A relatively new technology for pedicure spas has been incorporated into many manufacturers’ pedicure systems in hopes that the ease of cleaning they offer will improve sanitary conditions in the salon and alleviate some client fears about the units. Called “pipeless” or “pipefree,” this new approach has allowed manufacturers to eliminate the need for internal pipes to circulate water in foot spas by using small turbines housed within the shell of the tub to churn the water instead. These new systems were designed to be completely accessible to the tech, making them easy to clean.
“The number-one concern in the industry is contagious diseases,” says Ken Bui, marketing director for Lexor Inc. (Baltimore), a manufacturer of pedicure spas.
Still, it is important to stress that the horror stories that permeate the industry are born of nail techs and salon owners who are negligent in the maintenance of their pedicure spas (piped and pipe-free alike) — not due to an inherent fault in the pedicure spa technology. In short, pipes are not the problem, people are.
Nancy King, an independent educator and industry consultant, is quick to point out that, “If a tech follows the rules, if she cleans and maintains her pedicure spa the way she is supposed to, she can offer a safe service,” regardless of whether she is using a whirlpool or pipefree spa. (You can learn more about the proper cleaning of pedicure thrones in “Footspa Cleaning Guidelines for Nail Technicians."
What Is a Pipe-Free System?
In short, a pipe-free system is a system that uses a motor-powered impeller to draw water from the tub into a jet where pressure forces it back out through either a hole or nozzle into the tub. The impeller looks similar to a boat propeller or fan, but rather than push the water away, an impeller creates suction that draws the water into it. The water never enters an internal re-circulation pipe and all of the components of the apparatus that touch water are designed to be easily accessible, removable, and disinfected.Water still enters and is drained from the tub through traditional plumbing.
In a traditional piped foot spa, water from the tub is drawn through an intake by a powerful pump, circulated through a series of pipes surrounding the tub, and forced back into the basin through various jets.
The first pipe-free style system was invented by SaniJet (Coppell, Texas) and introduced in 2000 for use in whirlpool baths and hot tubs, where bacterial infections due to deposits in pipes were on the rise. In 2002 the technology was modified for use in pedicure systems. Each SaniJet pipeless hydrotherapy jet is powered by its own individual motor and may be used on a variety of settings, from forceful flows to pulsating currents, says Philip Klement, vice president of sales and marketing for SaniJet.
The SaniJet Pipeless system is available in the company’s own pedicure thrones and is also made available to other manufacturers for use in their own pedicure thrones.
Pro Spa, Inc. (Garland, Texas), a manufacturer specializing in pipe-free pedicure spas, was launched in 2003 and designs its spas around the SaniJet system.“We designed our spas this way so there would be no retrofitting of old spa designs to accommodate the new technology,” says Eric Phan, regional sales manager for Pro Spa.
Many pedicure systems on the market today can be fitted with SaniJet Pipeless systems by the manufacturer and in some cases, the distributor. “It’s easy to modify spa shells to accommodate a pipeless system,” says Bui.
Manufacturers and distributors are increasingly offering their whirlpool pedicure systems with the option of converting them to a pipefree system. The cost to the buyer is not significantly higher than a traditional whirlpool system, usually hovering between an additional $200 and $300.
For its own thrones, European Touch Ltd. II (Milwaukee) has developed Crystal Clean Pipe-Free Technology, a pipe-free system that currently is only available in one of its thrones, but will soon be available in more. “An impeller secured to the bottom of the basin pulls water underneath a foot plate and then forces it up through numerous holes in the foot plate,” explains Rebecca Reed, advertising manager for European Touch. “Water remains fully self-contained in the basin.”
Why Go Pipe-Free?
There are a variety of potential benefits with pipe-free systems, but three closely address the current sanitation concerns. First, by eliminating the internal water lines, these systems reduce the actual surface area where bacteria and other water-borne pathogens can collect. There are no hidden or inaccessible surfaces.
Second, the entire system — all of the components that touch water and can therefore potentially harbor bacteria — can be quickly and easily removed and sanitized or disinfected, even between every client.
Finally, because everything can be removed and cleaned, users can ensure there is no water left standing in the system. “SaniJet’s Pipeless system allows the user to easily remove and quickly clean and dry each jet after use to assure the system is completely disinfected for the next use,” says Klement.
“Every component that touches water can be easily removed to assure that no water is being retained and no residue is being deposited.” So, in theory, if a user properly maintains her pipe-free system she can offer an extremely safe service.
There are other benefits as well. Since pipe-free systems tend to be modular and accessible in that the entire system is within reach and easily removed, servicing and maintenance are relatively easy.
Oils, salts, and greasy products, which are sometimes discouraged in traditional whirlpool spas because they tend to create buildup in the pipes, can be safely used in pipe-free systems because their residue can be easily and thoroughly removed.
SaniJet claims that its system is significantly quieter than typical piped systems, saying its system runs at 55 decibels while a piped system can run at 73.
Do You Clean It?
In response to heightened consumer awareness of foot spa cleanliness, a boom industry has sprung up. Automated sanitizing and disinfecting systems have been added to pedicure spas (Amerispa’s AmeriKleen is an example) to make cleaning easier and more convenient. And disposable barriers shield clients from potentially lurking bacteria in pedicure tubs.
Still, there are concerns among makers of both systems that some nail techs may assume that because a pipefree system has no pipes (and therefore less area for bacteria to live) it does not have to be cleaned in the same fashion as a piped system. This could not be further from the truth. Just like a traditional whirlpool foot spa, any poorly maintained pipe-free system can become the perfect breeding ground for harmful bacteria. The reduced area does not equal reduced risk.
The same stringent cleaning chemicals and protocols apply to pipe-free systems. Just like a piped system, they must be cleaned between every client, nightly, and weekly. “Pipeless units have propellers, screens, and jets too,” says King. “Every piece has to be cleaned meticulously.”
To clean a pipe-free system, regardless of the type, all the components must be removed, scrubbed, and disinfected. Klement describes how to clean a SaniJet system: “Remove the jet assembly with a twist of the hand, clean the jet components and casing with a non-abrasive antibacterial cleaner, and reinsert the jet assembly. We recommend cleaning the jets and tub shell after each use to maintain the highest level of disinfection.” [Nail technicians should, again, consult state regulations for cleaning the unit.]
Cleaning European Touch’s Crystal Clean system is equally easy. “In most locations, simply remove the foot plate, wipe the basin, foot plate, and components clean with a sanitizing spray or wipe, then replace the foot plate. There are no screens or jet nozzles,” says Reed.
“As is the case with any type of hydrotherapy equipment, SaniJet’s Pipeless Jets can become contaminated with residue if not properly maintained. It would be deceptive for any pedicure manufacturer, SaniJet included, to state that their system cannot become contaminated,” insists Klement. “SaniJet’s value position is clear and concise; at any time a person can visually inspect and thoroughly clean the system to restore it to completely sanitary conditions.”
“European Touch strongly recommends cleaning and disinfecting all pedicure spas between each customer, after the last client of the day, and at week’s end,” says Reed.
So, while pipe-free systems are an innovation in the ease of cleaning and maintenance, they by no means eliminate the fears of bacterial infections. The cleaning may be easier to do and may give the user peace of mind that her unit is safe, but the need to be vigilant and meticulous remains.
Margarida Deoliveira, owner of A Place For You in Brookfield, Conn., is a typical pipe-free system owner. “I’m very concerned with sanitation and safety,” she says. “I explain the cleaning process to my clients because they are very curious.”
Her spa sees a high volume of pedicure clients and she says the ease of cleaning is helpful. “I clean between every client. I take the foot plate off, spray it and the basin, and wipe them down. My pedicures take about an hour and a half each — and I put the same kind of effort into cleaning my foot spa.”
And while there is comfort in knowing a system can be so easily cleaned, she says there is little temptation to let her guard down.“Even with this technology, if you don’t clean after each use you can still get a fungus or something worse. You’d have to be pretty lazy not to want to clean when it is this easy.”
Bacteria: The Truth About All Foot Spas
There’s good news and there’s bad news. The bad news first: An improperly maintained pedicure spa system is the perfect host for many forms of potentially harmful bacteria, viruses, fungi, and germs. And, as was the case in 2000 in Watsonville, Calif., in which more than 100 clients were afflicted with bacterial infections accompanied by scores of leg sores, even common, generally harmless forms of bacteria can grow dangerous if allowed to stagnate in pedicure units, regardless of the style.
The bacteria themselves can come from just about anywhere: tap water, the air, body fluids, or dirt on your clients’ feet are just a few potential carriers. “Floating around in the tank water, these single bacteria are harmless,” says Darla Goeres, a research engineer at the Center for Biofilm Engineering at Montana State University. But, if exposed to the correct environment, they won’t stay that way for long.
Hair, bits of skin, oils, lotions, product residue, dirt, and even bits of fruit and flowers from pedicures are sucked into a whirlpool foot spa’s piping as it re-circulates the water to create the jets of water that clients hold so dear. This miscellaneous debris becomes trapped behind the spa’s intake screen (which is not meant to act as a filter) and — if not removed through stringent cleaning practices — accumulates there and along the walls of the pipes, creating an ideal home for any number of harmful bacteria. In a pipe-free spa, bacteria can grow in a similar manner inside the hydrotherapy jets and behind foot plates, depending on their construction.
In a study on whirlpool spa systems conducted by Dr. Rita Brown Moyes, director of the microbiology lab and senior lecturer at Texas A&M University, she found that bacteria are abundant in “nutrient-containing aquatic environments,” — such as moist pipes laden with dead skin cells, hair, and oils.
In the case of piped spas, Goeres warns, “If there is going to be a bacterial problem, it will be in the pipes.” Techs can physically scrub the intake cover, but they can’t physically reach the pipes. So, even if nail techs make the effort to clean the intake cover, if they are negligent in using disinfectants as directed to clean the pipes, a dangerous culprit can form there. This culprit is called biofilm.
“Biofilm is defined as bacteria attached to a surface, encased in a slimy matrix,” explains Goeres. Essentially what this means is that the bacteria attaches itself to the walls of the pipes or pipe-free components and colonizes it, building organized structures that help it live longer. These structures, if allowed to grow, protect the bacteria from disinfectants and make them more difficult to kill because “if a disinfectant attacks the outer layer of the structure that bacteria will die, but the disinfectant may not penetrate through the structure, and so the inner bacteria may be protected,” says Goeres.
So, once biofilm has established itself in a pipe, it is hard to get rid of and it allows normally harmless bacteria to develop into a health threat. Pipe-free systems have the advantage that if their components become contaminated, they can be removed and disinfected. That’s the bad news.
The good news is that ALL of this can be easily avoided — in both piped and pipe-free systems — with the proper disinfectants, and daily, nightly, and weekly cleaning. In whirlpool spas, “Bleach and cleaning chemicals can reach anywhere water reaches in the pipes,” asserts King. “Pipes aren’t the real infection risk. The risk is when the units aren’t cleaned.”
Goeres agrees, noting that while a whirlpool system will never be “sterile,” a tech can “do a good job of controlling the bacteria and keeping her clients safe.”
The California Department of Consumer Affairs Board of Barbering & Cosmetology notes in its “Whirlpool Footspa Safety Fact Sheet” that skin infections from bacteria incubated in foot baths are “relatively rare. If salon whirlpool foot baths are cleaned and disinfected properly, the risk of these infections is very small.” “When you consider the number of pedicure services provided versus the number of cases of infection, the risk is very small,” concludes King.
The industry is also doing a good job of promoting quality systems that minimize the amount of water allowed to remain in whirlpool pipes after draining the system. The American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and the Underwriters Laboratories (UL) have both developed standards in regard to the plumbing in whirlpool pedicure thrones. Systems that meet ANSI standards, for example, are those whose whirlpool mechanisms drain thoroughly, enough that only one tablespoon of water is left in jetted tubs. That way, there is no reserve of water sitting in the pipes for the hours or days between pedicures. Check with manufacturers to make sure their spas have met ANSI and UL standards.
The bottom line is simple: Despite all of the hype and fear, whirlpool pedicure systems are perfectly safe if they are properly cleaned and maintained.
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