Whirlpool bathtubs are low-maintenance, but not no-maintenance

I officially started my home inspection career on Jan. 1, 1993. One of the first homes I inspected was vacant, and had the largest whirlpool bathtub I had ever seen. It was a "bathtub" in a bathroom, but it was over 7 feet long and almost 4 feet wide. In fact, there were built-in pillows on both ends so two people could fit in side by side. My first thought when seeing the tub was "That's cool!" My second thought was "it must take 200 gallons of water to fill that tub." (Actually that was my third thought. My second thought was, after noticing the pillows on opposite ends, with two people in this tub, you would have your face right next to the other person's feet. But at least their feet should be clean.)

We were in a drought in '93, so I chose to not fill this large bathtub. In my written report I stated I did operate the faucets/water and checked the drain stopper, but I did not fill the tub due to the current drought. I received a phone call from a very angry buyer:

"I can't believe you didn't test that bathtub! That bathroom and whirlpool bathtub were the main reason we bought this house! How do we know if the bathtub works? I can't believe you didn't test that bathtub!"

So, I went back out the next day, and filled and tested the whirlpool bathtub. And to this day, I have tested every whirlpool bathtub. Now home inspectors are regulated in Arizona, and we are required to inspect bathtubs (by the Standards of Professional Practice for Arizona Home Inspectors). This would include the whirlpool function.

I wrote this column because I had a seller unhappy with me recently because I inspected his large whirlpool bathtub. His phone message went something like this: "I can't believe you filled that whirlpool bathtub! Do you know how much water that took? Are you going to pay our water bill for this month? I can't believe you filled that bathtub!"

To answer his questions: no and no (I don't know how much water his tub holds, and I'm not paying his water bill). And to answer a different question from someone else - the Standards do not require us to inspect "recreational facilities," which includes swimming pools, hot tubs and spas. Some inspectors may inspect swimming pools and/or hot tubs. Most inspectors charge an extra fee for this.

After seeing that giant whirlpool bathtub back in '93, I started thinking about getting one for myself (a "regular" whirlpool tub, not a foot-smelling two-seater). I had a hot tub on a deck in a previous home, and kind of missed it. However, I did not miss the maintenance and cleaning. Keep in mind this was 20-plus years ago when hot tubs were more like swimming pools for elves. I know that newer hot tubs are lower maintenance. That previous house was also in the Colorado mountains, so I usually had to clear at least a few inches of snow off the hot tub cover before I could use it (sometimes a few feet). So I thought a large whirlpool tub was worth considering - hot swirling water on my sore back, but inside the heated and air-conditioned home, and of course almost no maintenance (compared to a 600-gallon hot tub in the back yard).

So I started asking owners if they liked their whirlpool tubs. In 1993, whirlpool bathtubs were not nearly as common as they are today, so this was the first whirlpool bathtub for most of those I surveyed. There were a few who loved it and could not live without one now. And a few that had never used it. But the most common answer was something like this: "When we first moved in we used it a couple times a week. After about a month we were using it once a week. After about 6 months we used it once a month. After about a year we used it a couple times a year."

I stopped asking about whirlpool tubs many years ago, but I believe that answer is still true for some people. I say this because often I turn on the jets in a whirlpool bathtub and get some water about the color of eggnog. Sometimes I get black 'debris' shooting out the jets (chemical makeup unknown, and I don't want to know, because I have to reach in that water to open the drain stopper).

So to everyone with a whirlpool bathtub in their home - a whirlpool bathtub is "low-maintenance" but not "no maintenance." Here is the comment that appears in my inspection report regarding a whirlpool bathtub (assuming it worked):

"The whirlpool bathtub operated normally. Whirlpool tubs should be cleaned occasionally (usually monthly). Various cleaning products are recommended by different manufacturers. Generally, this involves filling the tub with warm water and running the jets for a few minutes with the recommend amount and type of cleaner. This keeps the jets and passageways clean and free of bacteria, algae, etc. Check with your bathtub manufacturer, or a spa dealer or supply store, for an appropriate cleaning product for this tub. Also, use caution with babies and small children in or around the tub when it is operating. The pump suction is strong at the inlet in the tub and may catch hair, clothes, etc., under water. Drowning is a potential danger under these circumstances."

This may be particularly good advice if you are having guests in for the holidays and have not used your whirlpool recently. It would be embarrassing if someone asked to use it and got particulated eggnog water out of the jets.

Randy West owns Professional Building Consultants in Prescott. He is state-certified and has performed more than 6,000 home inspections in the Prescott area. West serves on the Home Inspector Rules and Standards Committee for the Arizona Board of Technical Registration. Contact him through his website inspectprescott.com.