PHILADELPHIA -- When Chris Hall wants to demonstrate the toughness of the soft bathtub on display at Ferguson Enterprises Inc. in King of Prussia, Pa., he sometimes likes to climb into it and take a few steps while wearing street shoes. Other times, a high-heeled member of the staff might take a short stroll in the tub.
"We encourage people to get in and walk around," said Hall, president of the Philadelphia-area division of Ferguson, a leading national wholesaler of plumbing fixtures based in Newport News, Va.
Actually, Hall's tests are some of the milder demonstrations used to show the toughness of soft bathtubs. The tubs are possibly the most intriguing of several new fixtures for the bath, a room that appears to have a special fascination for homeowners and home buyers.
Soft bathtubs might have the brightest future and widest application of the offbeat new fixtures, however. The tubs, made in Canada and distributed by International Cushioned Products Inc. of Vancouver, B.C., have a smooth, glossy surface that from a short distance resembles a typical white or colored tub. When pressed, the surface responds like a firmly upholstered sofa.
Greg Forrest, a spokesman for International Cushioned Products, said the United States is expected to be "the big market" for the tubs, which have been in development for about 12 years. He said more than 1,500 tubs have been sold so far.
Forrest pointed out that there is an obvious market for the tubs among older people and in families with children because the soft, nonslip surface is expected to prevent many injuries from falls. He forecasts a wider demand, however.
"It was originally pushed for older adults, but there are buyers all over the board," Forrest said. "It's going in a lot of new homes with younger people who want to lay back and spend two hours in the tub." Besides providing extra comfort, the soft tub acts as an insulator and keeps water warm longer than ordinary tubs.
Price might be the biggest obstacle to quick success for soft bathtubs, although Forrest contends they are "right in the market or less" than comparable products by Kohler or Jacuzzi.
A standard 60-by-32-inch soft tub, not including faucets or installation, sells for about $1,750. The standard-size tub with whirlpool fixtures sells for about $2,150.
Also available, with or without whirlpool action, are a 60-by-36-inch tub and oversize tubs 72-by-42 and 72-by-48. The largest tub sells for about $3,100 in the regular version and about $4,000 with whirlpool.
Because of their construction, free-standing installations of soft tubs aren't possible; a surrounding framework or shell is needed. The tubs have a core of flexible urethane foam up to about two inches thick over a layer of rigid fiberglass, with a surface layer of elastic urethane chosen for its toughness as well as comfort.
The tubs are made by injecting foam between the rigid and soft layers. The process eliminates the use of adhesives, which might dissolve or soften in water.
Forrest said the surface won't chip and resists scratches and many stains, but a specification sheet warns that some materials, such as ink and dyes, can cause stains that might be difficult to remove. Normal cleaning can be done with a wet cloth, with nonabrasive soap added for hard-to-remove films or dirt. Minor damage, such as a burn or puncture, can be fixed with vinyl-repair materials, Forrest said.
According to Forrest, soft bathtubs were invented by Scott Bortz, who first experimented with ways to build a more comfortable tub while living in the Hershey, Pa., area.
For more information from the national distributor, phone (800) 882-7638.