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There are a number of different shell materials available. Below is a brief description of my experiences with each.
Vinyl; Used in the soft sided tubs. As a shell material I have found it easy to damage. Especially if the chemical balance of the water is allowed to stay out of ideal range for very long. In most markets where this type of tub is available, it will be, if not the lowest, one of the lowest priced tubs. The thing to keep in mind here is "You get what you pay for."
Acrylic both Marbled and "stone like" surfaces; Acrylic spas are for the most part backed by a fiberglass compound, and while bonding resins (the stuff that keeps the acrylic and fiberglass stuck together) have improved in recent years, acrylic spas backed by fiberglass, are prone to "delaminating" where the surface material and the fiberglass separate and cause unsightly bubbles. It is important when purchasing a tub like this to look at the "Surface Warranty" and not the structural shell warranty. These two are usually separated in the warranty coverage. It is also important to purchase a spa from a manufacturer that has been around a while. After a company goes out of business, in most places their warranty cannot be enforced. So a 100-year warranty that was issued by a company that is only around 6 months is not much use.
Acrylic backed by ABS plastic; this material on the surface looks much like the acrylic that is backed by fiberglass, but rather than adding a stiffening agent (fiberglass) the surface material is backed by (co-extruded with) a sheet of ABS plastic. ABS plastic is impact resistant and when co-extruded in this fashion rarely comes away from the acrylic surface. (Fiberglass will not stick well to ABS so it's use as a stiffening agent is very low for this material) The down sides to this material can be, that in order to make the vessel sturdy enough to withstand the pressure of the water it contains, most manufacturers will fill the cabinet with foam, which can make the servicing of leaks extremely difficult especially for a technician that does not have much experience with this type of repair. And in many cases spas that are foamed this way will have cabinets that cannot be removed, further compounding the problem with plumbing service. Also if the tub cracks, I have yet to see a way to fix it. If you go with this type of shell make sure it has a long structural warranty. The reason most manufacturers use this material is that it lowers labor costs, with nobody needed in production to fiberglass and as EPA and state regulations on the discharge of air pollutants gets stronger you will start to see fewer manufacturers using the old method of fiber-glassing.
Other Plastics Backed by ABS; There are a few other plastics that are used in the same manner as acrylic backed by ABS. They are marketed with too many names to list here but they are usually a white or cream color with a slight texture. They have all the same up-and-downs as acrylic / ABS. Plus some can stain with high concentrations of chemical, for instance if a bromine tablet sits on the floor for an extended period of time.
Thermal Plastics; Relatively new in their use in the spa industry, this type of shell seems to have great merit. In many cases the manufacturer will put a lifetime surface and structural warranty on this material. Catching on in popularity with manufacturers my best recommendation is if you are looking at one of types of tub shop around and purchase from a manufacturer that has been pulling them a while. It is easy to pull a shell with thin spots if the person running the vacuum former is not paying attention. So here again, buy from a company you believe will be around for a while. Most of these types of shells consist of a Polyethylene material.
Note* Polyethylene can and will turn a brownish color if low pH, high disinfectant levels and the presence of Iron oxide (rust) are allowed for an extended period of time.
With all of these types of shells, it is worth noting, that the shiny acrylics need to be waxed occasionally. (Exception: textured acrylic) It will help keep water line buildup to a minimum and will help to erase some of the fine scratches that can form during normal use. The textured materials can be cleaned with a plastic scrub brush. ( You can use the spas own water as the cleaning medium) Because they hide scratches, the long-term appearance of these materials is generally better.
Also worth noting about shell materials, the acrylic material is generally less effected by improper water chemistry. Where some of the softer plastic materials can be yellowed or faded by high disinfectant levels and prolonged exposure to sunlight in some instances. Damage like this is usually not covered under manufacturers warranties.
All shell materials can be damaged by direct sun exposure. When your spa is empty, keep it covered.
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