Feel the Heat

Everyone wants the spa bath experience these days. Whether they crave a zen-like retreat for quiet meditation or a practical paradise that incorporates hydrotherapy, chromatherapy and aromatherapy, consumers want baths that will look good, feel good, smell good and even help support their good health.

“Homeowners are beginning to realize that they can recreate the serenity and rejuvenation that they feel at the spa, right in their own homes,” says Andrew Stokely, marketing manager for Jacuzzi Whirlpool Bath, in Chino, CA

Dan Reinert, v.p., Mr.Steam, in Long Island City, NY agrees. “The trend is to search out holistic solutions to your health,” he says.

Heat therapy in the form of water or air jetted tubs, steam showers or saunas, is central to recreating the spa experience at home. Choices abound in these products, and what people are asking for depends a lot on what they hope to get from the experience, say manufacturers recently surveyed by Kitchen & Bath Design News.

“Customizing the bath environment – both in and out of the tub – is huge right now,” says Stokely.

“The people who are purchasing our tubs are putting a lot of thought and a lot of money into them,” agrees Michael Kornowa, director of marketing for MTI Whirlpools, in Sugar Hill, GA. “That all fits with the whole approach of creating your own home spa environment, that area where you can get away from the rat race and just rejuvenate,” he explains.

Water VS. Air

There has been much discussion about which type of jetted tub is most in demand – air or water. The answer varies greatly among manufacturers, designers and consumers.

Stokely says, “There’s no doubt that whirlpools still represent the bulk of hydrotherapy purchases. However, air tubs and combination units are fast-growing items.” He adds, “Combination units give homeowners the best of both worlds and combine both whirlpool and air tub technologies. In the case of Jacuzzi’s Salon Spa models, for instance, the consumer can control both systems completely independently, allowing a totally customized bathing experience.”

Combination units are getting a lot of attention for the choices they offer the user – or multiple users in the same household. “[Air is] a light full body massage compared to a deep tissue massage provided by a whirlpool,” Kornowa says. “Those are two different therapies, and one does not take the place of another. We find a lot of customers ordering their products with both so that they can have the best of both worlds.”

Scott Tennant, COO of the Cliffwood, NJ-based Acryline USA, Inc. stresses the importance of knowing that there are two types of air systems – injection air and channel air. With channel air, a therapeutic muscle massage is possible, and for some, it’s even more appealing than the water jet massage, says Tennant. “Our clients have told us that our channel air system delivers a very significant body pressure massage and it’s the kind they want. What they mean is they are tired of getting pounded by a whirlpool, and they want something that gives them a whole body massage without beating them up.”

Tennant wants to dispel the idea that you can’t get a pressure massage from an air system. “You can’t get a forced water column pressure,” he says, but “you get enormous amounts of air volume at velocity real low in the bath well. Air doesn’t shoot into the center of the bath, it goes an inch, inch and a half in, looks for the surface and races towards the surface. The more air you get racing towards the surface and along the perimeter of the bath well, the more water you push into motion. That’s how channel air systems create water pressure,” he explains.

Kip McFarland, national sales and marketing manager USA for Oceania Baths, Inc. in Thetford Mines, Quebec agrees. “We tell people the air does not massage you. What the air does is create turbulence in the water. It’s the turbulence that actually is moving the muscles every direction in the world. That’s what does the massaging.” And while 70% of what Oceania sells has bottom air using the injection technology, he says, “injected air on bottom is strictly an accessory, not the primary.”

Oceania offers tubs with channel air, injection air and also whirlpools, but he believes, “The trend is that the whirlpool in the upper end…is dying very rapidly.”

While others disagree and believe whirlpools will always be in demand, the growth in combination tubs suggests that consumers are intrigued by the idea of having different therapy options in their tubs.

Beyond the Basics

Indeed, regardless of the jet system selected, a choice of options is important for all therapy baths, manufacturers say. “Tailoring customers’ bath environment and home spa experience to [homeowners’] unique desires has taken on a whole new meaning now that we’ve brought the technology from professional spas into the home,” say Stokely.

The desire for deeper baths is still strong, manufacturers say.

And yet, “People want a deeper water level but no larger a bath,” says Tennant. Acryline has responded by creating the Immersion bath, where the overflow was inverted to gain 3" of water depth without creating a larger bath. The Immersion bath is available as both a soaking tub and air system bath, and will soon have an island version as well.

Another major trend is the growing emphasis on aging-in-place and Universal Design, says Stokely. “Multi-generational access units including walk-in bath units are extremely hot in the marketplace and appeal to a wide age range of consumers,” he says. Jacuzzi has introduced the Finestra Walk-in Bath, with an airtight magnetic door seal to ensure no leakage. “It is proven technology from the refrigerator market, but unique in the bath industry,” says Stokely.

There are a multitude of other enhancements available for jetted tubs, including innovations such as MTI’s Stereo H2O system, which turns the bathtub into a sounding board, allowing for music without speakers mounted to the walls or ceilings.
Controls for the tub are also advancing in their technology. McFarland says that Oceania Baths has a floating remote control that is highly engineered, but at the same time simple. With a significant percentage of tubs being undermounted, the remote adds to the overall look by keeping the deck clean, and not requiring a keypad on the wall, McFarland says.

Tennant notes that people buy baths for the look, and, “the cleaner the look, the better. The fewer objects on it, the more attractive it is.” To that end, Acryline’s Ultimate II System is a removable control that gives the user the ability to control the channel air, injection air and light systems independently or choose from three preprogrammed massage cycles and nine light programs. The system, Tennant says, consolidates all controls from an aesthetic standpoint and provides individuals with a very simple routine.

Maintenance & Safety

Maintenance issues have also long played a role in whirlpool and air bath trends. “There’s no doubt that everyone seems to have less time than they used to. Busy homeowners are always looking for ways to streamline the maintenance and cleaning of their bath units,” says Stokely.

Kornowa says that the rise in popularity of air baths is in part due to the perception that air baths are cleaner. “The fact of the matter is you can have a dirty whirlpool and a dirty air bath,” he says. “It depends on how the system is engineered, [and] what kind of sanitary features and precautions are built into the system.”

Manufacturers have developed their own cleaning and maintenance systems in response to these concerns, and are using varied technologies such as inverted “v” drain jets, ozone sanitation, check valves and automatic purge cycles.

McFarland addresses ozone as a hygiene measure, saying that it is not UL approved in confined spaces such as a bathroom because of foreign gases being introduced into an enclosed space. He feels strongly that, for safety reasons, people should stick to products that are UL certified, and cautions that although each piece (blower, jets) may be approved, when they are all put together, the bathtub itself may not be, so it’s important for design professionals to check this before specifying a product.

Hot & Steamy

While jetted tub manufacturers say they have seen some decline in sales, steam and sauna manufacturers say they have been holding steady or seeing growth.

Steam therapy works in many ways: To relieve tired muscles after a hard workout, to open pores and leave skin softer and more supple, and as a natural detoxification to remove impurities from the body. “These health-based trends continue to drive increased interest in the residential steam bath category today,” says Reinert

Jim Hass, national sales and marketing manager for Amerec Sauna and Steam in Woodinville, WA agrees. “Steam has enjoyed some significant growth in the last five to six years as interest in showers has increased,” he says.

In addition, Hass says that steam is very eco friendly, fitting nicely into the green movement. He says that steam consumes very small amounts of water compared to tubs, and even to shower sprays, on average using no more than three gallons of water for a half-hour steam bath.

Controls that complement the design of the bathroom are becoming more and more important to designers as well, manufacturers say. The mechanical wind-up timer outside the steam room is being replaced by digital controls with a lot of pizzazz. “People are more concerned in general about what their bathroom looks like,” says Hass. “In the ’70s people were concerned with utility. Now, they decorate, and they do so every few years.”

He adds that with all the options on the market, people are paying more attention to the aesthetics, not just accepting what comes with the unit, but exploring options to find what they like.

Mitch Altman, CEO for Thermasol in Simi Valley, CA says that Thermasol has two looks in controls, which were designed to speak to the design elements in the rest of the bath. “Designers can now choose the contemporary look to match the rest of the plumbing fixtures or the traditional look,” he says.

Reinert adds, “As the only part of the product that is seen in the steam room, the design of the controls and steam head definitely play a role in the importance of the design of the shower.

Mr.Steam’s steamtherapy steam head incorporates design features that include reduced surface temperature and more even distribution of steam flow into the room, resulting in a safer and quieter steam bathing experience.”

Though the idea may be to slow down and relax in a steam shower, people don’t want to wait to do so. Another technology for steam products that is beginning to show up more and more often is the quick-start feature, says Altman. ThermaSol has offered its FastStart option for over two years, and sees other manufacturers introducing the same technology.

Reinert says, “The ability to have steam quickly has also become a key selling feature,” adding that Mr.Steam’s express steam feature, which allows the steam room to be used within approximately 30 seconds, will be standard on all units shipped in early 2008.

Sensational Saunas

In the traditional sauna, “design continues to be king,” says Keith Raisanen, president of Saunatec, Inc., in Cokato, MN. He is seeing a lot more glass – including all-glass fronts, where even the doors are frameless. “The all-glass-front sauna is probably the best design ever for a sauna in a master bath because it can be so stunning,” he says. Glass produces a warm glow effect and complements many types of bathroom designs, he adds.

Lighting systems have also seen significant changes over the years. “The day of a wall light on the front wall is virtually over,” Raisanen says, adding that although that may be the most common according to sales numbers, it is viewed as relatively old fashioned, and people are opting for softer lighting. “The sauna should be a place where you can relax, you can reflect, you can unwind, and lighting is a huge part of that,” he says.

Essential to the interior design of a traditional sauna is the wood selected. While manufacturers say that Western Red Cedar remains very popular, Hass states that the supply is deteriorating and it is becoming a challenge to keep a good supply of Western Red Cedar available. Manufacturers agree that lighter woods are top choices.

Raisanen adds that the use of a combination of wood types in contrasting colors in the traditional sauna is also on the rise.
The infrared sauna room is a fast-growing market segment, say Hass. “It appeals to our fast- paced society,” he says. While a traditional sauna needs time to heat up, the infrared room doesn’t have that wait time. “People want to do things quickly. They don’t have to wait for the room to heat up, they just turn it on and get in,” says Hass.

But even as the demand for infrared grows, manufacturers don’t see it replacing the traditional sauna, noting that there are different products for different markets. While an infrared room is less expensive and more convenient to set up, there is very little room for customization. “You just buy the unit, take it home, set it up and what you have is what you get,” says Hass.
Altman adds, “The benefit to the traditional sauna is that you’re able to regulate the humidity if you want humidity because you are able to put water on the rocks, whereas with infrared you can’t. I think most of the people who really want a true sauna experience like to be able to ladle the water on the rocks and have a little bit of humidity.”

Mood Enhancers

Since consumers want the complete package in the bath, heat therapy systems are increasingly offering other mood-enhancing therapies, such as aromatherapy and chromatherapy. Hass says people look at chromatherapy as a health benefit. “It has an effect on your mood. You get in there and turn the right color light on, and it cheers you up,” he says.

Raisanen says that chromatherapy is almost considered standard in the mid- to high-range infrared products. With a traditional sauna, it’s been slower to catch on, partly because of the cost and difficulty of designing a system that can withstand higher temperatures. There are now some that are easier to integrate into the ceiling at lower price points, and the upgrade is becoming more popular.

Reinert concludes: “People respond well to steam, but when you add items such as aromatherapy, chromatherapy and music, your steam room becomes a healing retreat.”

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