Bugs in the Tubs

Texas consumers take on the whirlpool business--and that mysterious black crud shooting out of their bathtub jets

Malesovas says the companies have been nonchalant about the black gunk and cleaning procedures because "it isn't something that'll help them sell a bunch more tubs. They've been more focused on putting stereos and TVs in them, and pillow attachments."

Indeed, the dream tub in Jacuzzi's current line is the Italian-designed Vision. It comes loaded with a flat-screen TV, DVD/CD player, and "to pamper you even more...a state-of-the-art floating remote control," the company's Web site says. For the $20,000 asking price, the tub will be "certified, numbered and carry the distinction of Roy Jacuzzi's personal signature."

Scene of the grime: Top, the Jacuzzi tub in Ted Marules' new $20,000 bathroom. Middle, some of the residue left in a whirlpool bath. Bottom, the guts of a typical fill-and-drain whirlpool tub, which some Texas consumers claim are a breeding ground for harmful bacteria.
Mark Graham
Scene of the grime: Top, the Jacuzzi tub in Ted Marules' new $20,000 bathroom. Middle, some of the residue left in a whirlpool bath. Bottom, the guts of a typical fill-and-drain whirlpool tub, which some Texas consumers claim are a breeding ground for harmful bacteria.

While unnerving to the big tub makers, talk of dirty tubing and health risks in traditional jetted tubs are sweet poetry to a start-up company in Coppell.

For the last year, Sanijet Corp. has been making and selling a line of pipeless whirlpools, designed around a patented jet fitting that can be pulled out and thoroughly cleaned. The company is aiming its marketing strategy at what it calls the "serious health threats" posed by nearly every other tub on the market.

For instance, one of its in-your-face sales posters features three monkeys, each with hands over its ears, eyes or mouth, and the words: "The whirlpool bath industry's approach to health and safety." Another monkey, chest-deep in a Sanijet tub, relaxes with its hands behind his head, over the words: "The only pipeless, airless whirlpool bath that delivers superior hydrotherapy, quieter operation and, for the first time, enables users to easily and thoroughly clean the system."

"We've taken on the entire industry over health and cleanliness," says Sanijet President John Booth, who formed the company in 1993, raised $10 million in capital and began setting up production of his tubs in 1998.

Russell Walker, a vice president and son of Southern Methodist University football legend Doak Walker, took a reporter on a tour through the company's 100,000-square-foot factory, offices and showroom recently. Like the rest of the industrial park in which they're located, everything is brand-new. After showing videos, photos and samples of filthy water taken from traditional tubs, Walker led his visitor to a bathroom display and an installed Sanijet 600 Series Tub. The top-of-the-line, six-jet model retails for about $5,000.

Powered by six separate motors, the tub's jet fittings simultaneously draw in and shoot out quiet, powerful streams of water. He runs the programmable controls through a number of settings, allowing the jets to hit various parts of a bather's body.

Then Walker pops out one of the jet fittings, puts it in a sink and rinses it off. "Every part that gets wet can be thoroughly washed," he says, adding that with his product, one can use any type of bath salt, bath oil or aroma one likes.

All this looks impressive enough as one wanders past the company's executive and design offices and back to the factory floor. In one corner, a few tub designs are being tested for a bid to supply a Las Vegas hotel.

"We could drop about 85 to 100 tubs a shift, 80,000 tubs a year," Walker says, strolling past the assembly line, where sheets of heat-molded acrylic and high-tech, brushless motors go together to make a Sanijet tub.

Instead, the floor is nearly deserted. Since they started in earnest in May 2000, they've produced perhaps 1,000 tubs, Walker says.

"We've taken up health issues, but up to now it's been an out-of-sight, out-of-mind problem," Booth explains. "No part of the industry, including the sales showrooms, have accepted there's a problem. So it's been difficult selling through traditional channels."

Last year, Sanijet erected displays and began selling its whirlpools in 200 bath-products showrooms around the country. But its sales pitch asked the showroom sales forces to essentially knock--in the most unpleasant way--the Jacuzzis and Kohlers they have been selling for years. "If you tell them [the customers] about all our features, they have to question why are you selling all of these," Walker says. "They had a dilemma."

And it wasn't resolved in Sanijet's favor.

Earlier this year, Ferguson Enterprises Inc., a major wholesaler of plumbing supply and heat equipment, kicked Sanijet out of its showrooms because of its claims of being the only whirlpool you can thoroughly and easily clean. In an e-mail Bill Hargette, a Ferguson vice president, sent to the company's outlets nationwide, he said Sanijet's claims that its tubs eliminate bacteria and unsanitary residue imply "that other whirlpool systems like the Jacuzzi and Kohler whirlpools we sell have a problem with these features. We do not think that it is appropriate that we support this type of selling in our showrooms, and we ask that you do not display or sell Sanijet whirlpool products."

Hargette, reached at the company's Virginia headquarters, declined to be interviewed and would not verify whether a copy of the e-mail was authentic.

Faced with those problems in the traditional sales chain, Walker and Booth say they are now marketing directly to architects, builders, hotels, hospitals and consumers. Their tubs, which start at $3,000 retail, are more expensive than many conventional whirlpools but in line with some of the more expensive name brands. "Ours are a lot more expensive to build," Booth says.

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