What To Know About Walk-In Tubs

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When you can't shower and bathe the conventional way, think inside the box with a walk-in tub.

Climbing into a tub or standing in a shower. Simple acts, right? Not if you have mobility challenges. A safer alternative is the walk-in bathtub.

Introduced in the 1940s, walk-in tubs make the bathroom more accessible to those who can’t easily step into a traditional tub. Today’s walk-in tubs also include therapeutic features. Here’s how they work and what to consider before buying.

What is a Walk-In Tub?

Taller than a traditional tub, walk-ins are like a box with a door on one side. When that door opens, you step over a low threshold to enter the tub. That makes it possible for people with mobility challenges to bathe safely.

“Walk-in tubs typically are made of an acrylic shell that covers a steel skeleton,” says Chuck Khiel, vice president of Fred Home Improvement in Bethesda, Maryland. “There’s a bench on one end with the fill spout on the opposite end, and often a handheld shower.”

Other features include anti-slip surfaces, built-in grab bars, contoured seating, turbo flushing of the water when drained and optional jets and a heater.

How Do Walk-In Tubs Work?

It’s the opposite of traditional tubs: You enter a walk-in tub, close the door and fill it. Then you drain the water before you exit.

What keeps it watertight?

Water pressure,” says Khiel. “It seals the door’s gasket all the way around the opening to keep water in — like the hatch of a submarine.”

Typical Walk-In Tub Sizes

Standard walk-in tub sizes range from 40 to 60 inches long by 32 to 36 inches wide. A standard tub is 60-in. x 30-inches.

“Single benches are typical,” says Khiel, “But I’ve also seen a two-seater that was maybe 48 inches wide.”

If you’re replacing a standard tub in an alcove with a walk-in, some manufacturers offer deck extension kits that would fill any voids between the end of the tub and the wall. That makes the tub appear to fill the space.

At least one manufacturer, Kohler, lets you custom-size a walk-in to fit your requirements, including into an existing standard tub space. But Khiel says it’s more typical for manufacturers to offer standard sizes with the option to customize features, like adding jets and a heater.

One note of caution, though:

“If the walk-in is going into an existing space, size can be a challenge,” Khiel says. “Most don’t fit through a standard bathroom door. We’ve had to take out doors and frames and even remove walls to get them into a bathroom.”

How Much Do Walk-In Tubs Cost?

“For just the unit, not including installation, anywhere from $3,500 to $8,000,” says Khiel.

Labor costs for installing one vary, too. In some cases, plumbing pipes need to be moved.

“And if you have jets and a heater, you need to run dedicated 20-amp electrical service to each,” he says.

How To Install a Walk-In Tub

For a bathroom remodel, where you’re replacing a standard tub with a walk-in, you must remove the old tub and plumbing fixtures. To prepare for the walk-in tub, repair or replace the surrounding surfaces, move plumbing and run any required electrical service to the tub.

“The tub, then, is basically just scooted into the opening,” says Khiel. Then the plumbing and electrical are connected. You might also have to make other changes to the bathroom to accommodate the size of the tub, like moving a toilet or a vanity.

Is it DIYable?

“No, absolutely not,” says Khiel.

The installation can be tricky (getting it into the bathroom, for one thing) and requires a licensed plumber and electrician. But you could reduce costs by doing the demolition yourself.

How Much Does It Cost to Have a Pro Install a Walk-In Tub?

“In the D.C. area, $19,000 to $28,000,” says Khiel.

That includes the tub, demolition of what’s there, possibly having to remove things to get it in, and electrical and plumbing work.

Pros and Cons of Walk-In Tubs

So should you install a walk-in tub? Consider these pros and cons, and how they match up with your priorities and needs.

Pros:

  • Safety: They offer a safe environment for bathing.
  • Therapy: They can provide hydrotherapy when jetted.
  • Aging in place: May allow someone with mobility challenges to remain in their home.

Cons:

  • Size: Some can take up a lot of bathroom space.
  • Installation: May require a fair amount of demolition to get it into an existing bathroom.
  • Cost: They’re expensive, from the tub itself to the installation.

Kathleen Childers
Kathleen Childers, a Minnesota-based writer, covers topics about home and life for a variety of clients.