Sensory-Rich Jetted Tubs & Spas Heat Up at Home

The desire for spa-like surroundings in master bathrooms hasn’t disappeared in recent years, and the host of therapeutic alternatives – from water- and air-jetted tubs to steam and sauna – ensures that designers have the opportunity to create the perfect meditative space. Top trends in this market include a growing variety of options to suit any lifestyle and design, a move toward sleek digital controls and a host of features designed to enhance and enrich the therapeutic benefits of spas, steam and saunas. That’s according to manufacturers recently surveyed by Kitchen & Bath Design News.

While there has been some slowing in the spa market during economically difficult times, manufacturers are getting creative, introducing new products and features to entice consumers back to heat and hydrotherapy.

“During the economic downturn, consumers, remodelers and home builders scaled back to low-cost products with very few features,” says Jonathan Fore, director of marketing at Jacuzzi Luxury Bath in Chino Hills, CA. “But, hydrotherapy is definitely making a comeback. Our population’s athletes, seniors [and] hard-working parents know that hydrotherapy is not a myth. There is a real, physiological, regenerative benefit to hot water circulating over skin and muscles in the form of high volume and low pressure.”

Abundant Options

While the benefits of hydrotherapy are clear, it isn’t a “one product fits all” marketplace. Lifestyles, economics, time and space considerations – as well as consumer perceptions – all play a part in which products are selected.

Michael Kornowa, director of marketing at MTI Baths in Sugar Hill, GA, says there’s a bit of a dichotomy. On one hand, people are pulling out their tubs and putting in showers only, often due to what he calls “time-deprived lives.” At the same time, many projects include a large shower installed in the original alcove, and a freestanding tub added as a centerpiece elsewhere in the room.

Many of these choices have to do with both price point and perceived value. “It still fits within a trend that we saw taking shape when the housing bubble went pop,” Kornowa says. “Those people who still had the money to do things did not want to be perceived as being frivolous [or] wasteful, so they weren’t ordering all the bells and whistles. They ordered only what they wanted and needed.”

Phil Reyes, product manager, hydrotherapy, for Anaheim, CA-based Aquatic, agrees. Over the last few years, he says, the trend seems to be moving away from whirlpool bathtubs. He cites a perceived lack of value and the fact that people weren’t using whirlpool tubs they had purchased as factors in this trend. “It’s really forced us and other manufacturers to take a look at our line and say ‘what can we do to our line to give value to those people who are going to soaking tubs?’”

This question inspired Aquatic to develop the DriftBath, a new product released last month that creates a soaking experience that Reyes says eliminates many of the concerns around whirlpool bathtubs and gives users the therapeutic value they are looking for. The system creates a river-like current within the bath, using water-only ports in the backrest and foot areas of the bathing well. “It’s not the targeted massage that you’ll get from a whirlpool bathtub, [and] it’s not the fully enveloping air pumping therapy you get from an air system. It’s a soaking experience that promotes relaxation,” says Reyes. “In moving just water, we’ve pulled out all the air bubble popping noises” and the pump allows the water to encase the motor, thus dampening the noise and transferring heat to the water.

Another consideration when making product choices is the accessibility factor. With so many people staying in their homes longer, products like the walk-in tubs offered by SanSpa Five Star in Le Mars, IA, offer an option that can allow users to age in place. Russ Wittkop, CEO of SanSpa Five Star says its therapeutic tubs are offered with several door types to fit any need.

Fore agrees that walk-in tubs hold a key spot in the market. “As the Baby Boomer generation enters its senior years, the therapeutic value of whirlpool baths will become more important than the simple comfort value of these products. Next generation whirlpool tubs will need to incorporate more aging-in-place features like lower thresholds, jets with a softer touch and features that assist the user without having a nursing-home look,” he says. “Aging consumers still want spa tubs with luxury features.”

Steam and sauna can’t be left out of the equation, either. These products are being added to the bath as people recognize the health and wellness benefits they deliver, says Jim Hass, sales director for Amerec in Woodinville, WA. “People are becoming more concerned about taking care of themselves, and steam and sauna bathing are terrific ways to relieve stress and help a person stay healthy. Heat therapy relaxes muscles, removes toxins from the body, conditions skin and fights illness,” he says.

Therapeutic Space

Whether products require more or less space in the bathroom depends a lot on the type of therapy chosen, manufacturers say. With tubs, designers are often working with a smaller space, and need to be creative in how they work the tub into the area they have. Showers, however, are getting larger, and since steam is often incorporated into the regular shower, these therapeutic spaces are growing.

The physical size of showers has increased, says Hass, and along with that, steam generator size has also increased. “There’s an increased interest in larger showers with more features,” he notes. “Steam is a relatively easy and beneficial addition to a custom shower.”

Martha Orellana, v.p. sales and marketing at Long Island City, NY-based Mr. Steam adds, “The shower area is getting bigger. Many years ago, it was totally utilitarian – showers were basically 3'x5'. Now, you see steam showers that can fit several people.” She says Mr. Steam has seen steam showers as large as 10'x10', and many include a bench for at least two people.

As showers get larger, the doors also must grow accordingly. Linda Garman, director of marketing communications at Basco Shower Door in Mason, OH, says doors with inline panels to fit 48" to 60" openings are top sellers, along with single-swing doors for openings up to 36".

Saunas, say Hass, require dedicated space, and Amerec hasn’t experienced a noticeable change in the average size of sauna rooms.

Tubs, on the other hand, often need to fit into smaller areas. Wittkop says the 5'-space is still standard.

Reyes, however, is seeing a small trend toward more compact tubs. “People are trying to find ways to creatively use spaces in order to get hydrotheraputic units in areas that wouldn’t normally fit. They’re working with bathrooms with smaller footprints sometimes,” he adds.

Special Features

One of the main benefits of jetted tubs, spas, steam and saunas is the relaxation they promote. It stands to reason, then, that adding features to enhance the tranquil experience by appealing to all of the senses is a steady trend. The addition of chromatherapy, aromatherapy and sound systems in particular hasn’t waned. In fact, manufacturers are seeing these add-ons more often.

“For a complete spa experience in the comfort of your home, merging scent, light and sound will create a total body sensory experience,” say Orellana.

Hass adds that while chromatherapy and aromatherapy continue to be popular additions to a steam shower, the latest trend is adding sound systems. “Amerec offers a sound system that includes waterproof speakers and docking station that features an FM tuner and ports to connect an iPod, iPhone or other MP3 device so bathers can enjoy their favorite music while relaxing in the steam shower,” he says. “Saunas are also available with entertainment systems, including a television.”

Orellana agrees. “Without a doubt, music is a must in a steam shower,” she says. “The most popular request is for Bluetooth compatible controls that can be operated from within the steam shower, where users can enjoy their favorite playlists.”

Beyond the sensory experience, an important feature that SanSpa Five Star offers is single-lever fast flow valves, says Wittkop. This allows the user to fill the tub more quickly. For users sitting in a tub waiting for it to fill, this is quite appealing.

Heat is an essential element of hydrotherapy, and Kornowa says MTI Baths has a couple of features that speak to this need, including a product that uses radiant heat to warm up the interior backrest of acrylic tubs, and inline water heating systems that re-circulate water through a heater and a pump to keep the tub at a consistent 102 degrees throughout the soak.

As the number of options continues to increase for hydro-therapy products, navigating the choices can be tricky. Fore says Jacuzzi is working on developing Web-based tools to allow builders, showroom salespeople and designers to walk their clients through the sometimes complicated process of choosing from the abundance of features available. “Our goal is to keep adding to the innovations we offer, but make it ever more simple to understand and select them,” he says.

Taking Control

Control design is shifting for steam and sauna, morphing into familiar-looking high-tech options. Designers and consumers want the look and feel of the technology they are becoming ever more comfortable with in their daily lives, including touch screens and the ability to connect to other devices.

“We’re seeing more interest in people wanting to connect their steam bath and sauna to a whole-house smart system so they can control functions with their computer,” says Haas. “We expect demand for this to accelerate in the near future.”

Orellena says, “People are very familiar with devices for phones, in their car and in their living rooms. Now digital controls have entered the shower.” The most advanced devices, she says, work like a smart phone, including swipe technology and large, beautiful displays as stylish as the spaces they are in. She adds that manufacturers are eliminating confusing controls and buttons, making the user interface appealing and enticing through simple-to-use products with a sleek appearance.

Visual Appeal

What good are products that function perfectly if they just don’t fit into the overall style of a room? Therapeutic products that perform well are, of course, essential, but designers know that the aesthetic appeal is just as important to the big picture.

Unless a tub is deliberately used as a focal point, manufacturers say that white, bone, biscuit and almond remain perennial color favorites. “I think that colors come in when you’re looking at a freestanding tub and it turns into an art piece in the bathroom,” says Stacy Zar, director of marketing and new product development at Aquatic. “Otherwise it’s white and biscuit – and 95 percent is white.”

Fore agrees. “White, white, white,” he says. “Neutral earth tones and black had a bump in popularity, but in the bathroom, people equate white and shiny with clean.”

For steam and shower doors, Garman says that clear glass continues to be the most popular selection, along with chrome, brushed nickel and oil-rubbed bronze finishes for framework. For the overall look, she says, "Consumers continue to be attracted to the more frameless look for their master baths."

At the same time, when considering steam she adds, “The goal with a steam door is to hold as much steam as possible inside the shower. This is more easily achieved with framed doors containing additional aluminum to seal off openings where steam can escape as filling the opening completely is preferred.”

Tub shape and line preferences vary greatly, and manufacturers have responded to this by offering a wide range of choices. “Jacuzzi has overhauled our complete tub line and created or rounded out three distinct collections,” says Fore, including adding three luxury tubs – the Acero, the Salerno and the Mio – with modern, clean lines.

Kornowa says, “[Shape] is a matter of personal taste, and while we do sell the less organic ones, there is still that gravitational pull toward the more organic, the more traditional, even though it might be a tub you could put in either setting.” For instance, he says, the Elise has the fluidity to fit in with traditional décor, but can also work in a contemporary setting. Other tubs can change character depending on whether there is a pedestal, no pedestal or an inverted pedestal, he adds.

Cleanliness Concerns

Over the years, concerns have arisen over the cleanliness and maintenance of jetted tubs. Many of these issues have been addressed, and the type of jet system doesn’t necessarily mean the tub is more or less clean or easy to maintain, say manufacturers.

Kornowa says that air baths still have an edge over water jets due to the bad rap whirlpools had of being dirty. “The fact of the matter is, you can build an air bath or a whirlpool that will breed bacteria. The question is, how do you engineer it, what are the cleaning systems that you build into your product that enable the user to keep it hygienic?” he says.

Reyes agrees that people were gravitating away from hydrotherapy systems due to these cleanliness issues, which forced manufacturers to find ways to address these issues. “The responsible manufacturers are going to do a re-plumbing system and creatively find ways to get all of the water to evacuate,” he says. He adds that the issues have declined as manufacturers have become aware of them and invested resources in addressing them. While not all manufacturers have been as responsible as they can, he says, “the good manufacturers have stepped up their game.”