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by Dennis DeLoy

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In recent years, an increasing number of my bathroom remodeling customers have been requesting whirlpool tubs, which require more careful planning to install than standard tubs. Most whirlpools are larger than a standard tub, and many have to have a site-built skirt. Extra care is required to avoid damaging the pump and hoses, and the work needs to be coordinated with an electrician.

Choosing a Tub

There are two types of whirlpool installations: island and alcove. Although the photos of island (or drop-in) installations look great in manufacturers' brochures, few of the bathrooms I work in are spacious enough to accommodate an island tub (see Figure 1). In any case, since most customers want to be able to shower in their tub, they usually choose an alcove installation.

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Figure 1. Tubs designed for island installation are self-rimming, which means they lack a tiling flange. Self-rimming tubs, like this model from Aker Plastics, require a site-built skirt.

The simplest type of alcove installation is a one-piece tub-shower unit, and several manufacturers offer tub-shower whirlpools (Figure 2). My customers usually request a tiled surround, so I typically install a fiberglass tub unit with a tiling flange on three sides (Figure 3). Acrylic tubs are often very attractive, but they cost considerably more than fiberglass tubs. Although cast-iron whirlpool tubs are available, they are expensive, awkward to install, and available in a limited number of colors.

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Figure 2. Several manufacturers offer tub-shower units with whirlpool features. This Ensemble model from Sterling Plumbing has modular surround components, making it easier to install where access is tight.

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Figure 3. Tubs designed for alcove installation have a tiling flange. This Aker model includes a factory skirt with a built-in step.

Careful Inspection Pays Off

It isn't unusual for a fiberglass tub to be damaged during shipping. I can't afford to schedule a remodeling job that falls through at the last minute because of a damaged tub, so I always make a point to inspect my whirlpool tubs at the supplier's warehouse a few days before the work is scheduled. I can't perform a water test there, but I give the tub a visual inspection for interior finish problems or damage to the pump, hoses, and jets. If any problems turn up, I have enough time to reschedule the job. Once the tub is delivered to the job site, I test the tub outdoors, so that any problems can be identified before it's roughed in. I block the drain hole with a flat rubber sink stopper, fill the tub with a hose, and run the pump for 15 minutes. Any leakage problems should show up in that time. If there is any chance of freezing weather, I make sure that we can move the tub to a warm environment immediately after the test, since some residual water will stay in the plumbing.

I’m careful to carry the tub by its shell and base to avoid any strain on the pump and hoses, and I apply duct tape to the edges of the rim to protect the gel coat from scratches. Once the tub is inside, I put a mover’s blanket inside it for further protection. If we have to work over the tub, I apply several layers of duct tape to the top of the rim and then place a piece of plywood on top.