Eleven year-old Carli Vandenhaak knows what to do when she's sore from her busy schedule of gymnastics and soccer: "My friends and I sit in the hot tub. It's relaxing and fun."
Ever since the first explorers eased into a volcanic hot spring and discovered its soothing properties, people have been trying to duplicate that feeling at home. Hot tubs, or spas, have come a long way since the leaky redwood barrels of the 1970s, and with improvements in insulation, construction and sanitation, they're better than ever.
When Whatcom County landscape designer Chad Vandenhaak, and his wife, Michelle, got ready to celebrate their 10th anniversary, they decided to do something more permanent than take a trip. They bought an eight-person Jacuzzi hot tub from Barron Heating and Air Conditioning for their backyard.
"We love it," Michelle says. "Chad coaches sports and the kids are into athletics. There is always a need to soak, and it's a good way to reconnect at the end of the day."
Using his skills and connections with his company, Newscapes, Chad has taken a run-down farm and turned it into a country escape with extensive stonework, an outdoor fireplace, seating areas and tables, and even RV hookups for visiting friends. They hosted a friend's wedding recently on a grassy area near their backyard waterfall.
A UW Husky-fan "man cave" created from an old garage gives friends and family a place to play pool, watch games and imbibe beer. But no matter the weather or the party, the hot tub is always a big attraction.
Despite numerous places the tub could have been placed, they chose a location outside the master bedroom's French doors, then sunk the tub into the ground and placed stones around it.
"We didn't want to be tracking mud into the house or the tub, or having to hike through the rain to get to it," Chad says. "It's a consideration for anyone thinking about installation in this climate.
"We use the tub in all weather. Sitting in it and watching it snow after a long day of working outside is especially nice."
He also installed a handy lid lifter that not only helps fold up the heavy lid, it also stores the lid aside while the tub is being used.
For Greg Gudbranson of Bellingham, the spa's distance from his house wasn't as important as the view from it. He bought a six-seat tub from Innovations for Quality Living and placed it in the ground just below his hillside home, with a commanding panoramic view of Chuckanut Bay.
An insurance agent who formerly lived in forested Sudden Valley, Gudbranson wanted to take advantage of the spectacular scenery from every room, as well as the tub, so his house features plenty of openness and glass.
"I love the quiet privacy here," he says. "The wildlife comes around: deer, blue heron, eagles, raccoon and woodpeckers."
After snow skiing, Gudbranson invites friends and family over to soothe their stiff muscles in the tub and enjoy the view and the solitude. Slate stonework and native plants surround the tub, giving it a natural feel, while granite rounds lead to a nearby creek, pond and waterfall.
"I had koi in the pond, but the birds ate them," he says with a laugh. "I guess we'll keep it natural."
MONEY ALWAYS AN ISSUE
Some companies and homeowners list spas for sale at a low price. Are they worth it?
"A cheap tub may only give you four or five years before having problems," cautions Jerry Thramer of Innovations for Quality Living, in Bellingham. "Service is key. Will someone take care of it for you later when it breaks? Will anyone have the parts?"
Big-box tub brands are often short-lived, and while inexpensive, a lack of quality and the high cost of parts can sour the experience for buyers, say Jim Akerlund of Barron Heating and Air Conditioning, in Ferndale.
"Today's spas from a quality manufacturer can virtually last forever, and parts are readily available from the dealer," he says.
Although a tub can be installed indoors, many Northwesterners place them outside to enjoy the changing seasons and gaze at the stars.
On the ground: "If it's going to sit above ground, go with a quality layered acrylic coating like Rigid Bond," advises Thramer. "I've never seen a crack in it."
In the ground: "If it's going below ground in a vault, be sure there is a planned access to the motor area," says Akerlund.
KEEP IT CLEAN
There are no maintenance-free spas. You can handle sanitation chores yourself, or hire a company.
Additives: "Most people add hydrogen peroxide, salt treatments or chlorine," Thramer says. "Chlorine is not preferable, but it is effective. Ozonators use fewer chemicals, but all tubs still need pH and alkalinity balancing, and they have to have their filters cleaned regularly."
Zap it: "We sell a new ultraviolet system that disinfects without having to add something to the water. It's not ozone," Akerlund says. "It can fit into any existing tub."
BIGGER NOT ALWAYS BETTER
Don't buy an eight-person spa if there will be only two people in it most of the time. Remember, a larger tub means more water, higher power bills and more maintenance and chemicals.
Most spa salespeople recommend trying a tub before buying, so take your swimsuit to the dealer and climb in, because placement of the jets and curvature of the seats all make a difference.
Taimi Dunn Gorman is a Bellingham freelance writer.