All About Steam Showers: What You Need to Know

When you consider features to include on your luxury bathroom remodel, you’ll invariably run across steam showers. There’s no shortage of marketing copy from design blogs and manufacturers, but I thought we could skip all that and start from the beginning:

So just what exactly is a steam shower, anyway? Do I need one?

Steam showers bring something called a steam room into a residential shower. At its most basic, a steam room contains and maintains pressurized steam produced by a simple boiler, or steam generator.  It is similar to what most think of as a sauna. Unlike a sauna where the heated rocks emit radiant heat, however, the steam itself provides the heat.  A steam shower takes the steam room one step further: it combines the steam unit with a walk-in shower to better-manage available space in the bathroom at home.

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Health Benefits

There are a number of studies related to both dry heat (like a sauna) and moist heat (like a steam room) and their health benefits. These heat treatments are particularly useful for chronic inflammation (i.e. joint pain) or muscle soreness from working out.  They also can reduce blood pressure and improve vascular health.

Beyond the physical health benefits, steam showers also provide mental health benefits.  The restrictions of living in a pandemic (this article is written at the beginning of 2021), show us the toll we are paying in social separation and indoor quarantine.  With their meditative environment, they can reduce stress as well as blood pressure.

While steam unit manufacturers make a wide variety of claims (even more claims) about the benefits of steam, many of those claims in marketing materials have not been verified or tested by third parties. Ultimately, however, we do know that exposure to heat, whether wet or dry, is beneficial for overall wellness and health.

Steam Rooms at the Gym or Spa

Most steam rooms that we encounter are at the gym or spa. Much like the saunas that they accompany, they are fairly large public rooms with seating and a heat source. The sauna will have a stove with rocks that radiate heat to the surrounding people. To increase the humidity, one can also throw water on the rocks that instantly vaporizes into steam.

In the steam room, the sole source of heat is the steam generator. The steam itself is what heats the occupants. The steam generator sits behind a wall or partition and generates steam constantly. It maintains both the temperature and high humidity present in the room. The room itself must be built to suit the pressure of the water vapor. Every wall, ceiling and floor is completely vapor proof (an extra step beyond waterproof). You will notice that all floors, walls and ceilings are tiled.

At the gym, many athletes incorporate the sauna or steam room into their regular workouts. You can start in the steam room to practice mindful breathing and get ready to workout. You can also use the heat for recovery post-workout: the heat can induce increased blood flow and shorten recovery times.

Steam Showers at Home

Steam showers in home bathrooms are becoming more and more popular in Naperville and surrounding west suburbs of Chicago. Homeowners regard these luxury items as a way to increase the value of their home and improve their lives in a practical way. We are seeing them being built in homes for three main reasons:

  • Homeowners with custom homes looking to remodel to update the builder’s-grade steam shower that was originally installed in their home
  • Retirees looking for ways to improve and maintain their health and well-being as they remodel for aging-in-place.
  • Athletes looking for a way to rehabilitate their muscles or any pain on their own at home using moist heat methods.

Do you have the space for a steam shower?

To really benefit from the health-enhancing effects of the steam you will want to spend a fair bit of time in your steamer. Most likely you’ll want room for a bench (maybe even two!) or other accoutrements.  Even a relatively small 5×5 steam shower will take closer to a 6×6 footprint. The extra space accounts for the walls and installation of required equipment. Additional options, such as multiple benches, entertainment devices, and further design features require more space.  Another consideration is where to locate the steam shower in your home. Building from scratch typically involves installation of new plumbing and electrical work. If you plan to put your steam shower far from existing mechanicals, that will involve extra work for installation and sealing up the walls afterwards.

What is your budget?

Building or renovating a steam shower is no small task. Your budget will need to be flexible to handle the special materials and labor.  Your contractor will need to charge enough to account for the extra care and time they need to take. Most online estimates for steam shower costs vary wildly. For a well-made porcelain-tiled steam shower, homeowners should expect their budget to start at $25k (including labor and materials). Then, they expect that number to grow with size or the addition of complicated mechanicals or added specialty/custom materials and details.

Do you have a qualified contractor to build your steam shower?

Does your contractor know the approved methods they must use to prevent mold problems? Designing and building a steam shower is a very specific and technically complex task. A contractor must read and understand technical specifications for every material and device in the shower, in order to install them correctly and prevent moisture intrusion. Every item installed must furthermore be “steam-rated,” i.e. suitable for steam room use.  There is no room for error with the waterproofing, as any penetration of steam into the surrounding structure will certainly condense and cause microbial growth, whether mold or bacteria.  The Tile Council of North America has standardized and approved steam room building methods in their publications. Ask your contractor which of those methods they intend to use, and verify that the materials listed in your contract are suitable for this application.