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Maintain spa water & keep pathogens out

By Marcelle Dibrell

According to the Pool and Hot Tub Alliance, hot tub sales were up 6 percent in 2021, compared to 2020, when sales were already high. Similar to 2020, hot tub dealers and retailers surveyed reported that they could have sold more units, had they been available.

The lead time to get a new spa in 2021 was almost two and a half months, roughly six times longer than the average lead time pre-pandemic, but there are indications that the available supply is increasing as we move into the new year.

Labor shortages once again presented a challenge in selling hot tubs, and COVID outbreaks also caused problems when some hot tub dealers reported that there were times when entire crews were out sick.

The absence of skilled labor to perform installations was also an issue.

Hot tub sales were highest in California — which sold about a third of the country’s spas — with New York, Florida, and Connecticut trailing significantly behind.

The retail value of hot tub chemicals was also up, an increase of about 11 percent compared to 2020.

It all seems to point to an increased demand for hot tub service.

Unfortunately, the number of spas removed from service has exceeded the number of new units sold, meaning there is actually a declining installed base. And that means there will be a declining market for hot tub maintenance. Because about a third of spa owners employ a service firm to maintain their spas, service professionals may expect a bit less business for hot tub service, equipment replacement, and chemicals.

But even if that occurs, it remains as important as ever to take spa maintenance very seriously, because lack of disinfection in a spa, for even a short time, can provide a breeding ground for skin rashes, sickness, and even life-threatening diseases.

There are a number of waterborne pathogens that can cause moderate to severe illnesses that thrive in the warm environment of a spa. Many of these pathogens live in the biofilms that tend to coat the internal plumbing. The biofilms are highly resistant to normal disinfection and tend to form when sanitizing efforts are sporadic.

In a hot tub, biofilms are a rich mixture of bacteria, fungi, algae, yeasts, protozoa, and microorganisms combined with hair, skin cells, and debris that attach to the hidden inner walls of pipes and plumbing components.

Biofilms tend to take hold in hot tubs and spas for two reasons. The first is that elevated temperatures make it a little more difficult to maintain proper sanitation levels. The second is that the water volume is much smaller and the bather load is much greater in a spa: jets promote skin exfoliation, and heat promotes sweating.

The dead skin cells and batherintroduced bacteria quickly deplete sanitizer levels. If this depletion is left unchecked, the bacteria and debris will eventually begin adhering to the internal plumbing, forming biofilms.

There are numerous products currently available to assist in removing biofilm, although many manufacturers hesitate to make that claim.

Biofilm is considered a “pest” by the EPA. Therefore, any product label that claims to prevent, destroy, or mitigate biofilm on a surface is a pesticidal claim that requires registration under EPA rules, including product efficacy data.

In other words, all spa cleaners are not created equally, and it’s essential to look for an EPA registration number if the goal is to kill biofilms.

Not many spa purges have EPA registration, but here are two that do: AHH-some, EPAReg No. 84409-1 and Hot Tub Serum, EPA Reg No. 844092. They are manufactured by Unique Solutions of Vero Beach, Florida.

It is important to take action to mitigate biofilms because they tend to harbor many common waterborne pathogens, protecting them from ordinary levels of disinfectant.

For example, Pseudomonas aeruginosa is a bacterium that thrives in warm water and can survive normal chlorination if it is protected by biofilm. It causes itchy skin, red rashes, and sometimes pus-filled blisters. Symptoms generally begin from two to 14 days after contact. Although most rashes clear up on their own, antibiotics are occasionally prescribed in severe cases or if an abscess develops.

Legionnaires’ Disease and the less severe Pontiac Fever are caused by the Legionella bacterium that is also harbored in biofilms.

It is contracted by breathing contaminated aerosolized water. Pontiac Fever is experienced as a flu-like sickness while Legionnaires’ causes pneumonia that can be fatal in severe cases.

Nontuberculosis mycobacteria causes Hot Tub Lung, an inflammation of the respiratory tract. Like Legionnaires’, it is contracted by breathing microdroplets of contaminated water. Symptoms include dehydration, stomach cramps, fever, nausea, and vomiting. Treatment includes a combination of antibiotics and sometimes surgery.

There are also a number of fecalrelated illnesses that can be contracted in hot tubs.

Cryptosporidium is one such parasite that can survive extreme levels of chlorination. Symptoms include dehydration, stomach cramps, fever, nausea, and vomiting. Killing it requires maintaining 20 ppm chlorine for at least eight hours.

E. Coli is a bacterium that causes severe diarrhea with bleeding and abdominal cramps. Antibiotics are prescribed.

Giardia is one of the most common waterborne illnesses caused by a parasite that lives in human and animal intestines. It causes diarrhea, cramps, and nausea. Prescription drugs are given.

Hepatitis A is caused by a virus spread by contact with human feces. Symptoms include jaundice, fatigue, stomach pain, nausea, fever, and diarrhea. Treatment is bed rest and fluids. It may be fatal to those with compromised immune systems.

Norovirus is transmitted through oral contact with feces. Transmission through aerosolized water may also be a source. It can survive 10 ppm chlorine. The CDC reported that in 1997, three percent of cases were due to waterborne exposure. Symptoms include stomach cramps, nausea, vomiting, and fever. It generally clears up within 24 to 60 hours.

Shigellosis is a bacterial infection spread through contact with feces. It causes bloody diarrhea, fever, and stomach cramps. Treatment involves antibiotics.

In general, maintaining chlorine or bromine at industry-accepted levels will protect bathers from most of these pathogens.

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