Steam shower indulgence will pay relaxation dividends

More homeowners are opting to recreate the experience at home by turning their ordinary shower into a steam shower.

Imagine this: It’s the end of a long day. You’re tired, or achy, or just want to chase away the winter chill. So you push a button in the shower stall, plop yourself down on a bench, and melt into a soothing cloud of eucalyptus-scented steam.

Twenty minutes later, you emerge feeling relaxed, renewed, and in the pink.

That kind of indulgence used to require a trip to a health spa. But more and more homeowners are opting to recreate the experience at home by turning their ordinary shower stalls into warm, vaporous havens called steam showers.

Along with the benefits to your skin and sinuses, there’s no standing around waiting for a whirlpool tub to fill or a sauna to heat up—and when you’re done steaming, you just turn on the shower for a refreshing rinse.

To summon steam, you simply hit the digital controls in the shower stall.

That triggers an electric valve to fill the breadbox-size steam generator with about a gallon of cold water.

Then, just like a plug-in teakettle, the generator’s electric element brings the water to a boil.

A pipe channels the hot vapor to the steam head, or disperser, which fills the stall with tropical moisture that never gets above a safe 118 degrees Fahrenheit.

Luxuriate as long as you want: Steaming for 20 minutes consumes a mere two gallons of water.

By that reckoning, steam is a “green” way to bathe as even a water-saving showerhead sprays about 50 gallons of water in the same period.

Your electric bill is bound to go up, however. Steam units are sized based on the stall’s volume in cubic feet, its shape, and what it’s lined with.

A typical 4-by-5-by-8-foot stall (160 cubic feet) covered with ceramic tile requires at least a seven-kilowatt generator. For a stall tiled in stone, you’ll need twice as much steam-generating capacity.

Installation and Costs

Installing one of these at home requires the services of a few pros.

First, you’ll need a dealer; you can find one locally through the websites of major steam-generator makers, such as Mr. Steam, Steamist, and Thermasol.

The dealer will find the best spot to hide the generator, which needs to be within 25 or so feet from the shower stall. A linen or walk-in closet will do nicely, as long as the equipment is easily accessible for maintenance.

Then you’ll need a tiling contractor and shower-door installer to build you a steamproof enclosure.

When that’s ready, the dealer can bring in a plumber to connect all the pipes and an electrician to hook up the generator’s 220-volt electric cable and digital controls.

All told, the system should run you about $2,500, installed, plus the cost of the new stall and door.

Or for about $2,000 to $4,000, you can get a stand-alone, steam-ready enclosure that just needs to have the wiring and plumbing hooked up, though the space-capsule look of such units might be a bit out of place in your elegant master bath.

Steam-shower makers are betting their products will eventually nudge out the tub—claw-foot, jetted, or otherwise—as the preferred place to luxuriate in the American bathroom.

There’s some evidence to support the claim. A 2004 survey by the National Association of Home Builders found that more home buyers wanted separate shower enclosures with temperature controls and multiple showerheads than whirlpool tubs.

The Basics

•What it is: A moisture-sealed shower enclosure equipped to deliver clouds of steam before, during, or after your shower.

•How it works: Cold water piped into a steam generator is heated to the boiling point and then sends fresh steam to an aperture in the shower stall. Digital controls inside the shower let the user adjust the steam’s temperature and duration and can even add piped-in aromas, lighting, and music.

•What to look for: Delivery speed. Better models take less than a minute to build up a head of steam.

Remote controls. That way, you don’t even have to get up from your bench to adjust steam time or temperature.

Auto-flush. Reduces calcium deposits on the heating element and saves you from a manual flush-out every 50 uses.

•What it costs: A steam generator runs about $2,500, installed. For the full spa experience—mood lighting, a stereo MP3 dock, and a pump for aromatherapy oils—expect to pay another $1,800. A custom steamproof, tiled enclosure is extra.

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