- Simple Assembly. Barrel saunas are a clever design. They require no major tools for cutting or assembly. Barrel saunas are “built” on site by placing the milled 2×4 cedar boards along the circumference of the two circular end walls, then strapping everything in place with the set of locking rings provided. One need not be handy to assemble a barrel sauna.
- Ships easy. Barrel saunas ship unassembled. There’s a pallet stack of 2x4s, door, stove, benches and a set of circular end rings. This is a key reason why Costco can shrink wrap, sell, and distribute the Almost Heaven barrel sauna nationally.
- No vapor barrier or insulation. Yes, barrel saunas ship and assemble easily, but because the walls are not insulated and don’t have a vapor barrier, some sauna users will notice a substantial compromise in heat. A round wood wall made from 2×4’s is often not enough of a barrier from hot to cold. Imagine cold blowing snow hitting one side of the wood, and a sauna stove firing heat against the other side of the wood. That’s a lot of temperature extreme.
- Changing room? Because most barrel saunas have no changing room, the sauna bather steps from the sauna hot room directly outside. And that can be a mighty cold wind. Further, without a changing room, the sauna regimen is severely compromised. A sauna session works when one is able to properly cool their entire body down, back to a normal temperature, before enjoying another session in the hot room. This process only works when we can chill out in a cool temperate area, sipping a beverage of choice with that smile of “damn this feels good.” Having to rush from sub freezing temps outside directly back into the hot room is too big of a compromise in climates that are great for sauna.
- Close the Door! In cold climates “close the door” becomes an even louder command in a barrel sauna. Imagine if you worked as a check out clerk in a Northern Minnesota grocery store without a double set of doors, trying to maintain a comfortable existence with blowing wind from outside. Yuck! Sauna parties with a barrel sauna can devolve into blasts of cold air frustration, trying to maintain good heat as folks develop their own version of temperature ADD discomfort due to the sauna door opening and closing.
- Maintenance. Because of their design (milled 2×4’s), barrel saunas can often develop leaks between the milled cedar boards from rain and snow melt. (freezing, melting, expanding contracting at the seams). Often times, a barrel sauna owner may have to cover their barrel sauna when not in use or build a secondary roof on top of their barrel sauna. Barrel saunas in four season climates are prone to maintenance issues.
- No upper bench. Barrel saunas are compromised because they have only one bench height. Conventional saunas work well as the sauna bather can choose to sit on an upper bench for good heat, or sit on the lower bench where the heat is less intense. Further, the introduction of loly (steam from water on the rocks) is more intense up high. Often this is desired, but some folks, especially children, do better on the lower bench. There’s no flexibility here with a barrel sauna. It’s ok to be a low bench Larry when you have two levels of sauna benches.
- Cramped space? With the circular sauna design, with no corners, barrel sauna companies can rightly boast the benefit of a rolling heat. Yet because of this design, some sauna bathers can feel cramped in a barrel sauna.
- Safety clearances: Conventional sauna manufacturers can point out that barrel saunas may not be meeting any of the safety clearances for UL when using electric heaters. When using wood, barrel saunas also do not meet the clearances that stove manufacturers recommend. We’d like to think that barrel stove companies have this figured out and accounted for, but it may be worth mentioning.
- Backyard escape: Creating a dedicated space for the sauna experience is a huge plus. Because barrel saunas can assemble anywhere and are their own structure, separate from a primary dwelling, the sauna bather can better experience a health and wellness regimen which includes an infusion of fresh air and nature while chilling out between rounds in the garden all misty wet with rain.
- Barrel saunas can perform pretty well in temperate climates, where it doesn’t get much below freezing (California, etc.).
- Barrel saunas will reveal shortcomings in climates with real winters such as Alaska, Montana, Upper Midwest, New England, most of Canada, and higher elevations in Colorado, Washington, Oregon, California.
I tried to be fair and factual, based on interviews and discussions with folks who own barrel saunas as well as my own experiences with barrel saunas. It deserves note that I am in no way looking to throw barrel saunas under the bus. However, I am tainted towards a stick framed insulated sauna building vs. a barrel sauna. That said, The rising sauna tide is lifting all boats. For those that own a barrel sauna or are wishing to purchase one, my vote is that whatever direction brings you closer to the experience of a good sauna session, keep going down that path.
Here’s a New Hampshire posse who have applied a mobile barrel sauna for surfing season extension:
Check out this Canadian posse who illustrate the easy assembly of barrel saunas
(and may motivate you to want to go visit these guys with a welcome gift, ready for sauna, while wearing a pair of Troxers).