Getting A Grip: How and Where to Install Bathroom Grab Bars

By Steve Willson, Home Improvement Expert

When one is closer to being old than young, bathrooms can become harder to navigate. Getting up and down from the toilet seat or in and out of the shower can be a real challenge when balance and/or strength are an issue.

In the bathtub and shower, surfaces are wet, feet are usually cold, and invariably there is a step up-and-over required. The side of most tubs is around 18 inches high, and getting into a freestanding claw-foot tub adds another 4 inches to this hurdle. While stall showers are much less dangerous, even they have a 4- or 5-inch-high curb just below the shower door. This doesn’t seem like much of an obstacle until one’s balance deteriorates from the years, some medication or an orthopedic problem.

Choosing a Grab Bar

Today’s grab bars come in many finishes and styles, like this one in polished chrome, to fit any bathroom style.To help alleviate safety concerns in the bathroom, grab bars are an easy and necessary option. They don’t cost very much ($15 to $50 depending on the model), they come in a variety of sizes, and they feature an assortment of materials, colors and finishes (stainless steel, brass, chrome, plastic, and often with the option of some kind of textured surface to make grabbing easier). A quick trip to a home center, hardware store, or a kitchen and bath showroom presents plenty of choices.

Most grab bars have a diameter of 1-1/4 inches or 1-1/2 inches, both of which work well for most hands.

While finish and color are a personal choice, the surface on the bars is most important. Some bars have smooth surfaces that look clean and attractive. But the clear preference, from a safety point of view, is for a textured surface that provides a better grip: Some have ridges, some are knurled, others have etched lines that spiral around the circumference. The best choice is the one that’s the most comfortable.

Installing a Grab Bar

Finding the safest and most convenient place to install the bars is the overall goal. But making sure it is firmly attached is the first priority. Nearly every specification from credible authorities like the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to the packaging on most grab bars in the store, recommend attaching the bars with screws driven into the studs behind the wall covering. While hollow wall anchors of various types can work, especially on plaster walls, screwing directly into the studs is the safest approach. And, after all, safety is what grab bars are supposed to improve.

To locate the studs in bathroom walls, it’s best to use an inexpensive, battery-powered stud sensor. This tool will locate both sides of each stud. Lightly mark the walls with pencil where the studs fall, then figure out what bar lengths are needed based on what will fit between these marks. Grab bars are available in different lengths to accommodate non-standard stud spacing. Keep in mind that you want these bars to “work” well, not necessarily look great. Most people would probably prefer a shorter, rather than longer bar. But when in doubt, it’s better to choose the longer model. It presents more places to get a grip.

Mounting a grab bars on acrylic or fiberglass tub surrounds isn’t very difficult. Standard drill bits can handle these materials as well as wood, drywall and plaster. But ceramic tile in showers or above tubs can’t be drilled with regular bits. To bore these screw clearance holes, you need a masonry bit. It is chucked in a drill just like other bits and is used the same way. It has carbide tips that can grind through masonry materials like ceramic tile.

Advice for All Areas

Here are the specifics for installing bars for various areas in the bathroom.

Toilets: Position two bars on the toilet wall—one aligned parallel to the floor and about 5 or 6 inches above the seat (this bar should be at least 32 inches long and extend at least 12 inches past the front of the bowl), and another bar perpendicular to the end of this horizontal bar. This bar should extend at least 16 inches above it and be screwed securely into the stud inside the wall.

This grab bar layout, shown on a typical bath surround, features a vertical bar at the entry point, another next to the faucets and another on the wall for steadying.Stall Showers: A stall shower and a tub/shower combo fixture have similar, but not identical, needs. The stall shower should have a vertical bar just inside the shower door jambs where the door closes. This could be on either end of the wall depending on how the door is hung. The point of this bar is to steady the transition between the bathroom floor and the shower floor. But once inside, at least two other bars are recommended.

One installed horizontally, slightly above waist-high (34-36 inches) along the side wall. This should be easily reached with one hand while holding on to the entry bar with the other. Another bar should be attached vertically on the faucet end wall next to the faucet handles to steady bathers as they adjust the water flow and shower head.

Bathtub/shower combos: This setup has the same basic needs as a stall shower, but the grab-bar requirements are not identical. The vertical entrance bar is the same but should always be installed on the end wall opposite the faucet wall. And the horizontal bar that’s attached to the side wall should be as long as possible and installed a little lower, about 30 inches from the tub floor.

Another quick and easy way to improve tub safety is to use a safety grab bar like this one. It just slides over the side of the tub and is tightened in place with a built-in clamp.This makes it do double duty as a steadying influence when showering and as aid when getting in and out of a bath. The vertical bar on the faucet wall steadies the bather when adjusting the water. And if the bottom of this bar is located lower than the side wall bar, it provides a good extra grip for getting out of a tub.

Keep in mind that the goal of each bar placement is to create a handrail of sorts surrounding the bathtub. Something is always close at hand and the next bar is never too far away.

Another quick and easy way to improve tub safety is to use a safety grab bar like this one. It just slides over the side of the tub and is tightened in place with a built-in clamp.

Steve Willson began his career as a carpentry contractor in Rochester, New York, where he owned and operated his own business. He then joined Popular Mechanics magazine as their Home Improvement Editor, a position he held for 22 years. During that time, he produced thousands of pages of home improvement content and is also the author of three books. He now writes about home improvement solutions for The Home Depot.

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