Hot tubs are hot right now and for good reason, notes Dave Ludlow, vice president of marketing for Dolphin Pools.

Why?"It's a very stressful world out there," he points out. "It's nice to come home, get into the hot water, outdoors, away from the household problems and duties, and relax.

"Also, they're finding more and more that a hot tub can be therapeutic. Arthritis studies support the claim that hot tubs are therapeutic. That they increase the blood circulation the same way it would if a person had just exercised. Then, of course, there are some real benefits to people with arthritis."

Dolphin has been in the swimming pool business for 38 years. For 20 of those years it has also been selling and servicing hot tubs. Ludlow says that 20 years ago about the only hot tubs around were those in athletic clubs.

"About 10 years ago interest in the tubs started to pick up, and in the last five it has really boomed . . . there are over 320 manufacturers of hot tubs today," he says.

As he points out, the first hot tubs were those in private clubs. Then the move went to private tubs at private residences that were place in the ground.

Now the move is to portable hot tubs. There are several reasons for this:

- A buyer can have one installed in just a few hours.

- They are less money because they are mass produced.

- They are easier to service because everything is out and accessible.

- They are generally insulated better that the in-ground tubs.

- They are more powerful because the pump can be placed a few feet from the tub instead of in some remote spot.

- And guarantees on the new tubs are much better.

"The only disadvantage is that some people don't get that custom in-ground look they want. We have done some things, however, to make them look custom, to make them look like a part of the yard and not just an afterthought," Ludlow reports.

As far as looking for a tub, he offered these suggestions:

"Look first at the company. Make sure that it's been in business for a while. We get people who buy a tub and a year later find out that the company is no longer around and that they have no warranty anymore," he says.

"And that's another thing - check the warranty. Don't just look at it, but read the fine print. The big letters may say a 10-year warranty, but the fine print may place so many conditions that it's not worth the paper it's written on. Make sure you know what the warranty covers and what it doesn't."

He suggests that buyers look for a tub with solid foam. Some companies, he adds, will spray several inches around the tub "and tell you that it's enough. Well, it isn't."

He also suggests that buyers know the material the tub is constructed of. Some materials will crack, blister and chip. One material that has proven to be durable is called "Rovel." This is the same material, says Ludlow, that the helmets used in the NFL are made from, "which shows you that it's a pretty durable product."

He also suggest that buyers look at the wood used in the cabinets. Hard woods will resist water damage and scuffing better than soft woods.

As far as prices, Ludlow says that tubs can range from $1,700 on up to $7,000. Most hot tubs sold are in the $4,000 range.

"For someone looking into a hot tub," he adds, "it would pay them to spend some time doing some research on what is best for them and what really works. Look around."