What is a walk-in tub and how does it work?

Everything you should know about walk-in bathtubs

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American Standard Walk-in Baths, Ella's Bubbles, Safe Step Walk-In Tub and Boca Walk-In Tubs
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A walk-in tub is a type of bathtub that has a seat and a door so you can step in without climbing over the side. These tubs are also constructed with sturdy grab bars and handrails to provide support. They’re specifically designed for accessibility and comfort.

“Some of the assisted living facilities have them and it’s like their pride and joy. … They’ll call it the ‘spa room,’” Marcy Baskin, Vice President of Senior Care Authority, said in a phone interview with ConsumerAffairs. The tubs typically look pretty luxurious, and the ones with jets are incredibly relaxing.

Walk-in tubs are usually made of fiberglass and acrylic. Acrylic tubs are generally more expensive, but they’re also more durable. Some tubs are manufactured from a combination of both.

Here are some of our key insights regarding walk-in tubs:

  • Size: These tubs are quite large, coming in at around 3.5 feet deep (the depth of standard tubs is a little over 1 foot). You might need to replace your water heater if it only has a 40-gallon tank.
  • Installation: Professional installation is typically required, but you may be able to install the tub yourself if you have experience with similar projects. You might need an in-home consultation for a quote that includes installation services.
  • Cost: Walk-in tubs can be pricey. Starting costs might be a couple thousand dollars for a basic model, not including installation, but total charges for high-end models with extra spa features can be $20,000 or more after installation.

How a walk-in tub works

Walk-in tubs are designed with a low step-in threshold. This makes it easier to step directly into the tub rather than lifting your legs over the side to enter. To bathe, you simply:

  1. Open the door: Doors can be installed to open outward or inward and from the left or the right.
  2. Step in: Step-in heights range from 2 inches to about 8 inches.
  3. Sit down: The seats are typically covered with a textured surface to prevent slipping.
  4. Shut the door: All walk-in tubs have sealed doors to prevent leaks.
  5. Turn on the water: Tub filling times vary from about five to 10 minutes. Some brands, like Safe Step, feature high-flow taps to fill more quickly.
  6. Bathe and relax: You probably already know how to do this part; hopefully the sense of relaxation is even deeper with a walk-in tub.
  7. Empty the tub: Once you're finished, release the drain and wait for the water to empty from the tub. This can take up to 15 minutes. Some brands, like American Standard, feature quick-drain technology that works in as little as two minutes. After this, you can open the door.
  8. Exit the tub: Rising from the seat is easier than getting out of a standard tub — you don’t have to worry about getting over the much higher step threshold.

Filling and draining

The time it takes to fill or drain a walk-in tub varies based on several factors, including the size of the tub, your home’s water pressure, and the age and quality of your plumbing. A standard-size walk-in tub usually takes several minutes to fill.

Standard walk-in tubs take six to eight minutes to fill and up to 15 minutes to drain.

Most walk-in bathtubs take about six to 15 minutes to drain. Fast-draining models can take less than four minutes, and some drain in two minutes or less.

Since most walk-in tubs come with a hand shower, you can use that to stay warm while the tub drains. A model with heated seating can also help keep you comfortable. Tubs with quick-fill and -drain features are great because they prevent you from having to sit in tepid water before or after you bathe.

Walk-in tubs vs. traditional tubs

In some ways, walk-in tubs work similarly to traditional baths — they take up about the same amount of space and use your regular tub’s plumbing. The main difference is that walk-in tubs have seats and much lower step-in thresholds than traditional bathtubs.

A traditional bathtub requires a big step to get in and has slick surfaces and few places to find a stable grip — and then it can be challenging to get up once you're in one. With a walk-in bathtub, you don’t even have to lie down in the tub.

This means you can bathe yourself with more independence if you have mobility issues. Caregivers like walk-in tubs because they reduce the physical strain of helping patients wash.

Types of walk-in tubs

The right type of tub for you depends on your long-term needs and budget. Nearly all walk-in tub models include a textured floor surface to prevent slipping.

Finding the right tub for your specific needs is easier if you're prepared. Whether it’s for yourself or a loved one, decide what you want to get out of the tub.

  • Soaker tub: This is the standard walk-in tub. It typically comes with at least one or two grab bars or handrails. Some feature hand-held showerheads, often located near the faucets, but some tubs have raised showerheads with adjustable rods.
  • Combination tub: Some companies, like Safe Step and Kohler, offer models with the accessibility of a walk-in tub plus the convenience of a shower. Walk-in showers can give you the option to shower sitting down or standing up. For more, compare the differences between walk-in showers and walk-in tubs.
  • Hydrotherapy and aerotherapy tubs: Hydrotherapy refers to water jets; aerotherapy refers to air jets. Some tubs feature one or the other, and you can also find tubs that combine both types of jets plus more beneficial features.
  • Two-seaters: These are designed for two people to use at the same time. Ella’s Bubbles and BOCA both offer two-seater walk-in tub options.
  • Bariatric tubs:Bariatric tubs are specifically for larger individuals; standard-size walk-in baths can be too uncomfortable for some people to get a full-body soak immersion.

How walk-in bathtubs are installed

Walk-in tub installation doesn’t usually require extensive construction or renovation. However, you will likely need a licensed plumber and electrician, so you shouldn’t try to do it yourself.

Many manufacturers work with a network of local technicians who can install your tub. If the brand doesn’t provide installation services, you’ll likely have to hire a bathroom remodeling contractor. The job usually takes anywhere from one to a couple of days to complete.

“And the other thing is, if you’re gonna have a walk-in tub in your house, you need a BIG bathroom,” Baskin said. “I mean, they’re not small. It's not like just getting a real cute tub in your house.”

 Some companies offer optional trim kits to ensure the tub fits correctly in the available bathroom space. Other manufacturers sell compact walk-in tubs specifically designed for smaller areas.

If a tub doesn't fit correctly in your bathroom, your installer can use a tub extender to eliminate gaps between the tub and the wall. Extenders can also be used as shelves to store soap, shampoo or other bath materials.

Tile around the edge of the tub deck is often used to create a watertight barrier and prevent leaking. Tile flanges also give your tub an updated look.

Frequently asked questions

How much is a walk-in tub?

We’ve seen costs ranging from $2,000 to more than $20,000. Initial quotes may or may not include installation services. Intallation costs typically run between $700 to $1,500 but could reach $3,000 or more, especially if you need to install a larger water heater.

Costs typically include some kind of warranty. For example, American Standard has a lifetime warranty on fixtures, parts, labor and installation on some tubs, while other models are covered for 10 to 15 years. Spirit Walk-In Tubs has a lifetime warranty on the tub but only covers the motor for five years.

How big is a walk-in tub?

Widths and lengths vary among models and providers, but walk-in tubs are usually 28 to 32 inches wide and up to 60 inches long. Most walk-in tubs are between 36 and 47 inches tall. Water in walk-in bathtubs can get up to about 3.5 feet deep in taller tubs — standard bathtubs are typically just more than a foot deep.

How much water does it take to fill a walk-in tub?

A standard-size walk-in tub uses around 50 gallons of water. Compact tubs may hold as few as 40 gallons, bariatric models hold an average of 100 gallons and double-seated tubs use about 120 gallons. You may need to get a larger water heater depending on your current one's size.

Can you use bubble bath in a walk-in tub?

You can use bubble bath in a walk-in tub, but we don’t suggest it if your tub is jetted. Bubbles can be challenging to predict, and some formulas might overflow the tub. Similarly, you can occasionally put Epsom salts or bath oils in a walk-in bath as long as you thoroughly rinse the tub afterward.

What are some alternatives to walk-in tubs?

Popular walk-in tub alternatives include shower chairs and grab bars. You might also consider a hot tub or waterproof medical alert system.

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Bottom line: Why get a walk-in bathtub?

The most common reason older adults purchase walk-in bathtubs is to prevent falls due to entering or exiting standard tubs. With high walls, nonslip floors, seats and grab bars, these are typically safer than standard bathtubs.

Like with most other aging-in-place home modifications, a walk-in tub doesn’t make sense for everybody. It’s a significant investment that you may not need.

“You have to look at all the bells and whistles that you’re paying extra for and make sure that you need them,” according to Baskin. Compare walk-in tub alternatives that are both less expensive and less complicated.

If your plan is to stay in your home to age in place, a walk-in tub might be worth it. In some cases, it could even add value to your home.

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