Commercial Saunas and Water Use - By Craig Lahti
Simply stated, sauna heaters, whether electric or wood burning, are designed for water to be sprinkled over the rocks. By definition, a sauna is a wood lined hot room where the bather has the ability to change humidity levels by ladling water over the rocks. Ideally, all saunas, commercial and residential, should allow responsible bathers to use water on the sauna rocks; however, many clubs choose to not allow bathers to add water for a variety of reasons. In an effort to restore the sauna to the experience it is meant to be, we will address a few of these reasons.
1. Reason: "It is an electrically powered unit, and water should not be poured on electrical devices." This is sound reasoning, if talking about toasters or hair dryers, but we are talking about neither. Think of a sauna heater more like an electric kitchen range which has water or moisture around or on it constantly. Sauna heaters are safety listed grounded appliances and are designed for water to be poured over the rocks. To be sold in the United States, a sauna heater should be safety listed by a U.S. safety listing agency. As part of the testing procedure these heaters undergo a multitude of tests, which includes the use of water, and is part of the strict and vigorous testing a heater undergoes.
2. Reason: "Our bathers have damaged our heater by pouring water over the rocks." Pouring too much water over the rocks, especially if the heater has yet to fully heat the rocks, can eventually damage the heater, but if patrons are instructed on proper use of water and fresh water (not pool water) is provided in a bucket with a ladle, most patrons will respect the privilege of using water on the rocks. Chances are the people who would abuse the use of water already are by pouring water from their water bottles over the rocks. At one club I attended, the facility did not allow water to be used, so patrons would bring in liter bottles of water and empty the bottle all at once, then refill the bottle and pour again. A typical ladle of water is 4-6 ounces. A liter is 33.8 ounces, or between 5 and 8 times the amount of water recommended to be used at a time. By not providing a way to pour a measured amount of water, the club was actually doing more harm than if they would have provided the bucket and ladle. Sauna heater element sheath thickness can vary from one manufacturer to another which can be why some clubs experience element burnout sooner than others. Go with a well proven company that has been around for years or even decades. Lastly, sauna heater rocks settle over time and need to have new rocks added regularly. The tops of your elements should remain covered with rocks. It’s one of the simplest steps a club can take in increasing the life of their sauna heater elements.
3. Reason: "Some people don't like water in the sauna." This is true, but a majority do enjoy water. The reason for not liking water is varied. One reason is the poor design of some sauna heaters where there is simply a small tray or pan that houses only a few rocks and steam created from this system can be very harsh (a quick frying pan type heat—not enjoyable to most users). Another reason can be someone pouring too large an amount of water at one time. While everyone’s taste will vary, when users are provided a standard sauna ladle, with a bucket, this encourages the proper amount of steam. Otherwise many clubs are left with someone pouring water straight from a large water bottle, ice bucket or some other non desirable means of getting steam. When water is used appropriately, the increased humidity can help the nasal membranes remain moist, which can make breathing more comfortable and encourage a person to stay longer. There are many other benefits of using a sauna with water.
4. Reason: "Our members like to stretch and work out in the sauna and do not like getting their clothes wet.” We believe this is a liability for clubs to even allow members to work out in their sauna. Exerting yourself in the high heat of a sauna is not recommended and is not considered a safe activity. One should relax by sitting or lying down when in the sauna. Bathers can adjust their comfort level quickly and easily by choosing to sit/lie on the lower or upper bench accordingly. Heat stratifies dramatically in a sauna. For those clubs that want to provide an atmosphere for their members to stretch or workout in a warm room, we recommend building ‘warm yoga rooms’. You can still use a traditional sauna heater, but about half of the kilowatt output and can go with or without benches.
This image shows the stratification of heat in a sauna (left has an 8' ceiling and the right is a 7' ceiling).
If your club does not presently allow water to be poured over the rocks, please share this blog with them. If you own a club, please feel free to contact us to ask questions about how to monitor the water use and how to educate bathers on proper sauna etiquette, including the use of water. When you are ready to reintroduce water to the sauna, your local dealer will be able to offer a variety of buckets and ladles to meet your needs. Also, if you are ever in Europe or Asia, please take time to visit their club sauna. We have not met one yet that did not know how to properly use a sauna. All allowed steam with sensible water use.
For additional reading on using water in saunas, read this blog.