Don’t ask me why but whenever I think of wood-fired hot tubs I think of the Clarvins, the gross-out, spiced meat-eating hedonists that Will Ferrell and Rachel Dratch played on the popular "Lovers" sketches from "Saturday Night Live." When thinking of conventional hot tubs, I think of the cast of "Jersey Shore," naturally.

Pop culture connotations aside, The New York Times reports that rustic, wood-heated hot tubs are enjoying a renaissance and not just among crusty, intellectual sensualists like the fictional Clarvins. Many consumers who would normally opt for a fiberglass jet tub with all the bells and whistles are going for wood-fired models because they are generally cheaper to buy and operate (especially if you have your own wood) and are debatably more earth-friendly (more on this, below).

And then there's Marty Picco, an otherwise on-the-grid software developer from Santa Cruz, California. He went with a cedar wood-fired model out of a desire to “slow down and commune with nature," placing it "in a nest of beargrass and wild sweet peas" outside of his home.

The 60 percent drop in conventional hot tub sales from 2005 to 2009 worked somewhat in the favor of wood-fired hot tub manufacturers like Snorkel Hot Tubs and Dutchtubs since the last thing weary consumers wanted to purchase and maintain during a recession was a tricked-out hot tub. According to the NYT, wood-fired models cost around $3,000 to purchase while electric ones can range anywhere from $3,000 to $7,000 and up plus operating costs of about $350 annually.

And then there are the environmental benefits of wood-fired hot tubs when compared to electric models:

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 also the drawbacks:

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.

Having never experienced a soak in a wood-fired hot tub, I must say that their back-to-nature qualities do sound awfully nice especially in this beautiful fall weather. But as pointed out in the article, firing one up can be a bit of a "ritual" given you can't just flip a switch and have a bubbly pool of water at your disposal.

Wood-fired hot tub owners and devotees, I'd love to hear from you in the comments section. What attracted you to these low-tech alternatives? The savings? The environmental benefits? Their earthy appeal?

Via [NYT]

Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.

Wood-fired hot tubs: Not just for 'Lovers'
Sales of wood-fired hot tubs are on the rise thanks to low up-front and operational costs and their low-impact, off-the-grid appeal.