Float First Float Tanks

Friday marked the second anniversary of Float First, a Chesapeake spa offering one- or two-hour stays in two egg-shaped flotation tanks.

Business, owner James Ramsey said, is heating up. He apologized to a stream of callers Wednesday morning because Friday was already booked up.

For some customers, he said, the experience provides a burst of creativity. For others, a refuge for relaxation.

The outlook for expansion is promising. But the tanks, which Float First bought from a company in England, could stand improvements from audio capabilities to temperature control, Ramsey said.

So he's starting to manufacture his own tanks in Norfolk.

Already, Ramsey said, he's received more than a dozen orders, mostly from other spa owners, from California to Canada to New Zealand.

"We plan on selling a whole lot of them," maybe 50 to 100 a year, Ramsey said.

Ramsey, 37, grew up in Chesapeake and toggled among an assortment of jobs, including as a cable installer with Cox Communications and working in his family's apartment rental business.

The idea of a flotation-tank spa sprang into his mind before he ever tried one. The trend seemed promising, but Ramsey remained skeptical until he first got into one in Charlottesville in 2009.

It was, he recalled, like putting on "high-definition" glasses. "When I came out, it really heightened my senses."

Sessions at the 1,600-square-foot store in Greenbrier cost $39 to $79. Regular customers, Ramsey said, include athletes - he hopes to add pitchers from the Norfolk Tides soon - artists and musicians, as well as others looking for a brief retreat from reality.

The fiberglass tanks are about 8 feet long, 5 feet wide and 4 feet tall. Each holds 265 gallons of water and 1,200 pounds of Epsom salt. The temperature is 93.5 degrees.

The satisfaction rate is high, Ramsey said, but he's noticed flaws in the tanks, from areas susceptible to mold and mildew without vigorous cleaning to difficulties inputting customers' music preferences.

He found the work of other manufacturers - Floatation.biz lists four in the United States - wanting, with many producing glorified "freezer boxes." Ramsey figured he could do it better.

"We picked it apart and kept what was good about it - a sleek-looking design - and redid everything else," Ramsey said.

He formed a separate manufacturing company, US Float Tanks, with his father and brother, putting up more than $200,000.

The tanks he builds will be slightly larger than the ones at Float First but will have roughly the same capacity, Ramsey said. The lids will be larger and will pivot to allow easier access and cleaning, he said.

The tanks also will be significantly cheaper. The ones at Float First cost $30,000 each, he said. Ramsey hopes to sell his for $20,000 to $25,000.

The market for the tanks could go far beyond spas. Possibilities include chiropractors' offices and after-surgery care, said Larry Lombardi, business development manager for technology at Norfolk's development department. The city's Economic Development Authority is providing $4,500 to US Float Tanks for website or marketing efforts.

US Float Tanks will pay Old Dominion University's Business Gateway $45,500 for assistance, including work on the tank's controls and molding process, said Jerry Robertson, executive director of the Business Gateway.

Ramsey said he's narrowing on a production site in Norfolk. In the interim, the first tank will be put together at Business Gateway's office on Monarch Way, east of the campus. That will start in the next two weeks, Robertson said.

The tank, which Ramsey expected to be finished in early August, will go into an empty room at Float First. In addition to supplying buyers, Ramsey plans to put some of the future tanks in new stores, both in Hampton Roads and beyond.

Ramsey said he hopes to hire up to four employees soon and more as production expands.

US Float Tanks is buying the fiberglass from Piedmont Fiberglass in Taylorsville, N.C., and contracted with DLBA Inc., a marine engineering firm in Greenbrier, to help design the tanks.

The venture, Ramsey said, will return his family to manufacturing. His parents met working at the former General Electric Co. plant in Suffolk, which made TV sets. It closed in 1986.

"We like the idea of making something amazing here again and creating a lot of manufacturing jobs," Ramsey said. "But to provide manufacturing jobs, you have to make money."