Taking a bath is the ultimate in relaxation, but buying a bathtub can be fraught with stress. There is a dizzying array of shapes, sizes, and materials available today, but it's a decision you want to get right. Ripping out and replacing a tub isn't high on anyone's list of fun activities, so take time to answer these important questions before you buy.
How do you plan to use your tub? The answer determines whether an inexpensive, bare-bones design is sufficient or you need something with bells and whistles. A standard soaking tub simply gets filled with water, while a whirlpool or air bath has jets or channels that provide massaging air. Extras in a soaker are typically limited to arm- or headrests, grab bars, and slip-resistant flooring. Whirlpool, air-bath, or combination tubs have many more options, including adjustable jets, ambient underwater lighting, aromatherapy features, heated blowers, and automated cleaning systems. The more elaborate your tub, the more expensive it will be.
How much space do you have? Before falling in love with a particular type of tub, you need know just what your bathroom can accommodate. A standard tub is 60 inches long, 30 inches wide, and 14 inches deep, but many other sizes and shapes are available. To determine how large the tub can be, take careful measurements of your space and doorways. Make a note of where the drain is located in the floor to make sure it works with your chosen tub's design. Also, some tubs don't allow for the installation of a shower, so check before buying if that's a must-have feature for your family.
Are there special installation considerations? If you're considering a jetted bathtub, you'll need to plan for the pump, air switch, and electric timer. Many pumps fit within the tub unit, but some manufacturers have remote-location pumps that can be placed up to 5 feet from the tub and hidden in a closet or vanity cabinet. The air switch, which is nonelectric, may be located on the tub unit. Plan on installing the electric timer a safe distance -- at least 5 feet -- away from the tub to satisfy code requirements.
Can your water heater handle the task? The size of your tub will affect your monthly expense. A typical bath consists of one-third cold water and two-thirds hot water. If you have a hot-water tank, can it supply enough hot water? Tubs vary in size, holding 25-150 gallons of water. Make sure your water heater is large enough to fill about two-thirds of your tub with warm water.
Does weight pose a problem? Plastic tubs can weigh as little as 50 pounds empty, while a cast-iron bathtub can top 1,000 pounds. If you're considering a heavier material, can your floors handle the weight? When you add up tub weight, plus the weight of water and people, it may be necessary to reinforce the floor beneath the tub with supports or bracing. Also, a too-heavy tub may be impossible or prohibitively expensive to get into a second-floor bathroom.
Is the tub comfortable? Before buying a tub, try it on for size -- literally. Climb in, settle back, and imagine yourself soaking. Does it fit and feel comfortable for you? Don't be embarrassed; it's the best way to determine if you'll be satisfied with it.
With hundreds of shapes and sizes to choose from, buying a tub can be overwhelming. And the material you select determines the tub's price, durability, and cleanability. Here are your choices.
Plastic, either fiberglass or acrylic, offers the greatest design flexibility because it can be molded into many shapes. It's warm to the touch and insulates well, so water doesn't cool as fast as in enameled-steel or cast-iron tubs. Plastic is also the lightest tub, weighing in at 60-70 pounds. Although it doesn't chip easily, abrasive cleaners will damage the surface.
Enameled steel, formed steel with a porcelain-enamel coating, is the least expensive tub. But the material has drawbacks: Steel conducts heat, meaning tub water cools quickly; the surface is prone to chipping; and it weighs about twice as much as plastic.
Cast-iron tubs, like steel, are coated with enamel. However, they don't chip as easily as steel because the enamel coating is thicker than on steel tubs, and cast iron is more durable and resistant to impacts. At first, a cast-iron tub will pull heat from water, but once it heats up, it will keep water warm for a long time. Cast iron's main drawback is its weight, 350-500 pounds, which may complicate second-floor installations.
Cast-polymer tubs traditionally replicate the look of marble, granite, or onyx, and they're available in a range of solid colors. Cast polymer costs a little more than acrylic; however, its surface doesn't stand up as well. With time, the gel-coat finish on cast-polymer tubs can become brittle and expose the material underneath, leading to cracks.
Proprietary composites, relatively new entrants to the bathtub marketplace, include heavy-gauge steel, porcelain enamel, and resins. These combine to create a tub that offers all the benefits of cast iron with half the weight.
Maybe your old tub's character -- or the daunting task of ripping it out -- doesn't justify replacement. Refinishing or lining your tub is a great way to take care of unsightly chips and stains. Some companies can refinish your tub with a polyurethane coating that gives it a hard, high-gloss surface. Other companies can outfit your tub with an acrylic liner molded exactly to its size, shape, and style.