Push, Pull, Lift, Squeeze

Overcoming tough installations

Some spa dealers have the luxury of servicing flat, temperate, cookie-cutter suburbs where they can show up to a job knowing what to expect. Maybe there’s a tricky staircase or an uneven deck — but for some hot tub superheroes, every installation is a combination of logistical chess and “Apollo 13”–style improvisation and ad-libbing.

Help From a Hockey Team
Stefan Brownell of CNY Hot Tubs lives and works around Ithaca, New York. His immediate domain is Cayuga Lake, one of the long, thin, deep, bodies of freshwater south of Lake Ontario known collectively as the Finger Lakes.

The region offers postcard scenery, soaring views, some of the choicest wine country in America — and unrelenting headaches for people who install hot tubs.

“There are lot of high walls and cliffs that make crane service impossible,” Brownell says. “A lot of times I’ll get requests from people in a lake house asking, ‘Can you put a hot tub here?’ Once in awhile, I’ve honestly just said no.”

In one case, one of Brownell’s generational repeat customers wanted to replace an aging hot tub Brownell had sold him years before. The problem was that the house’s 150-foot reachout and snaking, S-turn driveway meant a crane was out of the question. The customer’s choice of hot tub didn’t help, either.

“He picked some monster 8-by-8, 1,000-pound spa,” Brownell says.

They discussed floating it in on a barge but ruled that out as a logistical impossibility. So how did he solve the problem? Slave labor, of course.

“The customer was a Cornell professor and a volunteer coach with the Cornell men’s hockey team,” Brownell says. “He told me he could round up as many guys as I needed any time I wanted.”

With the muscle in place, Brownell built a 100-foot ramp out of 12-by-12s and placed it over a 45-degree bank to connect the elevated position where the hot tub was down to where it needed to be. He secured the tub with two massive straps and a 200-foot rope. Six Cornell hockey players balanced the tub, three on each side, so it wouldn’t tip as it inched down the steep ramp while standing on its end. Another eight or 10 men had the difficult job of belaying the rope as the teetering spa slowly descended toward the pad.

Although the balancing team consisted of large men, it teetered and tottered the whole way down.

“You have an eight-foot spa standing on end on a two-foot ramp,” Brownell says. “So the guys could only reach halfway up the side.”

They had watered down the ramp to reduce friction, but it actually became too slippery.

“The guys at the top were playing tug-of-war with the rope,” he says. “I was gritting my teeth. I didn’t want to look.”

In the end, the spa was in place, safe and sound, within three hours.

‘A Whole Different Animal’
Three-thousand miles away from Cayuga Lake is Vancouver, Canada, where Dave Nash has several Splash Hot Tubs locations. Like Brownell, his part of the world is beautiful, rugged and difficult.

“Because the terrain here is cliffy with everything hanging out over the ocean, we almost never just put a spa onto a dolly and roll it into a backyard,” Nash says. “We almost always use a crane.”

Last fall, one of his own generational customers wanted to replace both a hot tub and a swim spa. The hot tub was difficult but doable. The swim spa, not so much.

“The swim spa was just a whole different animal,” Nash says. “We couldn’t get a big enough crane to lift it over the house and bring it in like we wanted to.”

The solution was to build a platform that extended the deck to give them enough room to “nose it in,” Nash says. The work was not for the faint of heart.

“Everybody was harnessed because we had to take off all the railings, and we were 30 or 40 feet above the ground from there,” Nash says. “We then had to take the swim spa with guidelines on the corners and thread it between the two homes and guide it through.”

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The tolerances were so tight between the two houses — just a couple feet on each side, Nash says — that they would have had to cancel the installation had it been a windy day. The spa would have become a wrecking ball.

Getting it onto the deck was only stage one. They would also have to sink the spa into the three-foot depression in the deck that would be its permanent home. Two thousand–pound swim spas dangling from massive cranes do not allow for that kind of precision.

“We devised a system where we built little cross spaces across, which were supported by blocks with holes running through them with ropes tied in knots,” Nash says. “So we put the tub in place, built scaffolding around it and used a hoist to lift it up two inches. Then we pulled the blocks out with the ropes, cut the little toe-in nails and all those big beams across dropped to the ground.”

From there, all they had to do was lower it down a few inches with the hoist.

“It took all day, but it was an awesome installation and the people loved it,” Nash says. “It looks just like it did, but it’s all brand new.”

‘Friends Don’t Let Friends Put Hot Tubs in Holes’
The Spa Guy isn’t just the name of the business Billy Stallings runs in the Nashville area. It’s also an alter ego he’s brought to life through a series of campy, comedic and informative videos on his YouTube channel.

One of those videos is titled “Do Not Install Hot Tubs in a Hole Ever.”

He should know. The video portrays what started as a service call but evolved into one of the most complicated installations of Stallings’ career. The tub in question had been placed into a hole, a no-no under the best of circumstances, and then entombed — literally. The company that installed the tub built a brick wall surrounding the entire spa, right up against the side panels, all the way up to the very top, which left exactly zero clearance for maintenance, repair or replacement.

“It had no access of any kind,” Stallings says. “You couldn’t get to any part of it.”

That made it impossible to service the tub, which was leaking. Not only was it encased in brick, but that brick had also not been drilled for drainage. The leaking water pooled up in the bottom of the spa’s brick tomb, soaked the insulation and rotted out the bottom.

Unserviceable, inaccessible and damaged beyond repair, Stallings had to tear the tub apart with a reciprocating saw and remove it piece by piece, which did not sit well with him.

“It’s not in my spirit to destroy hot tubs,” he says. “I fix hot tubs.”

Once it was out, Stallings was left with a giant brick-and-mortar hole that appeared to be designed to hold water. He drilled holes to allow the water to drain and prevent water from pooling up again.

He was reluctant to put a new tub where the old one had been subjected to such tortures, but his choices were few.

“I would want it to not have the bricks at all,” he says, “but there was no other option.”

He got a smaller, wood-free, rot-resistant composite tub that was small enough to allow some clearance around the brick-walled hole. But since the spa was smaller, it was too short to reach the top of the brick-lined hole. He solved that problem by building a platform from 6-by-6 timbers, which he installed at the bottom of the hole.

After muscling the tub onto the brick platform, he borrowed an idea from a fan of his YouTube channel: He put bags of ice in the corners of the pit. He used an inflatable bag to lower the tub, which then was propped up by the ice just enough to allow him to remove his bag. When the ice melted, the tub settled perfectly into its new brick home.

Stallings’ takeaway from the whole misadventure?

“Friends don’t let friends,” he says, “put hot tubs in holes.”