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When talking to sauna enthusiasts and those who sell them, the experience and health benefits are almost always a primary focus, many of which are well known and have been widely discussed for years — if not decades.
They are quick to point out that saunas help prevent fatal heart attacks, reduce stress and ease muscle pain. A recent study even suggests sauna use can prevent dementia (See the sidebar at the end of this article).
Suffice to say, the upsides are considerable. In order to achieve those highly touted benefits and enjoyment, however, it's crucial to observe a number of practicalities that go into sauna design and installation.
On the most fundamental level, a sauna is simply a heated room where you go to sweat. These sessions are usually followed by a cooling off period in a nearby shower, body of water or even snow. Because heaters are the heart of the sauna experience, naturally the type of heater largely defines the sauna type.
In the U.S. and many other markets, there's no question that traditional, Finnish, electrically heated saunas are the most popular. Simple in concept, electrical heating elements heat rocks that in turn heat the room.
Developed in the 1950s, electric sauna heaters now come in a range of sizes and configurations — wall or floor mounted, for example — and are selected and specified depending on the size of the sauna as well as its interior design.
Although the traditional sauna is known as a "dry" sauna, users often pour water onto heated rocks to create humidity, which contributes to the heating effect and is strictly a matter of personal preference. (Manufacturers and dealers recommend using only distilled water in order to prevent mineral build up that can impact heating elements.)
Heater outputs can range anywhere from 1.5 to 15 kW. Energy consumption varies with size, type of heater, the amount of insulation and usage, but as a rule, manufacturers report that cost ranges from about one to two dollars per use. In the U.S., heaters comply with the UL Safety Standard, UL 875. In electrically heated saunas, temperatures should not exceed 195 degrees Fahrenheit. The UL standard also prohibits remote control via off-site devices such as smartphones for safety reasons.
Most saunas using electric heat will reached desired temperature in 40 minutes to an hour. There are heaters that are designed to maintain a base temperature of approximately a hundred degrees, which can cut the heat-up time half, but obviously these are more expensive to operate. Also, many of the controls available allow homeowners to preset a heat-up time of day to avoid the wait.
In contrast to traditional electric heaters, saunas with infrared heating elements have also become popular in recent years among consumers who want a purely dry sauna experience. Because the infrared elements heat the body directly (in lieu humidity), recommended temperatures range from 110-to-130 degrees Fahrenheit.
(Concerns over electromagnetic field emissions have given rise to standards in Europe, which in turn prompt dealers to recommend buying only infrared saunas that have been tested to assure compliance with those guidelines.)
Wood-burning saunas are the direct descendants of historic sauna types, and although not widely used in the U.S., they are still popular with a class of consumers in other countries. Most wood-burning sauna heaters continuously burn wood during sauna use. They are often considered the preference of sauna "purists."
"Smoke saunas" are one of the rarest types of saunas. These systems consist of hundreds of pounds of rocks that are heated by a wood burning stove for several hours prior to use. Once up to the desired temperature, the smoke is ventilated from the room. It is a time-consuming method, to say the least.
Finally, steam rooms are not technically saunas but are used for basically the same purpose and are popular with consumers who prefer extremely high levels of humidity, typically right at 100 percent. Because of the high moisture level, they are made of ceramic tile, glass, stone or acrylic.
Perhaps the most familiar aspect of sauna design, besides the heat itself, is that they're made of wood. Species typically used include Western red cedar, Nordic white spruce, aspen, hemlock, alder and pine. Wood used in saunas should always be kiln-dried with no knots, which can be an issue with the DIY market where homeowners pick their own wood but often aren't aware of basic guidelines.
Commonly, homeowners opt for panel-built saunas that come complete with pre-fabricated walls, benches, doors, ceilings and heaters specified by a manufacturer or dealer, all of which is then installed by a contractor. In those situations, the products are designed with dimensional requirements in mind, such as minimum ceiling height and bench sizing, as well as other elements such as insulation, ventilation, control systems and vapor barriers.
Between the DIY approach and the panel-built systems are pre-cut products, which include the tongue-and-groove lumber as well as the heater, doors and benches. Panel-built systems are often used in locations that require more customized construction or for homeowners who want to do more of their own design work.
On the other end of the spectrum are "plug and play" units that are delivered, placed and hardwired. Manufacturers provide installation directions, which often include provisions for outdoor settings.
Whichever the type of construction, sauna providers point out that it's the most fundamental design considerations that oftentimes make the biggest difference in terms of long-term customer satisfaction and frequency of use — beginning with the location inside or outside the home.
For starters, saunas should be located somewhere the homeowner enjoys spending time. That's commonly a master bathroom, home gym or somewhere outdoors where they can enjoy natural surroundings. Many homeowners opt for a sauna with a view, taking advantage of glass doors and windows. Unsurprisingly, glass doors have become the standard for the industry largely for aesthetic reasons (and for preventing any sense of claustrophobia).
They should be in a private location, especially if the homeowners plan on observing traditional sauna practice by using their saunas in the nude. (In Finnish culture, using a sauna while wearing swim wear or other clothing is considered a social faux pas.)
Sauna doors don't have locks on them for safety reasons, so there is an issue of access and supervision in the presence of small children, as well.
Saunas should always be located somewhere near a shower and/or a cooling off area. Traditional use suggests bathing in the sauna for 15-to-20 minutes or longer and then alternating with a brief cool-down shower and then repeating the process one or two more times.
Because of the traffic between the shower/cool down area, the pathway should not be carpeted or have a slippery surface. Some dealers note that pools and spas maintained at a cold temperature can also facilitate the cool down process, although in those settings a shower is still considered a necessity to prevent entering chemically treated water dripping perspiration.
It also helps to have a convenient place to hang towels and bathrobes near the sauna and shower.
Bench configurations are another basic design element based on desired use. Most saunas have an upper bench along the back wall and lower benches on the sides or in front of the upper bench. Naturally, the number of people using the sauna dictates size and bench space with two feet per person being a typical guideline. If, however, homeowners want to lie down, they'll need six feet on one of the benches. Extremely tall people will often need more.
Saunas should also have drains to facilitate cleaning. Buckets, ladles, hooks for towels and scented oils are common sauna accessories. Some saunas have sound systems.
As is true of other home amenities, such as pools and hot tubs, the preferences, anticipated use and priorities of the homeowner, as well as the home itself, dictate the type of sauna and design. Although "sweating is sweating," the size, design and type of heat source can all vary based on what the homeowner wants and needs.
Although it's unlikely that saunas will ever become as popular in the U.S. as they are in Finland, for many customers they offer a luxurious option that is more than just hot air.
AQUA gratefully acknowledges Norm Coburn of New England Spas, Steve Ruscigno of Oregon Hot Tubs, the North American Sauna Society and finnleo.com for providing the above information.
Norm Coburn, president of Massachusetts-based New England Spas and board member for the North American Sauna Society, has been selling saunas for more than 30 years. He has also become a regular user and enthusiast in his personal life. Although he reports that his company's sales volume in saunas has always been limited, he continues to see potential in the market.
"It's always been a pretty small part of our business but it's also a very steady part of the business," he says. "The community that has a comfort level with saunas, people who understand the health benefits as well as the cultural and family benefits, for them it's a very natural part of their home.
Like other sauna enthusiasts, Coburn looks to Finland as a prime example of how to turn up the heat on the market: "It's a way of life there. They participate in the rituals. There's folklore surrounding the spirit of the steam, it's part of their culture. As a user I'm starting to 'get it' but most Americans don't have the same perspective. So, for many customers it's kind of a leap of faith purchase. People from other countries where they're popular, Scandinavia, Europe or even former Soviet Union states, tend to more sure of themselves when it comes wanting to purchase a sauna."
One of the things Coburn and others enjoy about working with saunas is how they require little maintenance: "There's really almost nothing that can go wrong with a sauna and we don't have a lot of service calls," he reports. "We don't have many customers that even have much down time with their saunas, they just work and work. That's a nice change for those of us who are used to products that require more maintenance."
Beyond the practicalities of design and installation and product specifics, Coburn believes the experience and health benefits will always ultimately drive the demand for saunas. "When you start using a sauna on a regular basis, you learn why it's a practice that goes back so far in history. Not only does it treat a wide range of illnesses and conditions and provide the benefits of removing toxins from you're body, it just feels great and is something you can look forward to in your day-to-day life."
It's a very telling bit of trivia: "Sauna" is the only Finnish word found in English dictionaries. In fact, the concept of sitting in a hot room for the purpose of sweating is arguably the most familiar facet of Finnish culture for those of us who don't live there.
The association between Finland and saunas is all for very good reason: Saunas in Finland are part of the overall culture and personal lives of the nation's 5 million citizens. With more than 2 million saunas, one in approximately every household, it's clear the Scandinavian country leads the world in collective devotion to the benefits and rituals intrinsic to the sauna experience.
The Fins aren't the only ones, however, who have embraced saunas. Historians and archaeologists point out that different versions of saunas date as far back as 7,000 B.C. According to the North American Sauna Society, variants on the concept have included the Roman balneae and thermae, the Turkish hammam, the North American natives' sweat lodge, the temascal in Mexico and Central America, the Japanese hot water baths sentoo and o-furo and the Russian banya.
According to a recent study by researchers at the University of Eastern Finland, using a sauna on a regular basis over time may significantly reduce the risk of Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia.
The effects of regular sauna use were based on data from the Kuopeo Ischaemic Heart Disease Risk Factor Study. Researchers conducted follow-ups with more than 2,000 middle-aged men living in Finland where sauna "bathing" is a part of daily life for a majority of people. Those who used saunas four to seven times per week showed a staggering 66 percent reduced risk of dementia, which was 65 percent lower than those who used a sauna only once per week.
The findings were recently published in the Journal of Age and Aging. According to Professor Jari Laukkanen, the study leader, sauna bathing may protect both the heart and memory to some extent via similar, but yet by still poorly understood mechanisms.
"However, it is known that cardiovascular health affects the brain as well. The sense of well-being and relaxation experienced during sauna bathing may also play a role," Laukkanen says.
Over 5 million Americans currently suffer from Alzheimer's disease and more than one in three seniors will die with the disease or some other form of dementia, according to the Alzheimer's Association.
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