I hear a lot of concerns surrounding a new hot tub purchase focused on hot tub water care - fears over the time and money it will take to keep the water clean and clear. I am not going to get into a technical discussion of how water sanitization occurs - just a brief discussion about water care basics, the options out there, and how we recommend keeping your hot tub water clean & clear with minimal effort.
The options for water care you most generally hear about are ozone, saltwater, chlorine & bromine. We are big proponents of ozone, as it is generally a 'hand's off' approach to water care. Ozone will keep your water sanitized and clear with minimal input or effort from you. An added benefit, it doesn't come with harsh chemical smells or the eye/skin irritation you can see with other water sanitizer options. The only thing required of you is to ensure the ozone is working properly - basically ensuring you see the ozone bubbles in your hot tub and/or notice the ozone smell (a smell that is similar to outside air right before a good rain). If these things are missing, you will want to troubleshoot your ozone system - generally all that is involved is replacing the ozone generator, which can easily be performed by you, the consumer. Or, if you prefer, a service technician can assist you with this process.
Chlorine and bromine are the next options - this would be maintaining your hot tub water similar to a swimming pool. You would manually add chlorine or bromine tablets to your skimmer basket as needed. The key here is regular testing of you water to ensure you have enough sanitizer (chlorine or bromine) in the water to properly sanitize. Monitoring your pH and total alkalinity is also key to maintaining proper levels of sanitizer. I promised we wouldn't get detailed and too technical in this blog, but if you would like to read more about maintaining proper chemical levels, check out this blog - it is pool related, but the information is the same for a pool or hot tub.
There is an alternative to using tablets in your skimmer if you prefer - it is the Frog system, and this essentially entails pre-measured cartridges of either chlorine or bromine, that you change out depending on how frequently you use your hot tub. These cartridges are either placed within the hot tub, if the manufacturer has an 'inline Frog system', or you can purchase a product called the Flippin Frog, and the cartridges will simply float around in your hot tub water.
We generally recommend using a chlorine or bromine backup to ozone - allowing ozone to be your primary water sanitization, but having a very low level of either chlorine or bromine, simply as a backup. This is definitely a conservative approach, but when it comes to water cleanliness, we feel better safe than sorry. We also prefer bromine to chlorine, as is simply holds up in hot water better than chlorine.
The last option for water care that you hear about right now is saltwater. Saltwater sanitization really just involves a generator that converts salt into chlorine, so you are essentially treating the water with chlorine as discussed above, you are just starting out with salt instead of chlorine tablets. The benefit to salt is you do not have the smell generally associated with chlorine, and you don't tend to have the eye/skin irritation that can sometimes come with a higher level of chlorine. The one downfall to salt is that it is corrosive, so if not properly maintained, it can take a toll on your equipment - specifically your heater.
If your water just gets completely unmanageable, we definitely recommend a drain and clean - sometimes simply draining the water and starting fresh will cost you less than adding chemical after chemical to get your readings back in line. We recommend a drain & clean at least twice / year - generally beginning of spring and beginning of fall are good times to do this, since it gets the hot tub ready for use at the change of the season when they are most likely going to get the most use.
One other thing to consider when thinking about water care and overall hot tub maintenance in general - we have found that given the high calcium levels typically noted in Oklahoma water, a lighter colored shell tends to lead to less maintenance, as the potential calcium build up won't be as noticeable as quickly.
Hopefully this brief overview of water care helps alleviate any concerns you have with keeping your hot tub water clean and clear.