Flirting with Luxury

I’ve always loved water. If I had to choose beach or skiing for the rest of my life I’d choose beach. I like winter sports but nothing beats a sunny day out on the water. Luckily I don’t have to choose as we try to do several ski trips and beach trips each year. Still, to be happy I need water.

I’d love to live by the ocean but at this point it’s not an option – not yet. We are 2 hours away by car from the oceanfront so going to the beach is always a planned event. Back in the days I lived 10 minutes from the beach so it was easy to be in my own element whenever wanted. The high cost of living in this coastal area made us move further away but I know that one day, hopefully soon, we’ll be living close to the beach again.

There is nothing wrong with the place where we currently live. Two hours to the ocean, one hour to the mountains, a beautiful river and a reasonable cost of living is nothing to complain about. When we bought our house we made sure to have easy access to the pool for the hot summer months. Three months out of the year you are likely to find us at the pool after work and on weekends, unless we’re travelling.

I realize that what I’m describing already sounds luxurious, but there is always room for a little bit more, right?

When we rent a house at the beach for a week we try to get one that has a spa. There is nothing better than a nice soak after a day at the beach… Unless you’re talking about a full day of skiing followed by a jetted hot tub in the evening! A spa always seems to make an already wonderful day that much better.

For years now I’ve fantasized about creating a home spa so that I could recreate this feeling of pampered luxury any time I wanted. How nice would it be to come back from a long day at work, pour some IPA in a tall glass and relax in my own private spa oasis? After paying off half a million dollar mortgage, years of maxing out retirement accounts and tracking every single cent in Mint did I not earn this one small splurge?

It took a long time to talk myself into this. I researched the costs and the logistics of getting a hot tub installed. What finally made it click was the fact that our deck needed to be replaced. My brother-in-law and I set out to build a new deck so why not build in such a way that it would support a spa? Hot tubs are extremely heavy so you can’t just buy one and place it on your deck. Since we were designing a new deck from scratch we could make sure that it’s built right for the task.

I went to a local spa shop and looked at hot tubs. I wanted a smaller 4-person spa that would require less maintenance and power to operate. I liked a couple of models but they were all in the $5,000 range – a bit pricey for my tastes.

Then I received a Costco catalog advertising a spa that fit the bill – Aquaterra’s Adriana 4-person, 21-jet spa. At 81” x 63” x 33” it would fit the new deck nicely and it was also Plug-N-Play which means you can simply plug it into any regular outlet without having to run a dedicated 230V circuit ($$). Priced at $2,500 after a $500 off and free delivery it was a steal. With an ozonator, waterfall, lounge seat, steps, cover and a no maintenance exterior it had all the features of a $5,000 model at half the price. Costco doesn’t seem to carry it anymore but there were positive reviews from hundreds of people when Costco had the spa up on the website. Amazon still has the Aquaterra Adriana spa but for double the price.

It seemed as if I’ve found the perfect hot tub but I just couldn’t pull the trigger. Then I remembered about the ridiculous Costco’s no questions asked return policy. I called Costco’s customer service and they confirmed that this policy will cover spas. At this point I really had nothing to lose: if I didn’t like the hot tub Costco would take it back and refund all the money. And so with a click of a button my dream spa was on the way.

One week later I received a call from a freight company to set up delivery. One week after that a delivery truck driver called saying he was 30 minutes from our house.  

Costco notes several times that what you are getting is a free curbside delivery. No, they won’t bring the hot tub around back. They will put it anywhere on a driveway though. I asked them to drop it off closest to the backyard gate where it set while I figured out how to bring the hot tub to the deck.

Since the hot tub is delivered on a pallet it made sense to try to use a hydraulic pallet jack. Luckily my coworker had one and he graciously offered to help. We waited for 7-day window of dry weather so that the ground was hard enough to roll a pallet jack over to the deck.

It took sometime to figure out how to put the spa on the deck without gouging the wood or the spa but somehow we managed. Next I had to install an outlet near the hot tub for the Plug-N-Play connection. I got a covered weatherproof outlet and spliced into a GFCI-protected circuit for the other outdoor outlets. It was time to fill up the tub with 250 gallons of water!

It took 24 hours to heat the water to 102F running on 110V. After researching various sanitizing options I settled on a saltwater-based system, which proved to be a smart choice. I simply added a prescribed amount of pool salt into the spa I turned on the drop-in Saltron Mini Chlorine Generator. That was pretty much all the maintenance I had to do, other than shocking the water with a couple of teaspoons of chlorine after heavy use. Since I found a ton of complaints about maintaining the right water chemistry in spas I was relieved to find a system that eliminated 95% of the hassles.

Finally it was time to experience the luxury I’ve been dreaming of. After building a deck, after all the doubts, research and planning, it was a bit surreal to walk out, drink in hand, and immerse myself in the experience. It was simply amazing to be out in my own backyard sitting in a hot tub under the stars. My wife joined me and agreed that it all felt absolutely decadent.

Our son loved it too. When it was hot out, we would turn down the heat and use the spa as a cool tub, a mini swimming pool. A box-fan-cooled house felt wonderful even on a 90-degree day after a quick dip outside. I clearly underestimated how much we would enjoy the spa in the heat of the summer.

In the beginning we used the spa almost daily. As with all the new toys though the initial excitement soon started to fade little by little. Instead of daily we were using it every other day. Then a couple of times per week. Then mostly on weekends. If we traveled, the hot tub would sit unused even longer. It wasn’t a big deal since there was very little maintenance required but I could see where this was going and I didn’t like it.

I am an optimizer at heart. I like when everything is there for a reason. I can’t stand when some thing is not used or something is wasted. I have at least 20 For Sale posts on Craigslist and Ebay at any given time. Anything no longer useful is ID’d, cleared with my wife and put up for sale or given away. I strive to run a lean household. Excess is waste and waste must be eliminated.

A hot tub doesn’t add that much to an electric bill. By my estimates it added anywhere between $15 to $40 per month depending on usage and outdoor temperature (although I haven’t run it in the winter). Water, salt, chlorine, filters, test strips don’t add more than $10 per month tops. For a household with no mortgage, no car loans and no other debt it is a trivial amount hardly worth the paragraph I just used to describe it.

But it makes all the difference in the world, to me, when the utility is no longer there. Use the spa frequently enough to justify the operating and maintenance costs? Have at it! In my case this relationship was starting to break down.

Then there was a noise issue. This particular Aquaterra hot tub is no louder than your average spa. However, set on a wooden deck it would be loud enough to hear from the second floor master bedroom with windows closed – a distant low hum. Sitting in a chair anywhere on the deck with the spa running on low feels like the best massage chair is gently massaging you. The spa has a default factory setting to turn on periodically, once an hour or so, to measure the temperature and cycle the jets at low speed for about a minute. Then it has a mandatory water filtering cycle that will automatically run the jets twice a day for at least 30 minutes each time. It’s a small price to pay if you’re using the spa frequently. But if you barely use the spa then it might become a bigger issue.

I would wake up at night, hear the hot tub turn on and my mind would get lost in the optimizer/utility maze… Is it worth it? When was the last time anyone used it? On and on until I would swear to get rid of it and finally fall asleep.

Next day I would come back from work, get in the tub and tell myself that there is no way I can get rid of it! It felt that good!

This went on for months… One of the strongest love/hate relationships with a thing I’ve ever experienced.

What finally made up my mind was the approaching cold weather. I had a choice: run the spa through the winter or winterize it until spring. It takes about 1 hour to heat the hot tub 1 degree on a 110V (or 20 minutes on 230V, which would cost $1,200 to install). This meant that at anything below freezing the hot tub would be running almost all the time trying to keep up.

Winterizing a hot tub is not that hard but it’s yet another maintenance item that I’d rather not add to my long list of all the other DIY projects.

I made a decision to return the spa. The Optimizer has won.

I called Costco and requested a return. After sending back an 8-year old dining room set I felt slightly better about returning a hot tub after “just” 8 months of use. To be honest, I expected Costco to cancel our membership after doing this. Between the dining room set and this spa Costco refunded us over $5,000. The customer service rep didn’t care and simply told me to wait for a pickup call within 2 weeks.

My coworker and I moved the hot tub back to the driveway. I owe him big time. The same freight company came and picked up the spa. Costco refunded the full amount with no restocking fees.

I sold the Saltron Mini Chlorine Generator on eBay and donated the chemicals to a friend with a salt-water pool. After all said and done this adventure cost me a few hundred dollars including whatever extra we spent to make the deck capable of supporting a hot tub. It’s OK though because you can land a helicopter on that deck now, it’s so overbuilt. Just take a look the footings!

My wife has yet another story to tell about her crazy husband. But looking back, I’m happy. This brief brush with luxury taught me a valuable lesson, which I already knew but which I somehow keep forgetting. When we think about things in life that might make us happy we tend to exaggerate the positives all too eager to sweep any negatives under a rug.

There are people for whom a home spa makes perfect sense, but I’m not one of them. I feel like this is one of those dreams that I had to make a reality in order to realize that it’s not for me. I don’t think I could read a blog post like this one and decide hey, even though I always wanted a hot tub it’s obviously not for me. I believe there are things in life that you just have to experience to understand if it’s something that you really want. In other words – I had to get this one out of my system.

I do feel like I can now extrapolate from the hot tub experience to say that, for me, true enjoyment comes from a luxury experienced infrequently enough to remain a luxury. After all, if we make luxury part of an everyday life it will cease to feel special, wouldn’t it?

We rented a house at the top of a mountain for an upcoming ski trip with a group of friends in February. One thing that everyone wanted was a hot tub so the place that we got has one outside, overlooking the slopes. I’m really looking forward to experiencing the luxury of a hot tub as if for the first time.