Grab Bars: Why and How to Install Them

By: Sandy John

Whether your aging parents are moving in with you or you’re looking for ways they can maintain their independence in their own home, grab bars in the bathroom are one of the easiest and most effective modifications you can make.

Grab bars, or safety bars, should be installed near and in the shower or tub and next to the toilet. The bars provide support for someone who has difficulty moving, such as standing up after sitting on the toilet or stepping over the edge of the bathtub. The bars provide security and allow older people with joint pain, muscle weakness, or other physical issues to be more independent in taking care of their personal hygiene needs.

Handicapped Access Bathtub in a Hotel Room with Grab Bar Hand Rails

Types of grab bars

If your first reaction to the thought of installing grab bars is, “I don’t want my bathroom to look like a hospital room,” relax. Grab bars come in a wide range of styles and materials, so you’ll be able to find something that will function well and still look good.

The common types of grab bars include:

  • Straight bars. These are generally installed in a horizontal or vertical position, and occasionally on the diagonal.
  • Multipurpose grab bars. These are grab bars that incorporate a shelf, toilet paper holder, or other function, and they are a good option if you’re working in a small space.
  • Corner bars. Also known as L-shaped bars, these wrap around a corner so that you get grab bars on two walls, which is a good option for the tub.
  • Floor to ceiling poles. These bars are attached to the ceiling and floor outside the bathtub so bathers can hold on while lifting their legs over the side of the tub.
  • Hinged grab bars. This style of railing folds out of the way when the bar isn’t being used.

Grab bar costs and materials

Safety bars are frequently made of stainless steel, because it stands up well to the wet environment of the shower. However, you’ll find designer grab bars in a range of finishes, from brushed nickel to colorful, corrosion-resistant finishes. You might want to look for bars with a textured finish or grip area, so they’re less slippery to wet hands. If you want wooden grab bars, find wood that’s been prepped for use in a moist environment or that’s a wood species that stands up well to water, such as teak.

When you’re selecting grab bars, pick a finish or color that contrasts with the walls or tiles in the bathroom. This will make the bars stand out visually so people will have an easier time finding it if they need to grab on quickly.

Grab bars are available at local stores, including big box retailers and medical supply stores, as well as online. The cost of a grab bar will vary widely, depending on the model, design, and finish you choose. You will find some basic bars for less than $20, but larger or fancier ones may cost $150 or more.

Grab bars need to be strong enough to support the weight of whoever uses it. At a minimum, it should be able to withstand 250 pounds of pressure. A regular towel rack is not an adequate substitute for a safety bar.

Interior of bathroom for the disabled or elderly people. Handrail for disabled and elderly people in the bathroom
Handicapped disabled access bathroom bathtub with grab bars

Image 1: Hinge grab bar and corner grab bar

Image 2: Straight grab bars

Shower grab bar placement

Where to place shower grab bars and toilet grab bars depends on the configuration of your bathroom. Try these placement ideas:

  • Bathtubs with seats should have a grab bar at the foot on the tub, two on the long wall (one 33 to 36 inches above the floor, the other 9 inches above the rim of the tub), and one at the head of the tub.
  • Install horizontal bars on at least two walls in a roll-in shower or transfer shower. A transfer shower is one where you transfer an individual from a wheelchair or seated position to a seat in the shower.
  • Place a vertical bar on the wall where the showerhead is located in a transfer shower.
  • A floor-to-ceiling grab bar can be used on a free-standing tub.
  • A grab bar outside the tub or shower will make it easier for someone to enter or exit the tub.

When it comes to height of installation, the guidelines for the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, are a good place to start. ADA standards, which cover commercial and public buildings, say horizontal grab bars should be installed 33 to 36 inches above the finished floor of the bathroom or tub.

Test and make sure the bars are placed at a height that is comfortable for the people who’ll be using them. Before the bars are installed, have your parents test getting in and out of the shower and standing up from the toilet. Ask them to put their hands on the wall where they would grab for support and use where they touch as a guide to where the bars should be installed.

The height of vertical bars isn’t as critical because people can grab the bar at any height that’s comfortable for them. Bars installed diagonally also allow someone to grab them at a variety of heights, but some experts caution that hands are more likely to slip on a diagonal bar.

Grab bars are usually 1 ¼ to 1 ½ inches in diameter, and when properly installed, there’s 1 ½ inches of space between the bar and the wall, so there’s plenty of room for someone’s fingers to

fit in the space when they grip the support bar.

When placing grab bars, avoid obstructions, such as shelves or toilet paper dispensers. Such items should be at least 12 inches above or 1 ½ inches below to provide plenty of clearance for someone reaching for the bar.

Installing grab bars

You can install grab bars with basic DIY knowledge and common tools.

Supplies needed

  • Stud finder
  • Tape measure
  • Power drill and drill bits
  • Grab bars
  • Tub and tile caulk
  • Allen wrench
  • Pencil

Grab bar installation directions

  1. Use the stud finder to locate the studs behind the shower enclosure. The distance between studs will indicate if your horizontal bars should be 32 inches or 48 inches long.
  2. Remove the mounting flanges from each end of the bar. Place the flange for the left end of the bar on the wall over the center of the stud at the desired height. Mark where you need to drill with a pencil.
  3. Measure the distance from the top of the shower enclosure or ceiling to the top of the flange. Move to the stud where the other side of the bar will be installed and measure down the same distance. Place the flange in the center of the stud at this height and mark the drill holes.
  4. Drill through the tile or shower enclosure and wall board but not into the stud, using the bit specified by the manufacturer. If you’re drilling through tile, use a tile bit.
  5. Take the drill bit out and install a screw-tip bit.
  6. Put a line of caulk around the flat side of the flange. Place the caulked flange over the left mounting location, (caulked side to the wall) and drive the mounting screws through the wall and into the stud.
  7. Repeat the process of attaching the flange to the right-side location.
  8. Place the bar over the flanges, and use an Allen wrench to tighten the bar on the flanges.
  9. Slide the flange covers over the flanges.
  10. Test the bar by pulling on it in every direction to make sure it’ll hold the necessary weight. If it moves, remove the grab bar and make sure the mounting screws are tight.

Other installation options

If you’re worried about drilling through tile or just don’t want the hassles of a DIY installation, a carpenter or handyman service should be able to do the installation in a few hours, depending on how many bars you’re having installed. The cost shouldn’t be more than a couple hundred dollars for multiple bars.

If you can’t find a stud where you want to mount the bar, toggle bolts or mounting plates are an option. Mounting brackets specially designed for one-piece fiberglass shower and tub combos are also available.

If you’re remodeling a bathroom or adding a bathroom, ask your builder to add blocking, or reinforcement, in the walls around the toilet and shower so that it will be easier to install grab bars when needed.

One option for shower grab bars that don’t require installation is suction grab bars. These might be a solution if the studs in the shower aren’t in a good location. The suction cups on these bars only work on smooth surfaces such as tile or plastic shower enclosures. However, even the grout lines on a tile shower can be enough to impede the suction cup’s effectiveness, and you need to check the suction cups regularly to ensure they remain safe.

in an invalid toilet is there an bar and toilet paper
Beautiful shower with traces of droplets and lime in bathroom of porcelain stoneware. Gray shades

Other shower safety features

While installing safety bars is the most important step in making a bathroom safe for older adults and people with disabilities, the National Institutes of Health offers several other steps you can take to improve the bathroom safety of your loved ones.

  • Put non-slip mats or decals on the bottom of the tub to limit issues with slippery, wet porcelain.
  • Place a non-skid bath mat outside the tub or shower to help prevent slips while someone exits the shower.
  • Set the water heater to 120°F to prevent scalding showers.
  • Install a single-lever faucet to make it easier to adjust the water temperature with just one hand.
  • Install a handheld shower head. With a 5- or 6-foot hose, someone who is sitting can easily direct the water where they want it to go. These sprayers are also helpful if you’re assisting someone else in the shower.
  • Provide a bath chair or a bench so people can sit while showering.
  • Provide a long-handled bathing brush, so people can more easily wash their back without help.
  • Install a soap and shampoo dispenser at a height that’s easy to reach when sitting. That way, it’s easy for the elderly person to reach the supplies without having to reach too far or too high.

Toilet safety

Bathroom grab bars should also be placed around the toilet to help elderly people get back up on their feet. The best grab bar placement around the toilet is a vertical bar in front of the toilet and horizontal bars on the walls beside and behind the toilet.

Raising the height of the toilet seat can also make it easier for seniors to use the toilet. You can increase the height of the seat by installing an elevated toilet seat or seat cover.

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