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Choosing The Right Bathtub

From Simple To Elaborate

Choosing the right bathtub means you'll need to consider several different issues. Some of them you'll have control over, like how plan to use the tub, while others are more or less controlled by your situation -- like the constraints of an existing bathroom for example.

The spectrum of choices runs not only from the purely aesthetic but to the type of bathtub you want as well. Choices include everything from the basic alcove tub to sophisticated air tubs or a sleek, modern slipper tub.

Technology also factors in to the choices you have available to you. Not only have bathtubs evolved to include whirlpool jets but now you can incorporate light and sound too.

The entrepreneurial spirit has also fostered unique creations like wooden tubs, though there are considerations to think about closely with these kinds of tubs.

The bottom line is this -- choosing a bathtub requires some up-front knowledge of your situation, how you'll use the tub and what's available. Getting this foundation will help you on the path to making a wise and hopefully, "cleansing" choice.

What Bathtub Basics Do I Need To Know?

Bathtubs come in a variety of shapes, materials and colors. But before you even get to the pick-and-choose stage you'll most likely fall into one of two categories that will narrow down your choices:

  • You have physical constraints that a new tub must fit within (replacing an existing tub during a remodel for example)
  • You have no constraints and can choose virtually any kind of tub you want (like with a new home, a bathroom add-on or a remodel that entails gutting and moving of existing walls, plumbing, etc.)

With that, let's get on to understanding what you should know about choosing a new bathtub.

Types Of Bathtubs

There are several varieties of tubs, each providing a different purpose within the bathing experience.

  • General Purpose
    Although probably not an actual technical classification, a general purpose bathtub is one that most of us are probably familiar with and grew up with. It serves multiple purposes from washing the kids to cleaning the dog. They're usually installed in an alcove (see below). There's nothing fancy here but they do the job.
  • corner tub

  • Soaking Tub
    Soaking tubs are typically deeper than standard general purpose bathtubs and allow you to immerse your whole body into the water. They come in various styles and shapes and vary with the amount of water they hold. Clawfoot and vintage style free-standing tubs fall into this category since they typically have taller sides and hold more water than conventional bathtubs.
  • Walk-In Bathtub
    A walk-in tub provides a door that allows you to walk into the tub instead of having to climb over the edge. They're helpful for elderly people and any person that has limited mobility. The door has a seal on it that allows the tub to contain the water when it's filled.
  • Whirlpool & Air Tubs
    Whirpool tubs and air tubs offer a therapeutic bath by shooting water and air bubbles into the bathtub at strategic locations to give you the sensation of a massage. The difference between a whirlpool and an air tub is that the whirlpool injects water into the tub, stirring the water, whereas an air tub pushes air through its plumbing system into the water, creating thousands of bubbles that invigorates the water.

    These kinds of tubs are more complex than other tubs because they include pumps, filters, hoses and other equipment necessary to circulate and "energize" the water.

Bathtub Materials

Once you have a type of bathtub determined you should understand the various materials they're made from. Each as their own high and low points and not all types of bathtubs come in all materials. In other words, you probably won't find an air tub made from cast iron.

  • Cast Iron
    Cast iron is a very durable material, usually covered with a porcelain enamel coating. A cast iron tub is arguably one of the most durable fixtures in a home, potentially giving reliable service for decades.

    Cast iron tubs are usually of the alcove (surrounded by 3 walls) or free-standing variety. Their finish is durable and easily cleaned although you don't want to use aggressive scouring techniques or you could scratch the surface.

    bathtubs

    Enamel that does eventually wear or chip away reveals the cast iron substrate which can rust. Finally, cast iron tubs are heavy and combined with the water weight, need good support structure.
  • Enamel On Steel
    Enamel-on-steel tubs (or porcelain-on-steel as they're sometimes called) have a similar look to cast iron tubs except that they're lighter. Like cast iron, their surface is easily cleaned and maintained and their lighter weight means they're easier to muscle into a remodeled bathroom than a heavier cast iron tub. They're also susceptible to rusting should any of the enamel chip or get scratched, exposing the underlying steel.
  • Acrylic
    Acrylic in simple terms is a form of plastic and is another material used to make bathtubs. It's upsides include it's high gloss, similar to the enameled look on cast iron and steel tubs, and it's much lighter weight than iron and steel. It can be scratched more easily but these scratches can also be repaired more easily than a porcelain enamel surface.

    corner bathtub

    Because acrylic is an easily-formed material, it's often used for whirlpool and air tubs which can be had in many different shapes and sizes.

  • Fiberglass Gelcoat (FRP)
    Another material used to make tubs is fiberglass-reinforced plastic (FRP) that's covered in something called "gelcoat". You'll find some whirlpools and air tubs made from this material because it can be shaped easily. The gelcoat provides the smooth, glossy surface of the tub and offers an easily cleaned surface. It's a lot like acrylic but usually not as durable, as it can be scratched and/or cracked if it's struck hard enough.
  • Composite
    Composite tub materials include American Standard's Americast products and Bootzcast from Bootz industries. These tubs are made with proprietary engineered composite materials that form the backing of the tub itself. The finished surface of the tubs are enameled. The intent with these kinds of tubs is to achieve the benefits of cast iron, like heat retention and a durable surface finish, without the weight associated with cast iron. These composite tubs can weight about 1/3 as much as cast iron, something to think about if you're replacing a 2nd story bathroom tub.

    Some users report slight flex and/or creaking with composite-backed tubs though experience varies and is sometimes related to installation technique.

  • Cultured Marble
    Cultured marble is another form of 'engineered stone' whereby crushed marble is combined with resins to produce a solid-surface product. You could say it's similar to quartz countertops in that regard. Cultured marble is typically covered with a clear gelcoat to provide a durable, easily cleaned and stain resistant surface finish. It's ability to be "cast" (poured into a mold and formed) makes it a good material for bathtubs.

    It's also a brittle material and isn't forgiving of over-tightened faucet and spout fixtures that can crack the surface. While surface scratches can usually be buffed out, cracks are usually unrepairable.

  • Wood
    A wood bathtub is definitely a unique style choice and can look beautiful but it comes with some baggage. The wood needs a very good surface sealer to prevent deterioration and tubs made from several slabs of wood that are pieced together must have those seams tightly joined and sealed to prevent leaks. Long term durability, how it stands up to hard water staining and maintaining leak-proof integrity are issues you'll need to contend with before making a choice.

Ways They Can Be Installed

Similar to kitchen sinks, there are several different bathtub mounting configurations that are defined by the type of bathtub you buy.

Again, if you're simply looking to replace an existing tub with no plan for any other changes to your bathroom, you're probably going to replace it with the same type of tub. However if you're building new or changing your bathroom layout, you have the opportunity for more bathtub style choices.

  • Alcove Tub

    alcove bathtub

    An alcove or "recessed" tub is typically rectangular in shape and is installed adjacent to three walls, leaving one side of the tub accessible. The front and back of the tub and one side are bordered by bathroom walls or some other form of structure like an adjacent shower wall.

    These tubs vary in depth, depending on manufacturer, and generally represent what is considered a "standard" bathtub.

    Alcove tubs are designated as a "right hand or left hand" installation. This simply means that the drain is either on the right or left side as you face the tub from its accessible side. Most usually come with an integral tiling flange on 3 sides. This is a small vertical lip that fits up under the surrounding wall tile or shower enclosure.

  • Platform Installation
    Going by the names of "platform", "deck mounted" and "drop in", this type of tub installation sits within a built-up deck structure with it's rim at the same level as the top of the deck.

    platform bathtub

    Many whirlpool and air bath tubs use this type of installation. Deck tubs will optimally have one side with removable panels to be able to access the plumbing and other hardware associated with these fixtures.

    An alternate style of drop-in tubs places the tub down into the bathroom floor with the rim flush with the floor. This type of installation makes it more difficult to maneuver in and out of the tub, particularly if the tub has any significant depth.

  • Undermount Bathtub Installation
    An undermount tub is actually no different than a drop-in tub except that it's rim is covered by a surrounding deck top made of stone, tile, etc. The tub itself is supported by the floor structure underneath the tub. It's not "hung" from the deck like some undermount sinks that are hung from clips attached to the underside of a countertop.

    One thing to consider with an undermount installation is the type of deck top you use with it and whether you'll ever want (or need) to remove the tub. A stone deck top

    clawfoot bathtub

    surrounding the edge of the tub would most likely need to be broken up to remove the tub. Now it may be unlikely that you'd ever need to remove the tub but it's something to consider with these kinds of installations.
  • Free Standing Installation
    A free-standing tub simply sits by itself on the bathroom floor with no adjacent support structure. Clawfoot and vintage tubs are examples of free-standing installations along with slipper and deep soaker tubs. These kinds of installations obviously need to be located near the delivery and drain plumbing.
  • A Corner Bathtub
    Corner bathtubs are a sort of hybrid in that they can take the form of most of the styles listed above. A lot of what you see in pictures include triangular shaped, platform tubs but there are other varieties too.

    bathtubPhoto Courtesy Of Duravit

    You can choose from products that look like alcove tubs but have two sides that meet the wall (one end and a side) like the Duravit tub in the photo to the left.

    One of the primary considerations with a corner tub is the location of the fixtures. The orientation of the tub may have a role to play in this but the key point to remember is to give yourself sufficient clearance so that you can easily get in and out of the tub, without having to climb over faucets and spouts.

    You can learn more about what's available and shop for corner tubs at this page.

The basic take-away lessons from this section are that your situation will dictate the type of tub you can choose. If you're starting from scratch you can choose from a variety of styles, governed in part by how they're installed, and from a range of materials, each with their own pros and cons.

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What Kinds Of Innovations & Features Should I Be Aware Of?

Bathtubs might seem like simple fixtures that hold water, and while that's probably true of their humbler beginnings, it's not the case anymore.

Bathtubs have evolved to a point where some of them use various technologies and add-ons to further enhance your bathing experience.

So before making your final selection, it may help to brush up on what's available so that you're sure you've exhausted all your options (you might find a style to indulge yourself with too!).

  • Contemporary Luxury
    Bathtubs like the Amalfi tub from Victoria and Albert offer a contemporary style to the deep soaking slipper bathtub. It's gentle sweep on one end provides a graceful look yet useful purpose of supporting your back, neck and head, similar to a lounge chair. Other products like the handmade mahogany bathtub from Bath in Wood of Maine shows off the beauty of wood in another contemporary soaking tub. Plainly stated -- tubs can be stylish too.
  • Soaker & Air Tubs For Smaller Bathrooms
    If the thought of a freestanding soaker tub appeals to you but you don't have a bathroom the size of your living room, smaller soaker tubs are available. Acquatic makes the Serenity 13 which is a smaller version of their pedestal-base Serenity 11 soaker tub. Aquatic also offers their Serenity Studio rectangular air baths in a range of smaller sizes for smaller spaces.
  • Heaters & Electronic Controls
    Many air baths and whirlpools offer heaters that keep the water hot. Aquatic's HotSoak has a heater and pump but limits the water movement for a more still, relaxing hot bath. Some tubs also have electronic controls that govern the overall functions of the tub like heat control and water pressure. The wonder of electronics does away with knobs and dial timers.
  • Soaker-Like Features On Conventional Tubs
    Some conventional alcove-type tubs have features that allow them to be filled more than standard tubs, making them more like a soaker bathtub. American Standard produces the Deep Soak™ drain that puts the overflow drain at a higher level in the tub. Kohler's Archer™ tubs have a similar feature, allowing you to immerse yourself deeper into the bath.
  • Integrating The Sound Experience
    Forget about just getting clean. How about bathtubs that project sound and light? Kohler's VibrAcoustic™ tubs combine what they call soothing instrumental music tracks that allow you to both hear it above the water's surface and feel it below (the water's surface that is). If you want your own music to listen to, use their DTV-Bath interface to pipe your own tunes into the bath from an MP3 player or computer.
  • Chromatherapy (Light)
    Try some chromatherapy, the use of light, along with your bath to stimulate the visual sense and either energize or sooth your mood. Kohler's VibrAcoustic™ can be fitted with different colored lights that can also be synchronized to pulse with music vibrations. Jason Hydrotherapy's LED chromatherapy light kit provides preprogrammed light shows that blend color mixes and fades among the primary colors in the spectrum.

In other words, the bathtub can be simple or it can be a place of refuge and relaxation. If you haven't shopped tubs lately, now you're aware that bathtime can be a little more indulgent.

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What Should I Consider Before Choosing?

Choosing a bathtub poses different challenges than choosing other plumbing fixtures like a kitchen or bathroom sink. The plans you have for your bathroom, what you're starting with and what you want from a tub should all factor into your decision.

Given that you now know the basic differences among tub varieties, mull over the following points to decide if they affect your desires and situation. Hopefully you'll then be best prepared to make a good bathtub choice.

  • Be Clear On What You Want From Your Tub
    Are you looking for a simple everyday "working" bathtub that'll accommodate washing the toddlers, the dog and the blinds? Or do you want your own in-home hydrotherapy spa? You can't replace tubs easily so understanding how you'll use it in the long term will help define how your bathroom needs to be designed (or changed) as well as how much money you'll end up spending.

    Very deep soaking tubs aren't practical nor are they probably safe for washing young children. If children and more utilitarian duties aren't in the picture for your future tub, then get what you'll enjoy. Otherwise a more conventional bathtub might be in order.

    That doesn't mean there's no in-between either; there are tubs that blend the characteristics of an "everyday" alcove-style tub with some of the amenities of the whirlpools and air tubs.

  • What's Your Starting Point?
    New construction gives you more options for choices, meaning you're not limited by existing framing and structural constraints. The same is true for remodels where the bathroom footprint is changing. That affords you the option of choosing larger tubs or whatever installation type you want.

    For existing bathrooms your choices are limited by existing space and plumbing, and possibly electrical constraints (if you're thinking of whirlpool and spa tubs).

  • Save Or Replace?
    If you're thinking of replacing a tub and have an average-sized bathroom, consider all your options carefully, particularly if you have a cast iron tub. Removing it could be difficult and more work than it really needs to be. Consider salvaging it instead, using bath re-liner services if it's really just a matter of restoring the finish and/or getting rid of the powder blue color scheme.
  • Comfort Should Be A Consideration

    slipper bathtub

    Any bathtub, whether it's a conventional one or an air bath, should be comfortable to use. Take some time to understand the ergonomics of how a tub is designed by looking at the "technical specification" on manufacturer's websites. They'll usually show the slope and other physical features in their diagrams.

    You should also go as far as sitting in them in a showroom to see if it's comfortable. This is particularly true for soaker and spa tubs that you'd spend more time in than a conventional bathtub.

  • Take Note Of Air/Jet Locations On Whirpools
    If you're considering a whirlpool tub take note of where the jets are located with respect to where you'd typically sit in the tub. Are they in the spots you want or might they be an annoyance? Some people like them directed right at their back while for others, that's uncomfortable. Others like to make sure there are jets located close to the feet for a foot massage.
  • Make Sure The Floor Can Handle The Weight
    Deep soaker tubs hold a lot of water and that puts a load on the floor beneath the tub. Make sure it has sufficient strength for the type of tub you're considering.

    For example, an Ios tub from Victoria & Albert weighs 150 pounds but has a 103 gallon water capacity. At 8.3 lbs/gallon, that's another 858 pounds for a total of 1008 pounds (not considering your weight) on the floor beneath the tub.

    Speak with a contractor or building engineer if necessary if you're going to be installing a big tub with a large capacity to make sure the floor structure is sufficient.

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