Published On: Fri, Nov 10th, 2023

Should we install a walk-in tub in our bathroom?

Should we install a walk-in tub in our bathroom?
Should we install a walk-in tub in our bathroom?

Q: My husband and I have a lot fewer aches after a warm bath. But getting in and out is becoming hazardous as we age. We are thinking of getting a walk-in tub. Is that a smart idea?

A: A walk-in tub does reduce the risk of falling. That’s a big benefit especially for elderly people, a quarter of whom fall every year — 80 percent of the time in a bathroom, according to the National Institute on Aging. A fall that breaks a hip can be life-changing, confining someone who was independent to a wheelchair.

A regular bathtub usually has walls about 15 inches high. Depending on the model, a walk-in tub has a curb three to seven inches high — a huge difference for someone who is unsteady. A walk-in shower also has a low curb, but it’s not a tub. You can take a long shower, but when the hot water runs out, it’s no fun. So those are the pros of a walk-in tub: safety and the ability to soak.

The cons? One is the price — typically $2,000 to $10,000 for the tub and $1,000 to $20,000 for installation, according to the National Council on Aging. Medicare and other insurance programs typically don’t cover the switch because walk-in tubs aren’t considered durable medical equipment. However, the National Council on Aging says that exceptions may be possible if you have Medicare Part B (supplemental insurance) or Part C (Medicare Advantage). The Medicare website says some state Medicaid programs may cover the cost. And veterans may qualify for a home modification grant to help pay for it. So while there is no guarantee, if your doctor is willing to write a prescription stating that a walk-in tub is a medical necessity, it’s worth checking to see if you can get at least some of the cost covered.

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Another con is the hassle of installation. Replacing a regular tub with a walk-in model requires an electrician, as well as a plumber and whatever specialists are needed for tiling or other details. Hiring a company to handle the whole installation will almost certainly get the job done faster than if you try to line up subcontractors on your own. Get several estimates and, especially if your home has only one bathroom, factor in bidders’ assurances that once work starts, it will finish promptly. When you check references, ask specifically about how long the work took and whether there were lull periods after demolition began.

Can Yavuz, owner of Seattle Bath and Shower, says his company can switch a tub and shower to either a walk-in tub or a walk-in shower in one day, although for the crew, that means an 11-hour shift. However, if they find rot or other problems once they remove the old tub and shower, it will take longer.

Yavuz says most of the conversions he handles are for walk-in showers. Walk-in tubs seem to be popular mostly for very elderly people, he says — another issue to consider if you might want to sell your house at some point. A walk-in tub, even if it’s fairly new, could give your bathroom a dated look that many potential buyers might not want — especially if they know how a walk-in tub works.

A walk-in tub has a door, usually one that swings inward over the deepest part of the tub, and a built-in seat, where the water reaches only part of the way up. For example, a Kohler walk-in bath that is 39 inches high has a maximum water depth of 31½ inches. The seat is 17 inches high, so the water there can be up to 14½ inches. To use the tub, you would walk in, sit down, latch the door, then turn on the faucet.

A standard residential 50-gallon water heater should be able to fill the tub with hot water, but if you have an old water heater, it might not be adequate — another possible cost to factor in. And at the end of your soak, you would have to stay in the tub while the water drained out — probably not so pleasant, especially if the bathroom is even a tiny bit chilly.

This is where the model you buy and the size of the pipes in your home can make a huge difference. One model might take four minutes to drain (count the 240 seconds to realize how long that can seem) while another might empty in 30 seconds because the drain is connected to a pump, Yavuz says.

“Brand names make a difference,” and so do specific models, he says. Kohler advertises that each of its walk-in tubs has a heated backrest for the seat, which “keeps your neck and back warm as the bath fills.” The heat also helps as the water drains. The fact that a heated backrest is even a feature hints at how unpleasant it can be to wait for the water to drain. Ask to see the technical installation instructions before you buy. Plans that call for ½-inch pipe connections won’t perform the same as ones that need pipes several inches wide.

Are there better options if your bathroom has a shower over the tub? Switching to a walk-in shower also solves the safety issue, especially if you choose a slip-resistant floor and handrails where you walk in and alongside a seat, if you install one. Walk-in showers look elegant, whatever the age of the home’s occupants. There’s no unpleasant waiting for the tub to fill or drain. Just adjust the temperature, step in and shower, then cut the water and leave.

Yavuz says he always recommends adding a fold-up seat that’s securely attached to studs so you can shower while seated if standing seems too risky. He charges around $15,000 to convert a tub and shower to a walk-in shower — a lot less than the $20,000 to $35,000 that he charges to install a walk-in tub. One big source of savings is that he doesn’t need to hire an electrician for a shower.

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