Photo: Philip Harvey

Soaking Tub


In many modern baths, the tub is the focus of the room, a gratifying symbol of luxury and relaxation. In new installations, whirlpool tubs -- now available in more traditional tub styles and sizes -- are in high demand.

But for on-the-go workday bathing, a separate shower, unless space prohibits, is a nearly universal request. A well-designed shower is also safer to use than many tub/showers, which may lack both firm footing and adequate grab bars.

Tub choices
The market overflows with bathtub styles. The 30- by 60-inch tub, which often controlled the dimensions of the 5- by 7-foot bathroom of the past, no longer rules the buyer. Tubs come in new and more comfortable shapes and sizes and in a wide range of styles and colors.

The basic bathtub
The boxy, familiar tub is enameled steel, relatively inexpensive, and lightweight -- but noisy, cold, and prone to chipping. Built-to-last enameled cast-iron tubs are more durable and warmer to the touch, but very heavy (they may require structural reinforcement).

Traditional tubs come in two basic styles: recessed and corner. Recessed tubs fit between two side walls and against a back wall; they have a finished front or "apron." Corner models have one finished side and end and may be right- or left-handed. Some more stylish tubs are finished on three sides, allowing placement along an open wall.

A 72-inch-long tub is better than the standard 60-inch model, if space allows; a depth of 16 inches is more comfortable than the standard 14.

The age of plastics
The most innovative tubs these days are usually plastic -- either vacuum-formed acrylic or injection-molded thermoplastics like ABS. These lightweight shells are easy to transport and retain heat well. But best of all is their range of contours and sizes. Plastic tubs are available in neutrals and in the latest colors. The one drawback: dark, shiny surfaces tend to scratch or dull easily.

These tubs are usually designed for platform or sunken installation. Some models sit atop the surrounding deck, like a self-rimmed sink; others are undermounted. Though warmer to the touch than cast iron, plastic tubs lack iron's structural integrity -- be sure to provide solid support beneath one.

Freestanding tubs
An old-fashioned freestanding tub, such as the enduring claw-foot model, makes a nice focal point for a traditional or country design. You can buy either new reproductions or a reconditioned original. Such tubs can double as showers with the addition of Victorian-inspired shower-head/diverter/curtain rod hardware.

Looking for traditional fixtures and fittings? Recently, many new sources for renovators' supplies have sprung up; check specialty shops and antique plumbing catalogs.

Whirlpool tubs
Think of these hydromassage units simply as bathtubs with air jets. Unlike an outdoor spa, the whirlpool uses a standard hot-water connection; once your soak is over, the water is drained.

Most models resemble standard acrylic platform tubs; a pump and venturi jets are what create the whirlpool effect. Jet designs vary. Generally, you can opt for high pressure and low volume (a few strong jets) or low pressure and high volume (lots of softer jets). Typically, the more jets, the easier it is to access an aching body part -- though some users find these setups less soothing and prefer the massage effect of the stronger jets.

Though some professionals build custom whirlpool tubs from scratch and even retrofit old bathtubs, it's simplest and safest to buy a complete whirlpool kit. Look for a unit that's UL-approved. Want extras? Consider adding a digital temperature control, a timer, a built-in fill spout, or a cushy neck roll.

Because of their extra weight when filled, deep whirlpool tubs may need special floor framing. Your unit may also require a dedicated 120- or 240-volt circuit to power the pump and controls.

Soaking tubs
These tubs, like Japanese furos (made of wood), have deep interiors. They come in recessed, platform, and corner models, with rectangular or round interiors of fiberglass or acrylic.

Hot tubs, which use a wooden-barrel design and continuous water supply, can present moisture problems in all but the best-ventilated spaces. They are probably best confined to a deck or private garden.

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