My Poor Man’s Hot Tub

A step down from the poor man’s swimming pool.

You know how it is when you get an idea in your head and it nags at you until you do something about it? That was me this past week. But before I tell you about my poor man’s hot tub, let me give you some back story.

The Poor Man’s Swimming Pool

Back in 1997 (I think), not long after moving into my Wickenburg home, I bought a Jacuzzi hot tub on sale at Home Depot. It was about $1600 delivered — I found the receipt in my files just a few months ago! — and had two bench seats to accommodate four people. The idea was not to use it as a hot tub, but instead to use it as a soaking tub for cooling off. I called it my poor man’s swimming pool.

The challenge was keeping the water cool. I rarely ran the heater, left the top off at night, and kept the top on during the day. Still, the temperature hovered in the 90s throughout the summer months — which was actually fine for cooling off. After all, anything lower than body temperature will cool you.

In cooler months, a thermal blanket — think aqua blue bubble wrap — helped warm the water with the top left off during the day. I sometimes used it at night, but not very often. Eventually, I stopped using it entirely.

Hot Tub
When I couldn’t sell the hot tub, I gave it away. I certainly wasn’t going to leave it behind.

I returned home in September 2012 to spend my last few months in my Wickenburg home. The mild nights, dark skies, and bright moon attracted me back to the hot tub I knew I couldn’t take with me. I drained the water, sterilized the surface — after all, god knows what diseased scum was in there while I was gone — and refilled it. When I discovered that the heater had stopped working, I had it replaced, trading the spa repair guy the part plus labor for my old smoker, which I also couldn’t take with me. When I was home and the evening weather was mild, I spent evenings soaking with a candle beside me, sipping wine and gazing at the stars.

My poor man’s swimming pool had become a real hot tub.

I wound up giving it away in exchange for some moving services. After all, I wasn’t about to leave it behind for my wasband and his mommy.

The Poor Man’s Hot Tub

I’d gotten the idea of a poor man’s hot tub late summer 2011. I’ve been spending summers in my RV in Washington state since 2008, when I began doing cherry drying work with my helicopter. About two years ago, I started thinking of using a stock tank as a tub and recirculating the water through black hose in the sun to warm the water. Theoretically, by night time, the water should be warm enough for a good soak under the stars. I even began looking at stock tanks — Rubbermaid had a nice one with just the right shape and depth.

Stock Tank

The 100-gallon stock tank I chose for my poor man’s hot tub.

(If you’re not familiar with the concept of a stock tank, it’s like a giant water dish for horses, cows, and other livestock. They’re available in galvanized metal (which I don’t like), structural foam (which is like plastic), and plastic. If you think the idea of soaking in a stock tank is weird, you probably wouldn’t like the idea of swimming in a huge stock tank, either. Yet that’s what we did out at my friend’s off-the-grid Aguila ranch home a bunch of years back.)

But I never did anything with the idea. Why? Well, the first half of the 2012 season I was parked at an RV park at a golf course. I had no privacy and the folks who ran the place probably wouldn’t like me setting up such a thing anyway. The second half of the season was on a much more private site, but when personal matters back home got ugly, I was too distracted to deal with anything else. So the idea just simmered on a far back burner.

Until this year. When I got up to my semi-private campsite, I started thinking about how nice a soak would be in the evening when the day cooled off. My site has an amazing view of rolling hills, orchards, pine trees, and granite rock formations. It’s dark at night, so there are plenty of stars. And my future home is even more private, more beautiful, and more dark, so I’d get plenty of use out of it there.

I swung past the Ace hardware store in Quincy and saw they had the perfect tank. So I bought it.

I also bought a 25-foot length of black garden hose. Nice heavy-duty hose; I’m sure I’ll get a lot of use out of it. (I do regret, however, not buying the 50-foot length.) And I bought a hose adapter for the drain hole along with a spigot I can use to drain the tub.

I already had a piece of green bubble wrap to use as a thermal blanket. (I knew there was a reason I kept that thing.)

The last piece of the puzzle was a pump that would recirculate the water. I wound up with a 1/4 horsepower submersible pump that’s capable of pumping 30 gallons per hour. It’s not the speed that I need, but there weren’t many options on in the under $50 range. The pump arrived today.

Total cash outlay for this project: $175.

Monday, I filled the tank about 2/3 full — leaving room for my body to displace water — by trickling water from a spigot through my black hose. The water was about 70°F when I shut it off. I put the thermal blanket over the water, laying right on the surface where it floated nicely.

Tuesday morning, the temperature had dropped down into the 60s. Brrrr.

But by Tuesday evening, the water was up to 90°F — without even circulating the water! You see, the tank is charcoal gray and it really absorbs the sun’s rays. While 90°F would be nice for cooling off in the middle of the day, it wouldn’t work for that evening soak. I need it to be at least 98°F. Just over 100°F would be even better.

On Wednesday morning, the water was back down in the 60s. But by the time I hooked up the pump at 3:30 PM, it was close to 90.

Hot Tub Warming
Okay, so I admit it doesn’t look very impressive here. But it does seem to work.

I ran one end of the hose out of the top of the pump and lowered the pump into the water. I then stretched out the rest of the hose in a big loop in the sun and put the other end into the tank. I plugged in the pump and the water immediately began circulating.

Fifteen minutes later, it was 92°F. Fifteen minutes after that, it was 94°F. Thirty minutes later, it was 96°F.

The $3.99 pool thermometer I bought registered nearly 100°F when I had to pull the plug for the day.

Keep in mind that the outside air temperature was only 88°F at the time, so I think I was doing pretty well.

By 5:15 PM, when I was getting ready to meet a friend in town, it was nearly 100°F. By that time, the sun’s strength was just starting to wane and the outside air temperature was gradually falling. I couldn’t let the experiment go on; the return end of the hose was not securely fastened and, if it came loose with the pump running, the tank would empty within 3 minutes and the pump would likely burn out. I had to shut it off when I was not around. So I pulled the plug, made sure the thermal blanket completely covered the surface of the water, and went out.

I got back around 9 PM. The air was much cooler — probably in the 70s. The sky was clear, with thin layers of clouds to the northwest catching the ray of the sun beyond the horizon. The water temperature was still very warm, although it was too dark to read the thermometer.

I didn’t waste any time stripping down and climbing into the tub. (Yes, I got naked outdoors in a stock tank. Gonna make something of it?)

My Feet and the Sunset
I rested my feet up on the rim of the tub for this shot of the evening sky.

The water was wonderfully warm, almost like a bathtub. The water level rose, as I expected it would, but I realized that I could easily squeeze another 4 inches of water in there without overflowing it. I’d do that the next day when the sun was high again. Even without that extra water, however, I could submerge all of my body and limbs without becoming a contortionist — which had been necessary in the fancy “garden tub” in my old house. Clearly, this was an improvement — made all the better by being able to enjoy it in complete privacy outdoors.

I soaked for a while, looking out to the west where the last light was fading in a violet sky. It was quiet — so amazingly quiet. Restful, too. I could easily imagine finishing every busy day with a nice soak.

I stepped out just as it was getting really dark. I wrapped a towel around me and replaced the thermal blanket atop the water.

I’m thinking that with a little extra time for heating — perhaps starting the pump around noon — I can get the temperature up around 105°F. We’ll see.

But in the meantime, I’ll consider this experiment a success.

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15 thoughts on “My Poor Man’s Hot Tub

  1. I think you can do better without much effort.

    First as you noted a 50′ hose would be better than a 25′ hose but perhaps not necessary. Securing the hose with zip ties or safety wire would be an improvement if you don’t want to do anything fancy. You should be able to get a simple mechanical timer (like you would use to turn lights on/off at an unoccupied home) to only have the pump run during daylight hours. Finally you’d get a High Limit Switch to turn off the pump when the desired temperature is reached. The Spa Depot is in Olympia so shipping would be quick and they have given my friends good support over the phone if you need help picking the correct switch.

    You can probably pick up a weather-tight plastic electrical box and cover with cable glands from your local hardware store to house the switch. Prudence would dictate plugging it into a GFCI protected outlet and disconnecting it when you use the tub. I’ll bet you could finish the job for $50 and have an automated solar heated stock tank soaking tub.

  2. You could also rig a 12 volt pump (sold for fish ponds) and solar panel to run it. The pump only runs when the sun is shining which is the only time the sun heats the water anyway.

    • I thought of that but couldn’t find one (at first) to do the job. I think that is a better solution. Maybe I’ll set it up that way next summer. Thanks!

  3. I want to do this, too. But, I want to heat the water. Can I use the electrode thing sold at rural king, etc. The one that looks like a curling iron ?

    • This comment is kind of spammy, but I’ll let it go. Interesting product. Mine’s heated with solar power and it’s easy enough to remove the pump from the water so there’s no danger of burning. I’ve gotten the water temperature up to 110°F.

  4. Hi. Please tell me how much was the tub and where did you get it? I just checked the Rubbermaid site but they’re selling them by quantity. “>(

    • It’s actually not rubber. It’s plastic. A hard molded plastic. The company is called Rubbermaid, but the tank is plastic.

      I think it’s easier to keep clean than metal and it definitely won’t rust.

What do you think?