Choosing the Right Whirlpool Bathtub

Before you run out and buy a new whirlpool for your bathroom, there are many important questions to ask yourself to avoid expensive mistakes.

Even in the dead of winter, you may see people with bathing suits in hand heading down the street in Newton, Mass., on their way to the Splash Kitchen and Bath Showroom. "When someone's really interested in a certain model of whirlpool, we tell them to make an appointment, bring a suit and come try it out," says sales representative Michael Morey. "We get a lot of takers."

Easing into warm water, relaxing as the jets pulse, envisioning it all right in your very own master bath... that's the fun part about choosing a whirlpool for your remodel — but it should be one of the very last steps, says Tina Dyba, a member of the American Society of Designers and owner of Dyba Design, based in Las Vegas.

You'll never reach that "fantasy fulfilled" stage without lots of practical legwork, says Dyba. "I've seen this happen so many times: Someone goes out and buys a Jacuzzi first, with no idea of how it might fit into their space, and then there's a lot of expensive remodeling work to make it work." Before deciding on a certain model, get the answers to these questions:

What will fit?
Make sure to measure your bathroom before you even look at a whirlpool, including any space you might gain taking down dividing walls or showers. "Most whirlpools come in three standard sizes," says Morey. "Five feet, five and a half and six. But you can't just consider the tub size — they're all designed to be dropped into a deck, and that will take up more space, with the bare minimum adding at least a half-inch to your measurements on all sides.

"If you think you'd like to hold a lot of stuff like candles and oils near the water, you'll also need extra space on the deck," says Morey. "If you're over six feet tall, you may want to forfeit deck space for more tub room."

What will fit through the door?
"In remodeling applications, the tub must be sized so it will fit through the door," says contractor Vic Eicker, who with wife DD owns a DreamMaker Bath & Kitchen franchise in Farmington, N.M. "Many doorways in older baths allow less than 24-inch access. If the tub's height will fit through the doorway, it may also require enough clearance to turn around before being set into place. Tubs set into new construction do not face all the same constraints since doors are not installed and walls are not sheetrocked."

What does it weigh?
When you're working with a wood joist floor construction you'll need to consider tub weight plus how much it will weigh full of water and people, and add support or bracing as necessary, says Eicker. "This is especially important in a second floor installation. But if the unit is installed on a slab, or is an acrylic replacement for a properly supported cast-iron standard tub, extra support becomes a non-issue." And any time you're remodeling in the bathroom, cautions Eicker, you may uncover weak or damaged floors that must be repaired and reinforced before you can make other improvements.

Will my space have to be reconfigured?
If you plan for a larger whirlpool you may need to reconsider other elements of your bathroom design or even rip up flooring or tear down walls as part of the installation. "I had a client recently who had to drill into concrete to get her whirlpool installed," says Dyba, "and that bargain tub turned into a $20,000 bathroom remodel."

Where's the plumbing?
"A plumber has to be able to get in the space to hook the whirlpool up," says Dyba. "And the motor box also has to be accessible so you can get to it in case the whirlpool breaks down — you can't tile over it." The easiest, most cost-effective way to make sure you don't have plumbing headaches is to ask the store for the specs for any model you're interested in and then hire a licensed contract plumber. "Show him the specs and the space you're working with before you buy anything, and he'll tell you what you need to make it work," she says.

How's my wiring?
"The electrical needs of a whirlpool tub can be even greater than the refrigerator," says Dyba, "so you need to make sure the outlet nearby can supply the voltage. If not, you may need an electrician to do some rewiring."

How and how often will I use it?
"Don't just put any whirlpool in your bath — find one that works with your lifestyle," says Dyba. "If you're partners looking for a little romance, you might want a two-seater so you can soak together. If you're an avid soaker, you might want to get some better features and spend a little more money than the person who knows they'll just use the tub one or two times a month."

For anyone goes a week or more between dips, Morey recommends an air-jetted tub versus one with water jets. "With an air jet, after you're done bathing you can drain and then turn the jets back on to dry the tub. With the water jets, you don't have that option and as much as a cup of water can get left in its PVC pipes and may grow bacteria."

What makes sense with my design?
"The accepted wisdom is that oval-shaped whirlpools with rolled decks have a more traditional look," says Morey, "and the rectangle shape with a flat deck is more contemporary. But the style of the tub fillers and faucets really set the design tone." If you're up for a complete bathroom re-do, you can also buy whirlpools as part of matching "suites" offered by companies such as Kohler, which have tub, toilet, pedestal and vanity in complementary designs.

The treatment of the deck can also dictate a tub's style. Eicker says wood surrounds are more traditional, while tile can evoke different styles depending on the pattern. Solid surface Corian is more sleek and contemporary.

What features do I want?
Here's where the bathing suits play a part at the Splash showroom. "Try out models with different features, like grab bars or arm rests, to see what you would really like when you're down to choosing between a couple models," says Morey.

For Eicker's money, an inline heater is an important feature. "Bubbling air through warm water is a sure way to cool it quickly," he says. "Some people also prefer the relaxation of bubbles, like in Vita Bath tubs, to the force of jets. And for clients with limited mobility tubs with doors are available which offer jets as a therapeutic option." Best Bath and Safetybath are two suppliers of these tubs.

How much do I want to remodel?
"If you just put a whirlpool into an old bath and expect it to help the value of your house, you'll be disappointed," says Dyba. "I recommend reconsidering all the plumbing fixtures and accessories if you're going to go to the expense of putting in a whirlpool."

If plumbers, electricians and new fixtures for the whole bath make the purchase seem like a complicated ordeal, well, it is, says Dyba. "The whole point of re-doing a bathroom is to make it function well for the way you live. You should really go in with a plan from the start, one that outlines all the changes you might need to make and how each contractor will fall in place."

And just as she does for any bathroom remodel, Dyba recommends clients keep an extra 10 percent over their original budget in the bank for a whirlpool installation."When the whirlpool really functions well and fits in with your lifestyle, it will be worth all the work. But keep in mind, this is construction," she says, "You have to take your time to get what you want."