News & Politics

The Heat Is On

Some of the hottest bath innovations are very warm. Here’s a look at radiant-heated floors, defogging mirrors, and other great gadgets.

Radiant Heat

Electric radiant floor heaters are not new, but the latest models are easier to install and to use. Wired mats come boxed in common bathroom sizes, ready for installation. Older models could be cryptic to program; new ones pack more customizable features into user-friendly controllers.

For average-size floors, radiant electric systems from such companies as NuHeat and WarmlyYours cost $400 to $800. A hydronic system, in which hot water runs through plastic tubing, is an alternative, but it is less practical and costs more—unless the bathroom is enormous or the home already runs on radiator heat.

Electric radiant technology is behind a new crop of mirror defoggers and towel warmers. Defogging units are ultra-thin so they can be installed behind mirrors and wired to existing light switches or timers. Radiant-heat towel rails and bars used to look alike; now they come in hip designs. Defoggers and towel warmers can cost less than $200.

A stone shower bench may look inviting until you sit on a cold slab. NuHeat makes waterproof radiant-heat cables that can be installed under seats, floors, and other surfaces in showers, saunas, and steam rooms.

Super Showers

Gadgets that soup up the shower—and make it like a car wash for the body—are increasingly popular. Installing body jets around the shower is the best way to get the full experience, but that requires a plumber to move water lines. To get some of the effect without the hassle, such manufacturers as Hansgrohe, Kohler, and Toto sell multijet shower towers or columns. Basic units start at $600, while fancier versions top out around $5,000. Installing these requires putting in larger pipes. Shower panels, on the other hand, can be retrofitted into bathrooms without chopping up existing tile or changing pipes.

Instant Hot Water

For sinks set in vanity cabinets, tankless electric “point of use” heaters produce hot water almost instantly. These energy-efficient devices work by pumping cold water through a copper coil containing heating elements. Bosch, for instance, makes units priced at about $300 that plug into standard electrical outlets. The result is no more waiting for water to warm up while watching it go down the drain.

Why Not a Fireplace?

Ventless fireplaces fueled by alcohol-based gels can be installed in bathrooms. They won’t radiate a great deal of heat, but they can provide warm ambience. Fireplaces typically cost $300 to $700 but can go up to $1,850. A case of 24 cans of either Sunjel- or Crackling Flames–brand fuel costs $77.

Four Cool Gadgets

Refrigerated medicine cabinets extend the life of prescription medicines and preservative-free beauty products. Models by Robern and German maker Biszet have multiple cooling zones, and some have compartments handily sized to chill wine. They range from about $2,000 to $3,000.

Hate hand-washing delicate garments? The Delicair, which can be dropped into standard countertops, saves you the trouble: Fourteen or 16 air jets generate water action that gently lifts dirt. Aquatic sells models for $700 to $997.

Japanese toilet maker Toto was the first in America to market toilet seats with bidet features. Other manufacturers followed suit. Some seats automatically lift and close, position water wands to rinse delicate body parts, air dry, deodorize the air, and clean themselves. The seats fit many brands of toilets. At the entry level, Brondell’s Swash seats start at $360. Kohler’s midpriced C3 line features blue lights that illuminate the toilet bowl and quick-release bolts to remove seats for cleaning. Toto’s top-of-the-line Washlet costs around $1,890.

Chromotherapy, or mood-lighting, fixtures are evolving. Architect Todd Ray of Studio27 in DC recently designed a shower using laminated glass panels backlit by LED, or light-emitting-diode, bulbs. Programmed controls for this $20,000 project create an ethereal effect as colors shift in sync from sunrise to sunset. Other glowing effects in the bath can be achieved by using glass tiles with embedded LED bulbs. Illuminations, a Georgetown lighting shop, sells some rated for shower floors; roughly four by four inches, they cost about $500 a tile.

The Latest in Audio and Video

A British firm has tapped the properties of sound waves to create musical tubs and sinks. A patented device vibrates acrylic or molded plastic surfaces, turning entire objects into speakers. Peter Tuckett of Invisible Speakers at Input Installations in England says equipment runs about $500.

The most basic version of Séura’s slick TV mirror—you can watch the news while shaving—costs $1,699 to $3,500 installed, says Jonathan Stovall, owner of Bethesda Systems, a company that specializes in home automation.

Stovall says that patching in a cable box and sound components from other rooms can make bathroom media centers pricey. To whet your appetite for high-tech sound without getting soaked, consider the $66, water-resistant Zumreed Rain Drop iPod speaker; it comes in three colors and connects with other brands of MP3 players.

This article first appeared in the March 2009 issue of The Washingtonian. For more articles from that issue, click here.    

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