Installing Grab Bars Around the House

senior citizen hand holding a grab bar installed on tile wall

Grab bars are usually very simple in design but are incredibly versatile, and provide effective safety and comfort in the bathroom and anywhere else around the house. They offer good stability in maintaining balance and good solid support when straddling the side of a bathtub, or climbing a few steps. They’re available in a wide variety of sizes, weight capacity, and shapes.

The following is a step by step list to gradually eliminate criteria that don’t apply when choosing the proper grab bar.

1. Capacity and Safety

Any grab bar should be able to support a person weighing up to 250 pounds, but when choosing one, it’s best to opt for one capable of supporting 500 pounds. A grab bar that has the ADA label (Americans with Disabilities Act) show that they meet or exceed the association’s standards.

Another point is the fact that a bar with a Knurled finish instead of a smooth shiny surface will offer a much more positive hold with a lesser danger of slipping.

2. Diameter and Clearance

Grab bars come in a variety of diameters but the best ones providing a comfortable and solid handhold are 1-1/4” to 1-1/2” (32 - 38mm). A Grab bar should also offer a minimum net clearance of 1 1/2” (38 mm) between the bar and the wall to allow holding the bar without hurting or scrapping the back of the hands and the knuckles.

3. Grab Bar Lengths

Grab bars are commonly available in various lengths ranging from 12 to 48 inches (31cm - 122cm), although they can be found in 9 inches (23cm) lengths and right up to 60 inches (152cm). The lengths are the actual nominal length measured from the center of one flange to the center of the flange at the other end. The more common lengths are 12” (31cm), 16” (41cm), 18” (46cm), 24” (61cm), 32” (81cm), 36” (91cm), 42” (107cm), 48” (122cm).

4. Common Grab Bar Shapes and Styles

Straight Grab Bars

This is the most basic and common type of grab bar you see. It can be installed in three different ways: vertical, horizontal and diagonal (Figure 1a & 1b).

grab bars in bathtub and shower areas

Vertical grab bars are easier to grip and easier to use for people with arthritis.

Horizontal grab bars allow you to rotate your body, are sturdy when you pull yourself up to stand and make it easier to get in and out of a wheelchair, but they are limited to a fixed height and can be more difficult for people with arthritis for the way it contorts the wrist.

Diagonal grab bars accommodate different heights, provide a more natural motion in the hands and wrist and helps the transition from sitting to standing. To prevent the hand from slipping, a bar should have a textured surface.

Grab bars are also available with some style to accommodate the rooms decorations and made available in various shapes or with fancy finials and various color finish.

A more modern version used for a quick or temporary fix is the Grab Bar Clamp in figure 2, which is held to the wall with suction cups. It’s only recommended for use to keep balance in the shower or when lifting your legs over the tub wall to get in or out, but never as a general grab bar to help pull yourself up. This type of clamp requires retightening from time to time.

wall grab bars

Angled or Cornered

Some specialty grab bars such as the angled grab bars (with 30° or 45° bend) in figure 3, the 90 Degree grab bars (called a J bar or an L bar) in figure 4, the Inside Corner grab bars in figure 5, are all designed for very specific uses offering two types of support. The Inside Corner grab bars are particularly helpful if you sit in the tub or on a shower chair to bathe. The grab bar is one continuous piece that attaches along two sides of your tub wall.

wall bars with corners

Flip Up And Down Grab Bars

These have a long reach and are perpendicular to the wall once installed (Figure 6). The semi-circular bar is attached to a large steel plate through a pivot hinge that lets it swing down or up to fold out of the way when not needed. They are typically installed around the toilet area.

grab bars with hinges

The Multi-Position Wall Mounted Swivel Bar

Seen in in Figure 7, this is a versatile L shape bar grab bar that can be positioned left or right-handed, and onto which a semi-circular grab bar is mounted on the vertical part to swivel and lock in one of five positions. It offers very good stability for getting down or up in the bathtub for instance, but also in or out with its far-reaching bar.

The Tub Grab Bar

This has an adjustable clamp that wraps around the side of the tub with one part outside and the other inside, together squeezing tightly onto the bathtub. It offers a semi-circular handle at about wrist level that offers good support getting in or out.

5. Choosing the proper Method and Fasteners

A grab bar that is not properly secured could cause terrible injuries to someone unsuspectingly using it. The first and most important rule is to find the placement of the studs in the wall and screw the flange in solid wood.

An horizontal 16” (41cm) straight bar should fit perfectly screwed into two studs. For a diagonal installation, a 24” (610cm) screwed into two studs at 16” apart would be at a 45° angle. For a longer diagonal fastened to studs at 32” apart, a 48” (122cm) would be an option but slightly steeper than 45° while a 42” (107cm) would be lower.

Often, however, the studding is not exactly where it is needed and the grab bar, therefore, needs to be “anchored” to the wall. There is a ton of different types of anchors available but not all are suitable for the job. The most effective and fastest system is the Strap Toggle in figure 8.

grab bars with hinge mounts and screw

After marking the location of the holes on the wall, a 3/8” (9mm) hole is drilled through the wall where the strap toggle is inserted. By pulling on the straps the metal nut will flatten itself against the surface on the inside, then the collar is slid back against the wall surface to tightly keep the nut in place. The remainder of the plastic legs can then be broken off flush. The process is continued for all the holes to attach the bar. So when it’s done, there are six holes in the wall each equipped with a threaded nut perfectly placed to fasten the bar.

There are a few added benefits to this system. One is if the nut gets cross-threaded or doesn’t work somehow, a tap on a Phillips or Robertson screwdriver placed on top will knock the nut inside, ready for another try.

If the bar has to be taken off halfway through, the nuts stay right in place. There’s no risk of this type of anchor to slip and start turning on itself in the hole. The holding power is much stronger than most hollow wall anchors.