Heated Sanctuaries Offer Bathing Appeal

Heat provides therapy in a variety of ways – from soothing sore muscles to relaxing a stressed mind. Designers are helping more and more homeowners gain the therapeutic benefits of heat by incorporating products often found at the gym or a spa into the comfort of their homes, according to manufacturers recently interviewed by Kitchen & Bath Design News.

Krista Payne, marketing manager for Frederick, CO-based custom bath manufacturer Diamond Spas, says, “Our clients care a great deal [about] personal wellness, and that is one of the reasons we are seeing a surge in home spas. People want to have a daily quiet reprieve without having to go to an actual spa.”

Fully Loaded

While therapeutic heat products all work in much the same way, offering relaxation as well as muscle therapy through heat, water or both, the embellishments that can be added seem endless. Some manufacturers are seeing a trend toward adding more features and making the product really work for the consumer’s individual needs. From add-ons like pillows and extra jets for feet and back to in-line heaters and baths with seating for two, customers know what they want and designers are accommodating these wishes.

“We are seeing a trend [toward buying] all the features,” says Russ Wittkop, CEO of SanSpa Five Star, which manufactures walk-in tubs, in Le Mars, IA. Manufacturers may be trying to differentiate themselves with the price tag by adding the features to the package, he adds. While he has heard people asking for the bells and whistles such as color therapy and lighting options, he hasn’t yet invested in those areas, focusing instead on quality, easy-to-use doors and quick-filling technology.

Michael Kornowa, director of marketing for MTI Baths in Sugar Hill, GA notes, “It’s kind of a dichotomy. We’ve seen an increase in soaking tubs, but then we’ve also seen a steady amount of the fully loaded tubs. The middle ground is what has been lost.”

He adds, “People are looking for something very specific so they can call it their own, [something that] provides them with the ultimate solution to their needs. With the financial situation going on in the last few years, people who have the money will spend the money, but they want to spend it wisely. So, they will order those therapies that they need for their situation.”

Features that stimulate all of the senses are also getting attention, according to many manufacturers, including chromatherapy and other specialty lighting. “We still get quite a few requests for chromatherapy lighting,” says Payne. “The visual effects can be quite charming and mood swaying.”

Pamela Isetts, territory sales for Trajet Products in Glenwood, IA, agrees. “Chromotherapy enhances the bathing experience with vibrant and soothing color. Whether it’s the refreshing green of springtime or the serenity of a clear, blue sky, the moods, attitudes, energies and well-being evoked by chromatherapy enrich the whirlpool experience. White spa lighting gives a calm and soothing effect to the total hydrotherapeutic experience,” she says.

Phil Reyes, product manager for hydrotherapy at Aquatic, based in Anaheim, CA says, “At this point, people are able to customize their bathing experience to be exactly what they want…and they can do it in their home versus having to go somewhere else.”

Technology Trends

Technology in heat therapy products spans many categories, from devices that make it easier to fill and drain a tub and keep water hot to sleek touch controls that simplify operation.

Jim Hass, sales director for Amerec, based in Woodinville, WA says that Amerec has recently introduced a new touch-screen control for steam baths and saunas that is the first iPod-like steam control available in the market. He also cites technologies such as fragrance delivery systems that inject fragrance oils directly into the steam line and a waterproof sound system featuring an iPod/iPhone docking station as popular options.

Wittkop says that SanSpa Five Star has just developed a fast flow, single-lever valve.”Within four minutes you can have it up to your chest while you are sitting upright and totally comfortable,” he says, unlike many tubs that take much longer to fill.

Reyes describes his firm’s hot-soak technology, wherein a heat system is plumbed into a bathing well with unobtrusive intake and discharge ports. “The water cycles over an in-line heater, allowing users to soak in a tub where the water stays hot as long as they’d like.”

Air or Water?

Which type of jets designers and consumers prefer has long been a topic for discussion in the spa industry. Over the last several years, manufacturers have seen a large jump in the demand for air baths. There are several reasons for this, including what some say are incorrect perceptions of the differences between the two.

According to Kornowa, air baths have grown in popularity above whirlpools over the last four to five years. “Part of the reason is because it was a newer technology, part of the reason was that whirlpools were starting to get a bad name,” he says. “To the uninformed person, air baths are clean, whirlpools are dirty. The fact of the matter is, neither is the case.” He says either product can be clean or dirty depending on how it’s engineered. He adds that air baths and whirlpools are not interchangeable, since they have different purposes, and often customers will choose both to have each type of therapy available to them.

Stacy Zar, senior marketing manager for Aquatic, states, “What I’ve been seeing when I’ve been out in the field talking to customers is that the air systems seem to be very popular right now vs. the whirlpool bathtub.” She attributes this to perception as well, both in the different type of massage offered, and the perception that water jets are not as clean. “Back in the day with the plumbing of whirlpools you wouldn’t get all drainage out of the lines, [so there’s a] perception that they are dirty. Aquatic has made sure lines have the pitch in them that allows this drainage. Now that we’ve done that, what it’s going to take is educating the consumer and the showrooms about this so their perception isn’t what it is right now.”

Space Considerations

Products that offer heat therapies require a fair amount of space, both for practical reasons as well as comfort. “Bigger has always been better for comfort and therapeutic benefits,” says Isetts. “The challenge can be how much room you have for your whirlpool in your project.”

Reyes, on the other hand, has seen a trend toward smaller freestanding tubs. “People [who] don’t have that extra large bathroom still want a freestanding tub, and they need it to work in a smaller bathroom footprint. We are noticing sizes getting smaller in both freestanding and island or alcove configurations.”

Kornowa says he’s seen both larger and smaller projects recently. For instance, someone with an average-sized bathroom may take out the 5' tub alcove and put in a shower base, but they still want to have a tub to soak in. “They will pick one of our freestanding smaller tubs, so they can have their cake and eat it, too, so to speak,” he says. At the same time, someone who has a larger bathroom may blow out a wall or cut into a closet, keeping the large tub but also adding the shower.

Payne says that, as a custom bath fabricator, Diamond Spas works on all shapes and sizes of tubs in manufacturing. “Some of our clients don’t have as much space in their high-rise apartments, so they tend to go with a smaller tub, while some of our other clients who are professional athletes and are 6'8" tall need a 8'-long tub. The possibilities are endless,” she says.

Sauna and Steam

Sauna and steam trends have also been holding steady, and many of the same considerations as are seen in whirlpool and air bath trends hold true for these products as well. Hass says that steam bath generators and controls are becoming increasingly popular with people who have chosen to eliminate tubs from their master bath in favor of customized showers. “Steam baths and saunas provide home-owners with an affordable way to create their own personal spa experience in their home. As in-home exercise rooms become more popular, saunas and steam baths are gaining in popularity as well,” he adds.

While Hass says interest in infrared saunas is rapidly growing, Mark Raisanen, national sales manager for Helo Sauna and Steam in Cokato, MN says he has seen a strong shift back toward a traditional sauna. Infrared is still a large part of his firm’s business, he says, but in 2011, traditional saunas grew the fastest.

There is new flexibility in infrared saunas with what Raisanen calls custom IR. In the past, infrared has always been sold in limited sizes by most distributors, but there are now more options for customization. “People are now able to add infrared to any room of their house rather than having to have a fixed size that’s just going to stand in the corner of their bedroom.” Custom infrasauna is a new category that combines infrared and traditional sauna in one room.

As far as materials go, Hass says that Western Red Cedar remains the most popular for sauna rooms. Raisanen has seen some interest in more modern exteriors on saunas, with more dramatic combinations such as wide and narrow board, dark and light colors, and laminate complemented with wood – a trend he says began with sister companies in Europe. He also sees a growth in blending wood colors inside – combining light and dark finishes to get what they call a “latte” interior, as well as a shift to clear woods without knots, and darker tones.

Most changes in the sauna, according to Raisanen, come mainly in the way of enhancements, particularly in lighting and controls. He sees more dramatic lighting, with chromatherapy and skirt lighting around the benches, as well as upgraded benches that have a softer feel. Digital, sleeker controls are also rising in popularity.

Hass adds that, in steam showers, his firm is seeing more exotic wall surface materials such as marble, granite and slate being used instead of ceramic tile.

Simple Design, Soft Color

Style trends in the bath have moved through a stark, minimalist period toward a softer overall feel, say manufacturers. “[People] still want simplistic, but they want softer features in their bathing wells,” says Reyes. “We’re starting to move away from that Zen minimalist and into simplistic but comfortable.”

Colors, too, have stayed soft and simple. Isetts says the colors used most often are the tried and true. “White, biscuit and almond are over 80 percent of our business. We do, however, have the occasional custom color order and those can range from Sandbar and Sterling Silver to Loganberry and Black.”

Reyes says that white and biscuit make up about 95 percent of his firm’s business. He adds that with the freestanding units, some colors are showing up – mostly cashmere or softer earth tones, with an occasional black.

Payne doesn’t entirely agree. “Bath designs have come a long way in the last 10 years. There is a wider range of materials being used for bath production. We’re seeing homeowners taking a less traditional route when it comes to choosing their tubs.” She says that both the copper and stainless steel products are equally popular among Diamond’s clients.

MTI added a product line made of engineered solid surface material about four years ago. This material, which has the look of molded stone, is becoming increasingly popular among upscale homeowners and designers, according to Kornowa. “From a design standpoint, it enables us to do some things acrylic will not,” he says. For example, when using acrylic, very sharp 90-degree angles are not possible, but with the engineered solid surface, they are. “You can create some very architecturally attractive tubs that are more fluid and organic,” he says.

Zar reports that freestanding tubs have continued to rise in popularity, and designers tend to treat these pieces as artwork, building the bathroom around the tub to make it the focal point of the room.

Universal Use

Universal design is a trend that spans all product categories, including heat and hydrotherapy products. Kornowa says that MTI regards this as “making the living space attuned to the inhabitants of the house so that all of the inhabitants can live comfortably.” He adds, “That means you can have very nice looking bath products that can address the needs of multiple generations. There’s no need for things to look clinical or like something out of a retirement home.”

Wittkop agrees. He believes that awareness of walk-in tubs is growing. “One thing we need to get over is [people thinking] ‘I’m not old enough yet,’” he says. This year, the company will focus its marketing and technology development in that area, trying to make people understand that walk-ins aren’t just for the elderly, but for anyone who wants to enjoy the benefits of hydrotherapy in a very convenient way, he concludes.

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