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Steam Showers

Choosing Between Modular & Built-In

The term "steam showers" might seem like an oxymoron since steam is actually water vapor and a shower consists of running liquid water. But when you take a closer look at what these in-home spa retreats are all about, you'll get the connection.

A steam shower can take on two forms, consisting of a built-in room or chamber, or a modular unit that's a separate stand-alone assemblage.

There are both commmon and unique considerations associated with each configuration so you'll want to understand what they are ahead of time in order to make the wisest choice for your home.

There are also plumbing and electrical issues to contend with so doing your homework ahead of time will certainly help you prepare for installing a steam shower in your home.

And last but certainly not least are the features and options that you can buy along with your steam shower. Everything from music to colored lighting, there's an amenity certain to please most homeowners. The key is deciding which indulgences to splurge on.

Several Options - Modular Or Built-In

So just what is a steam shower? Well for those who aren't familiar with them, they're a room or self-contained unit that produces steam for the purpose of bathing and relaxation. Although some have the capacity for taking showers with running water, the main purpose of a steam "shower" or steam room is to produce and retain high temperature steam.

Sometimes there's confusion between steam rooms and saunas. The difference between a steam room and a sauna is that a steam room uses a very moist heat, with high humidity. In contrast, a sauna is a very dry heat, with higher temperatures and much lower humidity than a steam shower.

With that out of the way, the next question is usually centered around how you get one. There are essentially three ways to get a steam shower in your home:

  1. Retrofit your existing shower
  2. Design/build a built-in room or space in your home
  3. Purchase and install a modular steam unit

Before we look at these in more detail let's first lay the groundwork for what's needed to make a steam shower work.

All steam enclosures, regardless of built-in or modular, require three primary components:

  • Steam generator
    This unit converts water into the steam that's piped into the steam room/stall
  • Access to water/plumbing.
    Every steam shower needs access to your home's water supply and plumbing system to deliver the water used to make the steam and a place for it to drain once it recondenses into water.
  • Access to the electrical supply
    Electricity powers the steam generator that heats the water to turn it into steam.

In theory, it doesn't matter where in your home you put a steam shower provided you have the required components and access to the necessary utilities.

So let's take a look at each type in a little more detail.

Retrofit Your Existing Shower Stall

The key point to remember about any steam shower is that it must be an enclosed area with no openings so that the steam is contained. If there's an opening, like what's typical above the shower doors in many shower stalls, the steam would simply escape.

With that principle in mind an existing shower stall can be modified into a steam shower provided it doesn't have any openings and is fully enclosed. There are other considerations beyond just the doors however. A sloped ceiling is preferred to let the condensed steam drip down away from, rather than on, the bather. There's also the question of your shower walls and drain pan integrity - steam can permeate the smallest cracks spaces. Be sure your tile grout and seams are up to the task.

Some modular shower units can be converted to be steam room-capable. Kohler makes shower doors that can be fitted to their Sonata acrylic shower units to transform them into an enclosed steam shower.

With any conversion of an existing shower, you'd be wise to consult with plumbing and electrical professionals to be sure your plan will work and be safe too.

Built-In Steam Showers

A built-in unit is just what the name implies; it's built from scratch within the walls and framing of your bathroom or wherever else you choose to put it. In a sense, it's actually a steam "room".

A built-in steam room allows you some flexibility in that you can design it specifically to accommodate the locations of the plumbing and electrical hookups and the placement of the steam generator.

Much the same as a converted shower stall, any built-in steam shower should be made from materials that will stand up to the moisture and the slipperiness that comes with it. Flooring materials should have enough grip to minimize any chance for slipping. Slips not only risk injury due to falls but they also risk possible contact with the steam shower head(s) that can cause burns.

Height requirements also come into play in the design of a steam shower. Specialists in the fabrication of steam showers and steam rooms recommend a ceiling height no greater than eight feet. The reason is because the hot steam rises and most of the steam would end up at the top of a tall steam enclosure, away from the bather, wasting water and the electricity needed to produce the steam.

If you're considering a built-in unit it's a good idea to consult the right professionals to help with the job. That way you'll be sure you've convered all the bases from using the right materials to including the correct components.

Publisher's Comments

There are several companies that make components for steam showers that in my opinion offer some good information about the subject and may be good starting resources. Amerec (www.amerec.com), Thermasol (www.thermasol.com) and Mr.Steam (www.mrsteam.com) are three such references. All have information about the required components as well as FAQs about the parts and process. Thermasol has some good information about building your own steam enclosure.

Modular Standalone Steam Showers

Modular steam enclosures are self-contained units you can purchase and install in your home. They still need access to your home's electrical and plumbing service but there's nothing more that's needed beyond that other than the room to put the unit.

They're typically made of an acrylic material or combined with fiberglass and include glass doors and side panels and metal frames.

They come complete with all that's needed to enjoy a steam shower including the steam generator, along with any bells and whistles they might offer like aromatherapy, chromatherapy, additional rain shower heads and piped-in music.

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What To Consider Before Buying

Once you understand what a steam shower entails you'll want to think about the following considerations. They'll help you clarify whether they're right for you by highlighting some points you might overlook.

  • Make Sure You Have Sufficient Room
    Space requirements are not to be overlooked when considering a steam enclosure. This is particularly true with modular units that you're planning on installing in an existing bathroom or some other location. Make sure you fully comprehend their footprint size so that you're not overcrowding the existing space you have.
  • Health Benefits & Health Cautions Too
    A steam enclosure provides a number of beneficial health effects from deep skin cleansing and respiratory benefits to deep relaxation. But they're also not for everyone. Manufacturers note that if you have prevailing heart conditions, high blood pressure or are pregnant you should avoid steam showers. Your physician will be able to advise you on whether you're fit for a steam room.
  • Steam Showers Are Greener Than Body Spas
    If you're considering some sort of bathroom spa product but haven't completely decided yet, consider the fact that a steam shower consumes very little water as compared to other spa-like products.

    According to Amerec, a manufacturer of steam components, a multi-head body spray shower uses up to 225 gallons per half hour and a whirlpool uses from 60-120 gallons per use. A steam enclosure on the other hand uses only 2.5 gallons of water per half hour.

  • Modular & Built-In Each Have Plusses & Minuses
    Modular standalone units come with all that's required for a steam bath. You can also take them with you if you move. On the other hand, many units have a modern "pod-like" look to them and don't always fit into a home's decorating or design scheme.

    Built-in steam rooms offer more flexibility in choosing and locating specific options and features since you're designing from a clean sheet of paper. They can be sized to your specifications and made to blend into the surroundings.

    Conversely, they can be more expensive to build when you factor in the labor and materials needed in addition to the steam generating and delivery components.

  • Get The Right Size The Steam Generator
    Steam generators are available in 120-volt and 240-volt capacities. Look at it like steam generating "horsepower". A 120-volt steam generator may be okay for small steam enclosures but larger steam rooms might need the capacity of a 240-volt unit. The other point this raises is whether your bathroom (or wherever you're going to locate the unit) has access to the right voltage feed. Check with a certified electrician if you have questions.
  • Look For Modular Units With The Strongest Warranty
    The warranty for standalone steam enclosures varies by manufacturer. These units are essentially appliances so look for those that have a strong warranty behind them. Some companies offer 2 or 3-year warranties while others offer up to 5 years. Take time to read the warranty beforehand to know what is and isn't covered.
  • Modular Units Can Offer Lower Cost But....
    Modular steam showers can offer good service at a reasonable cost but that doesn't mean you can't spend a small fortune either. Costs range from $1500 to $10,000 for these appliances depending on size and the number of bells and whistles that come along with them.

    The cost of built-in steam rooms will include the components necessary to produce and deliver steam, any electronics you add, structural and finish materials and labor. It's safe to say that even with a small steam shower, you'd probably quickly exceed the cost of some of the cheaper modular units.

  • Buy From Reputable Sources
    This may seem like a no-brainer but it's included to reinforce the importance of doing your homework. Modular steam showers are made by a number of different sources in various countries. Being able to actually touch and feel the units to better understand whether they're robust or flimsy can go a long way in determining their longevity and good service.

    Find out who actually makes the product you're interested in and see if you can get more information about their support and warranty (a lot of steam showers are sold under model names and it's not that easy to find out the actual manufacturer). Making sure there's an accessible company you can go back to should you have any problems may make those problems easier to resolve.

  • Look For Certified Products
    Certification by various independent standards organizations means the design has been tested and deemed safe. Such certifications might include UL (Underwriter's Laboratory), CSA (Canadian Standards Association), ETL (Intertek Testing Services) or CE (Conformance European).

    Remember, a modular steam shower is really an appliance; there's a combination of electricity and plumbing all functioning together. You'll want to be sure it's a safe design.

  • A Place To Sit
    Having a place to sit inside the steam enclosure is part and parcel with the intended function of these units - relaxation. Most modular units come with some sort of seat but you'll want to be sure whatever system you choose or build has one. There's no point in coming home to a relaxing steam session after a long day on your feet if you have to stand up the whole time.

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Features To Look For

It's always the features and options that make any gadget more fun, enjoyable or useful. It's that way with cars and bathtubs and it's no different with steam showers.

Here are some of the features and innovations to look for:

  • Aromatherapy And Chromatherapy
    Aromatherapy deals with scent and chromatherapy is associated with light. Many modular steam units incorporate these features or at least have them as available options. Aromatherapy is achieved through the use of oils that are held in a reservoir in the steam head and dispersed with the steam.

    Companies that make components for built-in steam rooms also offer similar products.

  • Fast-Start Warmups
    Various makers of steam generators have quick start features that produce steam in a matter of minutes. Mr.Steam has their Express Steam™ option while Thermasol calls their feature the FastStart™ system. Kohler makes the FastResponse™ steam generators.

    Keep in mind though that this feature uses more energy since it has to continuously heat the water to just under the boiling point until you turn on the steam.

  • Wireless Steam Controls
    Steam enclosures have wireless control options that allow you to operate the steam bath remotely. This is handy because it allows you to turn the steam shower on and monitor it's warmup while you attend to other things until it reaches the temperature you want.
  • In-Shower Music/Radio
    If you like to sing in the shower now you can have accompaniment with in-shower speakers. Many of the modular units incorporate an internal radio with speakers.
  • Steam Shower, Whirlpool & Sauna Combinations
    There are modular units that combine a steam shower, sauna and/or whirlpool all in one. Wasauna's Novara II blends a whirlpool and conventional rain shower with the steam enclosure. The Tris by Ideal Standard is, in their own words, a "multi-functional shower cabin" that encompasses a shower, steam room and sauna in a modular unit and is no longer than a standard bathtub.

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Where To Get Them

Finding the right steam enclosure involves first determining whether you want a built-in or modular unit. The components for a built-in steam room as well as modular units themselves are available from local dealers specializing in plumbing and bath equipment as well as saunas and steam room equipment. You can also order the equipment online.

Manufactures that make the components for built-in units are Mr.Steam (www.mrsteam.com), Steamist (www.steamist.com), Thermasol (www.thermasol.com) and Amerec (www.amerec.com).

The manufacturer's websites have dealer locator functions based on your zip code to help find retail sources in your local area.

There are a number of online retailers that sell steam enclosures of various makes and models. They offer a convenient way to shop and all it takes is to enter the the keywords "steam shower" into a search engine to locate these online merchants. Shipping costs may or may not be required depending on the merchant and/or any specials they might have going on at the time.

If you do take the online approach, be sure you're comfortable with the quality of the product. Revisit the considerations section above. Look for a solid warranty and read the merchant's policies on shipping and returns.

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Here's More Related Info That Might Be Helpful...

Bathroom Design Ideas - Besides a steam shower, what other design ideas might work well in your bathroom? Check them out in the Bath Design Ideas article.

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