Top and bottom: Here are some of the items that should be riding along with you to a wintertime water change.
Spa maintenance guys in the sunny South may be surprised to learn that in the Great White North, draining a hot tub can have the added complication of hard water. I don’t mean calcium or magnesium hardness, I mean the sort stiffness that results when the ambient temperature drops below zero.
If you will be changing spa water outdoors this winter in states like Minnesota, Montana or my own province of BC, here are a few things I’ve learned that help make the process go smoothly:
1. Plan ahead for decent weather. Although we do between 500 and 600 water changes per winter, we still like to work within certain weather parameters. Our low temperature threshold is approximately negative 20 degrees Celsius (that’s negative 4 degrees Fahrenheit). My personal experience says if you choose to push that parameter, you’re either really good or about to explain to your customer how to enjoy their appliance in the summer months. Be careful and cautious. I have told my guys many times that, “One poorly placed drop of water below zero will ruin your whole day.”
2. To best serve the water change process, we do all of our water changes before noon. This allows the techs to monitor the appliance and make sure that all systems are good before they finish their day. This also allows us to do any repairs that are required before refill. It is extremely important that our techs identify and rectify problems at every opportunity, for two reasons: It reduces the chance of random breakdown (which, going unnoticed for any length of time can prove catastrophic) and it also maximizes the technician’s ability to be proactive for additional revenue and customer confidence.
3. Approximately one week prior to the water change, open the doghouse and thoroughly inspect for any deficiencies. This will allow you ample time to order any parts or supplies so you’re ready to perform on game day. During the inspection process, make sure you scroll through all topside control functions. This scrolling process often helps find hidden issues as well — from a faulty topside that needs replacing to a jet pump that only leaks on high speed. You never know what you may find.
Always open the actual spa pack and look for carbonate build up (usually at the flow-thru cold pins or pressure switch. These are easy fixes that could haunt you later). Also make sure to test the light function. Often a light has to be changed from inside the tub when empty, and you maximize your efficiency if you do this during a water change. I’ve found it’s a good idea to carry an LED light with me. I’ve had a number of customers upgrade from a standard 12v bulb to an LED, and it often gives an old tub new appeal. I have had more people absolutely astounded at the result than you can imagine — it’s a quick way to make some more dollars and create another happy customer.
4. On game day, prior to dumping the tub, isolate the spa pack with the isolation valves. These valves rarely get exercised and often fail at the most inopportune time. So with the power off, isolate the equipment, completely detach (unscrew union lock ring) on either side of the spa pack and look for leaky knife or ball valves. Be prepared to add new seals or swap out the faulty valve. This will make your life easier on the next visit and builds customer confidence.
5. Always, without hesitation, check heater function from the topside demand and do a complete visual inspection of the spa pack prior to dumping. Even if everything checks out, have a spare heater element with you and be prepared to use it. In my experience, there have been countless times when everything is going great, and I refire the tub — and nothing happens. Sometimes, even when my ohm meter has been reading properly, the heater element still will not function. Don’t hesistate. Your situation has now become critical because standing water will freeze quickly, especially in small diameter peripheral plumbing. Trust me, this is a bridge you don’t want to cross. Get busy and swap that heater element pronto.
6. All of our technicians carry 110v space heaters (and aren’t afraid to use them). If there is any indication you may be at a tub for any length of time, we immediately get a space heater in the doghouse. It is very important to respect the freeze process and avoid it at all cost.
Be careful not to put the heater too close to the equipment; the last thing you want to do is melt wires or affect PCB. Not only does this mistake cause serious issues, but it is also the tech’s fault and now the company must assume the cost of the repair due to negligence and poor workmanship. Ugh!
7. I always carry an old hair dryer with me as well. Guys, go grab your wife’s old one and buy her a new one. It will get beat up in the tool box so you don’t need anything fancy, and your wife will think you’re awesome (I hope). A hair dryer works great to dry up any water after a repair without melting anything. Remember, use a hair dryer and not a heat gun; the heat from a heat gun is far too concentrated and can cause serious, preventable damage before you know it.
8. When you shut the breaker off to start the dump/fill process, I always use the test button on the GFCI — often I find them faulty. This
is not only unsafe, but it’s professionally unacceptable not to see that it’s fixed immediately. Your customers rely on you for their safety, and this is now your responsibility and your liability.
9. When you are ready to actually dump the tub, there are a number of issues to take into consideration before you actually get water flowing. For tubs on concrete patios or places that have good drainage, we will often use a portion of the wastewater to melt down ice and snow build-up on the stairs and walkways. This works great for both safety and aesthetics — take advantage of the hot water!
If drainage is not good, the consideration becomes where to dump the water if it’s going to cause landscape damage or create a glacier in your customers back yard. The best bet is to run your discharge hose to an indoor drain; the best option I’ve found is the 4-inch toilet drain as it can keep up with your discharge pump. This is crucial because you can’t afford to have your drain back up due to excessive discharge volume.
We use Tsurumi submersible sump pumps (awesome pumps); they discharge approximately 90 gpm. Any more than that and drains can’t keep up; any less, and you’re wasting time. So be considerate of these issues when purchasing a pump for water changes. Don’t cheap out on your equipment; it will always fail you at the worst time.
Another practice that is crucial when discharging into a toilet drain is to plug your pump into an outlet as close to your discharge point as possible. That way, if there is a drainage issue, you can simply unplug the pump and immediately stop the water flow before you flood a customer’s home. Either hardwire a long cord to your pump or use an extension cord, both ways work equally well.
One last point, never use the passive drain supplied with various tub models. They’re too slow, they waste your time and you actually risk the chance of freeze-up due to that extended time factor.
10. I always start my supply for refill before the tub is completely drained. With the hose in the skimmer, you have an opportunity to dilute some of that last discharge water — once that water looks pretty clean, shut off the supply line briefly and open the floor drain and any low-lying fitting in the doghouse to drain the last of the old water out of the plumbing. Once that is complete, attach a pre-filter to your supply line and start your refill ASAP.
As a rule, we always refill our tubs through the skimmer rather than the tub itself. Essentially you fill the tub from the outside in, rather than the inside out; this will allow the tub to purge far easier when you re-fire it. Trust me on this one; you want to eliminate as many issues as possible along the way so you have trouble free re-fire. It’s crucial with cold weather water changes.
11. Once the tub is refilling, there are a number of things an efficient tech can do besides play Candy Crush on his company cell phone. Now is the time to scrub water lines on the acrylic shell. We have found the magic erasers work great (use the white ones with no detergent in them). Clean the underside of the lid with a bleach and water mixture; never use cleaners, they just contaminate the fresh water.
Clean the top of the lid in the same manner, then treat the vinyl (top only) to a thorough coat of 303 protectant. Don’t use petroleum distillate products like Armor All, as they will actually degrade the vinyl over time. Pros use 303, enough said. Give the synthetic skirting the same 303 treatment, and it will suddenly look like the day the tub was installed.
Always have a handful of empty 5-gallon pails on hand, and when you change out the filter, place the old, wet one in the pail so it doesn’t drain out on the deck and create a slipping hazard. (You have to look out for these issues. If your customer falls and is hurt because of your carelessness, you will be held liable for those injuries.)
12. Once the tub is full, there are a few more things to do to complete the job. The first thing to do before restoring power to the tub is to slightly open the discharge side of the circ pump to bleed out any air trapped in the wet end. The second thing to do is a quick visual check for any leaks or residual water near the spa pack (remember your hair dryer). Once all systems check out, restore power to the tub. If you have been thorough, your re-fire should be painless and without incident.
Remember, once the water is flowing and your topside has scrolled through all its factory default settings, now is the time to watch and listen for a heat demand. As soon as the relay clicks and the topside heat icon appears, this will be the time your heater fails if it is compromised.
Even if you already tested the heater while doing the maintenance, that fresh cold water may expose any hairline cracks in the heater sheath and force your tub to default back to the GFCI and shut down. If so, simply swap out the bogus element for the new that you brought with you because you’re a smart tech. It’s so easy if you’re thorough!
If you don’t have heater issues, then clean up your equipment and check the area for any ice or hazards, making sure everything is operating 100 percent and looks nice and clean. Install a new filter and add sequestering agent at this point. I never add water maintenance chemicals till the tub has come up to temp. If not, you stand a good chance that your heater will draw carbonate out of solution, which will adhere to the heater element and impact your heater’s performance and longevity. So the rule is simply don’t add anything but sequestering agent until the water is up to temp.
13. After all that hard work, you have one more very simple but important task. That is to make sure you turn the tub back up to the customers desired set point temperature. It’s a real shame to do all that good work only to let your customer down with something so simple.
So to sum it up: pre-plan, be prepared, plan your course of action and follow it, be patient and don’t force your work. Do that, and you should be able to perform water changes with confidence — no matter what Mother Nature throws at us. Good luck and don’t be intimidated to move forward and tackle tubs all winter.