A back view of a Master Spas climate testing chamber sits empty awaiting a spa for energy-efficiency testing. The test requires a minimum of 72 hours of data total, but it takes a full four to five days of chamber time for the entire test. Photo: Master Spas

Getting Pumped

Heat pumps bound to get hotter, experts say

The spa industry is experiencing shifts in the way hot tubs heat. 

Due to economic turmoil and the European energy crisis, spa manufacturers and retailers are looking at heat pump options a lot more closely. “We are seeing a shift in the market toward heat pumps as a viable heating option across the board,” says Josh Hoots, product manager for heating at Hayward, a manufacturer of pool and spa equipment. “The technology is catching up with the market need.” 

Skyrocketing gas prices have even caused public gyms, hotel pools and spas to shut down in places like the U.K. and Hungary. Some countries, like Germany, have outright banned the use of hot water in public buildings.

Over the last few years, trade show vendors started showcasing heat pumps due to interest from European markets. But it wasn’t until 2022 that the heating elements were a dominant display product, suggesting that heat pumps are a trend, not a fad.

heat pump

in.temp is Gecko’s newest plug-and-play heat pump. Once connected to a Gecko compatible Y series control, it’s ready for use to regulate heat and cooling temperatures in a hot tub. Photo: Gecko 

The energy crisis has played a large role in the increased interest, says Greg McConnell, chief revenue officer at Gecko, a Canadian-based spa products and solutions company. Heat pumps for spas are no longer an optional feature — but more of a must-have — in European areas where electricity costs have skyrocketed. 

“Heat pumps were prominent at the trade shows and they were center stage,” he says. “[Manufacturers] know there’s traction for them right now in this industry. To put it bluntly, people went from ‘I’m interested in that’ to ‘Do you have an option for that now?’ ” 

McConnell says that dealers in Europe must now look at heat pumps as mandatory in achieving a sale. “I have to have that option,” he explains. “It’s an elimination factor if you don’t supply an option for a heat pump.”  

When hot tubs were first brought to the market, they were warmed with gas-fired heaters and often lacked high R-value insulation, or even covers. Then spa packs came along to electrically heat water, without the high maintenance costs — and now, the industry is seeing another shift, with the popularity of heat pumps.

Energy Costs Soar

Nathan Coelho, vice president of engineering at Master Spas, has also noticed the significant increase in heat pump requests.

Current events like the Ukraine-Russia war have created energy and electricity bill surges that have hit Europe hard. Even before the war, some countries, like Germany and Switzerland, had discussed banning electric heaters. Electric heaters are slow to heat and that’s not a luxury Europeans have due to high operational costs. 

“The most recent increase in activity is directly related to the energy crisis and Russia-Ukraine war,” Coelho says. “Some countries saw rates spike by five times or more in August 2022, which drove the desire for a more energy-efficient way to heat water.”

The most recent increase in activity is directly related to the energy crisis and Russia-Ukraine war. Some countries saw rates spike by five times or more in August 2022, which drove the desire for a more energy-efficient way to heat water.”

Nathan Coelho, Master Spas

While the U.S. has yet to adopt similar energy restrictions as those adopted by Europe, that may change. As of Dec. 13, 2022, the U.S. Energy Information Administration reported that the average residential electricity rate in the U.S. was 16.32 cents per kilowatt-hour. This marks a 15.4% increase since 2021.

In states like California, where rolling blackouts occur due to high demand on electric grids, heat pumps for spas may become reality. Hoots says that in California, where electricity rates can vary widely throughout the day, user-controlled heat variation can make a difference in electric bills. “That’s where the heat pump shines,” Hoots says. 

Reducing Strain in the Spa Industry 

Part of the challenge, however, of revamping spas with heat pumps are the space limitations and airflow requirements, Coelho says.

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“In many cases, it isn’t possible to fit a heat pump into a spa [cabinet],” he says. “This is important to note because portable spas are defined as ‘self-contained’ and certified as such.” Once components are intended to be installed outside the spa cabinet like most heat pumps, Coelho believes different permits and certifications may be required, depending on where the spa is to be installed. “With that in mind,” he says. “I believe the idea of a heat pump for use in spas and swim spas is still an evolution.”

Because of the rise in heat pump demand, manufacturers are taking note and making changes to make it easier on the market. Manufacturers have been fine-tuning heat pumps over the last few years. 

“The industry must keep trying to make it more convenient to get these pumps,” McConnell says. “If we want to make them more accessible to the general public, they need to be more accessible in price and more convenient to install.”

The size and cost of heat pumps are coming down and will continue to do so as manufacturers refine products, McConnell says. 

New Products Are Hitting the Market 

McConnell’s team and many other manufacturers are looking at ways to use smart automation that’s intertwined with heat pumps. 

A look at some of the newest heat pump offerings include: 

In 2019, Gecko revealed its heat pump solution — in.temp — an air-sourced heat pump that integrates with control panels and saves up to 75% energy consumption in comparison with electric elements. Gecko will release a third option during the summer of 2023.

In November 2021, Helios Technology, which acquired Balboa in 2020, announced the launch of its Clim8zone to heat or cool the water in a spa and swim spa with a variable-speed compressor. 

The Clim8zone heat pump allows for heating and cooling of a swim spa for an ideal exercise temperature, while reducing energy. Photo: Helios Technologies 

In November 2022, Master Spas shared it would be reworking some of the company’s swim spa models for dealers to easily be able to install a heat pump for customers.

These are just the beginning stages of what’s to come in the heat pump category, manufacturers say. 

“As the industry adapts its products to the new environment, it will facilitate the market rebound,” says Jean-Pierre “JP” Parent, senior vice president and managing director of Balboa Water Group. “Making spas ‘greener’ is a longer-term trend, but one that has a lot of potential. There are many new products — and not just from Balboa — aiming at this goal.” 

As an industry, McConnell agrees that greener is the future. 

His concern is if the industry doesn’t continue to innovate swiftly in a greener manner — especially in the North American market where trends are slower to catch on — that governments will intervene faster than manufacturers can handle. 

“I think this is what this industry needs to do, otherwise regulation is going to be on top of us before we can see it coming,” he says. “This is a long-term trend. We have to be more energy efficient. We have to think there is a market. This is just something that the world has to address at some point.”