||Saunas: The Hottest Home Improvement Trend?
They are Gaining in Popularity, Based on Their Cost and Relative Practicality
Saunas today are hot. Even in Texas.
James Hall, a civil-engineering consultant, relishes evenings spent in his backyard sanctuary. He shuts the door and cranks up the heat to about 200 degrees.
"Afterward, you get a real calm feeling of well-being," he says.
That may surprise some of Hall's neighbors, who think that Dallas is often steamy enough. Hall says his sauna provides not only relaxation but also a certain cachet with friends and colleagues.
"We'll have clients over, and instead of going someplace for happy hour, we'll have a sauna, a couple beers," he says.
"People think it's weird at first" but then are usually won over, he says.
Saunas have been at the core of Finnish culture for thousands of years, a traditional toasty respite in a cold and snowy climate, according to the nonprofit North American Sauna Society, an organization for those who use, build and sell saunas.
More Americans are making space for sauna rooms by clearing out basements, converting closets and even partitioning off backyard sheds. Florida Hot Tub and Sauna, of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., says sauna sales in 2010 were up as much as 40% from 2009. Rozycki Woodworks LLC, of Royalton, Minn., says sales of its handmade barrellike outdoor saunas have been climbing about 6% a year for the past four years. Kalevi Ruuska, a Fishkill, N.Y., sauna dealer, says sales were up 50% in 2010.
"What I'm interested in is whether our American friends will sauna in the nude," says Leslie Kahn, an architect in Bethesda, Md.
She and her husband are remodeling a basement bathroom to add a sauna. Her husband says sauna sessions he experienced overseas helped with aches and pains. The couple also enjoy saunas' social aspect and hope to entertain guests with sauna parties. The sauna's cost, including installation, will be around $5,000, on top of about $12,000 for remodeling the bathroom, she says.
How they work
Besides the Euro-cool factor, saunas are growing in popularity because of their practical appeal. They are less fussy to install than other spa-type amenities. The source of their intense, radiant heat is simply stones placed inside and atop an electric heater. Some outdoor units are set up with a traditional, wood-burning stove, requiring no electricity for heating -- just a good stack of firewood.
Whether indoors or out, saunas typically are built of a light-colored wood that can withstand wide fluctuations in heat and humidity. In the U.S., western red cedar is popular and releases a pleasant scent.
Although dry saunas can be enjoyable, many people like to add humidity by sprinkling water on the rocks. There's no need to reroute water lines and plumbing, as homeowners often do when installing a jetted whirlpool tub. There also is no water quality to maintain, as with a hot tub.
Health concerns about jetted water in bubbly spa tubs also may be helping saunas' popularity. A 2000 study at Texas A&M University tested 43 water samples from whirlpool tubs in hotels and homes nationwide and found all had some form of microbial growth, such as fungi or staphylococcus. The reason: The water in the jet-spray pipes tends to get trapped, and bacteria may accumulate. When the jets are on, microbes are blown into the tub where a person is soaking, carried on a bubbly mist that can enter lungs or open cuts, says Rita Moyes, Texas A&M microbiology professor.
A sauna can be relatively affordable. Converting a closet into a two-person sauna might cost as little as $3,000, not including installation, while a "designer deluxe" model with digital controls and high-end lighting could climb to $10,000, says Keith Raisanen, president of Saunatec Inc., a Cokato, Minn., manufacturer and distributor. Most saunas, he says, cost $4,500 to $8,000 and seat from four to seven.
In Washington, D.C., a 10-seat sauna in the basement of the Embassy of Finland becomes an evening hot spot, where journalists and politicos mingle on Friday nights about twice a month. Embassy spokesman Kari Mokko says he limits invitations to about 15 each time and regularly changes the guest mix.
"The demand is so high," he says.
The sauna was built into the embassy, which was completed in 1994. Parties, considered a useful vehicle for promoting Finnish culture, came soon after.
The room is walled in North Carolina white pine with benches made of cedar; it is heated to 190 degrees. Men sauna separately from women; each group takes its turn in an adjoining shower room. A buffet spread -- think gravlax and meatballs in dill sauce -- follows in an adjacent cocktail room, where a bartender serves vodka and cold beer.
Last fall, Don Orlic, a cardiovascular researcher, and Roxanne Fischer had an outdoor sauna built at their weekend retreat in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, in a free-standing cabin about 75 feet from the main house. Orlic digitally sets the temperature in the sauna from inside the main house, allowing 30 minutes for the sauna to reach as high as 180 degrees. He relaxes there for 20 to 30 minutes at a time. On cold winter days, he says, he loves the contrast of brisk air and penetrating heat.
"I love to make margaritas and have our friends over," Orlic says. "It's a social thing."
The sauna, which comfortably seats five, cost about $10,000 for the basic, pre-assembled unit. Installation, including underground electric lines and plumbing for a nearby outdoor shower and other custom elements, drove the cost up to $25,000.
Art Glick, owner of sauna and hot-tub distributor Almost Heaven Group, of Renick, W.Va., estimates a 5-by-7-foot sauna might consume an average of $5 a month in electricity.
Saunatec's Raisanen, whose grandparents emigrated from Finland, says he and his wife like to take a sauna at night, set at 165 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes.
"We like a lot of steam," says Raisanen, who keeps a bucket and ladle next to the rocks.
A timer on the heater gets the sauna hot at 9:30 p.m. That's an ideal time, he says: It's a couple of hours after dinner (he advises against a sauna after a big meal), and the kids are in bed. Lights are kept low.
"It's really our cherished quiet time," he says. "It's a 'shut the door to the rest of the world' type thing."
Raisanen sells prefabricated sauna units that homeowners can assemble in hours and install in a basement or workout room. His "custom cut" kits, in dimensions that the customer supplies, are made to be installed on pre-framed walls. Installation can be arranged through the dealer at extra cost, Raisanen says.
"Infrared" saunas, with heaters built into the walls, are a fast-growing part of Raisanen's business, he says. They have caught consumers' attention with lower prices: A two-person infrared unit might cost as little as $2,000. Humidity can't be adjusted the old-fashioned way because there are no rocks. And they don't get as hot, a plus for some people.
There have been safety concerns about infrared technology, though. In 2008, the Consumer Product Safety Commission recalled about 225 infrared saunas after reports that some caught fire. Some distributors today refuse to sell infrared models. Others say the technology has improved.
Initially reluctant to continue selling them, Raisanen says he has begun working with an exclusive supplier with high quality-control standards.
(Source: Hardware Retailing, 02/25/11)
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