What is a Walk-In Bathtub?
A Walk-in tub is a bathtub designed to make taking a soaking bath
Before we go into more detail on Walk-in Tubs, it is helpful for you to be aware that there are two different types of tubs with doors located in the sidewall that are often confusingly advertised together under the same heading of “Walk-in Tubs”, namely the classic-style Walk-in Tubs and another type of tub called Slide-in Tubs.
Difference Between Walk-in Tubs and Slide-in Tubs
Walk-in tubs and Slide-in tubs have many features in common, but there is one, critical difference between them and that is the ways in which a person can get in and out of the tub.
Walk-in Tub: The tubs classically called “Walk-in Tubs” have a narrow doorway located in the front wall of the tub, two high walls blocking either side of the seat, and a threshold a user must step in and out over. Since the seat is blocked by walls on both sides, a user is limited to only one means of getting in and out of the tub, namely to ‘walk’ in and out.
Slide-in Tub: This type of tub has a wider door that opens up to expose one side of the seat inside, giving a user the option to sit down on the seat first, thereby completely eliminating the need to “step” in and out. These tubs additionally make it possible for someone using a wheelchair to slide sideways from their wheelchair seat to the tub seat.
In the guide below, we cover pros, cons and features of the classic-style Walk-in Tubs. To learn more about the tubs called “Slide-in Tubs”, visit our Slide-in Tub Guide.
Walk-in Tub User’s Required Skills
A walk-in tub works best for a person who has some difficulty with balance, but is still able to walk reasonably steadily. Walk-in tubs typically have tight quarters inside, high tub walls and a narrow doorway, making it difficult for a caregiver to use safe body mechanics when assisting another person in and out, therefore it is best if the user is able to enter and exit the tub independently. At a minimum, the skills required to use a walk-in tub include the ability to:
- balance on one foot in order to step in and out over the entry threshold
- maneuver independently in and out through a narrow doorway, while simultaneously stepping over a threshold
- independently sit down on and stand up from the tub seat
Walk-in Tub: Door Types
One way Walk-in Tub models will differ is in the direction the door swings. Some models have a door that swings inwards into the tub and others have a door that swings outwards into the bathroom. The pros and cons of both types can be found below.
Walk-in Tub With Inward Swinging Door:
- Door opens into the interior of the tub, making it more practical for use in small bathrooms.
- It can be difficult to awkwardly maneuver around an inward-opening door in order to open and close it when standing inside the tub.
- In the event of a medical emergency it is not possible to open an inward-opening door and exit until all the water has drained out (due to the water pressure holding the door closed).
- Some owners of walk-in tubs with inward-opening doors have reportedly experienced getting trapped inside the tub for reasons, such as: the tub not draining (which prevents the inward-opening door from being opened) or due to sliding forward off the seat into the footwell, from whence they were unable to get up and their body prevented the door from being opened – because the door swings inwards and they were positioned behind it.
Walk-in Tub With Outward Swinging Door:
- It is not necessary to awkwardly maneuver around the door once you arrive inside the tub (as is the case in tubs with inward-opening doors.)
- An outward-swinging door can be opened in the event of a medical emergency.
- In small bathrooms, an outward-swinging door may be blocked from opening fully by a nearby vanity, toilet or other fixture.
- If an emergency occurs, an outward-opening door can be opened, but it can still be extremely difficult for family or for the paramedics to help a person to get out of a classic-style walk-in tub if a person is in the midst of experiencing a medical emergency. This is due to the combination of a several inch threshold to step over, oftentimes a narrow doorway to wiggle through, and high tub walls that block direct access to the seat inside.
- The door seal on an outward-swinging door may not last as long as the door seal on a tub with an inward-swinging door.
Walk-in Tub: Material
A Walk-in tub’s outermost shell can be made from different materials. Most walk-in tubs are made from fiberglass, acrylic, or a combination of the two. The pros and cons of fiberglass and acrylic are described below.
- Acrylic Tub: Acrylic is a strong, durable material. Tubs made from acrylic are said to have a longer life expectancy and be more resistant to scratches, stains, and color fading than fiberglass tubs.
- Fiberglass Tub: Fiberglass is also a very strong material, but it may be more prone to scratching, color fading, and development of spider cracks in the surface than acrylic tubs. If scratches and nicks do occur, however, it is reportedly easier to fix them in a tub with a fiberglass surface than one with an acrylic surface. Many fiberglass tubs will include an acrylic gel topcoat to further protect the tub. Fiberglass tubs usually cost less than acrylic tubs, making them a more budget-friendly option.
Walk-in Tub: Frame
Most walk-in tubs have a steel frame supporting the exterior shell. Some models are frame-less. Framed and Frameless tubs are defined below.
- Framed Tub: This type of tub has a molded fiberglass or acrylic exterior shell and usually rests on a frame made from steel. The frame holds the tub suspended a few inches above the floor. This results in a higher entry threshold (oftentimes 6” high or more) that a person must step over to get in and out.
- Frameless Tub: A frameless-style tub does not have a steel support frame, but instead has a molded tub shell made of thicker fiberglass. It is designed to rest directly on the ground, making it possible to reduce the entry threshold to between 1”-3”. A lower threshold height helps to make it safer and easier for users to enter and exit.
Walk-in Tub Options: Water Jets, Air Jets, or Soaker tub
Most tub models can be ordered with one, or more, of the following options: water jets, air jets, or as a soaker tub. Details about each of these options can be found below.
Water Jet System
- Water jets provide a strong water flow, giving a massage-like effect that is sought after by many users.
- A drawback for water jet systems is that the water is recycled through the system and the residual water left over in the pipes can grow mold or bacteria. This can be problematic for individuals with a compromised immune system, respiratory problems, or persons susceptible to pneumonia. Some manufactures offer tubs with a self-purging feature, which they claim helps to reduce the likelihood of bacteria growing in the lines.
- If your intention is to use the tub for bathing, and not just soaking, be aware that because the water is recycled through the water-jet system, the use of most oils, soaps and shampoos are not recommended while running the water jets.
Air Jet System
- This system relies on smaller jets that deliver a gentler rush of air though more holes – amounting to a gently bubbling bath.
- The water does not get recycled through an air-jet system, which means there is less likelihood there will be a problem with mold or bacteria building up inside the tub and it usually OK to use oils, scents and soaps in the water. Before using the tub, make sure to confirm with the manufacturer which products are or are not OK to use in the specific model you have purchased.
Walk-in Tub: Considerations
- User Height: A walk-in tub is typically not an ideal solution for taller persons, unless the main intent is to soak aching knees or hips, because the upper torso will not be submerged.
- Weight Capacity: Confirm the weight capacity is appropriate for your needs. There are some tub models available with wider seats and entry doors, if needed.
- Doorway/Hallway Widths: Check that the dimensions of the tub you select will fit through all the doorways and hallways between the outside of the home and the bathroom! If not, you will need to pay to have the door frames removed and reinstalled to get the bathtub into the bathroom.
- Water Heater Size: Make sure that the size of your water heater will accommodate the use of a larger bathtub. In many cases people find it is necessary to replace their existing water heater in order to run the tub.
- Structural Support: Your bathroom floor may require extra structural support to handle the weight of the tub, so be aware this is an additional expense you may be confronted with.
- Check for Certifications: IAPMO (UPC), ASME, CSA, and UL certifications indicate the tub has passed certain minimum standards.
Does Medicare or Medicaid Cover Walk-In Tubs?
A Walk-in tub is not considered by Medicare to be a medically necessary piece of equipment, therefore, it is not a piece of equipment they will typically cover. If you can prove you truly cannot function without it, there is a slim chance that you might get some reimbursement for it from Medicare. In order to do so, you must have your doctor write a “Letter of Medical Necessity” stating why it is medically necessary. If you have Medicaid, you have a better chance of getting assistance in paying for a walk-in tub – this varies by state, so check with your Medicaid representative.
Do Your Research!
A walk-in tub is a big financial investment usually ranging from $5,000-$17,000 installed, so it is important to make sure you are confident in both the product and the company behind it. Check the review and complaint history for both the manufacturer and the specific tub model you are interested in purchasing. Be aware that researching these tubs can be quite difficult because the accessible bathtub industry (i.e. sellers of walk-in tubs, slide-in tubs, and tubs with integrated bath lifts ) are notorious for having some dodgy review websites.
The Homeability Advice™
In general, we are not big fans of the classic-style Walk-in tubs, but we know that some people are inclined, for varying reasons, to want one anyway, which is why we provided the guide above. From a functional perspective, the ones with an outward swinging door are usually easier to enter and exit than those with inward opening doors. They are also safer, because it is possible to open the door (prior to all the water draining out) if you need to get out quickly due to a medical emergency. However, regardless of which way the door opens, the classic-style walk-in tubs all include one critical drawback – they have high sidewalls blocking both sides of the seat, which can make it impossible for you to use the tub at all if there is a time when you can’t easily “step” in and out.
In most cases, the Slide-in Tubs (defined at the start of this article) are a better alternative to the classic-style Walk-in tubs. Most slide-in tub models provide a safer, more long-term bathing solution than the classic-style walk-in tubs and they are unlikely to prevent you from one day accessing your tub. To learn more about slide-in tubs, click here.
If you are truly captivated by the idea of buying one of the “classic-style” Walk-in Tubs, we recommend you read the following articles first: