The Spa Saga · 9 May 2020

The Spa Saga is just what it says. A saga. A long story. A long story about a hot tub. I just wish it had any of those aaaaahhhhh moments in it.

I have been working to get a second-hand hot tub working. It (the hot tub) is a beautiful thing. Top of the line back in its day. But after getting power to it, I still had lots of work to do. And a lot of learning to do. And lots of words to write.

I have never had a hot tub before. (Hot tubs are called spas by the industry folks. I guess “tubs” just does not sound as sophisticated.) Oh sure, I have been around hot tubs before. I have even been in hot tubs before. But I have never taken a hot tub apart before. In fact, I never realized all the inner workings of one before. The blowers and the pumps and the electronics. Oh, the electronics. I never thought about any of that stuff before. But all those pieces are there.. Deep in the recesses of the container of the tub. Hidden so that none may know the secrets of the spa. Hidden, but all working together so that you can just experience the “aaaaahhhhh” moments.

Well, before we experienced any aaaaahhhhh moments, I had to get to know and understand those inner workings of our new hot tub. Rather, spa. And all that learning and understanding and fixing led to the Spa Saga.

Getting the spa hooked up electrically was a major moment in the ownership of our new second-hand spa. When it was hooked up, we figured that the next day the water would be heated up and we would be ready to relax. Especially since it all seemed to work once the power was turned on. The jets pumped water all around to get that jet of hot water every hot tub aficionado wants to feel against his or her back to get those kinks out. We could add air to the mix of water. The thermometer and digital readout (which said the water was a chilly 50-something degrees) gave the appearance that everything was hunky dory too. But alas, something was amiss. The hot tub was the same temperature the next day. Not only that, but for some reason, it would not stay on. It had stayed on through the night, but the next day, the computer said something was wrong and turned itself off. And after that, it would not stay on for more than about 10 minutes. Something was definitely amiss.

Thankfully, we have the internet. So after turning off the power, I was off to find the answers.

I kept coming back to what seemed like the same answers, the interweb being what it is and search engines being what they are. Every search kept pointing me to the heater and/or thermistor being bad. So I ordered the two parts. At least one of them was bad. I figured it could not hurt to order both, but I should have known the thermistor was the more likely culprit. Then again, I was just in the beginning stages of understanding hot tubs.

Unfortunately, we were also at the beginning of stay at home orders from state governments. Our parts were not coming any time soon. But I was confident they would fix our problem. If only I had known then what I know now.

Well to make a short story a lot longer, when the parts finally did come, I thought I had fixed the problem. The hot tub (or spa) was empty and clean so it was an easy job to put in the new parts. (We emptied the hot tub because it was cold and we did not want the pipes to freeze.) Once we filled up the tub again, we turned on the power again. Hurrah! It stayed on. We ran the clean cycle and pushed all the buttons. It looked like I was done and we were going to be feeling that aaaaahhhhh moment the next day.

Of course it could not be so easy. The next day, the water was still a chilly 50-something degrees. Aaarrrggghhh! More troubleshooting.

(I must interject here that I do not mind troubleshooting. It is one of the things I actually like to do. Fixing problems or at least diagnosing problems, is normally a fun thing. But when people are expecting something big to happen and it is not happening because I cannot correctly diagnose and fix the problem, that is a problem. And not one of those problems that I like to fix.)

Off went the tub and off I went to the internet again. (It was a little warmer and almost a month later in the year, so I left the water in the tub.)

Since the computer in the tub stayed on this time, I figured that one or both of the replacement parts were necessary. The thermistor was probably the main culprit, but it is okay to have a new heater too. I kept looking on the internet and not finding any more answers so I went out to the tub to see what I could see. I looked at the motherboard and checked the power relay board. I finally figured out that no power was getting to the power relay board, which is what I thought turns on the heater. I checked with the internet and saw that there was supposed to be an indicator on the motherboard that says the heater is on. The internet also told me that if that indicator was not on, the motherboard was a likely culprit. (I should have read on other sites for more information.)

Naturally, I replaced the motherboard. (I did not need to wait as long for that part. It came in less than a week.) I turned on the power, but that indicator light (really an LED) did not turn on. I was disappointed. Three parts replaced and still no luck.

Off went the tub and off I went to the internet again.

This time on the internet, I found what I was looking for. A question and answer session between a hot tub owner and a technician was exactly what I needed. The session was very similar to what I had already gone through. And what all those other websites and videos did not say was that there might not be enough water flow through the heater to let the computer turn on the heater (which it does via the motherboard and not through the relay board). Which meant that the circulation pump might be bad. Here was something I had not read before. So I investigated a little more.

It seems there are a couple different kinds of hot tubs (or spas). There are the spas with one pump, which operates at different speeds. The pump operates at slow speeds to keep the water moving through the heater, which keeps the temperature where you set it, and they operate at high speeds when you want that jet and bubble action. Other spas have a circulation pump and one or more jet pumps. In those spas, the circulation pump operates all the time to circulate water and keep things the proper temperature. The other pump(s) operate the jets. Our hot tub has three pumps. I was sure I had found the problem.

Not one to be fooled three times, I decided that I would be more thorough this time. First, I did a check to make sure there was no vapor lock. (Water pumps do not like to pump air so they can lock up if there is too much air in the system.) There was no air in the system so I decided to take out the circulation pump to see if there was some debris in it that might be clogging the system. It took a bit of finagling, but with a couple corks and a broom handle, I held back the water and took out the pump. (Naturally, the tub was still off, but I double checked the power just to make sure.) There was no debris or anything clogging it, so I was going to put the circulation pump back in the system to get back my broom handle and corks (even though they were not being used). But before I did so, I decided that I wanted to see if something might have gotten beyond where I could check. So I took the pump apart.

I did not need to look at the electrical part of the pump. I just took off the housing to where the impeller (the part that moves the water) is. Lo and behold, I found the problem. The impeller was not connected to motor shaft. I knew this because it was all wonky (technical term) – it moved in a way that it was not supposed to move. I smiled a little because I had finally found the problem. Without spending too much money on our second-hand spa.

Well, I put the pump back in (to keep the system water tight), ordered a new pump, and replaced the pump when it got here. Tada! A working hot tub. (Rather, spa.) I was so excited! (I actually wrote this whole saga before I put in the circulation pump. But I was confident I found the problem. And I was gratified when it was. Now, we can feel those aaaaahhhhh moments we have been longing for.)

I learned some lessons through it all. And those lessons on becoming an expert on our particular hot tub were fairly inexpensive when it comes right down to it. So here are those lessons (so maybe you do not need to become an expert on your spa):

  1. Do not just look at the first website you come to when trying to solve a new problem. There are many experts out there. See which problems look closest to yours.

  2. Look at the problem from a systems perspective. In other words, look at the pumps and electronics and pipes as a whole rather than as separate parts. If I had done that, I would have seen that replacing the heater and thermistor were probably the right call, but replacing the motherboard was probably not. I should have looked upstream a little more to see what might cause the motherboard to tell the heater to stay off.

  3. Once you look at the problem from a systems perspective, if you have more than one choice for what is likely to fix it, go for the least expensive. But do not just look in terms of dollars. Look in terms of ease of repair too. All the items were pretty easy to replace, but there are times when you might have something much harder to replace even though it costs less money.

  4. Sometimes you need to call a real expert. (Thankfully, I did not need to.) There are some things you just cannot fix by yourself. Swallow you pride and call the pro.

If I was to do it again, I would replace the thermistor first (inexpensive and easy to replace). Then, upon not seeing the heater indicator, I would have looked at the circulation pump and replaced it. Then, I would have looked at the motherboard and heater depending on what happened. Then, I would have punted if none of those things worked. Sure. It is easy to say now. After all, hindsight really is 20/20.

The saga of the spa is technically not over. (Did you like my word play? Technical problems? Technically not over? I know. It is not funny if you need to point it out.) I just hope that the rest of the stories that come from it are about the aaaaahhhhh moments.

© 2020 Michael T. Miyoshi

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