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Heater guard on an electric sauna stove

Gasping for air on the sauna bench at the Hilton Chicago O’hare Airport

I was hankering for a sauna, this last leg of a long trip.

At first I thought I’d have time to get to Chicago Sweatlodge, the iconic Russian style banya sauna in Chicago. But as my flight kept getting delayed, I set a more modest goal of a few rounds at the Hilton Chicago O’hare airport sauna (closes 10 pm).

We all know that sauna is the best way to get rid of airplane juice, and so I was pleased to check in, dump my bags and make it to the lower level fitness center by 9 pm. One hour for a power sauna: not ideal but will have to do.

What happened? My rounds were super short.

Why?

Bad ventilation!

Do you find yourself short of breath during sauna and tired after sauna? Odds are you could be suffering from sauna – de – oxygen – itis.

The Hilton Chicago O’hare airport sauna has no vents. The hot room door closes too tightly.

I could list other shortcomings (knots on benches, screws on top face of benches, bench heights wrong, bench widths too narrow, no fresh air, etc.) but at 9 pm on a weekday night, hungry for sauna, I was just thankful that the good folks at Hilton even offer a sauna. Oh, and tossing water on the rocks IS permitted. Phew!

Yet as I sat on the bench, I calculated how little it would cost to spruce up this sauna to present an experience such that a Finn leaving the hot room could do so with a smile.

Shall we quit our day job, buy a van, load in our tools and drive from public sauna to public sauna and fix these saunas?

In the United States, 90% of the (public) saunas are bad, and the other 10% are worse (Mikkel Aaland).

If anyone does want to quit their day job and travel from sauna to sauna and fix these saunas, please let me know. I am on your team!

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7 Comments on This Post

  1. I agree Glenn- the problem is that the General contractor doesn’t know any better and has his regular crew- guys that know metal studs and drywall- install the sauna. Do they read the instructions? No! The Tylö heater comes with instructions that state there must be a vent below the heater left open at all times. This not only provides fresh air but keeps the heater cooler, moving heat away from it and allowing the room to get hotter. Just like a kitchen oven- there has to be air movement. The general contractor and the workers think it doesn’t need a vent- it just wants to get hot- and that it is too complicated to put one in (it requires carpentry-a rare skill on job sites.) And besides that, none of them have ever been in a sauna! I know because I have worked along side such crews. A smart architect seeks out a specialized sauna builder for at least a consult and specs things such as no exposed fasteners, all in stainless steel, and actually reads the manuals that come with the heater. What we need to do- is to reach out to builders and architects and start informing them. Oh, and it might help if the manuals were printed in English only for the US market. They are all multilingual with umpteen extra pages and cryptic diagrams in with metric dimensions. If I give one of these to a sub, their eyes glaze over and the manual goes in the trash.

  2. We’ve had our sauna (DIY using Glenn’s book) a couple of years now and uneven ventilation is my only complaint. Most of the time it drafts just fine but on occasion it seems stuffy. Fortunately we included an exhaust fan when we built it so simply switching it on for a short period does a nice job pulling in fresh air. Ours has an electric heater, not sure if there is any issue using a fan with a wood burning stove.

    It took a while to figure out what was causing the poor drafting. Our air intake pulls from the changing room while the outlet releases air outside. When there is a big temperature differential between the two, or if it is windy outside, the drafting is much less effective. Something to do with pressure differential that I don’t fully understand.

    Lesson learned is that the intake and outlet should flow to the same space, either both inside or both outside. I read this somewhere when building the sauna but ignored it as it was too much trouble. Definitely a mistake.

  3. IYIYI…Poor ventilation is definitely one of many common design/construction errors; Glenn and Rob’s comments pretty much nail it ( HAH!?)
    I do a lot of this work-I produce my own product line of traditional style freestanding sauna, as well as representing HELO/ since 1993.I will say that the Helo kit instructions are clear and thorough-in my view virtually goof -proof…IF FOLLOWED. I also have done a bunch of commercial work-with multiple layers of management and sub-contract work teams. As Mikkel observes, the outcome is predictably poor ( this is me being really polite…) In my work, I find it best if the owner ( club- or home-) or architect contacts me early on -during the schematic design phase, in order to allow someone knowledgeable about Sauna design and construction into the process.
    Sauna is very simple- simplicity is a fundamental theme in Finnish design- but there seems to be an endless list of issues/program components that are overlooked or just done incorrectly…and conventional solutions that designers and builders rely on often do not work in Sauna…
    Owners as well as builders and design professionals need to be educated ( I am working on Sauna a book-(it will be in English too!), as one of the primary issues at the root of this general problem is the availability of accurate information…It is difficult, and the ‘web is really not much help to someone who would like to do some research and design a proper Sauna! The online design/construction sites with all of the very nicely produced photos of rooms labeled as Saunas are good example of this shortcoming. Yikes.
    Read, learn, and confirm the validity of your source.
    I prefer to fix design / material goofs with a pencil eraser rather than a wrecking bar and a sawzall…Life is too short for crappy Sauna, eh?

  4. Rob: re: kitchen oven – well analogized! How about we recruit the ideal ambitious 22 yo and that panel van, and we decal it “Sauna Savior” and we criss cross the US and spruce up these saunas? Think it’d be a good thing or a red tape liability nightmare?

    Jeff C.: Pressure differential. Absolutely. I have been victim of this myself, but with a wood stove, it is more forgiving. (heavy drafting).

    Instead of counting sheep last night, I was outlining the tools needed to outfit the Sauna Savior panel van. It wouldn’t take much, and 80% of the fixes, could be had with a set of: https://www.homedepot.com/b/Tools-Power-Tool-Accessories-Drill-Bits-Hole-Saws-Bits-Hole-Saws/N-5yc1vZc268

  5. Nils: You want to drive the Sauna Savior panel van? We could use a guy with your credibility (and accent?)

    How about we 4 take a sabbatical, get a film crew and travel around and document our work. I’ll donate the white lab coats, stethoscopes, negative ion meters, etc.

    Or, we just throw in the towel towards commercial sauna improvement efforts in USA, and consider them gateway drugs, as we help others down the path towards their own authentic sauna backyard health and wellness retreats.

    2011: https://www.saunatimes.com/building-a-sauna/saunas-too-hot-turn-up-the-heat-one-simple-tip-for-a-health-club-manager/

  6. Thanks for the offer Glenn!
    But I’m up to my neck just keeping up with my work in the shop-and I don’t think I have the constitution for riding around fixing all of those goofy rooms that seem to be (mis) labeled “sauna” on the original plans…I decided a long time ago to do what I can, room by room, to make proper Sauna for people who get it, and who care!
    And I do a fair amount of consulting-for architects and builders- who seem to get it, and prefer to have some guidance from someone who has done a few hundred rooms over the years…I learn new stuff every day-and am happy to participate in the collaborative design process…
    Sweat is good for you…you betcha!
    Nils

  7. Well, this post inspired me to add an additional air intake to fix the unequal air pressure issue and improve drafting. Since we’re in a moderate climate I added an intake from the outside (to match the exhaust to the outside). Seemed much easier than pulling down cedar for a duct to route the exhaust back to changing room.

    Regardless it was still a PITA and took several hours and a busted knuckle. Should have done it right in the first place. We’ll see how it works tonight.

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