The Characteristics That Define a Soaking Tub

Soaking Tub

Apparently, strange things are happening in the world of home bathtubs. It seems there is a battle quietly going on to get to the number one position for The Best Style Tub for Homeowners. The two major contestants, the soaking tub and the whirlpool tub, have been jockeying for position recently with many homeowners trying to decide which of the two is best for their particular situation. The favorite for many years has been the whirlpool, but has largely fallen out of favor with many homeowners for two main reasons. The first is the potentially high maintenance costs that will go on for years, and the second is the amount of heated water required to maximize the personal benefit and enjoyment from the experience. This group of people is beginning to move towards the simpler and more versatile alternative – the soaking tub.

In general, soaking tubs are a simpler choice since all that is basically required is the right tub and the right amount of water. (Though legend has it that Cleopatra soaked herself in a tub of goat’s milk, so there’s always that.) There are some soaking tub manufacturers who had previously found their place in the industry but now seem to have lost their way. A soaking tub doesn’t need to offer water or air jets, the key feature of the whirlpool tub, but this group of manufacturers are now making the jets an optional accessory. That makes the traditional concept of a soaking tub more like a whirlpool tub, which only clouds the issue.

To begin to sort out things we need to look at the characteristics that define the classic soaking tub. As you read on you will be surprised at the number of choices you have whether you are in the hunt to buy one or are just looking for a weekend retreat. All soaking tubs give you a similar relaxing and serene bathing experience, but often the decision is based on the issues of price and aesthetics. Whatever you decide, keep in mind that the primary purpose of a soaking tub is relaxation. This end goal can be accomplished in a number of creative ways, so the more knowledge you arm yourself with the better choice you will make. Also keep in mind that choosing a soaking tub goes beyond the tub itself and extends to the total surrounding environment. Many people claim that this is key to maximizing its benefits.

In its most basic form, a soaking tub is a larger, roomier, and deeper bathtub. But unlike a standard bathtub, it is designed to focus on the experience of soaking and essentially ignore the soap and water bathing part while being submerged in water. There are people who want to merge the two experiences, but it is highly recommended that in order to reduce maintenance time and create the most satisfying soaking experience you will want to leave any soap in a place far away from the tub. (Note to the adventurous: Bubble bath is a favorite soaking tub choice. But if you have a soaking tub that includes water or air jets you will need to omit the bubbly from your experience, lest you clog up the jets.)

The logical question to ask about the size of a soaking tub is: how large is large, and how deep is deep? In the traditional concept of the soaking tub electricity is neither desired or required, so ideally you can have a soaking tub as large as your heart desires. From a practical perspective, you generally want the length to be about 54 inches and the width to be between 19 and 36 inches. There are people who want to completely submerge themselves in the experience and make the length equal to their height (the square style) but that would make the soaking tub more of a pool. The best way to determine the size that best fits you is to be able to sit up comfortably and then fully extend your legs. This will give you a sensible estimation and measurement for the total length of the soaking tub. As for the width, you can make it wider if you want to accommodate more than one person at a time or you are someone who has a bigger bone structure.

The total depth of the tub is the next issue to address, and this is more often than not a personal matter. We are going to try and avoid techie talk, but you still should pause to consider the scientific principle displacement. In layperson’s terms and for our purposes here, displacement is how much room do you need (depth) to cover your body with water once you are in the tub. One recommendation has the average person looking for a coverage depth of between 6 and 12 inches of water for the ideal soak. Displacement says that the more you weigh, the greater the amount of water that will be displaced and rise over your body as you sit down in the tub. To make a simple comparison, if you fill a pot with water and put two pounds of pasta in the water, the water level will rise more than if you just put in a single pound. The same basic principle applies here, except you are dealing with at least 100 pounds of weight that will be submerged into the tub (no offense to the less weighty readers). There probably is some mathematical formula to calculate the exact size of the soaking tub, but it is easier to just sit in your standard bathtub and find out how much of your body isn’t covered. Then add the appropriate number of inches to get a rough estimate of what is needed.

Another characteristic present in virtually all soaking tubs is the overflow drain located on the side of the tub. Its purpose is to avoid water and other things leaking over the side and on to the floor. But it is important for you not to consider this as a “safety valve” and choose an undersized tub (to save money?). Besides discovering you are in the wrong size tub, you will almost assuredly be soaking in a cooler environment since your entire body will not be completely under the water. An additional thought is that you may want to get a slightly deeper soaking tub which will allow for you adding a few extra pounds over time.

One special type of soaking tub is the Japanese ofuro, which is made of a unique type of wood. While American style tubs can be made of a variety of materials, the Japanese ofuro uses a wood called Hinoki. It is the same wood used to build those ancient and famous Shinto temples, and the wood is also used as the material for Japanese sushi cutting boards. If Hinoki wood is not available, there is an American wood that has many of the same properties – Port Orford Cedar. Both the Japanese and American woods have natural antiseptic properties that increase the benefit of the soaking experience, while decreasing the potential for any lingering germs or bacteria to hang around. You can also add the aromatherapy benefit to the experience. As the steamy water releases the natural lemony scent of the wood into the air, another layer of relaxation is created. There are two alternative types of wood that can have a similar aromatherapy effect – Alaskan Yellow Cedar and Western Red Cedar.

The unique design of the Japanese soaking tub usually has a set of stairs you walk down in order to enter the tub. The sides of the ofuro are much higher than most soaking tubs, and the traditional use of the tub often combines the soaking experience with bathing or showering. (There was a time when indoor plumbing and showers had not been invented.) Inside the tub is a seat that is necessary to accommodate smaller sized people who may not be able to see over the sides of the tub. The features of stairs and a seat distinguish the ofuro soaking tub from other types. It makes the tub seem like a water-filled living space (which in some ways it is, as we will discover later on).

As for the different types of installation, there are four main considerations. First is the drop-in model that drops down into an enclosed space which can either be completely above ground or partially underground. The second type, the freestanding model, has the advantage of being able to be located virtually anywhere there is a source of water. Then there is the three sided alcove version, a design that many people use to fill in the space previously occupied by the old bathtub. Finally, there are the walk-in models which are often seen advertised as a solution for older people and people with physical limitations. What is clear from all these choices is that as long as you have the space, you can have a soaking tub.

The available space in your bathroom will limit your design options somewhat, but most people opt for one of the three classic choices: square, rectangular, or oval shape. The reason for these basic geometrical shapes is simplicity plus being able to maximize the use of the available bathroom space. The traditional Japanese styles almost all prefer the rectangular and circular shapes, but there are more creative designs such as an hourglass or slipper that can be considered. When deciding on a design it is more important to focus on functionality, since you should be spending far more time looking at the soaking tub from the inside out.

Earlier in this piece the types of materials for a soaking tub had been mentioned. While the Japanese Hinoki wood has a traditional appearance and feel to it, there are some very popular and common types of material you can choose from. Among those types is the lightweight and easy to install fiberglass, with acrylic having very similar qualities and advantages except it tends to be a bit pricier. For those who favor a more metallic type of tub, you can choose either copper or stainless steel, or there is the much heavier but durable cast iron option. These metallic types tend to be on the higher end of the price spectrum, so you will have to investigate material characteristics such as durability, maintenance, and expected life before investing any money.

A soaking tub can be used as the centerpiece of an informal therapy session, and manufacturers are offering a number of options and accessories to make this possible. The natural scent of the Cedar woods mentioned earlier have an aromatherapy effect, and there are also visual elements that can be added, such as pillows, lighting, and music that can enhance your calm. Accessories that are available as part of the physical unit (we are excluding air and water jets) include a heating system that is makes thermotherapy a viable therapy option, and Chroma therapeutic lighting which is a scientifically proven method using a six color lighting system that can treat specific physical ailments.  As more homes are redesigned to include a soaking tub, the number of options, therapeutic and non-therapeutic, is certain to grow.

Most of the discussion thus far has focused on the location of the soaking tub being in the bathroom or general interior of the house (for the freestanding models). But they can also be located outdoors, and there are specific styles that are used to define both the location and tradition of the tub. For example, there is the Roman style that is installed on a porch deck and, similar to the Japanese style, is lowered into the space. There are also garden style tubs located in a sun room, where a view of the garden can be seen while relaxing in a semi-natural environment. People who love nature or are inclined to find a place for relaxation outside of the home prefer these types of settings.

One benefit many people derive from a soaking tub in contrast to a whirlpool tub is the concept of the romantic environment. There is a stillness and quietness to soaking in a tub of still water as opposed to the noise of the electric pump generating streams of water while sitting in a whirlpool. Also, a soaking tub is much more likely to maintain the water temperature since the swirling water of the whirlpool tends to lose heat faster into the surrounding environment. These considerations make the soaking tub a better choice for the romantics among us.

After this brief examination of the characteristics of the soaking tub, we are left to decide which direction we want to go with in pursuing our quest for maximum relaxation and finding the type of tub that best meets are needs. Consider the fact that the only potential moving part in a soaking tub is the person who occupies it. This makes it a quieter and all around safer experience.

Soaking tubs have a long history that predates the introduction of electricity into the home. As the Japanese have demonstrated, many refinements to the art of soaking and relaxation have been made. Their forward strides have made the benefits of soaking a new and growing American tradition, where weary workers come home and use the tub to decompress from a long work day or week.


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