Home spa or hot tub? In-ground or portable? This guide will help you maneuver through these tough decisions before you purchase and install a spa or hot tub.

By Sheryl Geerts
Updated May 29, 2020
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Whether you are planning a backdoor retreat or an indoor getaway, you'll need to consider a variety of issues before you purchase and install a home spa or hot tub. Although less involved than planning for a pool, installing a spa or hot tub isn't a task to be taken lightly.

Key issues you'll need to consider before building your home spa include:

  • Should I get a spa or hot tub?
  • Do I want a portable or in-ground unit?
  • Will it be indoors or outside?
  • What level of disruption will the installation entail?
  • What zoning restrictions will I face?
  • How will my insurance be affected?
  • How can I keep my family and guests safe?

What's the Difference Between a Hot Tub and a Spa?

You might have noticed that the terms "spa" and "hot tub" are often used interchangeably. This overlap in classification can be confusing, but for ease of explanation, the distinction really comes down to how they're installed and constructed.

The term, "spa" is often used to describe an in-ground spa, which is a heated body of water built into the ground (like an in-ground pool) and used for relaxation and hydrotherapy. In residential settings, in-ground spas are often attached to an in-ground pool and are similar to what you might see at a hotel or gym. The term, "hot tub" is typically used to refer to an above-ground portable spa. A hot tub or portable spa also is used for hydrotherapy but it's a completely self-contained unit. All components of a hot tub, including its plumbing and electrical system, are built inside the hot tub cabinet.

How Much Does an Outdoor Spa Cost?

The overall cost of buying and installing a hot tub or spa will depend on its location, type, size, and materials. According to HomeAdvisor, above-ground hot tubs average between $400 and $35,000 before installation depending on the material. A $400 above-ground hot tub, for example, is typically inflatable and portable, but less reliable and comfortable than other options. A $20,000 to $35,000 model typically seats 5 or more people and includes features like sound systems, built-in bars, top-of-the-line insulation, and several massage jets.

In-ground spas cost between $15,000 and $20,000 on average. It is often more cost-effective to build in-ground spas in conjunction with an in-ground pool. Aside from costs, the advantages and disadvantages of portable and in-ground spas vary.

Kritsada Panichgul

Pros and Cons of Portable Spas (Hot Tubs)

Portable spas, otherwise known as hot tubs, can be either an inflatable or hard-sided style. They’re considered portable because they can be installed anywhere and have the versatility to be drained and moved elsewhere. Hot tubs are designed to fit in a variety of settings, whether you choose to use your portable spa on your patio, yard, or indoors. Here are some pros and cons to buying and installing a hot tub:

Advantages of Hot Tubs

  • All-in-one unit equipped with the spa, support equipment, and skirting that hides the equipment
  • Easy to install. They can be operational in a matter of hours.
  • Suitable for small yards
  • You can take it with you if you move—unless you have built it into a deck or patio.
  • Typically very energy efficient
  • They often have more jets than their in-ground counterparts.
  • Because of the standard shapes and sizes, purchasing accessories like covers is easy and economical.

Disadvantages of Hot Tubs

  • Difficult to disguise. Many portable spas become an unwanted focal point of a landscape, sticking out above the surface.
  • You are limited to the size and shapes offered by manufacturers.
Erica George Dines

What Is an In-Ground Spa?

An in-ground spa can be custom built to fit your specific design and size requirements. Its structure is built into the ground as a stand-alone spa or integrated into an in-ground concrete pool. They can permanently enhance the appearance of your outdoor space when designed to blend with your yard or landscape. Keep in mind that the equipment to operate the spa is not built-in and can be bulky and noisy. Before each use of an in-ground spa, you'll need to preheat the water, unlike a portable spa's continuous heat system that keeps the water hot all the time.

Advantages of an In-Ground Spa

  • You can customize their shape and size.
  • Easily integrated into a deck or patio
  • Teamed with a pool or other features, they can turn your yard into a dramatic landscape.

Disadvantages of an In-Ground Spa

  • They are more costly because, essentially, you are building a miniature pool with water jets.
  • Must be built by a professional
  • The more features, such as additional jets, increase the cost because of the construction and additional fittings involved.

Indoor spas are typically made of formed acrylic. However, outdoor spas come in a variety of materials, including:

  • Acrylic: Acrylic spas come in preformed designs, though manufacturers offer a large variety of shapes and sizes to suit your needs.
  • Concrete: These in-ground spas are easy to customize to your site.
  • Tile: Tile often adds a nice decorative touch to a spa. Tile spas are labor-intensive and tend to cost more.
  • Gunite: For this material, the site is excavated, forms are put in place, and the gunite product is applied.
Jamie Hadley

Pros and Cons of Outdoor Hot Tubs

It’s easier to install and deliver a hot tub in your backyard than in your home. A level concrete pad or a reinforced deck are the most common surfaces hot tubs are installed on. Installing a foundation and making the required outdoor electrical connections is a lot simpler than moving a wall in your home. Thus, the overall cost of installation should be lower than an indoor hot tub. Being outside, there's also no need to worry about proper ventilation.

Advantages of an Outdoor Hot Tub

  • Outdoor hot tubs can become an integral part of the landscape like a pool. The experience is enhanced by being surrounded by nature.
  • The cost is often less than installing a hot tub indoors.

Disadvantages of an Outdoor Hot Tub

  • Poor weather conditions might keep you from being able to use the hot tub when you want.
  • Hot tubs must be covered when not in use to keep debris from settling into them.
Bob Stefko

Tips for  Installing a Hot Tub Outdoors

When installing a hot tub outdoors, make sure it is not placed within 10 feet of overhead power lines. It's important that adequate space is available around the hot tub to allow for access to the equipment panel. Placing the hot tub on a solid foundation that supports the weight of the tub, water, and the tub's occupants is key. Many installation teams will deliver, fill, and wire the hot tub for you.

A hot tub is the simplest type of spa to install. It requires a level, solid surface, and access to a power supply. An outdoor portable spa can be set up in a day. In-ground spas typically receive similar zoning considerations as pools. Be sure you and your contractor have the most up-to-date zoning and building restrictions. Most local communities have detailed guidelines covering such issues as fencing and enclosures, setbacks to property lines, and proximity to utility lines.

Jason Donnelly

Is It OK to Put a Hot Tub Indoors?

The big difference between an indoor hot tub and an outdoor hot tub is its location. An indoor hot tub is located indoors in the privacy of your own home. With this setup, you're just a few steps away from enjoying its relaxing features with the added convenience of not having to worry about weather conditions. To prevent damage to your walls, ceiling, and floor from hot tub condensation, make sure your home is constructed with water-resistant building materials and proper ventilation. The flooring material near an indoor hot tub should have good drainage and traction when it’s wet such as non-slip, matte-finish tiles.

Advantages of an Indoor Hot Tub

  • Perfect climate all of the time.
  • Complete privacy.
  • You can't get more accessible than a hot tub in your own home, so you may use the hot tub regularly.

Disadvantages of an Indoor Hot Tub

  • The extreme weight of the hot tub may require additional support.
  • This amount of water will create a humid environment, so proper ventilation of the room is key.
  • Dehumidifying equipment can be noisy.
  • Where is the hot tub located? Will guests have to scurry through your living room to reach a changing room?
  • Is the hot tub room itself waterproof?
  • A permanent indoor hot tub will most likely require construction modifications to your home.

Tips for Installing an Indoor Portable Spa

Look for models that are appropriate for indoor use to avoid drainage damage from the hot tub. Consider installing a drain in the floor to help you drain your spa to clean or move it. Most portable spas do not require external plumbing, however, you'll need access to water to fill up your hot tub. Plan for moisture in the room by installing a vapor barrier that will protect the wall studs from dry rot.

Plan for installation access into your home; you'll need clearance to get the spa to its permanent location. Portable spas can hold as much as 100 to 500 gallons of water and can easily weigh several hundred pounds. Proper support is critical. Most indoor hot tubs can be set up in a day.

Indoor Spa Rooms

If you're looking to create a room that will help relieve aches and pains, reduce stress and depression, and even boost your mood, an indoor spa room might be the answer. It could even help to sell your home in the future. These days, indoor spa designs can include cave-like walls, rocky perimeters, and starlight detail in the ceiling. When designing a new hot tub room, allow for the installation of cabinets and shelving that can accommodate towels and chemicals.

Because it often involves designing an entire space or environment for the spa, structural modifications will likely be necessary to build a permanent indoor spa in your home. Indoor spa rooms must be built by a professional, and operational equipment is typically separated from the spa to reduce noise. Construction time varies by the complexity of the project but can often run several weeks.

Outdoor Permanent Spas

Permanent outdoor in-ground spas are constructed on-site using a customized design plan and the same construction materials and techniques as a swimming pool. You get to choose the amount and placement of hydrotherapy jets as well as finishing materials like tile and exterior stone that decorates the spa’s walls. Additional embellishments like fountains, wall sconces, mosaic flourishes, and color-changing LED lighting add to the design possibilities.

Professional installation is required for permanent outdoor spaces. Plumbing and electrical lines must be run to the spa, and operational equipment must be installed. Excavation is also required. Construction can take as little as 2 to 3 weeks or as long as 10 to 12 weeks depending on the complexity of the project. However, if it is built with a pool, you can expect your outdoor permanent spa construction to take longer.

Can Hot Tubs Be Covered By Insurance?

Coverage for portable and in-ground spas is part of some homeowner's insurance plans. Some insurance companies raise premiums for owning a spa and others do not. Usually, homeowner's insurance does not protect against physical damage to a hot tub unless your policy has been specially written to include this coverage. Speak with your insurance agent prior to purchasing or building your spa.

Emily Followill

Hot Tub Safety Guidelines

Every homeowner should make sure their spa and pool guests know how to use the equipment safely. Safety is a top concern for pool and spa owners. Proper enclosures and supervision are a must at all times to ensure the safety of children, pets, and wildlife that might wander near the hot tub or spa. Completely surround your spa with four-sided isolation fencing with a self-closing and self-latching gate that is out of the reach of a child. According to the American Red Cross, a four-sided isolation fence (separating the pool area from the house and yard) reduces a child’s risk of drowning 83% compared to three-sided property-line fencing. Install a secondary barrier, such as lockable spa covers and locks that are out of the reach of a child on all doors and windows with direct access to the pool or spa area. Specialty safety products are available on the market.

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