Regular maintenance of saunas and steam rooms is imperative to providing users attractive and healthful environments

Saunas and steam rooms are all about cleansing. By promoting perspiration, these extreme environments allow the human body to rid itself of toxins and other impurities. It's a ritual that has endured for hundreds of years.

Keeping commercial saunas and steam rooms clean is another matter entirely. Those impurities have to go somewhere, and whether a facility is dealing with the low-density wood interior of a sauna, the ceramic tile of a steam room, or both, it's imperative that these surfaces are tended to on a regular, if not daily, basis. Moreover, saunas and steam rooms rely on mechanical systems and components to function properly during near-constant use, and their breakdown can meet with enough user complaints to make facility operators do most of the sweating.

Despite the long history of sauna use (the concept is more than 2,000 years old), experts agree that many of today's users don't know how to properly take a sauna bath. It's a process involving several trips in and out of the heat, with the occasional introduction of humidity for maximum perspiration and purification.

Modern saunas use electric heating elements buried within granite rocks to create surrounding temperatures in excess of 190 degrees Fahrenheit. That, in a nutshell, is what has come to be known as a "dry sauna," and it might be all that a health club or fitness facility allows. Many such businesses will post signs banning the introduction of water to the sauna rocks, a process that creates what many refer to as a "wet sauna," for fear of potential misuse or abuse.

Those fears are justified, as users often don't know how much water is too much. No humidity can cause some users to experience respiratory discomfort. Too much steam combined with high sauna temperatures can create a burning sensation on users' skin. Without the proper balance, the sauna can become a pretty unpopular place - and a liability. "A lot of clubs are not using saunas properly," says Reino Tarkiainen, president of Finlandia/Harvia Sauna Products in Portland, Ore. "They have a big sign: 'Do not use water on the stones.' A lot of people don't like the sauna because it's too hot and too dry. It's actually good to use some water on the stones."

That said, excessive amounts of water poured over the rocks can lead to electrical problems within the heater itself and, if the heater lacks stainless-steel components, corrosion and rust. Rocks should be replaced after two or three years of normal commercial use, as the vulcanization process of repeated heating and cooling gradually degrades the granite to a porous and ultimately powdery state. If by then the heating elements are exposed, they may bend or break when cold water is poured directly onto their surfaces, which can reach 1,400 degrees.

But water may be the least of a maintenance staff's worries. Sauna users have been known to pour soft drinks or even to urinate on the rocks to create steam when water isn't at the ready. In such cases, the rocks should be removed and soaked in a mixture of water and liquid detergent or chlorine bleach, sponged clean and then soaked again in pure water (a process that should take place weekly under normal circumstances, anyway). If the rocks can't be rid of residual odors, particularly if they have reached a porous state, they should be replaced. Heating elements and other components, such as the stainless steel trough that holds the rocks, should be inspected for residue of the foreign substance and cleaned accordingly with a sponge and mild liquid soap.

Signage that clearly states the sauna's usage rules helps to discourage abuse, and it should include mention that no patron should enter the sauna directly from a pool or hot tub without showering first, as chlorine-soaked swimwear can damage sauna wood. In addition to its own set of posted rules, a YMCA in Oklahoma found that installing a smoke detector near the sauna heater deterred users from placing wet items such as towels directly on the rocks to create steam.

To further discourage such abuse while also allowing water into the commercial sauna environment, some businesses set a bucket of water in the sauna with a dipper sized to hold the right amount of water to be poured over the rocks. Others use a pull chain to release a measured stream of water from a fixture in the sauna wall. Still, these methods rely on the user when it comes to timing. Commercial saunas in Europe are now using a water-filled container made of stainless steel and stone, which emits controlled amounts of steam as it sits among the heating elements and rocks. All maintenance personnel need to do is refill the container periodically throughout the day.

Wet or dry, all saunas require diligent upkeep because of the materials used in their construction. Low-density woods such as cedar and redwood may cover every square inch of a sauna - and absorb every drop of perspiration. Walls, ceilings and benches are nearly always constructed of wood, and sometimes the floor is, too.

A wood sauna floor is typically pieced together in removable slatted sections, with a concrete or tile floor beneath. Cleaning such a floor requires the wood pieces to be lifted out of the sauna so as to expose the subsurface for mopping with a mild liquid detergent and water.

Tile floors can be hosed down if a perimeter of tile extends four inches or so up the base of each wall. Under no circumstances should a hose be used to clean wood surfaces in a sauna. "A lot of people think that you have to go in and power-wash it, because people have sweated in there and that's the only way to sanitize it," says Ed Gideon, president of Am-Finn Sauna Co. in Greensboro, N.C. "That's just not correct. If you power-wash it or turn a hose on it, you will leave water residue in between and behind the wood on the walls. When you turn the heat up, that water is going to expand because it's evaporating. And when it does, it's going to split the wood."

Though not a necessary feature unless required by code, floor drains built into the concrete or tile substrate make floor cleaning easier. But the initial stage of removing the wood flooring can be burdensome, particularly if the wood is wet and heavy. "Big sections can be hard for the people who do janitorial work to lift," Tarkiainen says. "The more difficult you make it to lift the parts, the less often they're going to clean the floor. You have to make it easy."

An alternative pedestrian surface in commercial settings is composed of flow-through plastic tiles, which can also be laid over the concrete or tile substrate to create a comfortable and sanitary solution. Not only are the snap-together tiles easy to roll up, remove, hose down and air dry, they are often manufactured with a built-in antibacterial agent, preventing the spread of fungal skin conditions (such as athlete's foot) that thrive in warm, moist environments. In facilities featuring wood floors, the maintenance staff may spray the floor with a light coating of alcohol-based disinfectant to achieve similar results.

Whether the floor covering is made of wood or plastic, it's important that the flooring be removable and that the complete floor cleaning process take place at least three times a week, if not daily, depending on sauna usage.

The temperature in a sauna may not top 90 degrees at floor level, but it rises to about 140 degrees at bench level and to between 185 and 190 degrees at head level. This simple truth of physics (hot air rises) works to the janitorial staff's advantage in that a sauna's wood components located above floor level don't stay wet for long. But they get wet nonetheless, and far too often.

User abuse common to commercial saunas includes patrons who fail to place a towel on the bench before sitting on it. They may enter the sauna immediately after taking a rinse-off shower or, worse, after enduring an intense workout and sit directly on wood in moist or even dripping wet trunks. They may even pour water on themselves as they sit. As they perspire - it's believed that a 200-pound individual can lose two to three cups of fluid during a half-hour sauna session - their sweat is absorbed by benches and walls. It may dry fairly quickly, but it leaves behind residue and odors that must be dealt with promptly. "If it's a big club with a lot of members, the benches should be cleaned once a day," Tarkiainen says. "The benches absorb sweat, and pretty soon the wood starts smelling like sweat. That is the worst thing: odor in the sauna."

Usually conducted at night or first thing in the morning, this daily routine involves sponging the surface with lukewarm water and the same mild liquid detergent used to clean the floor, sponging it again using only water and then drying it with a towel. Cleaning solutions marketed specifically for sauna application are also available. The key is to avoid petroleum-based products that will emit noxious or toxic fumes when exposed to extreme heat.

As a means of preventing excessive moisture from permeating the wood, facilities often distribute towels or mats for sauna users to sit on. Some facilities have even installed a paper-towel dispenser, from which patrons can tear 2-by-2-foot sections of thick, absorbent and disposable material suitable for sitting.

Over time, however, even the most meticulously maintained saunas will begin to show signs of heavy use. Odors may be kept in check, but stains are still likely to be visible. Manufacturers recommend sanding wood surfaces at least once a year with a block sander to help return the surfaces to their original appearance. A wood sealant may also be applied after sanding to retard future moisture absorption and facilitate future cleaning.

Suitable sealants, which can include Thompson's Water Seal, Benjamin Moore and other popular brands found in most hardware and paint stores, must be waterbased, so as not to release noxious or toxic fumes. The application must be allowed to dry completely before the sauna's next use so that all fumes dissipate. Turning the heater on in an empty sauna will further cure the wood sealant, but the extreme conditions of a sauna over time will limit a sealant application's life span to about six months, if not less.

Daily inspections of the sauna should signal when touch-up repairs are necessary. The constant soaking and drying and consequent expanding and contracting of wood in saunas has been known to expose nail heads on benches, requiring staff members to hammer the nails, which can get extremely hot, back to their original countersunk positions and away from exposed skin. Splintered wood is another unfortunate byproduct of the expansion-contraction cycle and should be addressed immediately by sanding the splinter or replacing the entire slat.

Eventually, the appearance and condition of sauna benches and walls will transcend mere touch-up treatments. Replacement of benches should take place every three years, and perhaps more often for facilities with saunas in constant use or those frequented by heavy-set individuals, while walls and ceilings can be expected to last 10 years between replacements.

Heaters, meanwhile, should last between five and 10 years, or longer, depending on use. In the meantime, mechanical components such as thermostats and heating elements may require replacement. At least once a year, a licensed electrician should be hired to inspect the heater for shorts, frayed wires, burned-out heating elements and malfunctioning controls.

Compared to sauna maintenance, the day-to-day care of a steam room is far more straightforward. Steam rooms are typically constructed of ceramic or marble tile, with their ceilings sloped to the rear of the room, allowing condensation to collect and drain downward at the intersection of the ceiling and back wall. For pedestrian safety, floors may be constructed of concrete, and for ease of sanitation all steam room floors should contain a floor drain.

Steam rooms are also designed to allow for frequent air exchange. Without it, controls that regulate when steam is introduced to the room by an electric steam generator (usually when the room temperature drops to about 106 degrees) and when that steam supply is again temporarily cut off (typically at 110 degrees) won't function properly. In theory, an airtight steam room would remain at 110 degrees indefinitely, preventing the periodic introduction of steam into the room. This may prompt patrons to throw cool water at the thermostat in an attempt to trigger the generator to produce more steam.

While this rarely causes mechanical problems within the generator, sporadic steam can serve as an annoyance to users. "You have unhappy customers, because the steam is not regulated the way it should be," says Jack Harlin, national sales manager for ElectroSteam Generator Corp. in Alexandria, Va. "It'll stay hot, but there won't be steam. If they wanted that environment, they'd go to a sauna."

A greater threat to the proper function of a generator, which is located outside one of the steam room's walls in an easily accessible utility space, is hard water. The generator accepts water into a reservoir containing heating coils. The thermostat in the steam room signals the heating coils to turn on and convert that standing water into steam, a process that creates enough pressure to force the steam into the steam room through a wallmounted nozzle. However, that conversion process also separates minerals from the water, causing buildup on generator components and requiring the heating coils and reservoir to be cleaned using acid and flushed with water on an annual or more frequent basis. Installation of a quality water softener and water filtration system can eliminate most major problems.

Cleaning the steam room's interior, meanwhile, is not unlike caring for a residential shower, only it requires more frequent attention. Typically, it involves daily mopping of the floor and wiping down of surfaces with mild soap and/or disinfectant to keep molds and mildew from forming. At least once a year, the steam room should be shut down and power-washed with a diluted chlorine bleach solution.

When not in use, the steam room door should be propped open. This was not done recently during down time at a YMCA in Greenville, Texas, with unfortunate results. "It went from hot, with all that steam in it, to like a refrigerator," says Jack Koch, the Greenville Y's executive director. "The steam condensed into water, and we had a real good lab experiment in there for about a week or so." Returning the steam room to operational condition required power-washing with chlorine and water, as well as handscrubbing every square inch of the ceramic tile using long-handled brushes.

Maintenance of saunas and steam rooms depends on a number of factors, including the frequency of their use and the conscientious cooperation of their users. Few amenities in fitness facilities can more rapidly turn into a customer turnoff than unkempt saunas and steam rooms.

"I've walked into some of these things and turned right around and left," says Gideon. "It's not the fault of the sauna or the steam room; it's the fault of the people maintaining them. But, if you're paying attention to maintenance, and you maintain these spaces like you do your treadmills or your barbells, they will last a long time and be very pleasant atmospheres for your patrons."

Paul Steinbach is Senior Editor of Athletic Business.