Introduction to Walk-In Tubs
Walk-in bathtubs are one of the safest, easiest methods for providing hygiene and certain types of therapy to seniors and those with limited mobility. Built considerably higher than a standard bathtub, walk-in models hold between two and three feet of water. They feature a watertight door on the front or side of the unit that opens and closes when the tub is empty. This low threshold allows a bather to enter and exit the walk-in tub as easily as they would any standard walk-in shower, preventing them from having to step over a tub wall.
The watertight seal prevents the tub from leaking and flooding your bathroom. But all water must drain from the tub before the door can be reopened. This is why you’ll find many models that offer fast draining capabilities, minimizing drainage time once bathing is complete.
Often featuring built-in seating and a handheld showerhead, walk-in tubs eliminate the need for a folding chair or movable seat that could accidentally collapse or shift on a slippery surface. The showerhead also improves safety by preventing the individual from having to stand or move while in the tub.
Common installations and benefits
Many retirement communities and apartment complexes that are geared toward senior living have converted to walk-in tubs. Homeowners are also increasingly taking advantage of the user-friendly design by removing their existing bathtub and replacing it with a walk-in tub or walk-in tub/shower combo. Though much of the market is currently focused on senior citizens, many medical facilities and sports rehabilitation centers also offer walk-in bathing facilities to accommodate the full range of patient needs.
Whether designed for use by those with permanently-limited mobility or individuals temporarily constricted in their movement by an injury, walk-in tubs provide a number of physical and emotional benefits:
- Safety: By including slip-resistant floors, textured pads on built-in seating, and pre-installed grab bars, walk-in units provide extra support to prevent falls. The comfortable, non-skid pads also keep the bather seated in place and prevent their head from slipping below the water’s surface.
- Seated bathing: Most models incorporate a built-in seat to further enhance safety for those unable to stand in a traditional shower. This feature is also frequently paired with hydrotherapy jets that massage the back, legs, and feet.
- No traditional shower door: A glass shower door can pose serious risks to individuals who have balance and mobility issues. In its place, firm handgrips and rails are built around the interior sides of the tub, with the raised edge of the tub (typically about 37 inches high) also serving as a sturdy option for support.
- Self-reliance: Walk-in tubs preserve the dignity of the individual while allowing them to remain independent.
This Walk-In Tub Buyer’s Guide covers everything you’ll need to know as you begin comparing showers and tubs. We’ll also let you know how much you can expect to pay depending on the size and features you choose, as well as what’s involved with installation. And finally, we’ll discuss how you may qualify for financial assistance or be able to deduct the cost of a walk-in tub by taking advantage of specific tax credits.
As you read through, keep the following points in mind:
- Tub design: The watertight design of a walk-in tub requires you (or the individual bathing) to be seated inside as the tub fills and drains. This can involve an additional degree of patience and may also result in a chillier bathing experience in areas that are not properly heated.
- Your water heater: Given the larger water volume in comparison to most standard bathtubs, older homes and facilities may be required to upgrade their current water heater if its volume does not match that required by the walk-in tub they’ve chosen. Be sure to have your installer check for this critical aspect of compatibility when conducting their initial consultation.
- Consult your physician: Certain individuals should consult their physician before using a walk-in tub. Due to the potential for harm caused by certain features, such as hydrotherapy and aerotherapy functions, walk-in tubs may not be recommended for women who are pregnant, those who suffer from chronic ailments, and those with undiagnosed medical conditions.
Walk-In Tub Types and sizes
Walk-in tubs come in two different types:
- Standard walk-in tubs: Include standard and deluxe features depending on the model selected, such as built-in seating, safety enhancements, and therapeutic add-ons.
- Walk-in shower/tub combo: Combines the convenience of a walk-in tub while also allowing enough space for spouses and caregivers who may prefer to use the unit as a stand-up shower.
Standard walk-in tubs
Of the two options, standard walk-in tubs are by far the most common. Basic models come in a range of standard sizes that are typically designed to fit within most existing bathrooms. General specs include the option of left hand or right hand drains, as well as a door located on the right or left side of the tub. Most models are available in white, though some can be found in light shades of gray and pink.
Sizes are often broken down into three designations:
Intended for smaller bathers and limited floor plans, compact models provide the same immersion benefits of their larger counterparts without some of the extra legroom. Typically about 30 inches in length and 37 inches wide, they’re designed to fit within a standard 60-inch bathtub slot. Most compact models hold between 40 and 45 gallons of water and support up to 750 pounds of total weight.
Compact walk-in tubs are also a popular way to cut water and heating costs due to their slimmer profile and water capacity. A dealer can often help you dress up the gaps at either end with a companion tub extender kit, designed to match the tub as well as your existing décor.
Additional features may include:
- Fiberglass construction with stainless steel frame
- Hinge outswing door
- Hydrotherapy massage system
- Overflow drain
- Rectangular shape
Expect to pay: $1,500 to $4,200
Standard walk-in tubs are about 52 inches in length and 30 inches wide. Many have a water capacity between 40 and 50 gallons. At this size, they support between 750 and 800 pounds of total weight and offer the optimal bathing experience for most people.
Similar to a compact walk-in tub, standard models can easily be installed into most 60-inch bathtub openings and can also be shored up with a tub extender kit. Many models feature some type of high-gloss coating that simplifies cleaning and resists the formation of mold, mildew, and stains.
Additional features include:
- Fiberglass construction with stainless steel frame
- Fast-drain system, emptying the tub in two minutes or less with some models
- Low threshold for safe, easy entry and exit
- Lifetime guarantee on watertight door seal
- Built-in chair and safety bars
Expect to pay: $2,200 to $4,800
The largest walk-in tubs available, these models are frequently referred to as bariatric tubs for the increases in size, volume, and weight capacity they offer. These extensions allow a bariatric walk-in tub to accommodate an individual weighing up to 600 pounds (in select models), compared to a standard walk-in tub that is designed for individuals weighing 300 pounds or less.
As with the other two options, the frame can be installed into most 60-inch bathtub openings. These large models also tend to provide at least two additional inches in length (up to 54 inches) and three inches in width (often up to 33 inches) within their design. Water volume is also increased. Standard water capacity is around 50 gallons and total weight capacity is slightly less than 1,000 pounds.
Additional features may include:
- Six to eight hydrotherapy jets and up to 20 aerotherapy jets, providing a targeted massage for aches and pains
- Contoured backrest with optional heating to prevent catching cold during filling and draining
- Deck-mounted handheld shower
- Ergonomic handles and safety bars
- Deluxe head/neck rest
Expect to pay: $4,200 to $6,900
Walk-in shower/tub combos
The combination of this design allows the tub to be used by people with a varying range of physical capabilities. Ideal for situations where one bather needs a sit-down model and the other does not, walk-in shower/tub combos are ideal in situations with spouses and live-in caregivers. Standard sizes offer between 47 and 52 inches in length, about 37 inches in width, and wall heights of 27 to 36 inches.
All safety features of a standard walk-in tub are typically included. Additionally, look to find design layouts that improve shoulder support and overall comfort, as well as extra cushioning for your head and neck. Many modern designs can be operated by one-touch control, simplifying use by centralizing all controls and positioning them easily within reach.
Additional features may include:
- Fiberglass construction with stainless steel frame
- Faucet capable of 12 GPM
- Foot massage jets
- Chromatherapy, stimulating relaxation through vibrant yet calming hues
- Heated seats to fend off chills while filling and draining the tub
Expect to pay: $4,200 to $5,700
Walk-In Tub Features
Unlike a standard bathtub, walk-in tubs incorporate a range of additional therapeutic and safety features, many of which are included as standard components. These features are similar to those you might find in a hot tub and are designed to enhance relaxation, enjoyment, and independence – extending the bathing experience well beyond basic hygiene.
Among the most popular therapeutic features, you’ll find:
- Aerotherapy (air jets): Sometimes referred to as air massage therapy, many walk-in tubs are equipped with up to 18 air jets that are strategically designed to target specific body parts. The system has been engineered to deliver a stream of gentle bubbles that massage the skin. This reportedly eases pain and muscle fatigue. It also improves blood circulation and provides relaxation and reductions in tension and stress.
- Aromatherapy: Transform your bathroom into a stay-at-home spa with an aromatherapy upgrade to your walk-in tub. Though not as standard as other features, aromatherapy is often available as an upgrade through professional dealers on the tub of your choice. The system typically uses a built-in diffuser that circulates the fragrance of your choice throughout the bathroom. Essential oils have a wide range of healing properties and have been shown to stimulate and fortify the body’s defense system.
- Chromatherapy (color therapy): Another riff on something that is extremely popular with hot tubs, chromatherapy uses multicolored LED lights to illuminate the water and surrounding area. Designed to affect both your physical and psychological state, light therapy is believed to alleviate symptoms associated with depression, anxiety, and fatigue, but should not be used as the sole means of treatment for any disorder. Most systems are operated through a convenient keypad control or integrated into a single interface that controls all of the tub’s functions.
- Hydrotherapy (water jets): Hydrotherapy is one of the most popular add-ons to a walk-in tub due to the healing power of water. Shown to lessen symptoms associated with stress, arthritis, joint pain, headaches, depression, and sleep disorders, hydrotherapy is also credited with strengthening the immune system, lowering blood pressure, and helping those who suffer from diabetes manage their condition.
- Bidet: In addition to providing a greater degree of hygienic personal care, bidets have been cited for improvements to skin condition by minimizing irritation. At the same time, they are more environmentally-friendly, reducing the amount of disposable tissue used in the bathroom. They also decrease the potential for clogs, as well as resulting plumbing and repair costs.
Among the most popular safety features, you'll find:
- Anti-scald: This feature reduces the temperature of water that enters the tub to prevent excessively hot water that could scald the bather.
- Anti-slip floors and seat: A non-slip finish cannot absolutely prevent slips or falls. But walk-in tubs with an anti-slip surface coating help reduce the potential for slipping when standing in the tub, increasing safety and independence in equal measure.
- Quick release drain: In a walk-in tub, the bather has to remain in the tub as it fills and drains. And while your plumbing and water pressure will limit how quickly the tub fills, draining can be facilitated through a quick release drain. Often draining the basin in two minutes or less, this feature allows a bather to exit the tub as quickly as possible, saving time and preventing them from getting chilled.
- Safety bars: Safety grip handles and grab bars are one of the most essential enhancements to a walk-in tub. Strategically positioned, they help individuals entering and exiting the tub by providing a sturdy, safe method of support. Most are installed directly into the stainless steel frame of the tub itself, to ensure stability.
- Wider doors: One of the greatest struggles, even when using a regular stand-up shower, is navigating through a narrow door with little to hang on to. Walk-in tubs and tub/shower combos offer extra convenience through a wide door that provides easy accessibility. It’s worth noting that most walk-in tubs are available in an extensive range of door and installation configurations. So it’s worthwhile talking to a reputable dealer who can help you find the perfect one for your needs and existing space.
Walk-In Tub Installation
The time-frame for installation on a walk-in tub or shower will vary from provider to provider. In general, most installations are completed in one to five days, with one-and-a-half to two days of labor being common on average. This is where working with a reputable dealer can save you on cost, hassle, and inconvenience.
Walk-in tub dealers will either have an in-house installation team or sub-contract with a reliable crew that can complete the job as quickly as possible. Due to the plumbing components, a licensed plumber is required for basic installation. Tubs that incorporate additional features like hydrotherapy and chromatherapy require the services of an electrician due to their pumps, heaters, and motors.
But the good news is: none of this is your problem. When working with a walk-in tub dealer, you shouldn’t have to worry about any of this yourself. All expertise required for installation should be coordinated through the dealer.
Each provider will operate a little differently. But most will follow a process similar to this:
- STEP 1: Initial consultation
- STEP 2: Order and payment
- STEP 3: Installation prep
- STEP 4: Installation
- STEP 5: Post-installation walk-through
STEP 1: Initial consultation
Conducted at your home or facility, the purpose of this step is to sit down with you to review your specific needs and determine the best match in comparison with your available space, budget, and style preferences. The professional installer will also take detailed measurements of your bathroom, including the space designated for the tub, as well as all doorways to ensure the ideal fit and smoothest installation.
Note: leading dealers provide this consultation at no charge.
STEP 2: Order and payment
Next, the dealer will usually ask for payment (either partial or in full) and order the walk-in tub or shower combo you’ve selected. Once the tub arrives at their facility, they will pre-inspect the unit for any damage incurred during the shipping process and confirm installation if everything looks good.
STEP 3: Installation prep
Professional installers specialize in securing all municipal permits and coordinating any resulting inspections – though these requirements tend to be minimal when you’re simply converting a standard bathtub to a walk-in model.
Nevertheless, it shouldn’t be something you have to worry about. And a quick question to the dealer regarding this issue can reveal how familiar they are with the process and how complete their level of service is.
STEP 4: Installation
This is the stage that will have the most impact on you as the homeowner. Taking from one to five days, the installation team will remove your existing tub (if applicable). Next, they’ll install the new model, as well as any accessories you’ve purchased (often including a walk-in tub extension kit to compensate for gaps between the tub and existing space). Finally, they will clean up any debris resulting from installation within the surrounding area.
During this installation process, you will be without the use of your tub. So be sure to schedule installation during a time that will cause the least impact.
STEP 5: Post-installation walk-through
After all the work in complete, your installers will walk you through the job to review what was done. They should also take the time to demonstrate the tub’s controls – this has the added benefit of ensuring that everything is connected correctly and working as it should.
Finally, they will review warranty information with you and offer any additional tips on maintenance to minimize problems and keep the tub running smoothly.
Financial assistance and tax deductibility
With a cost that ranges from $1,500 to well above $7,000, many homeowners on a fixed budget seek out financial assistance when converting their existing tub to a walk-in model. And rightfully so. Through tax incentives and grants, there is funding available in some cases.
For example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture may provide grants of up to $7,500 through the Section 504 Home Repair program. It’s designed to enable elderly and low income individuals living in rural areas to remain independent and within their own homes as long as possible. To qualify for this grant, you must be age 62 or older and your income must be below 50% of the median income in your area.
If you do not qualify for the USDA grant, you may still be able to claim the cost of a walk-in tub as a tax deduction. There are two different avenues with this option:
- The first is by considering the purchase an improvement necessary for medical safety reasons, which could qualify it as a medical/dental expense.
- The second option is for those who care for an elderly or disabled individual in their home. Within these situations, you may be able to claim costs associated with a walk-in tub installation as part of the Dependent Care Tax Credit.
If you are unsure whether you qualify for any of the above options or need a better estimate of how much you may qualify for, consult an accountant. Low income and elderly individuals may also be able to receive free financial advice and tax guidance through one of the following organizations: