Despite the new varieties that are coming out these days, people hold a classic image of saunas in their heads: That splash of ladled water over heated rocks, releasing a cloud of steam into a small hot room.
In the last few years, saunas have become a popular item for Americans to put in or around their home. Some may argue this growth is a result of the introduction of infrared or “dry” saunas that provide a simple plug-and-play option for a home. (Though there is some controversy over whether or not these should be considered saunas in the traditional sense.)
But here, PSN takes a look at the more traditional outdoor saunas, sometimes referred to as “wet” saunas. They have the features more typically associated with the product category: wood construction, a stone collection and temperatures that reach 150 to 190 degrees Fahrenheit, heated by wood, electricity or gas.
In addition to being built as attachments to homes, saunas can be treated like a standalone backyard feature.
As dealers and retailers consider whether or not to add saunas to their inventories, it’s important to consider what should be included in an outdoor sauna design — how to keep customers safe, what optional features can be added, and where and how to install a sauna so that it works properly.
“When we do our site checks, we are listening to the client,” says Don Schenning, director of sales for Regina Pools based in Timonium, Md. “The client is going to tell you how many people they want using the sauna, where they want to put the sauna.”
His staff also looks at the sauna’s future environment. Does the client want a rustic approach or something more modern?
They also keep their eyes open to determine how to handle drainage. “Wet” saunas require this, especially when customers water the rocks frequently.
Many modern saunas are electrically heated. If a client wishes to buy a traditional, wood-heated sauna, it will need some kind of chimney for the smoke to escape.
Professionals also must think about fire hazards, assessing where various plants and other structures are located when preparing to design the sauna space.
In evaluating the site, professionals also must keep in mind that the surface on which the sauna is built must be level. Most saunas tend to be modular, whether they’re custom or from a manufacturer. “When you create slope and try to put something modular on [it], it’s not going to come together correctly,” says Don Riling, vice president of Seattle-based Olympic Hot Tub Co.
Also, if the sauna will be built on a deck, it must be able to support the weight of the structure and the people inside it.
Anything off the deck requires a concrete slab underneath, says Kalevi Ruuska, owner of Joco Inc. in Fishkill, N.Y. Most of the leveling work will take place here.
The sauna’s size also is important to consider. One that will be placed on a deck tends to be smaller, accommodating one or two people. Freestanding yard structures often are bigger, with sizes that can accommodate five to eight.
The minimum standard sauna is approximately 7-by-7 feet. Standard saunas usually only reach a height of 7 or 8 feet at the highest point. Anything taller and the heat would dissipate too much and make the sauna a barely warm room.
Retailer Robin Chudy says she tries to recommend that customers buy one size up from whatever they’re considering.
“People will look for a specific size that’s marketed for a particular amount of people, say two,” says the sauna sales rep for Pacific Spas and Sauna in Beverly Hills, Calif. “My experience tells me to go bigger. I say this particular size, that’s not going to be comfortable [for two people].”
Unless they can’t give up the square footage, clients often take her advice.
Options and recommendations
At the bare minimum, a sauna must include the building, its heat source and some interior lighting.
However, to offer a true sauna experience, there are some options that should be considered when designing the space.
• Lighted pathways. When designing the sauna space, it’s important to remember how the sauna is positioned in relation to the home. If it is being built on a deck or a pool deck, the pathway and lighting probably are already available.
If the sauna isn’t connected to an existing feature, however, designers should consider how to light the route to reach it.
Consider adding a stepping stone path instead of grass or dirt. The point of the sauna is to cleanse, and getting one’s feet muddy before or after defeats the purpose.
Schenning recommends using lights with a softer glow, not only along the path but also in the structure itself. The environs should be relaxing and inviting.
• Dressing rooms. Most dealers say that the average customer doesn’t change into a swimsuit or undergarment for the sauna inside the home, especially during winter in colder climates.
They all recommend that some kind of dressing room be included in the structure, whether a pre-fab unit or custom built.
“You need an area to hang your robes and put your towels,” Schenning says. “You want to an have the ability to walk into an area and dry off and do what you’re going to do.”
This space also can help support other features. For instance, it’s best to install the control systems for such options as colored lighting, televisions or sound systems in the dressing room. If not, the installer will have to create a moisture-proof system within the sauna room itself.
• Polar plunge. Traditionally, the sauna experience is more involved than simply sweating in the room. Users are supposed to use the sauna in segments. After sitting in the room for 15- to 20 minutes, traditionally the user leaves the building and goes to a cooling-off area.
The Finnish tradition includes a plunge into a very cold pool of water.
For customers with pools, this is an easy set up: Just place the sauna nearby. For those who don’t have the space for a pool or don’t want one, there are options.
Ruuska recommends that people take cold showers in the home, but since he deals with more rural customers, their saunas tend to be farther away from their houses. In such cases, he might include a shower room in the sauna structure.
The shower doesn’t have to be inside the building. It can be installed on the outer walls. The point is to have a cold water source. If the sauna can’t be hooked up to traditional plumbing, Ruuska noted, a rainwater catching device also could be installed.Another option rests with spa chillers — a product category that Schenning sees gaining in popularity. These can cool spa water down to 60 degrees Fahrenheit.
To service or not to service
For the most part, once a sauna is sold and constructed, most customers choose to manage the repair and maintenance.
That said, there are a few services that a company can offer post-installation. From time to time, saunas need to be cleaned. Even with the drain, moisture can get trapped in the building. Cleaning down the wood and ensuring that mold hasn’t gotten in the building is necessary. During clean downs, a technician can run diagnostics on the heater, especially electric ones, as well as the lighting and control systems.
Another service to consider is occasional sanding of the benches. Many customers like to use scented oils, which can become trapped in the surface of the wood, according to Schenning. Sanding can release the oils that are left behind, he says. This adds texture back into the wood and makes for a healthier environment.