Kohler BubbleMassage Bathtub Review

I just remodeled two 18-year-old bathrooms. In one I replaced a cracking fiberglass tub with an American Standard Princeton “Americast” tub. I considered cast iron, but Americast is a durable porcelain-coated composite offering much better insulation against temperature and noise — not to mention being significantly lighter than cast iron.

The bigger project was our master bathroom, and when it came to finding a new bathtub I had several goals. I wanted something big enough for my 5’9″ wife to stretch out in, but not so big that it would never get used. I wanted a massage feature that didn’t use waterjets because of all the cleaning and hygiene problems associated with running bathwater through an enclosed pump system.

Kohler’s BubbleMassage line sounded like a good solution: These are acrylic tubs with 120 little holes around the base perimeter through which a motor blows heated air. After the bath is drained the motor blows any residual moisture out of the system to prevent mold growth.

A 6’x3′ drop-in looked like it would be the right size so I bought and installed a Kohler Mariposa BubbleMassage tub (just over $2000 from Home Depot). At 72 gallons to the overflow I thought that would be ample capacity for a luxurious bath.

It turns out things aren’t so simple.

BubbleMassage Issues

The problem with blowing large volumes of air through hot water is that it cools off very quickly. BubbleMassage blowers are supposed to preheat the air with a 300W element. I measured the temperature of air coming directly out of the blower and found it fluctuating wildly between 90F and 110F. In practice I found that running the BubbleMassage cooled a full bath at 1 degree every 1-2 minutes. Start your bath at a relaxing 102F and within ten minutes it’s below your body temperature.

There may be a workaround for this if you plan ahead. As I will explain shortly, the Mariposa needs to be filled to the overflow. You could probably adjust a steady stream of hot water to keep the temperature up, but only if you put the fill faucet near the opposite end of the tub from the overflow. Otherwise additional hotwater just shoots right down the drain. However, further complicating temperature problems is the fact that with a bather in place the BubbleMassage doesn’t mix the water very well. It doesn’t take long before the water at the head of the tub (being significantly shallower) is noticeably cooler than the water at the feet.

One more quirk of BubbleMassage: Skin pressed up to or almost touching bubble vents often gets a “pins-and-needles” sort of sensation. My wife swore that it was blowing ice-cold air out of some of the vents even though objective measurements showed neither the air nor water were below body temperature. It wasn’t until I tried it myself that I realized this is a real physiological illusion. Moving an affected area slightly away from the bubble jets removes the sensation of being pinged with icy bubbles. But it’s a weird effect that I imagine most people will find irritating.


Kohler Mariposa BubbleMassage bathtub

Mariposa: Not as big as it looks

BubbleMassage is offered on a number of tub designs. I chose the Mariposa not only for what seemed like an ideal size, but also because it has the profile of a good soaking tub. It takes an actual bath to discover that its proportions are far from ideal. It advertises a water depth of 14″, but that depth is achieved only at the drain. The upper end of the tub is raked so sharply that with your head and arms resting on the appropriate contours your navel is right at the waterline, even with the tub filled to the overflow. I thought 72 gallons would provide an enveloping bath, but for a full-sized adult sitting comfortably this tub offers little more than half a bath!

Postscript

I called Kohler Customer Service and after briefly explaining that we found the BubbleMassage uncomfortable, but that we were past Home Depot’s return period, the agent said they would send me a voucher authorizing Home Depot to take my used tub and credit my full purchase price towards a new one. So obviously Kohler gets an A+ for customer service!

I replaced this tub with Kohler’s Archer Whirlpool. Yes, we have to deal with regular cleaning of the waterjet system, but the Archer is an excellent tub. Even though its nominal capacity is the same as the Mariposa’s it manages a greater soaking depth and, at least for our proportions, is more ergonomic all around. For the same price as the BubbleMassage I replaced I was able to get the Archer model with a 1500W inline heater which is able to maintain the water temperature even with all eight jets running at full volume.

13 thoughts on “Kohler BubbleMassage Bathtub Review

  1. Rob Garren

    This is exactly the information I was looking for. It is hard to know if the bubble massage is worth it without trying it yourself and I doubt the sales person would give nearly this type of insight. Initially our concern was the mildew/cleaning issue. We also didn’t want the maintenance of the whirlpool bath and the bubble massage seemed like it might be a better alternative. Instead we will probably just get a regular soaker or perhaps decide to go with the whirlpool and deal with the cleaning and maintenance (but probably not). Thanks for the insight!

  2. Jason

    Thank you so much for this review! We’re about to remodel and you’ve just saved us some serious hassle and disappointment. I was concerned about the air bubbles cooling, and you confirmed my worries. Sounds like the Archer Whirlpool is the way to go. Thanks!!!

  3. Ted

    I am considering the Archer Bubblemassage with the 300W in line air heater. Is this what the Mariposa had but was insufficient to heat the air enough so that the water temp didn’t drop?

  4. federalist Post author

    Yes, all Kohler BubbleMassages have the 300W air heater, and at least in its current implementation it’s not enough to prevent the bubbles from cooling the water.

  5. Steve

    With all the hoopla about bubble jet VS jetted tubs, either way they both build up crap within the internal piping. I spend every weekend filling the bubble jet tub with a strong bleach solution, alternating the blower on and off several times, letting it soak all day, repeating the blower several times and the algae or whatever keeps coming out. To me, it is a winless battle. Read up on what all grows in these systems and like me, you’ll go back to a regular tub. It is not worth it to play Russian roulette with the possible diseases!

  6. Cameo Massey

    We were misled by Home Depot advertising the Kohler Tercel Bubble Massage Tub to have a built in heater and light up display pad. The heater is only 300W and does a horrible job. The tub conked out within the first couple of months, luckily it was on warranty. Within a year, the cleaning cycle started coming on by itself in the middle of the night!?? Now we have had to pop the fuse on it because the tub started up on it’s own and we couldn’t shut it off at the control panel. If left on without water, it would have burned the motor out. REALLY DISAPPOINTED, and KOHLER has been no help!!

  7. Sherry

    Wow. This review answered my question about the cooling off. I am definitely a hot water soaker. Also answered my question about the size. Thanks for the info.

  8. Joy

    Does anyone know if these issues with the BubbleMassage tubs have been fixed by Kohler? The post was 2012 and it’s 2015 so I’m wondering if anyone has one and likes it if these issues were corrected. Or if not, I’d like to hear about that too. Thank you!!

  9. Jane

    We moved into our custom built home 5-1/2 years ago. When choosing bathroom fixtures for the master bath, I thought the Kohler Bubble Massage tub sounded like a good idea. Let me just say this: the only time I use this feature is when I’m trying to flush out the black, stinky mold! I wouldn’t think of using it while I was in it! A huge mistake on my part.

  10. Arlene

    We are remodeling bath and wanted to get a bubble massage or whirlpool type tub. I was just about to order and read these comments…..now I’m back to square one. Does anyone own a more current model that they’re happy with, either bubble or whirlpool? Does anyone have a septic system and own one? How much maintenance is really required??? How often? even if you don’t use that often, do you still have to weekly maintain?

  11. Name is notcha business

    I just installed the bubblemassage. I thought it was a heating problem with the heating element or the hot water heater and didn’t realize that it’s actually the airbubbles making the water cold. It’s sad that I paid so much for a product that doesn’t work the way I’d like it to.

  12. Arlene

    I read this same comment just before ordering it and changed our choice. I heard that it was also noisy. But I was even more concerned about keeping it free of algae and bacteria if all water is not purged. I’m sorry for your purchase and issue.

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