Friction in Your Jurisdiction?

Navigating fence codes for spa installations

Installing a hot tub or swim spa should be a smooth process, but differing local standards and interpretations can create barriers that alienate buyers. Using advice from industry experts, here’s how to reduce friction with local building code officials.

The common scenario

It starts when a homeowner seeks a permit. Despite the spa’s locking safety cover, a local code enforcer claims a physical pool barrier is required — perhaps even stipulating a fence around the entire backyard — potentially adding thousands of dollars to the project and deterring buyers.

What is the root cause? Local officials might be unfamiliar with the nuance between portable spas and in-ground pools. They may be misinterpreting existing codes or simply erring on the side of caution.

Documentation matters

Steven Stigers, executive vice president at Watkins Wellness, also serves as the chair of the International Hot Tub Association. He says, “In most scenarios, when you’re able to provide satisfactory documentation to the local code enforcer, they usually accept it, and the issue goes away.”

Spa manufacturers in the U.S. follow uniform safety standards, with owner’s manuals marking compliance. Upon request from the manufacturer, you can also get certificates of compliance from third-party testing agencies. Essential compliance documents include:

  1. Locking Safety Covers: ASTM1346
  2. Electrical Wiring Standards: UL1563
  3. Safety Suctions: VGB Pool and Spa Safety Act
  4. Minimum Energy Efficiency: APSP14 (or CEC)

Consider asking your spa manufacturer for an official letter. 

“At Watkins Wellness, we have on-staff compliance personnel who will write a custom letter for the specific situation,” Stigers says. “In most cases, that satisfies the requirement, and the permits get issued.” 

Build relationships locally

Justin Wiley is vice president of government relations, standards and codes at the Pool & Hot Tub Alliance. Based in Washington, D.C., Wiley knows the value of building relationships. 

“There’s an adage that says, ‘All politics is local,’ and certainly all codes and regulations are as well,” he says. “If you have an opportunity as a retailer, you should develop a relationship with your code official.”

One way to foster mutual respect is to understand how officials prioritize public safety. 

“They want to ensure that what a retailer, consumer or contractor is doing complies with the code,” Wiley says. “They trust in the code conformity process. Things are safe because they’re in the code.”

Speak the language

To communicate effectively, it helps to understand lingo familiar to building officials. A crucial reference is the International Code Council, the same organization that makes the International Building Code and International Residential Code.

The code council is a system of 15 model codes, one of which is the International Swimming Pool and Spa Code. Knowing sections relevant to your requirements can expedite approvals. For example, section 305 cites the barrier exception for ASTM F1346 locking safety covers.

In the U.S., 37 states have adopted this code at the state or local level. Known jurisdictions are published on the PHTA’s adoption map. If the International Swimming Pool and Spa Code isn’t recognized in your area, many code officials will consider documentation with the same objectives.

“Officials often have leeway to look at other methods,” Wiley says. “So, instead of having a 4-foot fence or 5-foot fence, the lockable safety cover will comply and meet the same function of the code.” 

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If retailers are still getting pushback, they should contact the PHTA.

PHTA: Your fence defense

Instead of getting lost in the maze of regulations, let the PHTA do the heavy lifting. About four years ago, the International Hot Tub Association and PHTA merged. While the PHTA serves as the parent organization, both arms work together to serve association members, with the IHTA focused on hot tubs.

Nathan Coelho, vice president of engineering at Master Spas, serves as the engineering committee chair at IHTA and is also a member of its strategic leadership team. He has firsthand experience removing regulatory barriers that seem daunting to retailers.

When a New York statute required fences to be installed around spas, Coelho worked with lawmakers to eliminate the requirement when a lockable safety cover was installed. Simultaneously, he helped take calls from hot tub owners and provided them with resources until the issue was resolved.

Wiley of the PHTA adds that retailers should be proactive as well. 

“If there are jurisdictions that haven’t adopted the ISPSC model code and retailers are willing to advocate for it, I would love to hear from them directly,” he says. “It’s much more effective to have local individuals and businesses willing to advocate for the adoption of these standards and codes.”

Less friction, more sales

Armed with proper documentation and a clear understanding of local standards, you can streamline the permit process. Foster good relationships with local officials and stay up to date with local codes while leveraging the support of the PHTA and using established codes like the ISPSC. Doing so will clear a path to easier installations and better sales.

8 Talking Points to Educate Officials

“Rather than simply protect the general area, our products have built-in safety barriers. This direct protection — on the product itself — gives consumers a higher-level safety benefit and added energy savings.”

“All hot tubs and swim spas sold in the U.S. have an ASTM F1346 locking safety cover, which can’t be opened without a key.”

“Fencing meets the minimum requirements and has proven safe. But lawmakers sometimes miss allowing even safer options like locking safety covers.”

“Hot tubs and swim spas are portable, not permanent. Hot tubs are often elevated above 3 feet, and many swim spas are even higher.”

“For compliance, swim spas are classified as hot tubs — not pools — so an ASTM-certified locking cover meets the barrier requirements.”

“Keeping the spa covered conserves heat and saves on costs, so it’s natural for owners to cover the spa anytime it’s not in use.”

“Typically, when a cover comes to end of life, it still locks. Usually, the underside of the cover gets a little worn and starts absorbing water. The cover gets very heavy and is harder to open. This prompts the homeowner to replace it.”

“We support consistent ICC standards like the ISPSC because it promotes uniform safety and makes codes easier to enforce. Our trade association, PHTA, can provide more insights, and I’m happy to connect you with the right person.”