Manufacturers slowly push toward hot tub cover innovation
The cover is one of the most important parts of the hot tub in providing safety, energy efficiency and ease of use, says Andy Tournas, president of Hot Tub Products, an accessories manufacturer in Wallingford, Connecticut. He adds that, in his years of industry experience, the quality of hot tub covers and the difficulty taking them on and off the spa have been among hot tub owners’ top complaints.
However, spa cover manufacturers say that progress in this industry segment is slow, due in part to consumers not understanding the need for improvement within the category. While most manufacturers are working toward innovation, the status quo of an EPS foam-insulated, economical cover remains a top choice among end users.
Then and Now
“It’s safe to say that hot tub covers serve more than one purpose,” says Sylvain Daigle, sales director at Covana, an automatic cover manufacturer in Quebec, Canada. “It’s obviously used to cover the hot tub, but also to keep the water from losing heat — so insulation is important — and keeping out uninvited usage.”
Cover manufacturers must keep these usages at top of mind, as well as create a cover that is sustainable in harsh chemical and climate environments, Daigle adds.
But when it comes to changes to the covers segment, there haven’t been many, says Sony Banga, executive vice president of Strong Spas, a hot tub manufacturer in Pennsylvania that makes the DURA-SHIELD hardcover. “What has changed for the standard cover from the 1980s until now?” he asks. “In 1980, it was a foam core cover wrapped in vinyl. In 2021, it is a foam core cover wrapped in vinyl.”
Jerry Greer, CEO of CORE Covers, a manufacturer in California, says he’s spent 80% of his career in the hot tub industry, including working for Sundance Spas/Jacuzzi before CORE. “Covers always were an afterthought, kind of a necessary evil that had to go out with hot tubs,” Greer says. “Other than the ASTM requirements, there really wasn’t specific standards or OEM/aftermarket norms for covers [for years]. The industry was all over the board in terms of what kind of covers were out there.”
Following the establishment of the California Energy Commission in the late ’70s, Greer says energy standards began to develop for hot tub covers. “With that focus and prioritization came good insight for manufacturers and OEMs in terms of foam density, how center heat seals are done and all those things that affect the efficiency of the hot tub,” he says, adding that he’s seen some progress with energy efficiency in the segment.
Banga acknowledges cover vinyl has had very marginal improvement over the years. “But ultimately, the cover is still an Achilles heel for the industry,” he adds. “Ultimately, [foam covers are] still going to fail.”
It’s just been in recent years that manufacturers started working toward lasting change, Greer says. In 2017, CORE launched WeatherShield, a technical fabric composed of solution-dyed polyester. While still a foam cover, WeatherShield provides an updated look, better longevity and durability, Greer adds.
Matt McMillan, director of sales and marketing for Cover Valet, a spa accessories manufacturer in Long Beach, California, says CORE made a significant impact on the segment in using a cover material that’s not vinyl.
Cover Valet uses WeatherShield on its AirO cover, an air-filled hot tub cover launched in 2019 that is similar in concept to a stand-up paddleboard, using a drop-stitch vertex material for two air bladders to hold the air rigidly. The AirO can hold up to 500 pounds when on the spa, does not absorb water and is lighter than foam-filled covers, so it costs less to ship to dealers. While the life span of foam-insulated, vinyl covers doesn’t often exceed five years, McMillan says the AirO lasts up to 10 years.
“It isn’t too drastic of a change [to the covers segment] in appearance and function,” McMillan says, “because the industry is slow to roll. I’m not putting a UFO on someone’s hot tub — it really looks like a traditional cover, but it just gets filled with eight pounds of air.”
Banga concurs that the hot tub industry doesn’t seem to embrace innovation where covers are concerned: “Nothing has been massively accepted, and I think that’s part of the problem — that our industry has just accepted this idea that covers are replaceable and a necessary evil.”
On the Outside
In the last 18 months, Greer says he’s noticed large spa manufacturers moving to single-color options; many of the manufacturers that use WeatherShield for their covers are only ordering it in black.
He recognizes that it helps with inventory management, with the high demand for products the hot tub industry has right now, but says this is a big change. For years, the trend has been to try and get the cover color to coordinate with the hot tub cabinetry color, but Greer believes the one-color option may be a permanent adjustment.
“Some seemingly small decisions can be so effective for us right now,” Greer says. “For many companies, being able to manage their inventory more effectively — and even CORE being able to focus on raw material supply more efficiently — there’s enough benefits. If you stock 2,000 covers because you need four colors and you shift to one color, just the amount of [available] warehouse space, faster order turnaround and shipments that won’t go out without a cover is really dramatic.”
This change doesn’t have a fiscal impact in terms of material and labor costs, Greer says, “but there is a big savings for us, the OEM and the dealer in avoiding the cost associated with not having the right cover in stock,” he adds. “Everyone wins with the right inventory on hand.”
Banga, however, believes continued innovations will see covers become more visually appealing, beyond a cover-lifting system that tucks the cover out of sight when it’s open.
“A cover serves a utilitarian purpose — it’s not sexy,” Banga says. “You have these beautiful spas on the showroom with these beautiful cabinets and acrylic shells, and it looks fantastic. In brochures and on websites [the hot tub] looks fantastic, but they almost never show the cover. Then it comes to your house with a cover and they install a generic one-size-fits-all cover lifter, drill holes into the beautiful cabinets and the end result is a product that doesn’t look as appealing nor anything like it did in the showroom, brochure or on the websites.”
That’s why Strong Spas prioritizes pushing cover innovation and has hot tubs displayed on its website with covers on them. “It’s very visual,” Banga says. “What you see on our website, in the brochure [and] in the showroom is what you see in your backyard. The hot tub, cover and lifter system is all put on at our factory and arrives at the consumer’s house that way.”
Automation is becoming more important to consumers as well, both visually and functionally. Covana joined the hot tub cover segment in 2009 with the introduction of its automated gazebo-style hot tub covers. Strong fully automated its DURA-SHIELD hardcover in 2017. In fall 2020, Hot Tub Products released its ConvertALift system. Other manufacturers have joined the fray over the years too: Cover Valet, Ultralift from SMP, Leisure Concepts and more.
While Covana was built around cover automation, Daigle says the company recognizes that more advanced technologies will continue to be necessary. “We are looking at ways to open and close our product using wireless technologies,” he says. “But safety is our No. 1 priority. To ensure our covers don’t open or close unintentionally, we will continue to use a key for the operation to better control it.”
Tournas says automated covers are the future of the industry. The ConvertALift has received a positive response and no negative comments so far, he adds, and the swim spa version released in July. “It just seems like the right time to do it,” Tournas says.
What’s Inside Counts, Too
One thing many manufacturers don’t sidestep is that EPS foam cores for covers have been around for a long time and don’t seem to be going anywhere. However, in a world that emphasizes the importance of going green, foam is on the blacklist of products with a large eco-footprint. Several states have imposed bans on food containers made of expanded polystyrene foam, the same foam used in hot tub covers.
“It’s nonbiodegradable,” Banga says. “It’s a major environmental issue. The cover replacement market is huge and therefore the problem is huge. We have millions of cubic tons of cover foam filling up landfills, oceans and more every year. As an industry, we should talk about it more and come up with real solutions because it will likely hit us in the back of the head with a sledgehammer at some point.”
Mike Genova, owner of Leisure Concepts, manufacturer of spa-side accessories including the Smartop hot tub cover, says the EPS ban will eventually affect the industry.
“One day, maybe without a lot of warning, the cover we offer on half a million spas a year and probably another half a million replacement [covers is] going to be disallowed,” Genova says.
Even if the government doesn’t ban EPS foam, the consumer may start to push back.
“In particular, when we’re trying to appeal to a new demographic other than baby boomers — which we’re starting to see interest [from younger generations] due to a shift brought on by the pandemic — they have questions about where that cover is ultimately going to end up,” Banga says. “These are a much more informed and environmentally conscience buyers.”
Some of Covana’s products use foam as insulation, but it’s not the same stuff from the ’80s — it’s an eco-friendly product made of hydrofluoroolefin (HFO) blowing agent with a lower global warming potential. “We are careful to use the minimum needed for our products, and the little waste we have is sent to sites that will reuse it in other products,” Daigle says. “We buy from companies that do everything they can to reduce their environmental footprint.”
Greer says the Vertex air bladders CORE manufacturers for the Cover Valet AirO are a big step in the right direction. It was a serious engineering project for CORE that took five years, Greer adds, and he’s confident in the solution. CORE is also continuing to explore alternatives foam fillers, including soy-based. “There will always be that ongoing search for alternative foam options,” Greer says.
Despite research and innovation in the cover segment, getting away from foam insulation will be difficult, Tournas says. “It provides a proven economical solution to cover construction,” he adds. “I applaud the many manufacturers like Leisure Concepts, CORE Covers and a number of spa manufacturers for coming up with alternative solutions, but foam will continue to dominate the market in the near future.” It is clear that manufacturers wish to see the cover segment taken more seriously, pushing innovation and prioritizing development. Tournas is hopeful: “The best innovations should be focused on covers that enhance the ownership of the spa,” he says. “We are going in that direction, but slowly.”