I have received some requests to comment on the use of various home remedies for hot tubs, particularly vinegar. There are so many of these remedies that I can’t comment on all of them, and frankly I haven’t tested any of them — primarily because I haven’t seen compelling evidence that they work better than the established protocols. I am a minimalist, which means I use as few chemicals as possible in my spa — but I also use the most effective and safest products I can find: That’s just the principle that I follow in my own spa.
In this post I will briefly describe my minimalist approach, and then touch on the problem of sanitation and pathogens which will lead us into the real focus of the vinegar topic: How do we “deep” clean our spas?
What I use in my own spa
Without getting into special situations and details, here are the chemicals I use and consider essential:
- Chlorine or Bromine (regular sanitizer. I experiment with both, although I prefer bromine). I just can’t bring myself to use anything that claims to allow reduced levels of these sanitizers, such as Spa Marvel
- Potassium Monopersulfate, also known as “MPS” or “non chlorine shock” which I use weekly
- Sodium bisulfate, aka “dry acid”, which I use to control pH
- Ahh-Some, or “Hot Tub Serum Total Cleanse”, which I use prior to every drain to rid my spa of biofilms
In addition to these essentials I have recently discovered a companion to the “Total Cleanse” product above — one that isn’t absolutely essential but has made my life much easier: Hot Tub Serum Total Maintenance. I use this weekly (per label directions) to supplement my chlorine/bromine sanitizer. This product helps control pH, improves my water clarity and is an EPA registered biocide which means it helps kill bad guys. It has no influence over the levels of chlorine or bromine that I maintain in my spa, but it makes recovery from mistakes (or extended absences) much easier.
Update: I see that the manufacturer of Ahh-some and Hot Tub Serum has produced a new product called “Aqua Clarity”, which is aimed at further simplification of one’s chemical arsenal. At the time of this writing I have not tested this product but given this manufacturer’s understanding of biofilms I suspect it will be a winner.
The Problem of Pathogens
The present subject, however, is about cleaning our spas — which of course assumes that they need cleaning. Trust me they do — 100 gallons of hot water per person is a petri dish! With apologies for mentioning the unpleasant, I must tell you that the water in our spas has a lot to deal with: Sweat, urine, suntan lotion, hair products, metal bobby pins, skin oils, lotions, detergent residue in swim suits, band-aids, scabs and minor open sores, toe jam, yeast, discharge from noses and yes, I’m sorry to say, non-zero amounts of fecal matter– including the bacteria thereunto appertaining! And that is in addition to anything your bathers might unknowingly introduce into your water. Remember that this is a bathtub you don’t drain after you bathe… Sorry, it just had to be said.
If that isn’t enough, there are pathogens around us to make you even wonder why you even bought a hot tub in the first place. One such bad guy, commonly known as “pseudomonas”, (I won’t try to impress you by pasting in the full Latin name…) flourishes in hot water, and can even live inside of chlorine-resistant biofilms. Check out the CDC pages about this and other bad guys:
In addition to the above, check out the foundational materials on the Hot Tub home page, where I describe (with references) how biofilms behave and form on your pipes, form chlorine-resistant layers of safe-harbor protection for things like pseudomonas, and regenerate with vengeance when you make them mad (seriously, these bad boys are smart — they form their own colonies and self-regenerate).
With all of that, I just can’t bring myself to say “I want healthy water”: Truth be told, I want dead water! So to me, cleaning my spa of biofilms and all the nasty stuff that ends up in my pipes is no trivial matter. I Don’t take it lightly and I don’t skimp or cut corners. The safety of my family comes first.
Of course I use chlorine or bromine regularly — those “halogen sanitizers” are fantastic but they are not enough. Please Please read the above materials again — you must find a way to rid your spa of biofilms! Why would you want to get by with something easy (or even cheap) when your safety, and that of your friends and family, is in your hands?
The Deep Clean
I have tested a number of products claiming to clean my spa — enzymes, detergents — even some that have borrowed from the restaurant and beauty salon industry with weak concentrations of ingredients with really long names. None of the ones I tested work very well. One product I tested was simply re-packaged Borax in a really expensive container. Another very prominent one (O Yuk) did a little bit of good, but failed miserably in comparison to what I use on my own spa. Others in my tests simply did not do anything useful, and were not worth the price of the packaging material. Here’s the punch line: We need a way to seriously break up and release the biofilms in our spas with a chemical that is known to attack and bust up those evil molecules — not just “attenuate them” (make them weaker). Anything short of that and we are just living “blissfully unaware”.
I wish I had invented the EPA-registered product called “Ahh-some” (aka “Total Cleanse”). I even wish they would pay me to promote it. But they don’t, and since this site is about publishing my own results without answering to any manufacturer, I can tell it like it is. And here it is: At the time of this writing, “Ahh-Some” (aka “Total Cleanse” — same product only different color) is the only product that is strong enough to actually break up and release those miserable biofilms, so that the chlorine in your water (when you use Ahh-Some as directed) can finish the kill. None of the others work as well. I’m sorry but they just don’t!
This brings me to the subject at hand: Are there, in fact, home remedies or other short cuts that can clean you spa? For me, the answer is “No”. Some, like the many other products I have tested, may even produce a visible result — they are even likely to impress when used in a poorly-maintained spa or one with problematic water. But if you really want to deep clean your spa there is only one way to do it — and that is with Ahh-Some. I’m serious — at the time of this writing there is no other product that even comes close.
The Vinegar Verdict
What can I say about Vinegar then? After all, Vinegar is effective in the kitchen and other places for dissolving scale and cleaning up grime, so why not dump some into my hot tub? I love it when I can avoid purchasing a branded chemical just as much as everyone else, so is there an opportunity here? I would love to find out that Vinegar dissolves biofilms and is safe to use in my spa but I’m afraid that neither is the case. I’ve been asked to test it, but I’m just not willing to put my spa through the experience. Here’s why :
- The pH is too low for the safety of spa equipment. In emergency situations there is room for low-pH treatments — for example calcium scale, or calcium stearate flakes that have been known to occur as a byproduct of sloppy manufacturing. But as a general rule of thumb I don’t want to stress my equipment any more than necessary. Low pH eats copper, which means that the life of my heating elements would be shortened.
- Vinegar addresses the wrong problem. It will do something – and probably remove oils, slime or other stuff — but the problem at hand is, fundamentally, biofilms. And we already know that the best way to safely attack those guys — without shortening the life of your electric heating elements — is Ahh-Some. I’m not a chemist so I can’t comment on formulas or what happens at the molecular level – I can only report what happens in my spa. And I can tell you straight away — this stuff breaks up biofilms in grand style, and ceremoniously deposits the resulting goo on my vessel walls. I’ve never seen anything like it.
Go for the Gold
Concluding this topic, my personal view is that with my family’s safety on the line, I go for the gold. For example, I can’t bring myself to do “enzymes” (Like Spa Marvel) as a maintenance product because enzymes don’t kill bad guys directly — they only claim to eat the bad guy’s food supply. I can’t bring myself to use a mineral cartridge because they (too often) encourage lower levels of chorine/bromine. As for the deep clean, I won’t use O Yuk, Natural Chemistry, Silk Balance, SeaKlear, ProLine, Leisure Time, BioGuard, Eco One, or any other purge product because they just don’t work, at least in my experiments. I stick with what I have personally proven to be the best deep clean ever: “Ahh-Some” — and I use it every time I drain my spa.