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Therapeutic Spa: History, Selection, and Usage

"The classic furo, was a box of hinoki wood, sacred and fragrant, with a fire chamber set into one end.  The fire was fed from outside with twigs to transform the water into o-yu (hot water) -- a gradual, time-consuming process.  So the bath fire was lit early, allowing time for a leisurely soak that would keep one warm till bedtime."

- Isamu Noguchi

When I first moved to Falmouth, from San Diego in 1995, I was watching television one afternoon and saw an ad for a hot tub and spa dealer.  The commercial was mondo cheezy, an archetypal example of the genre. A bald guy lounging in a garishly pink foaming plastic spa holding an umbrella drink with two pneumatic blonds stroking his hirsute chest vigorously.  

"Norrie's Pool & Spa, Where Pleasure is King and the King Deserves Pleasure!."  

Yuck!  The kind of ad that you wince at.  The very next day, when I was working out at the gym, the television in the corner caught me off guard. Another hot tub commercial. This touted a completely different company, but was equally yuck.  "The Spa Guy," had three pneumatic blonds rather than two stroking his hairy pelt and making cooing gestures at his generous stomach.  

As I groaned with the effort of moving a stack of iron plates up and down it dawned on me that the Hot Tub Culture, here in New England, was perhaps not as advanced as it was back on the Left Coast, the land of fruits and nuts as they refer to California around here.  These two commercials are probably not statistically representative, but they contributed to the blank stares that I'd gotten from my new Yankee friends when I joyously reported the progress of the arrival and installation of the new spa that I had recently ordered.  Besides, there was the "23-Effect."  I mean okay, first two girls, then three girls, "2 + 3, 23!."  Think about it!

In California, the hot tub is an accepted part of the general health culture that evolved in the early 1980's and has matured into a deeply ingrained lifestyle and a multi billion dollar a year industry.  Having access to a hot tub, whether through a health club, or having one in your home, is considered almost a necessity of normal life. I bought my first hot tub, a used clunker for ($300 U.S.) before I bought my second car.

In New England, by contrast, hot tubs are associated to sex and sleaze (and baldness I reckon). I find this genuinely sad since the New England winters can be so mind-numbingly long and dark and cold.  My goal here is to help shine some light on this area and share what I've learned about the art and science of therapeutic bathing.

The perfect bath

To start with, let's establish a conceptual framework, a vision of the spiritually cleansing and physically rejuvenating bath.  The vision here is more along the lines of the Japanese furo or (ofuruo), rather than the more social pre-Christian, Roman, Greek, or Turkish baths.  Picture an immaculate, almost scared place.  A temple for quiet contemplation and rejuvenation of the spirit. For the tub itself, it's hard to beat the Japanese Goemonburo2; an improbably large caldron of cast iron filled with fresh spring water and heated halfway to boiling, to become o-yu (hot water), by the embers of a wood fire.  Before entering the tub, you meticulously clean yourself.  Preferably you are sitting on a small teakwood stool with a nice view of the blooming cherry trees. Warm water for washing is provided by a hand-held shower head.  Pumice stones, almond-scented soap and brushes are close at hand to scrub the grit and grime from body and soul.  Once clean, you enter the Goemonburo and sit atop a floating wooden platform that sinks slowly to the bottom under your weight. As the heat and bubbles rise, you feel the gentle release of all your accumulated stress and tension. There's no distracting whiff of carnality in the air at all.  This is all about health & cleanliness, more like prayer than sex. Afterwards, you feel spiritually renewed and ready to resume life's journey.  You want to be a better person after the perfect bath.

A short history

Hot therapeutic baths have been an important part of many cultures, and the idiosyncrasies of each have been reflected to some extent in their approach to bathing.  The Romans, perhaps best represent one endpoint in the refinement of social bathing, where "The Roman Baths" were a place to see, be seen, and make the scene.  On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Japanese approach to bathing was more of private a family affair.  Japanese towns sometimes have public baths, for example I visited one in Yokohama, but of the first luxuries a Japanese family might consider investing in is a proper bath.

Although the pleasures of a long leisurely soak are intuitively obvious, the health benefits of therapeutic bathing have only recently been generally acknowledged by the medical community.  Doctors now generally recognize spa bathing as beneficial in controlling chronic diseases like high blood pressure, arthritis, and even diabetes.  Being surrounded completely by hot water increases your circulation and causes your blood vessels to dilate. Oxygen and nutrients rush to aching muscles as toxins leave your system. Your stress level and blood pressure both drop, and since you weigh almost 90% less in water your body and muscles relax.  The heat also allows your joints to work more freely which is why the Arthritis Foundation recommends therapeutic bathing for managing arthritic symptoms.

Up until the 1960's the high art of bathing in America primarily centered around a handful of therapeutic spas such as Calistoga Springs in northern California, Hot Springs, Arkansas, Saratoga Springs in New York, and Warm Springs in Georgia.  This state of affairs began to change when a group of friends out in Santa Barbara, California utilized the natural hot springs in their area to create the uniquely Californian "hot tub."  As if to permanently dispel the notion of a hot soaking being the exclusive province of the wealthy, these early hot tubs were constructed of an amazing array of "repurposed," materials, old wine vats, huge concrete culverts, riveted steel boiler tanks.  Some of these worked better than others as you might imagine.  My personal favorite from that era was a giant oak tub that comprising the bottom five feet of an oak tank from a local winery.  This monster was almost ten meters in diameter and had been sawn to size with a chainsaw, buried in the ground by a back hoe, and was now constantly replenished by a local hot spring that flowed into the tub from a wooden flume on one side, and overflowed as a little babbling brook that burbled down a stony creek through the grassy meadow.

Word of these experiments in Santa Barbara made their way south to the City of Angels, LA, where they were quickly seized on by the large population of swimming pool contractors eager to offer something new to an affluent and self-indulgent populace.  Gunite spas became the standard, mostly because that's what the swimming pool crews knew how to build.  These "pool spas" were difficult to build, costly, and a headache to maintain. They were followed in short order by the first thermoplastic molded spas, inaugurating the next chapter in the evolution of therapeutic bathing.  

For many years a debate of sorts raged between the "purists," who felt that the craftsmanship and classic beauty of a wooden tub (typically redwood or cedar) trumped the many obvious benefits of a molded plastic self-contained spa that came complete with an easily maintainable filter system and hydromassage jets. For the most part, that debate is over and the low cost, much improved aesthetics and practicality of the modern "portable" spa has come to dominate the field.  Modern spas are fairly inexpensive, don't require any special floor or deck framing for support, can be wired directly into a normal house electrical system and are almost trivially easy to maintain.

So, let's say that you've decided to take the plunge, so to speak, and visit Norrie the Spa King. Here's what to look for in a modern spa:

  1. First of all, before you even get in the car to go shopping, make sure that your home can accommodate a spa.  You need an area at least 2.4 x 2.4 meters for a medium sized spa, and at least 3 x 3 meters for a large spa. Water weighs 3.8 kg per gallon, so a medium sized spa will tip the scales at around 1364 kg.  That is a lot of weight, but it's spread evenly over the entire bottom surface of the spa. Most modern spas are designed to sit on a normal wooden framed deck or floor.  If you aren't sure, have a carpenter look it over and decide if some extra bracing is in order.  If you plan to set your spa on a concrete slab, you should be fine.  The electrical requirements are typically 240 volts AC, at 30 amps over a four- wire GFCI service.  Find a bonded and licensed electrician and pay them to do the job properly. As far as locating the spa goes, when I bought my first one from my pal Dutch, he gave me a valuable piece of advice that I'll pass on to you: "put it as close to your bedroom as possible."
  2. Now let's consider tub material. Most spas are made of acrylic plastic.  Acrylic is the shiny slick stuff that comes in a million swirly colors.  It's the pink weirdness plastic that our friend Norrie, the Spa King, was lounging in when we met him, although there are many colors available and some are quite attractive.  Early acrylic spa shells had blistering problems and dark colored versions got hot enough in the sun to burn you, badly.  They were also a little tricky to clean because any abrasive agent, or even a textured sponge would mar the shiny finish.  Acrylics have gotten better over the years, and are an acceptable choice, unless you live in a really cold place like I do.  If you live somewhere where it snows often, you might want to consider the softer and more flexible plastics that are now being offered as an alternative to acrylic.  They seem to hold up better under the extreme thermal stresses that result at the boundary of your hot water and that blizzard blowing in from Canada.  An good example of this type of spa is the UltraLife series from Dimension One1.
  3. Next, let's consider jetsNorrie is likely to spend a lot of time telling you about the number and type of jets in each model in his showroom.  Don't listen.  Any modern spa is going to have an adequate supply of these things, and truth be told, they are as much of an annoyance as a boon in the long run.  The problem with spa jets is that after a minute or so they start to hurt rather than relax.  They are either too hard, or too soft, or they're not in the right spot... It's always something.  And when the jets are on, so is the noisy pump, further disturbing the peaceful feeling.  I'd only make one exception to this, spa companies have recently begun adding jets in the floor of the spa specifically to massage the feet.  This is a worthwhile feature and you will be delighted to discover out how sensitive your feet are.
  4. Size does matter, and it's the next thing to consider here.  My ready recommendation is that you buy the smallest spa that meets your needs.  After the novelty wears off, and you get over inviting your friends to try your new toy, you'll likely find that you need less spa than you expected.  Don't let Norrie sell you the eight-person, three pump 450 gallon Godzilla Maru model. This is way more water, more electricity, more chemicals and more headaches than you need.  For most people, a 4-5 person tub that uses under 300 gallons is perfect.  
  5. A powerful and reliable pump is the heart of the modern spa, so it's worth spending a little time in this area.   First off, get a spa with only one pump.  Many tubs now come with two or even three pumps.  This adds to the initial cost and means there's lots more stuff to break  Look for a single pump between 3 and 5 horsepower that has two speeds, low  for circulation, heating and filtration, and high speed for the jets.  The pump should be capable of moving somewhere between 100 and 150 gallons per minute at about 16 pounds per square inch pressure.  
  6. Insulation is another hallmark of a high quality spa.  Cheaper spas are insulated by spraying some foam insulation directly on the under side of the tub providing a couple of inches of brown glop to keep the hot side hot and the cold side cold. This is less expensive for the spa manufacturer, but you will pay for it in additional energy costs forever. If you look underneath a high quality spa, you'll find that the entire shell around the tub has been completely filled with polyurethane foam insulation, creating a strong, clean and super-efficient base for the spa.  I'll offer a clear recommendation here, don't buy a partially insulated spa.  
  7. The heating element for the spa should be capable of raising the temperature 3 to 5 degrees C. per hour.  This will allow you to change the water in the morning and still use the spa when you return from work that evening.
  8. Most spas now come with an insulated rigid foam cover that folds back and out of the way when you aren't using it.  The better quality covers are tapered from a ridge in the center to thinner edge.  This strengthens the cover and sheds rainfall.  If you live in an area where it snows, be sure to pay the extra money for a "high-density foam," spa cover.  The weight of wet snow will crush the normal ones faster than the EDB eats newbies.
  9. To ozonate or not to ozonateOzone is still a relatively new development in the spa world, and despite what Norrie tells you, it's not a completely proven technology yet.  Every spa needs some method of disinfecting the water and oxidizing any organic materials not trapped in the filter.  Traditionally, a halogen chemical like chlorine or bromine in the form of tablets was distributed through the water using a floating dispenser like you see in some private swimming pools.  Ozone gas has been used for many years in Europe as a disinfectant in municipal water systems, and as the cost of ozone generators came down, it became practical for use in spas.  The early attempts however were a disaster.  Ozone is a very strong corrosive agent and the first ozone-equipped spas were literally eaten from the inside out as the rubber seals in the pumps and valves and hose fittings dissolved.  In some cases, the ozone generators themselves malfunctioned, causing ozone levels in the water to reach levels that posed health risks to the occupants.  This was a very bad thing, and for awhile Norrie stopped touting ozone as a selling point.  Then, in the mid 1990's ozone was back, just like that.  No explanations, no apologies, no remorse, just the same sales pitch they used the first time around, "less chemicals, softer water, less hassle."  Who knows, perhaps they've gotten it right this time around.  I've always used bromine.  It's safe, it's easy, it doesn't stink, it doesn't break and it works.
  10. Finally, make Norrie give you a copy of the warranty and read it carefully.  A good warranty should cover the spa shell for as long as you own the tub, and all plumbing, pumps and electrical components for at least five years, parts and labor.  

But is it Furo?

But, what about the furo you might reasonably ask? Can this insulated ozonated 240 volt plastic marvel hope to rival the Goemonburo experience?  That is an astute question, and it deserves a thorough answer. Modern spas are fairly inexpensive to purchase and operate, easy to setup and maintain.  The higher, quality spas are even fairly attractive in a utilitarian sort of way.  Obviously there are some trade offs to be made between aesthetics and practicality here. 

But as far as whether they provide the spirit of the furo, well, you be the judge.

It's four o'clock in the morning and it's still snowing lightly outside.  I've been working on this for the last two hours and my feet are cold.  In fact, my toes are almost numb, but it's the kind of low level pain that passes without notice. You don't realize how cold and stiff your body is, until you thaw it out and loosen it up. I'm going to take a break to visit my home's furo and take you along in my head. You can decide for yourself whether this is Goemonburo-esque nirvana, or post modernist yuppie babble.

Now I'm outside, momentarily naked and shivering in the light wind and fluffy snow flurries. It's really cold and my skin is prickling as the snow crystals melt against it.  Not so much nasty as weird feeling and I don't plan to be standing here long anyway.  I flip back the upholstered foam cover, slip into the hot, clear water. I am instantly transmogrifed.  I keep the water temp in this spa at 47° C. (106° F.), which is on the high end for Americans, but the low end for Furo.  It's not my habit to lounge for hours in the spa, a half an hour of bliss is the usual scenario.  I'm here to pray, not to party, and the excess heat means that my body's core temperature is going to get a serious blast of thermal juice.  It also means that when I get out of the tub, I will walk triumphantly through the snow, with my arms held high above my head, and white steam pouring off my body. 

In the meantime though, I slip completely under the water, floating, so that only my face is exposed to the air.  Above me there is a wonderful panorama of weather.  The dark winter sky is filled with a million stars, and the last patchy clouds are hurtling across the sky like rush hour in the HOV lane.  The snow that falls on my cheeks and nose is just the last dusting that this storm can muster before it flies out across the Atlantic Ocean, yesterday's weather.  The thick, yellow trail of a falling star greets me as I rise from the water into a sitting position and activate the jets by pushing a little button on the spa.  There are different jets in each of the five seats in this spa.  If you've got the time, you can get a pretty complete hydromassage by just doing a rotation at each seat.  But tonight, I don't have the time for all that, so I just sink into the seat I'm in and let that swirling jet of hot water dig it's probing little finger into my stiff neck.  One of those private, almost embarrassing, groans of pleasure escapes my lips involuntarily, and it makes me snap back to attention, cause I don't want to drift off into reverie.  

In fact, now that my body is warmed through, my brain is more alive than it's been all evening.  I'm grooving on this.  I look up at the sky again, and am almost assaulted by a sight that brings immediate tears to my eyes. A satellite is plodding slowly but surely across the sky, from north to southSatellites look just like little stars, except they move.  I see them often, but tonight, the immediate association with seeing this little speck of manmade stuff in the sky is to the deep tragedy that I've been trying to get my arms around all day.  It's February second, 2003, and yesterday we lost The Space Shuttle Columbia.  Tears are all over my face and I'm suddenly not having any fun anymore, and the hot tub thing is over, sorry.


But then I came back up here & facing me was this half finished work, and I sure as hell can't go to sleep now anyway.  So, please don't be pissed at me for finishing this up now and just posting it as it is.  I guess it's my own little bit of the story, and it's as real and heartfelt as any of the others...


1 IMO Dimension One is the best spa made today: http://www.d1spas.com/
2 A great book on Japanese bathing: Furo, The Japanese Bath by Grillin & Levy ISBN: 0-87011-601-0

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