There are certain milestones in every life: achievements significant in their novelty, that mark accomplishment while proclaiming the forever-changed path ahead. Among those many and varied watershed moments, you might not expect to find "buying a new bathtub". But those who've really and truly found their tub can attest to the powerful implications. If you're lucky enough to be hunting for a new tub, some homework must be done if you want it to be special...and we can get you started!
Two major aspects of the tub are for the most part fully determined by the rest of the bathroom: style and size. Unless you're willing and able to tear the whole thing down, the room's layout and plumbing will limit the number of available choices. Fortunately, we live in an age of plenty. While you may be "limited" to a standard 5-foot alcove tub, the number of designs and features therein should be enough to induce at least some minor waffling.
- Alcove tubs have been the standard for a while, with many bathrooms featuring a tub-sized nook in their design. With this style, usually only one side of the tub is accessible and visible (the tub apron), the other three being pressed flush against the walls of the room. Corner tubs are a variety of the alcove, and fit up against two corner walls to optimize the available space.
- Note: Many alcove units are tub/shower combinations (an important point, since it can be difficult to add shower capabilities to other kinds of tub, depending on the room's plumbing), making them the most efficient option - especially in homes with a single bathroom.
- Drop-In tubs are literally dropped into a wooden frame, variously referred to as an enclosure, a platform, or a deck. This support structure is finished to match the rest of the room - usually with tile, teak, or stone. Most jetted or whirlpool tubs are of this design. The additional cost of constructing the enclosure will need to be factored into your budget, so watch out!
- Undermount tubs are similar to drop-ins in that they're supported by a separate enclosure (this time under the floor). The difference lies in the depth of the tub: undermount tubs are the sleeker alternative to the typical drop-in, with the lip of the tub lying flush with the floor. This style has become increasingly popular in recent years, owing to the modern placement and design.
- Pro Tip: With both drop-in and undermount tubs, the chief consideration is future repair: you'll want an enclosure that allows for easy access to the tub's inner workings (and ideally, one that will easily accommodate a replacement).
- Freestanding tubs have become increasingly popular in recent years. These tubs - of which the clawfoot variety is a perennial classic - are obvious focal points, and will likely be the single most visible feature in your bathroom. As such, the exterior design of the tub takes on an added importance, as do the tub supports (the feet), which can take on any number of designs and finishes. Slipper tubs have a raised end to facilitate comfortable lounging, and larger double slippers can fit two lovebirds while making a dramatic visual statement.
- Soaking tubs can technically be of any of the varieties above, so long as they're deep and not very long. Because of the increased volume, these tubs need to be very well supported (most soaker tubs hold 50-80 gallons, and the weight of the tub + water can add up quick: water weighs 8.3 lbs/gal), and may even require an additional water heater depending on the tub size, the home, and your bathing preferences.
- Walk-In tubs are designed for the elderly and those with limited mobility. An inward-swinging, watertight door allows for easy entry and exit, mitigating the injury risk encountered with standard tubs (whose thresholds can be 2 feet high). Integral handrails, seats, and textured floor pads add to the safety of these tubs, which can also be outfitted with all the features of a luxury tub.
Other popular tub styles include the Roman Tub (a deeper tub featuring faucet and controls on the deck of the tub itself), and the Japanese Soaking Tub (an especially deep unit with a relatively small footprint, usually featuring an integral seat).
Helpful Hint: Know the location of the relevant plumbing in the bathroom prior to making a decision: with some alcove and corner tubs especially, you'll need to know where drain and faucet holes need to be.
Size & Capacity
The "standard" tub measures 60 inches long and 30 or 32 inches wide, with height and depth varying between style and model. These dimensions are reflected in the typical bathroom alcove, but hold their popularity across the spectrum of tub styles; taking average height and comfortable bathing positions into account, this is no surprise. Equally unsurprising is the range of sizes commercially available: lengths run from 4-6+ feet, and widths can get as low as 27 inches.
Choosing the right size is largely a matter of following the room. Clearly the alcove style is most subject to dimensional constraints (nice as it is, that 6-foot model won't fit in a typical alcove without some major work), but think also of the drop-in tub with its independent enclosure - how large do you want the whole thing to be? Is it a jetted tub that will require pumps and other components to be housed within? How will that affect the rest of the room? Will everything still be easily accessible and accommodating?
Tub capacity is less a question of the room (though there can be aesthetic concerns with tub height) and more a question of preference. The volume of water held by a tub can vary greatly even among models with similar dimensions, owing to differences in the actual shape of the bathing well; unique designs, built-in seating and head or arm rests can have a big effect on the amount of water required, and the number of bathers that can be accommodated.
Hot Water Concerns
Dream tubs can be easy to find, but desires are quickly tempered when real-world logistics are looked at. No, we're not talking about getting a massive tub up the stairs and through the door (though that absolutely needs to be considered); we're talking about hot water. As a rule of thumb, a water heater should be able to fill the tub somewhere around 65%-75% of the way. Though you won't actually be taking a bath with that much 120°F+ water (cold will also be used, and your body will displace a fair bit of water), this guideline helps ensure the bath will be warm, and that at least some hot water will be available after filling the tub.
An example: say you currently have a 50 gallon tub, and a 50 gallon tank water heater. 65-75% of the tub capacity would be 32.5-37.5 gallons, which the heater can easily supply. But honestly, that tub's been boring you ever since you moved in. Upgrading to a luxurious 80 gallons would require a hot water supply of at least 52-60 gallons to avoid one of the more disappointing experiences of your bath-life. What to do?
A second water heater would take care of the issue, as would replacing the existing one with a larger unit. A tankless water heater devoted to the bathroom might also be an option, should you be able to find a model that will fill the tub in an acceptable amount of time at the correct temperature rise. Each option results in substantial added cost, labor, and time.
A less expensive alternative exists in the thermostatic mixing valve. Installed directly on the heater output, kits like the Tank Booster Pro allow you to set the temperature on your existing water heater much higher than usual (let's say 140°F). Cold water is added to this super-hot water within the mixing valve, to reach a user-set temperature (perhaps 120°F, where most heaters are factory-set). The super-hot water in the heater tank is drained more slowly, resulting in more hot water (at the lower temperature of 120°F) available to the home. How much more is difficult to determine: you'll need to consult with a plumber, do some serious math, or hope for the best with trial and error.
While the increased demand on the water heater does run the risk of shortening its life, this can be a viable option for those unable to pursue a larger-scale renovation. If this is the route you choose to go, make sure that any showers in the home have anti-scald protection in the form of their own thermostatic or pressure-balance valves: should the mixing valve at the water heater fail, scalding and serious injury could easily occur.
Note: Some water heater manufacturers will void the warranty if the temperature is set too high - be sure to check the documentation before exploring this option. This option should not be considered with older water heaters (which could be compromised), or "unhealthy" ones that have not had regular maintenance.
Cost, durability, appearance, feel - these all factor into the choice of tub material. A good bathtub can be made with a number of materials (even stone or wood, if you have the money) but for the most part, you'll find the following four in abundance.
- Fiberglass: what can't we do with it? You're no doubt familiar with this material, which is used in everything from insulation to kayaks. Fiberglass makes for an inexpensive, lightweight tub that may last up to a few decades with proper care. The relatively limited lifespan is due to wearing of the protective "gel coat" finish (a polyester resin), as well as the brittle nature of the material. Fiberglass tubs should be set in a bed of mortar to prevent excessive flexing, which will lead to cracks. These tubs are not the best at retaining heat, so if you enjoy long baths, fiberglass may not be the material for you.
- Helpful Hint: The gel coat finish of a fiberglass tub is slightly porous; without proper cleaning and occasional refinishing it will degrade, permitting stains and allowing color to fade. On the plus side, scratches and cracks in a fiberglass tub are more easily repaired than other materials.
- A step up from fiberglass, Acrylic tubs may represent the best bang for the buck. Their thicker construction (sometimes reinforced with fiberglass) and superior finish yields a more durable tub with a higher resistance to cracks and stains. Acrylic also retains heat much better than fiberglass (or steel), making for a more pleasant and longer soak. These tubs will cost a bit more than comparable fiberglass units, but most find the increase in quality well worth the increase in price. Acrylic can be combined with other materials to produce even better tubs, as seen in American Bath Factory's AcraStone material.
- Pro Tip: Acrylic can be repaired, but it's a more involved process than with fiberglass, and is best left to a professional.
- You can think of Enameled Steel as cast iron's little brother. Like the name says, these tubs are made of steel and coated with a porcelain enamel (and sometimes reinforced with other materials to produce a stronger tub, as in American Standard's Americast material). More durable and heavyweight than the above plastics, a steel tub will likely last longer than either, but is not invulnerable. Extra care must be taken to avoid chipping the enamel since the underlying steel will rust, compromising the tub and creating a leak risk. Steel tubs are notoriously noisy (owing to their relatively thin walls) and will lose heat more rapidly than acrylic or cast iron.
- Cast Iron tubs are generally regarded as the best all-around tubs you can get; more expensive, more striking tubs can certainly be had, but offer little more in the way of performance. Cast iron is thick and extremely durable, but also very heavy - the floor may need to be reinforced to accommodate it. With excellent heat retention and soundproofing qualities, the experience is among the best - a good thing, considering you probably won't find too many added features; due to the nature of the material and its manufacture, cast iron tubs are generally basic and of the alcove or freestanding variety. You'll pay a bit more for cast iron, but with proper care, it'll probably outlast you!
- Note: Our detailed guide on caring for porcelain and porcelain-enameled fixtures will help keep your new enameled tub picture-perfect. With both steel and cast iron, finish and tub are difficult to repair once damage has occurred.
Cleaning & Care
Whatever material is chosen, our cleaning and care recommendations are pretty much the same:
- Avoid abrasive cleaners and tools like scouring powders, scrubbing creams, and rough sponges. However tough a finish is, regularly rubbing a gritty substance on it will scratch and wear it away. Those areas will collect dirt and deposits, leading to the ugly, stained tubs we've all encountered. Once this happens, the tub becomes harder to clean, which makes people reach for the "hard stuff", which causes more damage, and so on. Tubs will lose shine, color, and potentially, integrity: iron or steel tubs that have lost enamel will rust.
- Avoid harsh chemical cleaners, especially those with acids. Like abrasives, these can attack the tub's finish, etching it away and leaving the underlying material exposed and vulnerable to serious damage. With porcelain-enameled iron and steel, etching again leads to excessive rust and unsightly stains.
- For additional tips on taking care of porcelain, see our in-depth article on the subject.
Of course it's vitally important to consider what the room and the plumbing will allow, and to research materials and styles...but we all know the real draw is the extras. Unless you're in the market for something like an elegant cast iron clawfoot that doesn't need any selling points beyond its quality and looks, it's all the exciting bonus features that really get the blood running. Massaging jets? Heaters? Pretty lights? Yes, yes, yes!
Jetted tubs are wildly popular, and for good reason: have you ever taken a bath in one? When you have the opportunity to turn your bathroom into a mini-spa, it's hard to pass up. But are all jets the same? Not quite.
- The classic "whirlpool" tub uses water jets to provide a powerful massage: a pump pulls water from the tub and ejects it at high pressure through jets strategically placed to provide the most relief to key areas of your body.
- Americh has two different types of water jets in their tubs - a standard adjustable jet and a rotary jet on a closed loop that...well, rotates in its base to produce additional coverage and power. These rotary jets are only available as part of the Platinum upgrade.
- Swirl-Way (by Mansfield) only uses standard adjustable jets, but also ups the ante with their Hydro-V Back Jet system (available as part of the Luxury upgrade): a V-shaped arrangement of jets designed to melt you into the water...in a good way.
- The other type of jet uses air - not water - to create an invigorating, but gentler experience. There are a few names for these kinds of systems: "Airbath" (Americh), "Champagne Massage", "BubbleMassage" (Kohler) and even "Bubble-Jet" in a few places on our site.
- Americh offers their Airbath on all of their tub models - including soaker tubs - and allows you to choose the location of the air jets: either on the floor of the tub, or around the perimeter.
- Mansfield's Restore ACR Walk-In Tub offers several options depending on the needs of the user: whirlpool only, airbath only, whirlpool + airbath, or their unique "MicroDerm" system. This ultra-quiet system generates a wealth of tiny, oxygen-rich bubbles around the bather, resulting in a therapeutic, effervescent experience.
Helpful Hint: If you're going for a jetted tub, consider the location of the pump relative to electrical hookups and the enclosure/deck - alternate pump locations are usually available.
Want to know more about jetted tubs? Take a look at our guide!
There's more to life than jets, though. What else can you add to a tub to make each bath ridiculously perfect?
- Materials like cast iron and acrylic do a good job of retaining heat, but the universe will always have its way; sooner or later, the water is going to become uncomfortably tepid. The savvy bathers of yesteryear were experts at draining and topping off to keep things toasty. These days, in-line heaters are cheap and plentiful. Prune on!
- However long your baths are, an added degree of comfort is always welcome. Though some tubs feature integral headrests, nothing beats a soft, supportive waterproof pillow. Second thoughts about getting a sharp-edged tub that'll look amazing in your bathroom, but seems uncomfortable to recline in? Problem solved.
- Universal design - aka "aging in place" - has gone mainstream in recent years, with homeowners and designers alike including the long-term considerations of safety and mobility in their new homes and renovations. Many aspects of universal design can immediately benefit anyone in the home; grab bars are a great example. They come standard on some Swirl-Way tubs, and can be added to many of our Americh jetted tubs. Designer finishes will ensure the room retains a clean, tasteful look.
- To complete the put-together look, you can also finish-match the tub trim (drain and jets), cable waste and overflow.
- Turns out getting clean is actually a pleasant but minor byproduct of most baths: the true objective is peace - relaxation, rejuvenation. Hence the candles, the incense, the music; all of it. The history of color therapy is long and perhaps dubious, but no one can deny the pleasant effect of the right kind of light at the right time. Baths are clearly the right time, and lucky for us, manufacturers have been including more and more chromatherapy options in both tubs and showers. With the bathroom lights off, the effect is a soft glow that transforms the water itself. Americh Platinum upgrades feature two LED lights at the foot of the tub, each capable of emitting white, turquoise, blue, magenta, red, orange, yellow and green. Swirl-Way Luxury tubs have a single extra-bright, wide-angle LED that goes through white, light blue, violet, dark blue, gold, green, and red. On either, various options are available to control cycling and speed.
- Pro Tip: Make sure you know ahead of time whether any electrical modifications need to be made to accommodate pumps, heaters, lights, etc., so that additional costs can be factored into your budget. You may also need a permit: check with your local authority ahead of time to avoid a cruel surprise.
- As wonderful as baths are, they're sometimes not the best option. Some of us never even take them, preferring the cold efficiency of the shower (well, not that cold). Whatever the reason, if you need the tub to double as a shower, there are options. Depending on the room, the tub, and the degree of renovation, you may be able to add a shower valve behind the wall for a traditional shower. If you're getting a new clawfoot, attractive, vintage-styled shower kits are available to retain style while increasing functionality. And there's always the "Add-a-Shower" diverter spout for those with alcove tubs that don't feel like tearing open the wall. Our article has more information.
...Did we overload you? Clearly, there are a lot of considerations to be made when choosing a new bathtub. It really is all for the best, though: the more you know, the smarter you'll buy, and the happier you'll be. But if you do get a bit overwhelmed, just remember: when it's all over, you'll have the best bath of your life to look forward to...every single day!
Start shopping for your new bathtub right now!