Colors and water features make spas more soothing and aesthetic. January 31, 2006 Last March, Kevin and Julia Acheson installed their first hot tub in hopes it would ease the tension that built up during their commutes through Seattle traffic. It worked. The corner of their deck where the hot tub sits is a little Zen nook. A streamlet that spills down the hot tub's side sounds like a babbling brook, and the tub's exterior blends with the deck's gray wood. The overall effect is "magical," says Kevin.If you haven't shopped for a hot tub (also called a home spa) in several years, you're in for a few surprises. Eight years ago, wood was standard for the outside, or skirt, of the tub. But wood bleaches in the sun and rots in the rain, so wood skirts must be stained every year. Recently, skirts made from materials that convincingly simulate wood grain have become popular. The interior shells, or seating areas, have also changed. Shells now come in a broader palette of colors, such as opal and bronze, so they are more likely to match your house or patio furniture than the old standards of white, blue and brown. (Some manufacturers charge extra for certain colors.) Water features, such as side-mounted fountains, are the most dramatic hot-tub upgrades of the past three years. The Hot Spring Spas Envoy, for example, has three tiny fountains that shoot arcs of water. Such features make the tub a soothing conversation piece even when unoccupied. The Envoy, which seats up to five, comes in your choice of four shell colors with an imitation wood skirt for a suggested retail price of $9,395. (Dealers in this brand and others often charge up to 15% less than the suggested price.) Advertisement Premium hot tubs (boasting many jets, water features and easy maintenance) start at about $8,000. Comparably sized economy tubs with fewer jets and add-ons start at about $4,000. Jet settings Although the sound of splashing water is comforting, it's the underwater jets that knead tense muscles to relieve most of your stress. But you should resist the temptation to buy the tub with the most jets -- the one that mimics sitting on the spillway of Hoover Dam. Says Alan Sanderfoot, author of Hot Tubs, Saunas and Steam Baths: "One jet that provides you with the lower-back-pain relief you're seeking is worth more than 40 jets that hit you in the wrong places." Some models aim their jets strategically at specific muscle groups, so look for tubs that best suit your needs. For example, the Hot Spring Spas Envoy sports a unique back-massage feature with two parallel, vertical rows of jets that fire in sequence along the length of your back. Many showrooms have test models, so bring your bathing suit when you go shopping. Within the past five years, many dealers have begun offering "mood rooms" away from the main showroom for greater privacy. If you want to be pummeled, look for models that let you divert water pressure to a few select jets. The fiercest pressure comes from a tub with a high-horsepower pump that forces water through a modest number of jets. Alternatively, if you prefer a caressing massage, most models will let you increase or decrease the amount of air added to the water streaming from the jets -- the more air, the more robust the massage. Advertisement Costs to consider The Achesons' hot tub, the Hot Spring Spas Vanguard model, which seats six, cost $8,795. Tax and options, such as outer steps and a sanitizing device, pushed up the total bill from Seattle's Olympic Hot Tub Co. to $9,951. Kevin also covered the hot tub with a fiberglass roof, which added another $790. But other costs will add to any hot- tub owner's total expense. You'll need an electrician to wire the hot tub to your home's electrical supply -- and we don't mean simply running a new outlet to your deck. You'll need a 220/240-volt line and a safety outlet, for which you'll pay about $250. Many homeowners will need a major upgrade to their electrical system, which can cost up to $2,000. Most buyers install hot tubs outdoors, requiring a base of concrete, gravel or reinforced wood for the hot tub to sit on. Typical bases cost up to $1,000, and reinforcing an existing deck can cost thousands more. Expect your electric bill to rise about $15 per month. Rates vary by climate. For example, a recent study found that a four- or five-person tub cost $28 per month to run in Fairbanks, Alaska, but just $10 in St. Louis. Advertisement Water quality Paying the electric bill is easy, but keeping the water stocked with just the right level of chemicals isn't. You'll need to add chemicals to your hot tub periodically to clean the water and keep its pH level in balance. (Chemicals cost about $120 per year.) With a system it says is unique, one manufacturer, Marquis Spas, offers streamlined sanitation to lessen the hassle. Its Marquis line of hot tubs (with suggested retail prices between $7,225 and $11,355) have built-in sanitation feeders. About once a month, you insert chemicals into a feeder, which dispenses them automatically. No matter what brand you buy, you can reduce the amount of chemicals you need with an ozonator, which releases ozone to kill bacteria in the water. Ozonators work automatically but the ozone-producing parts need to be replaced periodically (how often depends on the unit). The devices are standard on some models but cost about $300 extra on others. -- Research: Elizabeth Kountze Advertisement DON'T GET SOAKED: Four Hot-Tub Tips Get your rubber ducks in a row before shopping. Buy at the right time. Retailers who sell both hot tubs and pools are unlikely to discount their hot tubs while they're profiting from summer's brisk swimming-pool sales. But hot-tub-only stores are more likely to offer discounts because their summertime sales are slow. Shop at home-and-garden shows. Dealers typically offer their best deals at these shows, and they often sell different models side by side. Ask for a price in writing so you can leave and mull over your decision. One caveat: It may be months until the next annual show opens near you. To find local show dates, go to HomeownerNet.com. Negotiate. You can press many dealers to slash $500 (or more) off their price or add a free option, such as a device that uses springs to assist in lifting the hefty hot-tub lid, worth about $500. Check the warranty. Look for stores and manufacturers that stand behind their products with no-fault warranties on important parts. These warranties run an average of five years. You need to insist on at least a short-term warranty because factory lemons generally break down in the first month or two of use.