I have built a bunch of saunas. All wood burning. I know little about electric sauna stoves. Yet, thankfully, I have had recent extensive engagement with not one, not two, but THREE super intelligent folks who are building their own saunas. These gentlemen have researched extensively the world of electric sauna stoves.
One of our esteemed colleagues is an electrical engineer.
Instead of fierce editing, i’m providing raw dialogue, below, from our email trails. Apologies up front for not making this information look pretty. I’ll try to get his photos up, for now, please note placeholders. It is the content that counts.
Welcome Scott, Joe, Jeff:
Hey Glenn – Thought I’d pass along an update on our hillside sauna. The outside is nearly complete aside from some paint trimwork and touch-ups.
I ended up going with Hardie-Plank siding with an opaque stain. I tried using a transparent stain but didn’t have a whole lot of luck. Despite that, I’m pretty happy with how the opaque stain came out.
The interior is all framed with the electrical roughed in. Here’s a shot of the back wall.
You can see the support for the upper bench and the lower bench on the sides. The big 2×4 pillar in the middle is where the upper bench middle triangle brace will anchor. Probably overkill but I don’t want it to sag over time. The two electrical boxes are for under bench lighting. The boxed area on the far right is where the sliding vent will go after I cut the hole through the sheathing.
Here’s where the heater will go, it needs two separate electrical feeds in the liquid-tight conduit.
Next up is the location of the main electrical junction box for the heater in the anteroom. The unit I bought (Harvia Virta Combi) is programmable and has the contactor and all the electronics except the heating elements and sensors outside the hot room. This was something I was looking for to help prolong its life. The box also controls sauna lighting and a fan. (I’ve got the fan temporarily wired up to run when I’m working with the extension cord.)
The heater I bought includes a water tank and heating element controlled by the electronics that allows you to set and maintain a specific humidity level. It’s got separate temperature and humidity sensors in the hot room and adjusts things accordingly. It’s not intended to be a steam bath but what they call a soft sauna (lower temp, somewhat elevated humidity). My wife is of Korean ancestry and they tend to use higher humidity levels in their baths than a typical Finnish dry sauna. Getting that option was helpful in getting her enthusiastic about the project.
I was worried about the effect of humidity on the cedar but the Harvia heater can be configured to automatically run a dry cycle at the end of the sauna session and also run the exhaust fan to dry out the sauna. I went ahead and installed a fan to remove the humidity after we’re done using the sauna. We won’t use it during the sauna itself, just the slider vent. I need to find a nice cedar grill for it.
Here’s the heater it arrived last week. It’s stainless steel, made in Finland, and just beautiful. It has a huge rock capacity, over 100 pounds. Those ugly labels on the front are coming off! Freakin’ lawyers ruin everything. It only needs 2 inch clearance to the walls and/or benches so it will fit nicely in the corner despite it’s fairly large size (16″ W x 16″ D).
Insulation goes up next, hopefully tomorrow. I was toying with the idea of going with a high-end clear Western Red Cedar T&G. I just got the quote and it’s $4K! Looks like I’ll be sticking with a bit more common grade of WRC.
That’s all for now. Unfortunately we’re on track to have our first sauna right in the middle of June/July rather than Winter but that’s okay.
It’s great to see an outdoor sauna being added to the Southern California landscape. For whatever reason they seem to be a rare find in California. I lived in San Clemente/Dana Point area from 2006-2012 and rented while there but managed to sneak a small 4×4 sauna into the garage of my rental and piggybacked electrical off the dryer outlet for the sauna heater. My buddies and I would run back and forth from the sauna to the community pool. Our neighbors were always curious but never quite figured it out. I also set up a outdoor shower on our patio for the cold rinse between sauna rounds.
I think your low profile design could be beneficial for many as it often seemed that people looking to add a backyard sauna would often run into HOA rules/regulations that had height restrictions on outbuildings, probably for similar reasons as you point out, so as not to obstruct the view for others.
I was surprised to see the Harvia Virta Combi. I wasn’t aware that Harvia had went through the process of getting it safety listed for the North American market. I’m curious, did you purchase stateside or through a European distributor?
I think the combi sauna heaters are unique and beneficial in the right scenario and understanding your wife’s preference versus yours it looks like it was the right choice. What is the kW size and what are the dimensions of your sauna room?
Lastly, did you price out material with a sauna company? It may be worth a look to get a price for a custom-cut sauna kit (minus the heater in your scenario). There are a number of outfits online be that offer this option and many that offer premium wood choices including clear cedar. Obtaining clear cedar locally is often very pricy since nobody really wants to stock it and it’s hard to get a good price when only ordering small amounts at a time.
I wish you all the best as your sauna project is completed.
I was also surprised to find that much of the apparent variety available in the US is actually rebadged units sold as different brands, sort of like the Chevy Camaro/Pontiac Firebird. There are some really unique units certified here such as the Harvia Cilindro and the Virta Combi, and the Finnleo Himalaya but the distributors don’t seem to know much about them. When I ordered the Combi, the distributor originally sent me the wrong controller (for the heater alone). This was despite the fact I called them the day I ordered it and specifically noted to them that it used a different controller.
Hey Scott – Thanks for writing! I’ve never seen an outdoor sauna in So Cal. My original plan was to make an outdoor changing room/cabana for the nearby spa. I’ve been a sauna enthusiast for sometime, it started back way when I did a prolonged detox routine 30 years ago (don’t ask). Somehow I stumbled onto Glenn’s website last year and after that the cabana grew in size and transformed into the outdoor sauna.
I think the Harvia Virta Combi just recently got certified for the US. It’s got the ETL certs but only for the manual water fill version, the automatic version isn’t yet certified (so I’m told, though the parts for it are available online in Europe). It’s got two extra contractors in the junction box and some extra over temp protection that isn’t in the European version, at least according to the schematics. Presumably this was required to get the certs. I bought it from Baltic Leisure in Pennsylvania after shopping around and got a pretty decent price considering it’s new to the US market. I was also considering the Tylo Pure Combi but ended up with going with the Harvia as it seemed like a better value. It certainly looks nicer, the thing is like a work of art. The Tylo also has all the electronics inside the heater which concerned me regarding wear and tear, the Harvia has it in a remote box outside the hot room.
The sauna is 240 ft3 (90″ x 60″ x 77″) and the heater is 6.8 kW (the smallest Virta). The sauna will be well insulated so it should be plenty powerful enough though I am a little concerned about the length of warm-up time with the 110 lbs of rocks it holds. It’s worth it though for all the nice features.
I’m going to contact some other suppliers about the lumber or I may consider going with a lower grade. The quote I got was for all clear vertical grain WRC, enough to do the suana and the anteroom, and there was a bit of sticker shock.
I take it with your sauna below if you used the dryer and the sauna at the same time it blew the breaker? Tough choice between sauna and clean clothes!
I think another thing to add and or consider when choosing a sauna heater is am I going to be able to obtain parts for future replacement. I think that both Helo (Amerec, Finnleo, Tylö and Polar) and Harvia (Finlandia) do a good job with this, Helo probably more so because they actually have a presence in the states whereas Harvia seems (in more recent years) to be offering distribution to many so some might support better than others, hard to say as this is newer for them.
Many of the Chinese knockoffs do not have parts available after the fact and most of not all do not include the rocks which is another disappointment.
The North American manufactures don’t offer much for advancements in design or technology which makes sense since more saunas are sold in Europe than the Americas thus the Europeans (mainly Finland) drives the technology and design.
I happy to hear there are others out there that google translate sauna heater manuals. There are so many interesting and unique heaters available in Europe that have yet to get stateside. It’s good to see both major Finnish manufactures (Helo and Harvia) are starting to introduce some “new” models.
I’m curious to hear how the Virta Combi performs for you. I’m not so much interested in the Combi portion but more with the design feature that they seem to show that elements are not in direct contact with the rocks and potentially easier to access when needing replacement with a type of slide out tray.
I love woodburning saunas but truly believe that you can achieve a great sauna with an electric stove. It really comes down to rock capacity and obviously the heaters ability to heat and maintain throughout the sauna.
I’m surprised that Harvia introduced the Combi stove. Helo had introduced what they called the Steamy or Misty many years ago and it didn’t seem to be a hit. I think a lot of people thought it was to complicated (to many sauna styles to choose from). I also think that those that chose it thought that it was the solution to having both a steam room (as in tiled room with nearly 100% humidity and max temps around 120F) and a traditional sauna (150 – 180F with low humidity around 20-25%) where in reality on the steamy of soft setting you might achieve 60-65% humidity at most and may have disciplined some that didn’t realize 100% humidity in a sauna would eventually ruin it since a sauna is not constructed like a steam room.
Helo’s Himilaya simplifies the soft bathing option with their new BWT attachment which seems to be an Arron feature that they may work into their other heaters. I really like the idea of the Himilaya but cannot say I’ve experienced it. It really seems like it would offer a very nice löyly with all the rocks exposed from top to bottom. The Helo Tonttu Series also some other large rock capacity sauna heaters and I think Harvia’s Symphony and Cilindro are their own takes of it.
I would typically caution people from choosing a Combi style stove for outdoor applications due to the risk of freezing the steamer tank but in your case it should not be an issue as I take it you are close enough to the coastline with your views of Catalina Island.
Cedar at a $1/lnft is hard to come by without having to work for it as described. I’d say that spending the extra on the high grade might be cheaper in the end after adding up all the time and effort but that might be part of the fun to some. The other option you could try to get lucky with is searching Craigslist or similar for someone that is looking for someone to come and tear out cedar from an old deck, sauna or other application. Heck, you might get luck and score some redwood that way too.