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A booth at the 1971 NSPI show and the opening of the Dallas-Forth Worth Airport led to the creation of the world’s first acrylic spa.
Baja Spas, based in Tucson, Arizona, founded by Bernie Burba and Ed Price, began as pool builders in Naperville, Illinois, in 1960. Ed Price founded West Suburban Pools, a high-end concrete swimming pool builder, and Burba joined him in 1962.
When the pool builders finally had money in the bank, they expanded into other areas. In 1965 they formed Aqua-Gon, one of the nation’s first pool product distributors, then they opened several pool stores in the area.
In 1971, Baja began producing fiberglass and acrylic diving board stands. They were the first to use these two materials together in the pool business, and patented the process of vacuum forming fiberglass and acrylic. Burba and Price chose the name Baja because it was short and didn't pigeon hole them into one product line. Also, it was one of their favorite areas to visit in Mexico.
Sales of diving boards jumped, and by 1972, Burba and Price sold their business ventures in Illinois. Burba moved to Tucson to dive into the diving board business. The same year they were joined by Randy Price, currently the President of Baja Spas.
Life changed forever after the 1971 NSPI annual show. Baja Products, displaying its diving boards, found itself next to a booth held by Riviera Spas. Few people stopped by to look at the new diving board design, but the Riviera Spa booth was packed. The two realized that spas represented a timely business venture.
They researched spas and discovered weaknesses in current design and manufacturing of spas and hot tubs. At the time, spas were made of fiberglass covered by gelcoat, similar to boats and pool slides. However, gelcoated fiberglass couldn't stand the intense heat of spa water, the chemicals used for sanitation and water balance, or bright sunlight. “The gelcoat caused a lot of problems,” Randy Price says. Blistering and cracking were the main problems, in addition to delamination of the two materials, and fading from UV rays.
Baja however, was already manufacturing an acrylic-fiberglass stand for its aluminum diving boards. “We believed in our acrylic. So we decided to manufacture a spa made of acrylic. Our competitors said it wouldn’t work,” Ed Price says.
The company could not find a sheet of acrylic big enough for a spa. “Manufacturers at the time just weren’t making sheets that size,” sighs Burba. "Finally, we found the only one in the world” that could help them. It was Swedcast Acrylics (now Aristech) in California. Swedcast had large sheets of acrylic on hand because it was making sheets for the monorail cars at the new Dallas-Fort Worth Airport. Swedcast sold Baja some of these same acrylic sheets, large enough (9' square), to produce a vacuum formed spa shell.
Baja manufactured it first spas with three employees, and tested them by setting up a few spas in the intense Arizona sun. They also shipped their new acrylic spas to Illinois to test it out in a winter climate. “Those spas today still look like new,” Burba says proudly.
One of their first customers was Phil Horvath, president of Aqua-Gon, the distributor that Burba and Price had founded. Horvath says when he saw Baja’s first spa, it took his breath away. “It was gorgeous” he says. But it took some convincing to sell people on the idea of an acrylic spa.
Horvath held seminars for potential customers to sample the new acrylic spa. “We told them the acrylic was indestructible. We wanted to show them how strong the material was, so we hit it with a 2 x 4. It worked!” Horvath recalls.
In 1981, Randy Price opened a new production plant in North Carolina for the company. “We can reach 70 percent of the U.S. population in a few days by truck from that location,” says Price. In 2005 they stopped manufacturing in Tucson, AZ but kept their corporate office and service department. Even now, they continue to ship from both locations keeping transit time for their hot tubs to a minimum. Sales are worldwide.
Baja is perhaps best known for a specialty item, a heart shaped spa called the Luv Tub. The company decided to develop this tub in 1974 after Ed Price was looking through a brochure for the Mt. Airy Lodge, a honeymoon resort in the Poconos. One of the suites had a heart shaped red bathtub made of concrete and tile. “Ed Price looked at the photo and said, ‘We can make that in acrylic,’” recalls Bernie. Soon after, the Luv Tub was in production.
After some of their spas were in place for 10 years now, some of the same trouble of blistering and delamination that had plagued fiberglass spas, now began to appear in the acrylic spa shells. Working with the boating industry, a solution was soon found by switching from polyester resins to ester resins. No more gas blisters!
Randy Price and Bernie Burba have received two prestigious awards in the spa industry. In 1992, Randy was honored with the John Silver Award recognizing his technical contribution to the industry in the development of vacuum formed spas. In 1987, Bernie was given the Eagle Award by the Spa and Tub Council of NSPI (now APSP) for his contribution and leadership in the industry.
Bernie Burba and Ed Price are now retired, but Baja Spas continues operations and a legacy of innovation. Credited with the first acrylic spas in production, they were ahead of their time (by about 10 years), and way ahead of competitors like Cal Spas and other copycat manufacturers. The cost of vacuum forming equipment, and a lack of knowledge, gave many trouble migrating to acrylic production.
Baja Spas continues to lead the field, not only with quality products, but with solid, feel good marketing. At Hot Tub Works, we wish them well in their bright future!
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