaper than buying a new $7,000 hot tub."

Working Harder, Not Smarter

Most service professionals have heard their share of complaints about trip charges. People just don't like paying them, even though they're reasonable fees considering you incur costs every time one of your techs visits a site. Douglas Dinkins, owner of Spa Inspectors in Houston, once had a client who was so opposed to paying a trip charge, he drained his tub, loaded it onto a trailer and drove the tub and trailer to Dinkins' shop just so he could avoid the fee.

After he pulled in, Dinkins informed the client he would need to refill the tub and hook it up to electricity so they could determine what needed to be repaired. The client opted to take it back home, pay the trip charge and have Dinkins service it there.

Half a day, shot to hell. Summing up the hot tub service industry in particular and mankind in general, Dinkins says simply, "People do some really weird things."


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