People experiencing limited mobility can find that certain day-to-day tasks are difficult to complete, leading to feelings of frustration and a disappointing loss of independence. Walk-in tubs offer one way for these individuals to maintain a sense of personal freedom and take care of basic daily personal hygiene needs by providing an easy and safe method of bathing.
Whether you’re shopping for yourself, a client or a loved one, it’s important to understand all the basics before you purchase a walk-in tub. This complete guide provides all the basics to help you understand whether a walk-in tub is the right choice for your situation, what features you should look for in a walk-in tub and what to expect when it’s time to make a purchase.
What is a Walk-In Tub?
In the simplest terms, a walk-in tub is a bathtub that allows the user to walk in and walk out rather than having to step over the side.
Most walk-in tubs are specifically designed for those with mobility issues of some sort, so they may have additional safety features that make them safer and more convenient than a standard bathtub.
These bathroom fixtures are designed for home use, and they can replace or supplement a standard shower or shower/tub combo depending on individual needs.
Walk-in tubs combine the stability of a sit-down bathing experience with the mobility convenience of a walk-in stall shower. These bathtubs are deeper and wider than the standard tub, which allows users with mobility issues to sit upright while bathing.
With this design, there’s no need to lower oneself down into a tub or lift oneself out of the tub once the bath is done. Because they have doors, walk-in tubs do not require the user to step over a high side, which means that entry into the bath is much easier and safer for those who have limited leg movement capabilities.
In addition to providing more convenient features than a standard bathtub, walk-in tubs are also safer than a shower.
The doors on a walk-in tub are small and lightweight, taking up part of the side wall of the tub and usually consisting of a molded acrylic or fiberglass panel. While many stall showers allow for walk-in convenience, they tend to use heavy glass doors that can be difficult for those with arm mobility to operate and dangerous for those in wheelchairs.
Additionally, the user can sit a walk-in tub in order to bathe, which means that there is less concern over stability while bathing. Whether in a tub or a shower, stability is a major concern for people with limited mobility who may lose their balance while washing themselves.
The standard inclusion of seating inside the tub eliminates the need for collapsible seating, which isn’t always very stable and is therefore not the safest option, especially for independent use in the absence of a caregiver or family member.
Who Should and Shouldn’t Use a Walk-In Tub?
Anyone can use a walk-in tub, though the fact that they tend to hold a deeper depth of water, often several feet, means that these tubs are generally not suitable for babies and children or adults with limited mobility who are below a recommended minimum height.
Other people who likely should not use a walk-in tubs include pregnant women, individuals with certain circulatory issues and others who may become dizzy or experience cardiovascular strain when submerged in warm water. Consult your doctor before purchasing or using a walk-in tub to make sure this is a safe bathing option for you.
Beyond that, people who do not experience mobility or balance issues may not enjoy using a walk-in tub as an alternative to a standard tub for soaking and relaxation purposes. Though they’re deeper and taller, walk-in tubs aren’t really designed for leisure. They’re functional fixtures that make bathing easier for those who need an alternative to a standard bath or shower.
Additionally, the walk-in nature of these bathtubs means the user must enter the tub while it’s empty and wait until it’s drained to exit. The doors on the tub are watertight, but opening the door means all the water in the tub will come flooding out into the bathroom. We’ll cover this element in more detail later in the article, but suffice it to say that most people who are looking for a relaxing soak in a tub won’t find that a walk-in tub meets their needs.
Really, the people who will find walk-in tubs most suitable for their needs are those who experience chronic balance or mobility issues for any number of reasons. Paralysis, arthritis and aging are all examples of conditions or situations that make walk-in tubs appealing to their users.
A walk-in tub isn’t necessarily the right choice for short-term mobility issues such as those caused by an injury like a broken leg, which will heal over time and allow the patient to return to a normal independent lifestyle at some point in the relatively near future. Injuries that can permanently affect mobility, though, like a broken hip, may call for the use of a walk-in tub. Again, consulting with a doctor can be helpful in deciding whether a walk-in tub is right for you or someone under your care.
Why are Walk-In Tubs Useful?
As we hinted above, walk-in tubs aren’t exactly a replacement for a standard tub or shower. They might seem luxurious at first glance because they look a bit like a miniature hot tub, but that’s really not what they’re for.
That’s not to say that the experience of bathing in a walk-in tub can’t be relaxing and enjoyable. It’s just that these bathtubs really aren’t a luxury accessory. They’re more like a mobility aid than a piece of spa equipment.
That helps put these appliances in their proper use case context. Walk-in tubs are useful because they allow people who can’t safely or comfortably use a standard bath or shower to achieve proper personal hygiene. Because these tubs allow for safe and easy bathing, they can often allow patients who previously relied on the help of professional caregivers or family members to regain some independence and bathe themselves without assistance.
There may still be some cases in which a walk-in tub user needs supervision or assistance, but in these cases, the structure and design of the tub makes it easier for the caregiver to bathe the patient in a safe and stable context.
Where are Walk-In Tubs Used?
Walk-in tubs are used in a variety of different settings, including private homes, medical offices, physical therapy clinics, retirement homes, active living communities and hospitals. Essentially, a walk-in tub is a good choice for any bathroom in which a person or multiple people with limited mobility is likely to bathe.
If you’re considering installing a walk-in tub in your home, consider whether this is a good long-term investment first. There are several situations in which it makes good sense to install a walk-in tub.
Some families may decide to install one of these tubs in anticipation of one or more elderly relatives moving into a home. Others may need to install a walk-in tub after a family member suffers a life-changing injury. Homeowners may also decide to install a walk-in tub for their own comfort or convenience.
Whether for your own use or for the use of someone in your family, be sure to consider which bathroom is the best choice for installing the tub. A bathroom that is itself difficult to reach due to its location on a high floor or in a part of the house that isn’t wide enough to accommodate a wheelchair comfortably may not be the best choice for location.
Think carefully about why you’re installing the tub and who will be using it before following through with the installation.
The Process of Bathing in a Walk-In Tub Explained
With all that information in mind, it’s easier to imagine the experience of bathing in a walk-in tub. These tubs are available in different shapes, sizes and designs, so there may be some differences from model to model. In general, though, the bather will open the tub door on the side wall, walk directly into the tub and sit down on the built-in seat before shutting the door and turning on the water.
The water shouldn’t run for very long, if at all, before the user shuts the door. Remember: the door is an integrated and leak-proof part of the side wall of a walk-in tub. If you open the door, you create a (temporary) hole in the side of your bathtub!
Most walk-in tub doors don’t extend the full length of the side wall. That is, there may be a small portion of the wall that does not open out and therefore doesn’t allow for anything to slide or roll directly into the tub.
Individuals who cannot lift their feet or legs at all may not be able to step into the tub, but if the tub has grab bars and the user has sufficient upper body strength, this may not be an issue as the bars may allow the user to swing or pull his or her body into the tub and onto the seat.
Once the user is safely in the tub and seated in a comfortable position, he or she will typically need to wait for the tub to fill while seated. For this reason, those who are able to do so should adjust water temperature before getting into the tub so it’s safe and comfortable once the door is closed.
Some walk-in tubs feature a built-in, handheld shower attachment that you can use to spray and rinse during bathing. In these cases, some users may not choose to actually fill the tub, instead treating it like a seated shower stall that doesn’t need to accumulate water.
Users who choose this method of bathing can simply keep the walk-in tub’s drain open to avoid sitting in runoff shower suds.
How Does the Bathing Experience in a Walk-In Tub Differ from That of a Shower Stall or Traditional Tub?
With a standard tub, a bather would likely fill the tub partway or even all the way before getting in, but that’s not how it works with a walk-in. Walk-in bathtub users who plan on taking a bath rather than showering with the handheld showerhead need to be in the tub ready to bathe before they start filling it.
This means that adjusting the temperature before you get in the water also happens prior to filling the tub rather than prior to getting in. It also means that most users will want to undress before the tub is full. When the bath is over, the walk-in tub user will need to wait until all the water drains out to open the door and exit, whereas a standard tub user can simply exit when they’re finished and let the water drain away afterwards.
Overall, a walk-in tub user is likely to spend more time undressed and out of the water waiting for the tub to fill or empty. This is one major difference between bathing in a traditional tub or stall shower, and it means that the ambient temperature of the bathroom is a crucial factor for user comfort.
Submerging oneself in a hot bath or stepping into a shower stall with warm water flowing usually means that a bathroom doesn’t have to be kept particularly warm for user comfort. However, with a walk-in tub, the ambient temperature of the bathroom may need to be higher to ensure comfort while the water fills or drains the tub.
Other than these operational differences, the experience of bathing in a walk-in tub isn’t really that different. Ultimately, the user can bathe him or herself in whatever way necessary or preferred. It’s the entering, exiting and filling the tub that’s different, not the actual process of bathing.
Cleaning is another area in which the two tub types are fairly similar, though it is worth noting that the larger size and expanded range of features associated with a walk-in tub does can mean a more intensive cleaning process. If you have trouble bending over to clean a standard tub, chances are that you will experience similar issues with a walk-in tub. Users who experience significant mobility issues may need some help to keep their walk-in tubs clean and fresh.
Walk-In Tub Features to Look For
There are many different types of walk-in bathtubs made by a variety of different major and small manufacturers. You can buy them in a variety of different locations and have them installed by contractors, plumbers or even employees of the big-box store where you purchase the tub.
Before you actually purchase, though, you’ll want to think carefully about the kind of walk-in tub that best suits the needs of your particular situation.
Remember that the more luxurious and feature-packed a tub is, the more expensive it is likely to be. Walk-in tubs are more expensive than standard tubs in general, but the price range within this category varies greatly as well.
So the features you can get may be limited by your budget, though you might be able to make compromises in some areas to get upgrades in others. Read through this list of features and identify those features that are most important for you based on specific mobility issues to compensate for, the comfort of the user and budget.
There may be some other factors to consider when you shop for a walk-in tub, including the height of the seat and the orientation of the door (i.e., which side of the tub faces the wall and which side faces out).
Most walk-in tubs are designed to install against a wall, so you might also want to consider how thick the walls are and whether they provide enough space to store personal hygiene products for use while bathing. In general, these tubs are white or off-white in color for a modern look, though you might be able to find some higher-end models that come in other colors to fit in with a unique bathroom design scheme.
Are Walk-In Tubs Worth the Cost?
As you may be able to tell, walk-in tubs offer a lot more features than the average standard tub, so they are likely to cost more, even when the chosen model has only the necessary features and doesn’t include extras like jets or seat padding. So are they worth the cost?
There’s a strong argument to be made in favor of walk-in tubs. The market for these bathtubs is growing for a reason. A walk-in tub can allow a person with mobility issues to maintain a sense of dignity and independence in their day-to-day activities.
If you cannot safely step into a standard tub or find that a standard shower stall doesn’t provide the stability you need while bathing, a walk-in tub could help solve those problems without needing to bring in another person to help you bathe yourself.
Some people may need extra help even with a walk-in tub, but for many users, a bath that doesn’t require a big step and that provides a safe, stable place to sit creates an ideal environment for independent bathing. This itself can actually end up saving money over time as many people need to pay a medical attendant or other assistant to help out with bathtime.
Walk-in tubs can also deliver value in a home that’s been optimized for accessible design. Accessible homes have particular value on the resale market because they are not common.
Individuals with disabilities and other mobility-limiting conditions do not often find a move-in-ready home, but the installation of a walk-in tub can be an important accessibility component for these folks.
Walk-in tubs may not exactly pay for themselves this way, but they can make other accessibility upgrades overall more appealing for certain buyers.
The cost for one of these bathtubs also may not be as high as you’d think. Walk-in bathtubs aren’t the only available bathing solution to those with mobility issues, but they are an increasingly popular choice for aging or mobility-limited populations.
This means that the options available on the market are more plentiful than ever before, so shopping for a competitively priced option may not be as difficult as it first appears. You’ll also need to pay to have the bathtub installed, but you can get a range of competitive quotes for this as well, which allows you to shop around and find the best-possible deal.
Things to Consider When Planning to Install a Walk-In Tub
Beyond price, you’ll need to think about some installation logistics when you are in the process of getting your tub. This is part of the reason why it’s so important to get quotes and consider which installer you’re going to go with.
The process of installing a walk-in tub should be straightforward for these professionals, but that doesn’t mean it’s all transparent and easy to understand for you. This list touches on a few points that you may not have previously thought of. Your contractor or installer should be able to address all of these considerations and help you understand what you need.
Water heater capacity is one important consideration. Walk-in tubs do have a generally larger capacity than a standard tub, and your hot water heater may not be large enough to ensure a supply of water at a comfortable bathing temperature.
This is of particular concern if more than one person in the house plans to use the tub. For example, a couple with mobility issues or two roommates who experience the same mobility challenges may at some point want to shower or bathe within an hour or so of each other. Your hot water heater should have a large enough capacity to provide warm water for both baths.
You may also want to consider the strain placed on your hot water heater by appliances such as dishwashers and washing machines when you decide whether you need to upgrade to a tankless heater or larger heater tank.
The size of your bathroom and weight of the tub are also important to consider. As discussed above, the size of your tub can impact how comfortable the user is while bathing and can make the bathroom feel a bit too cramped if the tub is too big for the space.
Proper consideration should be made of whether the weight of the tub—including a full tub with water and a bather inside—is safe for installation in your chosen location. Your installer should be able to explain to you why he or she has determined that the area is safe.
Doctor approval can also be an important consideration to make. The idea of a large soaking tub can be quite appealing, particularly for those who haven’t been able to enjoy a bath in some time due to their physical limitations, but soaking in a bath can be detrimental to some people’s health and may even pose some serious risks.
Ask your body what he or she thinks about the health risks or rewards of a walk-in tub for your home. Your doctor may actually have some suggestions of particular features that might be helpful for you, so it’s worth discussing for reasons other than potential health risks.
Finally, you may need to get permission from the person who owns your home. Walk-in bathtubs are permanent fixtures, so if you’re renting your house, chances are that you won’t be able to install one of these tubs in your bathroom unless you have a very accommodating landlord. If a family member owns the house, he or she may still want to have a say in the decision even if you don’t have a formal rental agreement worked out.
If you live in a condo or co-op but own the unit you live in, you might still need to get permission for the construction from your condo or co-op association or board. Local plumbing permits may not be necessary, but that’s worth thinking about as well. Your installer should be able to help you with any official permits needed, but it’ll be your responsibility to clear the installation with your landlord or homeowner’s association when needed.
How to Shop for a Walk-In Tub
Your installer or contractor will be able to help you with some of the fine details of the considerations outlined above, but you should also do some independent research and shopping first to make sure you know exactly what you need and get precisely what you want from your tub and installation.
The information outlined in the sections above should be helpful, but you’ll also want to get out there and look at what’s available online and, if possible, in stores to set your budget and bath expectations in the right place.
First, you should shop around and find a selection of different tub models that have the features you need. Based on your list of needed and wanted features, you should be able to find a few models that match your exact needs.
You can narrow these down based on factors such as price (i.e., what fits best with your budget), manufacturer’s warranty and any other perks that may be available, such as a good customer support service or positive user reviews on independent websites.
Third-party sites such as retailers or review services are generally more reliable than the reviews that appear on a manufacturer’s own website since those reviews tend to be curated to show a more positive spin on the product.
You can further narrow down your options by measuring to get a feel for how large the tub is if you can’t see it in person. This may be difficult for some people with limited mobility, though, so it can be a good idea to get an installation quote not only from multiple installers but also for multiple tubs.
Some models or makes may be easier to install than others. Plumbing hookups may be a better fit for your existing plumbing or may be in a better location based on the orientation of both the tub and the room. These subtle differences can make it easier to make a final selection. In the absence of these considerations, price is a good tie breaker.
When you get your quotes, find out whether they include the cost of the tub so you can make a decision that works well for your budget. You should also look into the installer named in the quote to ensure you’ll get trustworthy service.
Again, warranties and other assurances can be worth your while and may be a suitable criterion to use as a tiebreaker when several options are roughly equal or under your budget. The experience of owning a walk-in tub begins with the installation. If this part of the process doesn’t run smoothly, it could impact the enjoyment of your tub.
When you get a quote, you’ll likely need to answer a few questions about your situation, what kind of tub you need, what your bathroom is like and other factors that impact how complex the installation is and what your final price will be.
Remember, too, that an initial quote isn’t necessarily a binding agreement that guarantees you a certain price. The installer could find that extra work is necessary due to your bathroom’s plumbing or challenges posed by the size of your front door.
Talk to the installer about these sorts of issues to find out what kind of cost overages they may add to your final bill. An installer who gives a great quote but isn’t willing to be up front about these kinds of issues may not be the kind of person you want to work with to have such a major upgrade project completed in your home.
So don’t just focus on price alone. Look into the installer associated with the lowest quote, call the business and see whether the people you talk to sound informed. Kindness and a helpful attitude can be quite helpful in these situations, so don’t discount this part of the process too.
Planning for the Installation Process
Once you’ve chosen a tub and an installer after getting a quote, you’ll probably need to take some steps to prepare your home or business for installation.
This may not be the case if the tub is being installed in a new construction, but if you’ve been using the bathroom in which the walk-in tub will be installed, you’ll probably need to help the installer by removing any personal items from the existing shower or bathtub, clearing away any rugs or other obstacles on the floor and generally tidying the bathroom and making it ready.
Your installer should be able to provide detailed instructions about these and any other steps you may need to take.
The installation process can take several hours to complete, and if your tub is sealed into place with an adhesive, it may not be ready to use right away, either.
Depending on what needs to be done in your bathroom to complete the installation successfully, you may also need to have carpet, tile or other flooring repaired or partially removed either before or after the installation. Again, the professional installer you choose to complete this project should be able to walk you through that so you’re well informed ahead of time.
You can likely count on your plumbing system being turned off during the install, though whether this is necessary will vary based on your unique circumstances.
Individuals with limited mobility may want to have a nimble friend of family member on hand during the installation to ensure safety and help oversee the installation process.
After the installation is complete and your new walk-in tub is ready to use, make sure to read through any available instructions provided by the manufacturer. Your installer may provide a quick walkthrough of how all the various functions on the tub work, but if not, you should use any available documentation to understand what valves, taps and buttons perform which function.
It’s of particular importance to make sure you understand how the door works and learn how to tell whether it’s properly sealed before you fill the walk-in tub and take your first bath.
This is an important point that bears repeating: if the door doesn’t close properly, the water in the bath will leak out and potentially damage the building. If it seems that the door isn’t properly closed, call the manufacturer of the bath or ask the installer to advise.