How to Properly Install Grab Bars

Grab bars are safety devices that you can install or have installed in critical areas around your house where somebody could be at risk of slipping or falling and hurting themselves. They can be installed in any room of the house in areas where you might need support to maintain your balance or carry some of your weight while moving yourself around.

They also help lessen fatigue while standing—for instance, when taking a shower. As you’re considering installing grab bars in specific areas of your home, you might, however, be concerned about the “commercial look” grab bars may add to some rooms in your house.

Nowadays, this is not such a problem anymore, as modern grab bars now come in a variety of styles and finish to match any style and color you have in any room of the house, and they can easily blend into your decor as you can get them accessorized with toilet paper holder, soap holder and so on.

They might come at a slightly higher price, but the option is there nevertheless, as style no longer has to be sacrificed over safety.

Crossing a Threshold

Grab bars can be extremely practical at different locations of your home, starting at the front door, especially one with a higher threshold.

For anyone who has difficulty maintaining their balance or is unsteady on their feet, opening, closing, or walking through the entrance while turning the door knob and opening the door can present a challenge that can be easily avoided by installing a simple vertical grab bar to hold onto.

But since the access through that door goes both ways, providing that the door doesn’t open on the same side, you could have one on both jambs and even another one inside, on the jamb next to the door knob.

They can be added to any doorway inside the home as they provide stability when opening or closing sliding doors or reaching inside a closet to retrieve a piece of clothing from a hanger or some item from a shelf.

A vertical grab bar should be installed at a height where the center of the bar is roughly at your elbow height, slightly more if the threshold is higher.

Short Steps and Split Levels

stairs with railing

In many homes where the garage is accessible from inside the house, you’ll have a door and then a few steps down to the garage.

You can also come across split levels inside the house with two or three steps, and for both instances, a folding grab bar known as a PT Rail angled grab bar will provide an excellent solution being adjustable to 35 degrees to suit the angle of the stairs, and it can also be lifted out of the way when it’s not needed.

Long Walls and Hallways

You might also need to go from your chair in the living room, for example, to the kitchen, the bathroom, or your bedroom several times throughout your daily routine, and the walk over could be far enough that a grab bar secured along the wall going there could provide you with enough support and stability to let you reach your destination without being exhausted.

Look for the long walls along hallways and in larger rooms of the house that could present ideal opportunities for adding horizontal grab bars.

A kitchen is a place where you may like to spend a lot of time, but being what it is with all the cupboards and appliances, it may prove to be more difficult to find good spots for grab bars, and you might want to compromise sometimes to make it more accessible.

But where the space is restricted, a vertical grab bar in a subtle location can often be your solution.

For the Bathtub and the Shower

bars in shower

For the back wall of a bathtub, the ADA code recommends two horizontal grab bars parallel to each other, the lower bar between eight and ten inches (200-250 mm) from the rim of the tub, while the other one be installed between 33 to 36-inches (840-915 mm) from the floor.

A very popular setup, however, is a diagonal bar with the lower end at about 8-inches (840 mm) from the rim while the other end is secured at about 36-inches (915 mm), making sure that the lower end is next to the bather sitting inside.

Any other horizontal bar around a bathtub or a shower should be installed at 33 to 36-inches (840-915 mm) from the floor. A transfer shower should also be provided with a vertical grab bar with the bottom flange installed at about three to six inches (75-150 mm) above the horizontal bar.

Any “L-shaped” grab bar or diagonal bar should be mounted with the horizontal or the lower end at about 33 to 36-inches (840-915 mm) from the floor.

Acrylic bathtub surrounds, however, presents a particular problem when installing a grab bar because, as a solid unit, they’re only inserted into a prepared opening and set in to look good, but they’re not pushed tight against the studded wall, therefore limiting the stability of the installation and the adherence of the screws to a thin layer of acrylic which could never withstand the full strain on a grab bar.

Around the Toilet

For toilet accessibility, an 18 or 24-inches long horizontal straight bar placed at 33 to 36-inches (840-915 mm) from the floor on the wall behind the toilet with an “L-shaped” bar on the adjacent wall is recommended.

Installing a PT Rail on one or both sides of the toilet presents an even better solution minimizing the strain of reaching the bars behind you as well as the contortions on the wrists with the two straight lengths on the bar offset from each other giving you a better hold.

Their initial cost is more than a regular grab bar, and they might also require you to add more bracing on the back wall, but they simply fold right up against the wall when they’re not needed and still offer a great solution.

hand holding support bar

Grab Bar Installations

Installing grab bars is not difficult, providing you carefully plan the activity beforehand.

To have “reliable” grab bars, the bar’s flange should be screwed to the wall studding at best, making the use of a stud-finder a definite advantage, but you should realize that two studs that are placed at the exact location to fit your grab bar, never hardly happens.

Also, note that the best installations are made on walls sealed with boards or plywood underneath the drywall, and preferably secured with #10 stainless steel screws with a layer of silicone sealant between the flange and the wall to provide watertight joints.

If you’re still at the building stage or fully renovating, exposing the framing, this would be a really good time to install 2×12-inches blocking all around the shower or/and the bathtub between the stud bays and flush with the studs at 34-inches centered from the floor.

This would provide you with the best fastening system for installing grab bars.

There is still a good chance, however, that you will come to have to attach a grab bar to drywall surfaces applied directly on top of the studs (hollow walls). For such installation, you should get an anchoring system with strap-toggle such as the “Snaptoggle” or the “Hillman strap toggle.”

Such systems have a strap design that permits slipping the metal wing anchor through the hole drilled in the hollow wall and then bringing it back flat against the inside surface of the drywall by pulling the plastic straps evenly while pushing the anchor’s plastic flange down the ratcheted straps until it comes tight against the wall’s surface.

The straps can then be bent at the flange back and forth, snapping them off flush to the surface.

The anchor can then stay in place on its own, maintained by the flange until you’re ready to bolt everything together. This type of anchor enables a wide variety of wall thicknesses, and with a holding capacity of over 200++ lbs each, it would make them an ideal choice when the actual thickness of the wall covering is unknown.

If, however, you should come across a shower, for instance, that was tiled with flooring ceramic tiles (and this is of common occurrence), you’ll find the tile much harder to drill than wall ceramic to the extent that the heat generated can actually melt the silver solder that fuses the carbide tip to the bit shank.

Drilling into ceramic tiles is much more effective if you start with a small ceramic drill bit to drill a small pilot hole while frequently cooling the bit off as soon as you see it smoking by dipping the tip in a dish of water.

The hole can then be re-drilled to its proper size with the right bit while cooling it frequently until it gets through. This will ensure a much longer lifespan for all your ceramic drill bits.

drill against wall

Step 1 – Before drilling the hole in the wall, decide exactly where you’d like to install the grab bar on the wall and apply a layer of painter’s tape to cover the area where the flanges are.

Step 2 – Using a stud-finder, you can then check for nearby studs in the wall. If the proximity of a stud is good for attaching the bar, you should use it (or them if you’re lucky enough to find two studs).

Step 3 – To mark the location of the holes to be drilled, you’ll have to relocate the painter’s tape to the areas where the flanges will be.

Step 4 – You can then push the grab bar against the wall in its rightful position and mark the location of every hole to be drilled.

Step 5 – Choose an appropriate small bit for the material you’ll be drilling (a 1/8-in (3 mm) ceramic bit if drilling through ceramic tiles). Without applying excessive pressure, drill the hole through to the stud if there’s one, making sure not to miss it.

The painter’s tape will also help prevent ceramic and acrylic materials from chipping and cracking. If you couldn’t drill for a stud, proceed as in steps 9 and 10 for anchoring the grab bar.

Note: As explained previously, you should also keep a dish of cold water close by to cool your drill bit, as prolonged excessive heat will damage it.

Step 6 – Re-drill the hole at 3/16-in with an appropriate bit, put the grab bar against the wall, and screw it in place without over-tightening it.

Step 7 – With just enough pressure to hold the grab bar still, verify the placement of the holes in the opposite flange, making sure they still all align perfectly.

Step 8 – Using the small bit, drill a hole as in step 5. Insert a piece of stiff wire curved at 90° in the hole and feel around to make sure that the hole is at least 1-inch away if it’s not directly on top of a stud, in which case you might prefer to relocate it one way or the other. The wire could also tell if there is batt insulation inside the wall.

Step 9 – If you weren’t drilling for a stud, you’ll now have to enlarge the hole for the size of the strap-toggle anchor, using a proper bit (usually a 3/8” diameter and a ceramic bit for ceramic tile), and without too much pressure on the drill.

Use a wire as in step 8 to find any obstruction inside the wall that will have to be moved over some way to clear a path for the strap toggle to move freely.

Step 10 – Pull on one strap of the strap-toggle as this will line up the metal wing with the straps, then push the metal wing through the hole until it comes out on the other side. You can now pull back on both straps to bring them even, thus bringing the metal wing perpendicular, flat against the inside of the wall surface.

Step 11 – Holding and pulling the straps back, you can now slide the plastic flange on the ratchet straps until it rests firmly against the outside wall surface, keeping the anchor from falling in.

Step 12 – You can now bend the straps fully to one side and then to the other to break them off.

Step 13 – Bring the flange back into position to insert the machine screw through the hole and tighten up the bar snugly in position. Using the smaller drill bit, drill at the center of each of the other holes a small pilot indentation to mark the rest of the holes’ exact locations. This indentation will keep the bit from slipping while drilling.

Step 14 – Remove the bar and proceed to drill the rest of the remaining holes as described previously in step 5.

Step 15 – You can now enlarge all the holes backed with a wall stud with a 3/16-inch bit.

Step 16 – All of the remaining holes drilled through hollow walls, should now be enlarged to accommodate your wall anchors.

Step 17 – Insert all the strap-toggle anchors in the holes as described in steps 9 to 12.

Step 18 – Apply a fair amount of silicone sealant around the perimeter of the flanges to keep water from getting in underneath the flange. From here on, you’ll have to be careful to keep the silicone from touching and greasing up the wall until they’re in perfect alignment as you screw them to the wall.

Step 19 – Position your bar on the wall and place the appropriate wood screws and machine screws in their proper holes.

To keep the toggle’s metal wing from spinning around on the other side of the wall, you can apply a gentle pulling force on the bar so that the flange can maintain enough pressure on the toggle’s wing to keep it in place and then screw each of the screws alternatively 1/8-in deep, going from one to the next until the flange sits against the wall.

Once in a while, one of your anchors may not work as it should, in which case you’ll have to remove all the screws, insert one of the bolts inside the faulty toggle without screwing it in, and tap it in so the toggle can fall inside the wall and out of the way, then re-install a new strap-toggle anchor.

You can now resume installing the bar as described above.

Step 20 – Once the flanges sit lightly against the wall, use a hand screwdriver and apply firm pressure while tightening up each one of the screws in place, as using a power screwdriver, you will risk damaging the screw head from the bit slipping in the slot.

You can finally wipe the excess silicone from around the flanges with a paper towel or a rag, and your job is done.

Much more information about grab bars, installing them, and how to choose the proper fasteners to install them can be found in our articles about Installing Grab Bars Around the House and How to Install Grab Bars on Tricky Surfaces.