I prefer the tub upstairs with the jets and the instant (after filling it with water) access to my bath but I must say this looks like it'd be awesome. I was concerned about keeping the water and it would get dirty but they just drain it. Which is another issue but they do have access to lots of water and have no need for chemicals so that's great too.
MARTY PICCO, a 51-year-old software developer in Santa Cruz, Calif., does not seem like a back-to-the-land type. He has an iPhone, an iPad, two MacBooks, two desktop computers, a digital single-lens reflex camera and a plasma television. But when he bought a hot tub, he went for the lowest-tech model around.
Drew Kelly for The New York Times
Mr. Picco and his wife, Liz, 56, bought a red cedar tub that relies on a wood-fired stove to heat its water, an unusually primitive apparatus in an age of electric fiberglass spas outfitted with hydrotherapy jets, air blowers and underwater lights. The cedar tub, six feet in diameter, seemed to fit better with their home, a mid-19th-century redwood farmhouse, especially when he placed the tub outside in a nest of beargrass and wild sweet peas. But there was more to his choice than that.
“It’s fun, like a ritual that you plan hours in advance,” Mr. Picco said about his simple tub, which he bought a few years ago. “You chop the wood, get the firebox going and get really good at managing the fire to keep the water in a narrow range of 104 to 106 degrees. You have a real outdoor experience, as opposed to a Las Vegas experience.”
By all accounts, rustic wood-fired hot tubs constitute a tiny niche of the broad hot-tub market. Their most prominent manufacturer, Snorkel Hot Tubs in Seattle, estimates that it has sold a total of 15,000 tubs, a mere drop compared with the 6.3 million conventional hot tubs installed in the United States, according to the Association of Pool and Spa Professionals in Alexandria, Va.
But the recession sent sales of conventional hot tubs plummeting more than 60 percent from 2005 to 2009, according to P. K. Data, a market research firm. At the same time, wood-fired versions have begun to acquire a certain cachet, with people valuing them for reasons of thrift, environmentalism or, like Mr. Picco, a personal desire to slow down and commune with nature.
Precise sales figures are hard to find because sellers of wood-fired hot tubs operate independently of mainstream industry associations. But Tom Slater, the owner of Snorkel Hot Tubs, said that while the recession dampened his sales last year, they have “picked up dramatically” since then. “There seems to be a lot of renewed interest,” he said, citing the same “earthy essence” quality of the tubs that attracted Mr. Picco.
Similarly, Doug Brubaker, the owner of Forest Lumber and Cooperage, a business in Sooke, British Columbia, that sells various kinds of hot tubs, said orders for the wood-heated kinds have risen from 30 percent of sales to 50 percent since 2006. Dan Jung, who sells 1,000 hot tubs a year at Northern Lights Cedar Tubs in Winnipeg, Manitoba, said wood-burning tubs had risen from 5 percent to 10 percent of his sales. And there are new sellers, too: a Chinese venture called Richy (Foshan) Trading, which started making the tubs in 2008 and has already sold 100 this year, compared with 80 in 2009.
Attractive prices may be helping to propel these gains. The cost of wood-fired hot tubs hovers around $3,000; Mr. Slater’s models, for example, range from $2,300 to $4,100. But electric tubs with jets and enough room for five to seven people typically cost $3,000 to $7,000 — or much higher, depending on the features added. As for operating costs, the electric variety can typically reach around $350 a year, according to the pool and spa association, while wood-burning tubs cost little or even nothing for owners who use their own wood.
“Economics is certainly a reason why someone chooses them,” Mr. Jung said. “They have no operating costs other than wood, and a cord of wood, at around $150, could last years.”
THE modern wood-fired hot tub was developed in 1979. In the previous decade, regular hot tubs had become a wink-wink symbol of debauchery, but there was nothing lascivious about this woodsy new entry.
Roger Evans, 29, an engineering student at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, had a cabin in the Talkeetna Mountains where the only bathing option was to jump into a frigid stream. Eager for the occasional hot bath there, he tinkered in his university’s welding room and developed an aluminum firebox that could be immersed directly into a vat of water. Its high heat-conduction properties efficiently fired up the water, and the metal resisted rusting and corrosion. Mr. Evans dubbed his invention the Snorkel stove and soon sold several hundred a year through advertisements in magazines like Mother Earth News and Popular Science.
Mr. Evans’s company, Snorkel Hot Tubs, is now owned by Mr. Slater, and a handful of other firms also make tubs with submersible fireboxes. Other varieties of wood-fired hot tubs have arrived on the market as well. The Chofu heater from Japan, a wood-fired device that sits outside a tub and uses a “thermosiphoning” system to heat the water within, is rigged up to agricultural stock tanks for do-it-yourself hot tubs that cost less than $1,000, as well as to traditional handmade Japanese tubs.
And there is the Dutchtub, a portable soaking tub that looks like a giant cereal bowl with an attached heating coil for burning wood. Seventy of the distinctively modern Dutchtubs, which cost around $6,000, have been sold in the United States.
Erik Jacobs for The New York Times
Niko Kallianiotis for The New York Times
Erik Jacobs for The New York Times
While some wood-fired hot tubs are installed in urban areas — Dutchtubs, in particular, have landed in backyards in Brooklyn; Oakland, Calif.; Los Angeles; Austin; and Montreal — they may be best suited to those with easy access to plentiful wood, like Frank Rudy Schaeffer, 58, a fifth-grade teacher from Cambridge, Mass.
The Schaeffer family’s second home is set on 17 forested acres in Phillipston, Mass., 65 miles west of Boston, and he bought his first wood-fired hot tub for that property in 1987, based on a magazine ad.
“I got it sight unseen, just knowing it was going to be a great pleasure,” he said. After years of steady use, he upgraded to the latest model of Snorkel hot tub last spring. Unlike conventional hot tubs, his has virtually no operating costs, he said. “I have my own water and my own wood,” said Mr. Schaeffer, whose tub sits on a fir deck overlooking a trout stream. Besides the low-to-no operating cost, he said, “the power can go out and I don’t care.”
Many owners of wood-fired tubs also point out that they do not burn fossil fuels or pour sanitizing chemicals in their water. Generally, they explain, the water in wood-burning tubs is used for a short time and then drained, while in conventional spas the water remains for months. Moreover, they say, the water in conventional tubs is usually kept continuously warm — a practice they liken to keeping a car idling in the garage in case someone might want to go for a drive.
But others say wood-fired tubs are not all that green. Although wood is a renewable resource, its smoke does contribute to air pollution. And Kirstin Pires, a spokeswoman for the pool and spa association, noted that conventional tubs had become far more energy efficient because of consumer demand and new public standards, like those mandated by the California Energy Commission in 2006.
The owners of wood-fired hot tubs also concede that they are deprived of one of the chief pleasures of a conventional tub: spontaneity.
“Sometimes I come home from work and it’s the kind of wet, bone cold you get here, and I want to take a hot tub, but by the time I get the fire going, it’ll be too late and I’ll want to go to bed,” Mr. Picco admitted. “In those situations, it would be nice if it was just hot.”
But others relish the ritual. Charles von Simson, 42, a lawyer who lives in Buffalo, bought a Dutchtub four years ago for his family’s weekend home in the Finger Lakes region. He thoroughly enjoys what he calls his twice-yearly “wood cut production” — chopping a couple of wheelbarrows’ worth of logs, cutting them into six-inch discs with a chain saw, and splitting those chunks into smaller pieces with an ax.
“You have to be somebody who likes the process,” Mr. von Simson said.
Bruce and Judy Tarin certainly fit that description. The couple had wanted a wood-burning hot tub for years, but did not buy one until they retired from their jobs — he as a social worker and she as a casino worker — and believed that they had time to enjoy it.
When the $3,000 Snorkel tub arrived at their home in Port Elizabeth, N.J., last December, they planted it in their yard facing the placid Manumuskin Creek and quickly incorporated it into their daily routine. Mr. Tarin, 60, would wake at dawn, light kindling and a log in the firebox, read the newspaper and go for a run. By the time he returned, the water in the cinnamon-colored cedar tub was toasty enough for a morning soak. The total cost for using it throughout last winter was $50, for one-third of a cord of wood.
On a bright Monday earlier this month with a trace of autumn chill in the air, the two prepared the hot tub for an early-season dip. Smoke curled out of the stovepipe and the air was suffused with a rich cedar perfume. Mr. Tarin shifted a log in the firebox and peered at the water thermometer.
“Ninety degrees,” he announced. “Almost there.”
“It just seems so natural,” said Mrs. Tarin, 64. “ ‘Hot tub’ sounds like something electric with jets, so we tell people this is our ‘Japanese soaking tub.’ ”
Mr. Tarin stirred the tub with an orange kayak paddle to even the temperature throughout. “This,” he said, gesturing at the paddle, “is the only jet we need.”
"Those who are too smart to engage in politics are punished by being governed by those who are dumber.” - Plato