5 Tips to Select an Outdoor Sauna

With easier installation, home saunas are no longer a rare luxury.
With easier installation, home saunas are no longer a rare luxury.
Photo courtesy of Saunatec

Saunas are standard equipment in gyms for their muscle-relaxing heat. Luxury hotels laud the end-of-day-unwinding qualities. And if movies are to be believed -- and why not -- they're also excellent places to seal a business deal.

The Finns have likely been tossing water on sizzling rocks for heat, health, community and ritual for millennia, and for good reason. Sauna treatments can help ease muscle aches, stress and tension, and often leave bathers feeling clear-headed and refreshed. Many people even credit saunas with alleviating conditions ranging from anxiety and depression to arthritis and skin issues.

Once a rare luxury, the home sauna has been picking up in popularity due to lower prices and simpler installation. Outdoor saunas, less expensive than indoor versions and easier to integrate into existing spaces, are in especially high demand.

If you're in the market, you'll find there are various structures, sizes and heating types to choose from, and it can be a bit confusing if you don't know exactly what you're looking for. Here, some tips to help you choose the right outdoor sauna for your particular wants and needs, whether you're going permanent or portable, single-seater or party-ready, traditional Finnish or infrared.

And the first, very important tip is: Make sure you're actually allowed to put one in.

Check for Regulations
Before you install your dream sauna, make sure you've met all state, local and HOA regulations.
Before you install your dream sauna, make sure you've met all state, local and HOA regulations.
Photo courtesy of Superior Sauna and Steam

Lots of people think that if they own their home and the surrounding land that goes with it, they're free to do whatever they want with that space.

In fact, there are a variety of organizations that can and often do set rules regarding what, how and where you can build on your own land. Home owners' associations, for one, might regulate where you can add additional structures, what they can look like, and to what extent they can be viewed from outside your home.

State or local building codes, too, may have something to say about your outdoor-sauna addition. In particular, you probably need a building permit if you're going the permanent-structure route (as opposed to portable), since that's typically considered "new construction." There may also be taxes associated with this type of addition.

In extreme cases, failure to comply with these kinds of codes can result in forced removal of the new structure, so it's well worth your while to cover your bases before you start.

Assuming you're good to go, the next tip: When it comes to space constraints, be realistic.

Determine the Available Space
Want a bench of happy guests or a cozy retreat?
Want a bench of happy guests or a cozy retreat?

A sauna can turn a good sweat into a great party, and you'll find outdoor models that can fit eight, 10 or even 12 people comfortably. Unfortunately, the party sauna may not fit in that unused corner of your yard

You may be tempted to go as big as you can afford, but a sauna that monopolizes your entire outdoor space will seriously limit your options for future additions, may turn off prospective home buyers if you eventually want to sell, and will probably look pretty odd.

A good approach is to go with the largest sauna you can afford among the models that will fit easily in the available space. Even a small yard can accommodate a multi-person sauna -- a 5x7-foot structure can fit three or four bathers comfortably. You'll just need to pare down the guest list.

Next tip: Be honest -- are you really the party type?

Consider Its Use

Do you plan to invite neighbors to share your sauna, or is this just for your own use? Is it mostly intended to increase your home value, or will you take it with you if you move? Do you plan on cold-weather use?

Put some real thought into how you plan to use your sauna and what its main purpose is, because these considerations will determine your sauna's ideal size, type, add-ons and structural configurations. For instance, you can install sauna-friendly entertainment centers if you plan to play host. If you hope to take it with you to your next home, you can look into a portable model. For use in colder climates, an attached changing room and maybe even an enclosed pathway between home and sauna can be invaluable assets that dramatically increase how often your sauna gets used.

Next tip: Learn about your options in heat sources, because there are real differences between them.

Compare the Heating Options

The wood stove and rocks that characterize traditional Finnish saunas are still around, and lots of people refuse to give up the rustic sauna experience. Wood burning is only one way to heat a sauna, though, and the more-modern methods are the ones in widest use today.

Besides the wood stove, your primary choices are:

  • Electric -- Kind of like a very heavy-duty space heater, this is one of the cheaper options. Extra safety measures may be required due to the presence of electricity and water in the environment.
  • Gas -- The type of approach used in natural-gas home heating and another wallet-friendly option. Fluctuating gas prices can affect costs in the long run.
  • Infrared -- A whole new way to sauna, infrared light waves target the bodies in the room, heating them directly instead of heating the air. A more expensive way to go.

There's no right choice here. Heat source is a matter of preference and logistics. Be aware, though, that a gas heater requires a gas line running to the sauna, and if that means installing one from scratch, you're looking at a significant increase in cost.

Finally, don't overlook the importance of the controls.

Check the Controls

Heating methods aren't the only way saunas have changed with the times. We're a long way from stoking flames and pouring water on stacks of rocks (if we want to be, that is).

Sauna controls can be programmed to start the heating process (which typically takes at least 30 minutes) on a timer so you walk into a perfectly heated room. Some offer settings for energy efficiency and have presets to store different user's temperature preferences. Remote control can eliminate the need to ever leave the bench, steam can be automated, aromatherapy scents injected, and auxiliary inputs utilized for music and lighting technology you already own.

There's one feature, though, that needs to be included in whichever controls you choose: auto-off. The heat source must be told to turn itself off after a preset period of time so a user who falls asleep in there doesn't get hurt.

Luckily for the purists, even a traditional-style sauna can be equipped with modern safety controls. Surely even the Finns didn't care for heat stroke.

For more information on outdoor saunas and their indoor counterparts, check out the links on the next page.


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More Great Links


  • Benefits of sauna. Go Ask Alice! Columbi.edu. June 14, 2007. (July 9, 2012) http://goaskalice.columbia.edu/benefits-sauna
  • Frequently Asked Questions -- New Construction. California State Board of Equalization. (July 14, 2012) http://www.boe.ca.gov/proptaxes/faqs/newconstruction.html
  • Information and Advice About Choosing Sauna Rocks. Outdoor Saunas. (July 9, 2012) http://www.outdoorsauna.org/information-and-advice-about-choosing-sauna-rocks/
  • A Look at Outdoor Saunas. Sauna Talk. (July 9, 2012) http://www.sauna-talk.com/outdoor-saunas.html
  • Nutt, Amy. "Benefits of Installing an Outdoor Sauna." Infrared Sauna Information. (July 9, 2012) http://www.infraredsaunainformation.com/howtochoose.html
  • Roussell, Mike. "The Real Deal on Detox and Cleanse Diets." Shape Magazine. (July 14, 2012) http://www.shape.com/weight-loss/weight-loss-strategies/ask-diet-doctor-real-deal-detox-and-cleanse-diets
  • Sauna Heaters. Heater Store. (July 10, 2012) http://www.heater-store.com/sauna-heaters.html
  • Tips on Choosing a Home Sauna. Swimming Pool Store. (July 9, 2012) http://www.swimming-pool-store.com/index.php/Saunas/tips-on-choosing-a-home-sauna.html
  • Useful Tips to Help Your Choose Sauna Heaters. Outdoor Saunas. (July 9, 2012) http://www.outdoorsauna.org/useful-tips-to-help-you-choose-sauna-heaters/