A walk-in tub is a bathtub with a watertight door that allows the bather to step into the tub over a low threshold to increase safety while getting into the bath. The door closes, the tub fills with water and after draining the bath, the person opens the door and steps out safely.
While many models are taller than they are wide, there are many different models and configurations available to meet the needs of almost every customer and housing situation. For example, there are walk-in tubs available for easy transfer from a wheelchair to the tub seat; often called slide through tubs, nearly the entire front of the tub opens to give the necessary width.
Walk-in Tub Comfort
- Pro: Water Depth
Because there is no need to step over a tall wall, walk-in tubs provide a deeper water depth when compared to traditional tubs. A standard bathtub has a depth of 13 to 14 inches, while walk-in tubs can provide up to nearly four feet of water depth for a comfortable immersion experience while seated securely.
Seats are generally placed at 17 inches high, leaving almost 20 inches of depth to immerse the torso, well within the average torso length of an adult. Many walk-in tub models also have hydrotherapy jets available and other luxury features such as chromotherapy lighting and heated seating.
- Con: Time to Fill and Drain
Because a walk-in tub has a door in the side of the tub itself, you cannot add or drain water while the door is open. This means you’ll spend a considerable amount of time sitting in the tub while waiting for it to fill as well as time waiting for it to drain before you can exit the tub.
Some tubs can take as long as 15 minutes to fill or drain, although some high-end models have features to speed up this process. Even with rapid fill and rapid drain features, walk-in tubs can average around eight minutes to fill or drain, leaving a significant amount of time where much of the body is exposed to air and can become chilled. One possible way to reduce chilling is to purchase a model with a heated seat.
Walk-in Tub Safety
- Pro: Safety Features
Much of the remodeling suggested for aging in place revolves around safety, specifically preventing falls. Over one-third of adults over age 65 fall each year and over 80 percent of those falls are in the bathroom. Walk-in tubs generally provide an array of features designed to reduce falls. These often include built-in handrails, an ADA compliant overall design, anti-slip flooring, contoured built-in seating, and a low step height for entry.
Some models also include wide doors designed to allow those in wheelchairs to transfer easily to the tub seat without assistance. Another safety feature, although not related to falls, is a scald prevention valve, designed to prevent hot water burns.
- Con: Temperature
Another concern with a walk-in tub is temperature. Since you must enter the tub before filling it, there is no chance to adjust the water and get it just right before exposing your body to the water. Also, because you must sit in the tub while it fills, it is very easy to become acclimatized to dangerous temperatures as the water slowly climbs. Because of this, it is important that any tub you consider be equipped with a scald prevention valve that is designed to prevent dangerously hot water from entering the tub. Even then, it could take some uncomfortable minutes to get the water temperature adjusted comfortably in the tub as it fills.
Cost of Walk-in Tubs
- Pro: Combined Features
Certain walk-in tub models offer a lot of features in a single tub. Rather than purchasing modifications such as over tub seats, add-on handrails, anti-scald valves, and non-slip flooring, a walk-in tub combines all of these features and more in one package. This can reduce the amount of construction needed in your bathroom for remodeling as well as reducing the time required to make the modifications.
- Con: Installation Cost
Walk-in tubs can be pricey and Medicare does not consider them Durable Medical Equipment (DME) or cover any part of the costs. A few states may offer some assistance under their Medicaid programs but most do not. The base price of a walk-in tub can range from just under $1,000 to well over $5,000. Installation costs can vary widely, however, with costs after installation running up to $10,000 for the tub and installation, depending on the complexity of the construction needed for installation.
Health Effects of Bathing
- Pro: Hydrotherapy
The benefits of warm water for seniors in reducing certain aches and pains, along with speeding the healing of certain injuries such as burns or ulcers is well known. Hydrotherapy can also help patients recovering from amputations or dealing with conditions such as arthritis. In addition to simply being able to soak in deeper warm water, many step-in tubs have hydrotherapy jets similar to what you would find in an outdoor hot tub. Several jets of heated water and air agitate the water and provide massage to relax muscles further.
- Con: Chilling
Because of the time required to fill and drain a walk-in tub, there is a risk of becoming chilled. As we age, our skin thins and our circulation slows, making us less able to conserve body heat or respond to chilly temperatures. These factors combine with health conditions such as diabetes that can make seniors more susceptible to hypothermia.
Hypothermia occurs when internal body temperature drops below 95 degrees and for seniors, this can happen even in ambient temperatures in the 60s, such as might be found in a home in the fall. Add in wet skin as a tub drains and hypothermia is a real danger even in warmer air temperatures. While heated seats can help, it does not address the upper body. Drying off with a towel as the tub drains and covering the upper torso with a dry towel or robe can help reduce the risk of chilling.
Water Usage in a Walk-in Tub
- Pro: Comparable Water Usage
With the deeper size of walk-in tubs, there is understandably the idea that a walk-in tub would hold more water than a standard tub or a shower. However, this is not always the case. Many walk-in tubs are much narrower than standard tubs, so it isn’t much larger than it appears visually when dealing with gallons held.
Standard Tubs/showers vs. Walk-in Tubs
Standard Tub Standard Shower Walk-in Tub 42-80 gallons 25-40 gallons 50 gallons
An average standard bathtub holds around 42 gallons, with garden tubs holding about double that. An average shower uses between 25 and 40 gallons (depending on the flow of your shower head). Walk-in tubs do not use significantly more water, with many averaging around 50 gallons of water per filled tub. Many walk-in tubs also offer heating systems that circulate water to keep it warm rather than needing to be refilled turning the bath.
- Con: Flooding
While most tubs have swing-in doors, that is, doors which swing into the tub for entry, some have swing-out doors for easier access. While the swing-out doors can make the tub easier to enter, it also brings the possibility of flooding should the door not be latched properly. If not secured properly, the weight of the water in a filling tub could cause the door to open and dozens of gallons of water to spill out into your home. While doors are also water sealed, there is always the chance of a seal failure that could also lead to leaks or flooding.