Chemical Reaction

CYA use in hot tubs is a hot topic

Cyanuric acid (CYA) has long been an essential part of the toolbox for professionals who service and maintain swimming pools and hot tubs. Sometimes referred to as a conditioner or stabilizer, CYA does not affect water chemistry, but has been used in the industry since the mid-1950s to slow down the degradation of chlorine in recreational water. Without CYA, chlorine is degraded by the UV rays of the sun. A vessel of water will lose 75% of its chlorine to sunlight in two hours. In four hours, the chlorine will be entirely gone.

Dichlor, which combines chlorine and CYA, is a granulated sanitizer popular with many hot tub owners. The problem with CYA is that, while the bacteria in the water and the chlorine in the dichlor burn off, the CYA does not, actually building up in the water. An excess of CYA causes a host of problems, including cloudy, bad smelling water and skin irritation.

In addition, as the CYA in the water increases, the effectiveness of the chlorine decreases, requiring more dichlor, thus further increasing the buildup of CYA until the chlorine does not function at all and the water must be drained and replaced. A vicious cycle if ever there was one.

The degradation of chlorine in sunlight would not seem to be a problem for the average hot tub owner, since virtually all conventional tubs are covered when not in use and most hot tub use is at night. Dichlor is the type of chlorine best suited for hot tub use, so tub owners are stuck with CYA, whether they want it or not.

But is CYA really a problem in hot tubs? The answer depends upon whom you ask.

Thomas Rosander, president and CEO of Sonoma Hot Tubs & Pool Supplies in Sonoma, California, says no. “CYA typically goes up along with the TDS [total dissolved solids] and both reach a level that is not satisfactory after a few months of normal use,” Rosander says. “So it’s easiest to just drain the water, refill and start fresh, rather than dumping more chemicals in.”

Rosander, who has been in the hot tub business for 17 years, says the debate about CYA use in hot tubs is a new phenomenon. Most hot tub test strips don’t even test for the level of CYA, he says — another reason why it’s not a big deal for hot tubs that have a cover on them all the time, he says.

“It doesn’t really have a solution, but it’s a problem we’ve dealt with,” says Mark Henderson, president of Serum Watercare, noting that CYA was never seen as a big problem until recently. “[The use of CYA in hot tubs] has been around for years. CYA really means nothing in a hot tub because all you have to do is dump the water and start over.”

Dichlor contains 50% CYA, Henderson says, which is the ratio the Environmental Protection Agency requires. To change that to a lower percentage of CYA, chemical manufacturers would require long and expensive testing processes. He doesn’t expect that to happen. “Most of the manufacturers don’t care,” he says.

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Some spa retailers are not so blasé on the subject.

“It’s a much bigger problem than anybody ever wants to admit,” says George Dalhamer, owner and president of Hot Spring Spas of Dayton, Ohio. “I think it’s a travesty that the big chemical companies won’t accept hot tubs as a legitimate product category and develop a chlorine that doesn’t create the problem in hot tubs that cyanuric acid does with the use of dichlor.”

Until a few years ago, he says, lithium hypochlorite, a non-conditioned sanitizer, provided a good alternative to dichlor that contained no CYA. Unfortunately, lithium hypochlorite is no longer available because of the heavy use of lithium in batteries, especially car batteries.

“There is absolutely no reason in the world to ever have cyanuric acid in a conventional hot tub,” Dalhamer says, a 40-year veteran of the industry. “I think the large chemical companies are doing a major injustice to the hot tub industry by not producing a chemical that is, if you will, hot-tub friendly. Just think of how much water you could save, how much confusion you could eliminate if you didn’t have cyanuric acid building up in hot tubs.”

King Technology, Inc., manufacturer of pool and spa sanitizing systems in Hopkins, Minnesota, has done just that, with its FROG @ease, a self-regulating, floating sanitizing system that contains no CYA.

“It’s a unique technology,” says Lynn Nord, the company’s product marketing manager. “We call it SmartChlor Technology. You put it in the water and it creates a reserve of chlorine that automatically converts to free chlorine when it senses a demand on the water. Its self-regulating properties maintain a consistent low level of free chlorine at all times. Because @ease contains FROG minerals that also kill bacteria, it’s a very effective combination.”

FROG @ease was introduced to the hot tub market four years ago, but Nord says the company this year felt it was time to address the CYA issue head on. King Technology started a “no-CYA” campaign last October to promote its product as an alternative to dichlor. That campaign, many believe, is responsible for the sudden preoccupation over CYA in hot tubs. Some spa retailers and professionals in the water-care business who don’t see CYA as a big concern even write off the controversy as little more than a marketing ploy by King Technology to promote its products.

Nord, however, defends the company’s no-CYA campaign. She acknowledges that draining and filling a hot tub is a solution, but says chlorine can become less and less effective in a hot tub in as little as two months, and that the cycle of continuous draining and refilling to mitigate the effects of CYA build-up is a waste of time, money and water. According to Nord, the No. 1 obstacle to purchasing is a buyer’s concern that hot tubs are a hassle to maintain.  “We all want the hot tub industry to grow and thrive,” she says. “To do that, we need to make hot tubs easier to take care of.”