Some Like it Hot

All around the globe, one night a year, millions of people wait with breathless anticipation for the clock to strike midnight, so that the slate can be cleared and the celebration of a brand new year can begin. And with that celebration come a million resolves to renounce the indulgences of the past holiday season and start anew in body and mind.

Since time unknown, this yearly ritual of reflection, cleansing and rebirth has been a vital part of the human experience. But while many consumers may not have the time these days to sit back and reflect upon it, the equally ancient ritual of bathing is an incarnation of this cycle on a smaller scale.

Savvy consumers realize how vital it is in this hectic world to find time to cleanse their inner as well as outer selves, and a whirlpool, air-jet tub or sauna offers the perfect opportunity.

Manufacturers surveyed by KBDN realize how vital it is, too, and are responding by offering a wealth of new technology and a dazzling array of customization options perfect for creating a complete spa-like sanctuary.

Stephanie Bennett, president of Diamond Spas, Inc. in Broomfield, CO is encouraged to see that the whirlpool market has evolved, especially on the high end, as home spas become increasingly popular. And, as whirlpools continue to spill out of the master bath and into guest baths and even children’s baths, she believes the demand will only continue to rise.

“We haven’t seen clients shy away from expensive whirlpool systems,” she says. “People are willing to spend money for the ultimate bathing package.”

Shelly Roberts, marketing communications manager for LASCO Bathware in Anaheim, CA, considers the popularity of combined air- and water-jetted tubs and the increasing size and depth of whirlpools to be the newest trends in both the upscale and the mid-level markets. “We’re making baths up to 26" deep now. One in our new series holds up to 200 gallons of water.”

On the increasing popularity of the dual technology, Michael Kornowa, director of marketing for MTI Whirlpools in Sugar Hill, GA explains: “We’re always looking for ways of providing a more holistic experience for the bather. [The water-jetted tubs] provide a deep tissue massage... An air bath is much gentler. It is intended as a light, full-body massage. They are two different types of therapies for different purposes.”

While larger homes and technological advances have added to the appeal of whirlpools, most manufacturers also cite a growing awareness about long-term health as a reason for the expanding market. “Many of our customers will get what we call our ‘ultra therapy’ package,” says Kornowa. “It includes whirlpool, thermal-air massage, chromatherapy and aromatherapy.”

Bennett finds her clients increasingly savvy about whirlpool options. “They know what they are seeking, and are willing to spend the money to achieve a luxury bath environment,” she says.

In addition, she’s seen an increase in the number of whirlpool baths sold since 2004. She considers the continuing demand for more options a part of the larger wellness trend in the population, citing her company’s varying jet pressure, varying jet size and personalized jet placement as innovations that appeal to the wellness-conscious consumer.

Thus, new technology and, more importantly, the ability to customize it for personalized therapeutic benefits, can be seen as the industry’s answer to the increasingly educated consumer.

Bright White
As for colors, white continues to dominate. Manufacturers agree that resale-minded consumers want to stay with neutral fixtures, choosing instead to let their colorful surrounds and finishes represent their particular style. But, Bennett, whose company manufactures copper and stainless steel baths, sees a surge in natural materials, as well. “Our clients are combining concrete, slate, limestone and granite with our product, creating some incredibly striking baths.”

Roberts adds: “Our most popular seller by far is still white, but we’ve got linen, bone and a color called ocean-blue that is definitely eye-catching.”

Tiny Bubbles Air baths are on the rise as consumers continue to recognize that the stimulating benefits of hydrotherapy are worthy of the wellness-minded and no longer restricted to the domain of the slipped-disc contingent. Scott Tennant, COO of Acryline USA, Inc., in Cliffwood, NJ, believes air baths, as opposed to traditional jetted tubs, are more in line with the in-home spa trend, “which focuses on the preventive, overall health and wellness of the consumer.”

He also notes that his firm hasn’t even produced water-jetted systems for well over two years. In his opinion water jets have a place in the industry, but are far too intense for the majority of bathers.

In air baths, bubbles of warm air rise up from the sump, creating convection currents, which cause the water to move at a vigorous pace throughout the entire bath well. This creates an all-over, light massage which kindles the central nervous system and stimulates circulation, he explains.

According to Marc Dussault, president of Oceania Baths, in Thetford Mines, Quebec, Canada, many traditional water-jet companies have jumped on the trend without fully understanding the technology that goes into an air-jetted system. “Some companies think it’s only the bubbles [that make the air-jet experience, but] bubbles don’t create a good massage,” he says. “If [air baths] aren’t properly done, it can be worse from a hygiene standpoint than a [traditional] whirlpool.” He notes that his system employs a water sensor detector inside the air channels. If any humidity is detected after the bath is emptied, the system automatically blows it out.

Tennant, too, is concerned about the hygiene issue. “It’s a large part of the reason that we don’t have an interest in producing water-jetted systems anymore,” he says, pointing to some long-standing complaints about hygiene issues with water-jetted tubs that are not cleaned properly.

“[The problem is that] everybody’s lazy,” Dussault adds. “We have good intentions, but when we don’t [properly clean the whirlpool] we’re creating bacteria inside it.” While whirlpools with water jets rather than air jets can offer many benefits, including a more intense massage, consumers must pay careful attention to properly cleaning them, he stresses.

Kornowa agrees traditional whirlpools can run the risk of being unhygienic, so his firm addressed this by being “particularly fanatical about the cleaning system and check-valves we use so we can provide the highest hygiene level for the bather.”

Aside from the ease of cleaning, another benefit of an air bath is the end-user’s ability to employ the use of bath oils, salts, soaps and aromatherapy. Tennant clarifies that consumers can’t use them in a traditional whirlpool because they clog up the jets. He explains the rule for using bath products in his air tubs: “It’s acrylic, so you have to fill [the tub] first because those things can be strong, but as long as you’re careful, you can use them.”

Most manufacturers agree, however, that the battle of elements between air- and water-jetted systems isn’t so much a battle as a happy compromise. When given the choice, it seems, many consumers opt for both. “We are definitely seeing a trend towards a combination of air and traditional jetted whirlpool massage,” says Roberts. “That’s both in the upscale and in the mid-level markets.”

In fact, the real contest, which has yet to be fought, is going to be over options, many manufacturers believe. Roberts explains: “It’s definitely going to be a component war. Who can come out with the more unique components?” Bells and whistles do continue to drive growth in whirlpools and air jets, with custom seats, chromatherapy options, and multiple jets with personalized controls continuing to be hot picks.

Showered in Options
But what about the super shower? Not so very long ago, people wondered if the super shower trend would be taking the place of whirlpools and air-jet tubs. But as the American bathroom continues to grow in size, that just doesn’t seem to be the case. According to manufacturers, the rise of the super shower isn’t raining on the whirlpool or the sauna industry’s parade at all. In fact, most see the super shower as a facet of the overall trend that has benefited everyone in the home spa industry.

Roberts says she hasn’t seen any drop-off in sales due to the super-shower craze, “There’s no question that at the upscale level of a custom home, a well-educated consumer is going to want both systems,” she notes. “They’re going to want the shower with the full massage system and the jetted-bath.”

Bennett elaborates: “In the luxury bath, there’ll always be a demand for separate showers and baths. Shower systems are... powerful and provide another avenue for hydro-pleasure. However, the bath obliges horizontal relaxation, and this form of unwinding simply can’t be beat.”

Tennant acknowledges the rise of shower systems in recent years, but contends the trend hasn’t hurt his whirlpool sales because the two serve two different purposes. “No one [takes a bath] before work,” he says. They take showers and soak to relax later, he maintains.

The tremendous amount of momentum in shower remodels, manufacturers agree, is the trend that is carrying the steam market forward. The relatively low cost of converting a shower into a steambath versus the benefits that consumers derive from it is a no-brainer, according to Martha Orellana, v.p. for Mr. Steam, Sussman Automatic Corp., in New York, NY. “Steambaths have been around for thousands of years, and the medical benefits are easily outweighed by the costs,” she says.

The biggest trend that John Gunderson, director of sales and marketing for Amerec Sauna and Steam in Woodinville, WA, sees has to do less with product than with changes in the buying population in general. “People are getting a little more sophisticated,” he says, “[so they are] looking for more exact temperatures and controls.”

On the horizon, most steambath manufacturers view a streamlining of technology and aesthetics as long-term trends. They also cite digital controls, sound and more sophisticated lighting schemes.

Gunderson believes that what consumers really want most in steambaths is a nice, easy-to-use, slim-line control.

Sweating It Out
The most dramatic change in saunas in recent years is their design. Keith Raisanen, president of Saunatec, Inc. in Cokato, MN, sees a very clear trend in the upscale market toward a standardization of what used to be luxury upgrades.

Raisanen cites such amenities as fiber-optic lighting, high-end spigots, cultured stone walls, furniture-quality curved wood benches and curved glass windows and doors as increasingly commonplace among consumers.

The open and more contemporary styling falls in line with the new home spa environment trends. Reino Tarkiainen, president of Finlandia Sauna in Portland, OR sees a trend toward young people buying more saunas. “They’re used to using them in hotels and athletic clubs,” he says. “[They] want to have their own sauna in their master baths.”

Saunas have always been closely associated with a fitness-oriented lifestyle, but the boom in backyard living, cited by Raisanen, has generated tremendous interest in saunas as part of an overall entertainment center. This has led manufacturers to work on technology that will allow them to include more sophisticated sound and video systems in their units.

In traditional sauna construction, the choices have always been wood... or wood. There is a purist contingent of the buying public, manufacturers agree, that will always prefer the light-colored Nordic spruces and pines, but western red cedar continues to dominate the U.S. market.

Some manufacturers, however, cite the growing popularity of European alder. “It looks a little bit like cedar, but it has a more uniform color and it’s a fine-grained wood,” states Raisanen.

Tarkiainen, however, cautions potential buyers about the use of alder: “It’s a hard wood and, consequently, retains more heat than traditional, softer woods.”

Infrared Makes Waves
While Tarkiainen acknowledges that the rising popularity of infrared rooms is hurting the traditional, hot-rock sauna market, he hopes the U.S. market will go the way of the Europe and force infrared makers to stop marketing their products as saunas.

Raisanen agrees: “In Germany, the court ruled it was illegal to call [an infrared room] a sauna. Unfortunately, that’s not the case in the U.S., so people are really confused.”

The resemblance between an infrared room and a traditional sauna can make consumers’ confusion understandable. But the main difference, notes Raisanen, is that an infrared room operates at lower temperatures, which “some people find appealing. However, since there’s no steam associated with them, there is no humidity.”

Jason Kort, marketing manager for Lenexa, KS-based Sunlight Saunas, deals exclusively in infrared technology and explains the difference: “Far-infrared saunas heat the body directly, [operating] at a lower temperature, and you sweat just as much.”

Orellana holds a different opinion. Though she agrees infrared rooms are up and coming, she believes “they don’t do what the original, Finnish sauna is supposed to do – which is to sweat.”

But, no matter what consumers’ preference – whirlpool, air-jet tub, sauna and/or steambath – Raisanen concludes that the home health and wellness trend “is very good for our industry.”

Demand Rising for Combined Jetted Tubs: Dealers

Dealers surveyed by Kitchen and Bath Design News agree that while air baths are increasingly popular, the combination of air- and water-jetted systems are even more appealing to the client who is wellness-savvy and wants to make a statement in design luxury – all while still enjoying the full spectrum of benefits that modern hydrotherapy offers.

Nancy Moon, president of Beckony Kitchens and Baths in Colorado Springs, CO, points to the stunning array of customizations as a selling point in the combined air/water tubs. “You can get the neck jets and all different kinds of jet packages. They’re really expanding the line of options. You have a real choice now.”

“I’ve been doing air baths exclusively for probably the last six years, says Susan Templer, president and principal of Templer Interiors of San Francisco, CA. “Air-jets are very low-key. You can barely see that they’re there.”

Nick Zounis, owner of BDC Kitchens and Bath, Inc., Pompano, FL agrees, citing the increasing ability of the dealer to make the tub fit the client as a tremendous selling point. “It’s the flexibility to make it exactly like they want,” he says, “that is driving the popularity of these units.”

“I’ve done three steambaths this year already,” says Templer. “Before that, in the previous five years, I did one.”

This year, Templer and Moon, who both hail from cool to frigid climates, respectively, agree that anyone who has room for a steambath wants it. Neither is really sure why, though the decline in component costs might have something to do with it. “I’m not presenting it,” says Templer. “People are coming to me and telling me they want it.”

“There’s a real focus on the things you can do in your house that will make that comfort possible,” adds Moon. “Steam showers are just one of them.”

In Zounis’ tropical environment, it is hardly surprising that he has very little demand for sauna installations. What’s more surprising, however, is that clients in both Moon and Templer’s climate don’t seem to be demanding them, either. “No one is asking for dry saunas,” reports Templer.

As a possible cause, she cites the ease of retro-fitting a shower into a steambath. “In a steambath, you don’t have to commit a separate room to it. You just put a little nozzle into your shower and you can have it when you want it.”

Moon adds that since the steam generator units are smaller, a client can easily stick them under a seat and out of the way. “With a sauna,” she says, “you would have to install a different unit somewhere, and most people don’t have the room for that.”

To explain the growing demand for whirlpools in his market, Zounis cites the increased willingness of his clients to install a jetted-tub in a smaller, secondary bath. “Jetted technology is definitely becoming more mainstream,” he adds.

Templer agrees, explaining that a few years ago, “people weren’t spending the money on a jetted-tub” unless they could have it the big, luxury bath. “But now,” she says, “even your standard, shower-over-tub people are saying, ‘Let’s get one of those!’”

Whirlpool, Sauna and Steambath Trends at a Glance

  • As the wellness market expands to include young and old alike, manufacturers are increasingly responding by offering a wealth of new technologies and an array of customization options.
  • The combined air- and water-jetted baths are increasingly appealing to the upscale and discerning consumer.
  • Consumers want more technological control, but within a streamlined and customized, user-friendly environment.
  • Air baths are on the rise as the healthy, but wellness-minded seek hydrotherapies that formerly were the exclusive domain of those needing physical therapy.
  • Hygiene in air- and water-jetted systems continues to improve with better check-valves and water-sensor detection systems.
  • Most manufacturers agree that it’s not a battle between air and water whirlpools, but a war of components in both systems.
  • The most dramatic improvements in traditional saunas are the new and contemporary designs, including fiber-optic lighting, high-end spigots, cultured stone walls, furniture-quality curved wood benches and curved glass windows and doors.
  • The boom in backyard living has generated tremendous interest in outdoor saunas, which can double as pool houses.
  • Manufacturers agree that the rise of shower systems hasn’t hurt the whirlpool, sauna and steambath industry.
  • The low cost of converting an existing shower unit continues to drive the boom in steambath installations.