Selecting bathroom fixtures and their fittings requires a bit of know-how, along with a sense of style. Some fixtures and fittings have changed in style over the years since indoor plumbing first transformed human existence, but their functions have undergone only minor changes.
You may opt to replace a damaged or worn fixture and keep the rest, or you may replace the entire suite. In fact, replacing fixtures without relocating them is one of the most popular, cost-effective ways to redo a bath.
Pedestal and Wall-Hung Sinks
For a diminutive powder room or an elegant, lightly scaled look in any bath, pedestal and wall-hung sinks are just the ticket. Enameled cast iron (not steel, which chips easily), vitreous china, stainless steel, solid surfacing, and even colorful art glass (specially tempered, of course) are all used for freestanding sinks.
Versatile styles range from nostalgically traditional to space-age modern; at the very high end, pedestal sinks are made of semiprecious stones, such as agate or rose quartz, or with opulent hand-painted basins featuring lavish illustrations.
A bonus: Pedestal and wall-hung sinks are easily accessible to wheelchair users, and the wall-hung models can be set at just the right height. Sinks may be skirted to provide for hidden storage; glass or wood shelves can be installed above for open storage.
Lavatory (In-Counter) Sinks
If you need the countertop and extra storage space a vanity can provide, a sink, usually of vitreous china, can be dropped in.
Undermount models attach to the underside of the counter; self-rimming sinks with rolled, finished edges rest on top of the counter. (A 1950s-era sink with a stainless-steel rim is less prevalent and harder to keep clean.) Undermount and self-rimming models may be mounted onto virtually any type of counter: ceramic tile, marble, or even marine-finished wood.
The latest look in self-rimming sinks is a simple bowl in hammered metal, art glass, water-resistant wood, or other attractive material that rests entirely above the countertop.
A popular, often economical choice is an integral bowl seamlessly fused to the countertop. This type of sink is usually made of marble composite (cultured marble), solid surfacing, or other synthetic material. Vanity sinks may be any geometric shape, including round and hexagonal; corner sinks are also available. Porcelain fixtures are offered with hand-painted traditional or modern motifs that make them literal works of art.
With all of today's fabulous fashion colors and designs, making a choice is a challenge. Dark colored lavs are dramatic and don't show grime as much as pastel or white lavatories do, but they are easily marked with soap scum and hard-water mineral deposits.
Exotic colors may be enchanting or off-putting to a prospective buyer, especially in the hard-to-remove tub. If you're planning to stay in your home for a long time, you can indulge your personal preferences, but if there's a chance you'll be moving in a few years, think twice. Remember: Classic white, bone, and gray fixtures can be set off by virtually any color in towels, rugs, window treatments, wallcoverings, and accessories.
Fixtures are available in a variety of materials. Vitreous china is a classically beautiful choice for all fixtures. Porcelainized cast iron is an option for sinks, shower stalls, and tubs, but it's very heavy, difficult to maneuver into an upstairs bathroom, and just about impossible to remove except with a sledgehammer.
Enameled or porcelainized steel chips and dents more easily than cast iron and doesn't hold heat as well, but it's less expensive and relatively lightweight. For integral sinks and counters, cultured marble made of marble dust in a cast polymer is popular and economical.
Solid-surfacing material made of polyester or acrylic solids is costlier than cultured marble but more long-lasting. Acrylic and fiberglass may be used separately or together; formulations of either may appear as a backing or a surface material.
New synthetics and combinations appear regularly on the marketplace, but china remains the timeless choice at all price points and makes it possible to completely coordinate all of your fixtures.
However, if you are having a special tub or shower constructed rather than using a prefabricated unit, you may have other fixtures made from different materials. While toilets are almost always vitreous china, a sink can be made of wood (finished in tough plastic), stainless steel (look for 18-gauge not 20), or even ceramic tile.
These choices let you coordinate the fixtures' overall color and decorating style for a cohesive look. You can even visit an architectural salvage outlet and scout out pieces, modern as well as vintage, that make your decorating statement. One caution: Buy your fixtures and fittings at the same time to be sure they'll fit each other. You don't want to fall in love with a sink that needs a centerspread faucet after you've bought a widespread model!
Most conventional bathtubs are recessed -- designed to fit into a recess in the bath with three sides hidden by walls and the fourth side an open, finished front.
Recessed tubs are 30 to 33 inches wide and can be anywhere from 42 to 72 inches long, but most are 60 inches. Most recessed bathtubs have the space-saving combination tub/shower, but this style is not the safest.
The smooth, sloping sides of tubs are kind to backsides but treacherous under wet feet, and experts much prefer a separate tub and shower. A short, soaking tub and an angled, corner shower may make this possible even in a skimpy bath.
Other bathtub models include the corner tub, a space-efficient way to provide for a whirlpool; a freestanding tub such as the vintage claw-foot style used to create a nostalgic look; and the platform tub with the exposed side covered in tile or other floor-matching material to give a "sunken-tub" effect.
This last style is at home both in a very modern bath and in a classical bath inspired by ancient Rome.
More than any other fixture, the whirlpool tub symbolizes the luxurious new style of baths since the late 1980s. Many whirlpool tubs are 435 feet, and some are much larger, but if you need to keep your existing bath footprint, scout out one that's 5 feet long but as narrow as a standard-size bathtub.
If you can change the footprint but not the overall square footage of your bath, look for a whirlpool tub/shower combo or, better yet, a corner whirlpool and an angled shower.
Whirlpool tubs are usually either top-of-the-line cast iron or somewhat less costly acrylic and composites. They are most often recessed or, especially if they're large, built into platforms.
Many of the early designs featured steps up to the tub without a handrail. Nowadays, this extremely dangerous design is avoided in favor of steps with a decorative, secure handrail or a higher, wide platform that allows bathers to sit on the edge of the whirlpool and swing their legs in. Also for safety's sake, make sure your design lets you reach the controls from outside the tub.
Another safety issue your installer will need to address is the weight problem (not yours -- the whirlpool's!). Many homes' structures can't take the huge added weight of a whirlpool tub, the large volume of water, and the people using it, especially on the second floor, so additional shoring up will be necessary. Don't skip this step: You don't want to end up in the living room in your birthday suit!
For hydrotherapy value, give a tub a "dry run" before buying it to be sure water jets are positioned comfortably for you. Look for jets that let you adjust the proportion of air and water (more air means a more vigorous massage) and the stream's direction.
Think twice about a giant tub for two: You may prefer to spend the money and floor space on other amenities unless you're among those rare couples who actually have the time to enjoy the tub together.
Whirlpool amenities include an in-line heater to maintain warmth without "topping off" the water, two-speed motors, touch-pad controls, and more. A handheld shower extension in the whirlpool tub is an option but requires awkward, one-handed hair washing, so most people add a separate shower.
At the very least, you'll need a 36,336-inch space for a stall shower. It may be built in with only the slightest slope of the floor toward the drain, eliminating the need for a shower door, or you may opt for swing-out doors.
With controls set into the wall, even a conventional tub/shower can offer the latest showering amenities. Modular shower systems are available that let you customize them with a choice of different shower floors, walls, and fittings. For example, multiple showerheads are great, and if you can install them into opposite walls, even an ordinary 60-inch tub can be a shower for two.
A handheld showerhead with a wall-mounted pole that offers various height stations is great for kids or the disabled.
Typically made of vitreous china, toilets are available in several basic styles. The old-fashioned two-piece style with a round bowl mounted to the floor and a tank very high on the wall is available from a few manufacturers for nostalgic settings. The more familiar, traditional "close-coupled" model has a separate water tank mounted on a round bowl.
The contemporary one-piece model, or "low boy," features a tank and bowl in one piece. If you've got the room, a sophisticated alternative is an elongated bowl, about two inches longer than the standard model in front. It's available in either two-piece or one-piece designs. For tall or older people, models with bowls 18 inches from the floor are more comfortable than the standard 14 1/2 to 15 inches. These usually come in two-piece units.
You may also choose between "gravity-assist" and "pressure-assist" models in any style. Toilets produced since January 1, 1994, are mandated by U.S. law to use no more than 1.6 gallons of water per flush. (Older models use 3.5 to 10 gallons per flush.)
Opinions on this mandate vary. Reducing the amount of water used conserves water and eases the burden on sewage-treatment plants, but consumers find that some models, including many of the low-priced and midpriced models that rely solely on gravity assistance, don't do the job with one flush.
To aid flushing, the new gravity-assist models of the two-piece variety are taller and slimmer than in the past and have steeper bowls.
Some homeowners have gone to the length of buying "bootleg" 3.5-gallon toilets in Canada, and some plumbing professionals have even expressed concern about potential public health dangers caused by inadequate flushing.
While the jury is still out, other consumers have elected to purchase pressure-assist toilets with water velocity boosted by compressed air. They're noisier and costlier than gravity-assist models but are considered by many to be more effective at disposing of waste.
Whatever kind of unit you choose, keep dental floss, feminine hygiene products, paper towels, baby wipes, and facial tissue out of the toilet; unlike bathroom tissue, they really aren't made to be flushed, no matter what the labels say.
To save the most money on a toilet, choose a basic gravity-assist two-piece model in white (sometimes available at the same cost in almond or gray), and keep a good toilet brush nearby.
More effective pressure-assist flushing mechanisms, more color options, one-piece styling, elongated bowls, and 18-inch-tall bowls all add to the cost, so prioritize what matters most to you. At the high end, you'll find more designer color choices (including deep tones), pressure-assist flushing, and elongated bowls as standard; specially decorated motifs as part of a fixture suite; choices of handles in different materials and finishes; and unobtrusive push buttons on top of the tank.
Toilets can be had very economically, but if you're just redecorating and the toilet is in good shape, an attractive new wood or plastic toilet seat can make the whole fixture look almost new for just a few dollars. In a chilly house, some people swear by padded toilet seats, but skip those with embroidered butterflies or anything fussy. They're as un-chic as fluffy toilet tank covers.
Europeans consider the bidet ("bee-DAY"), a sit-down washbasin, a basic necessity for personal hygiene; for Americans, its function is often filled by frequent full-body baths and handheld showers. In the '80s, a bidet became a status element of the new, large American luxury bathroom, and today, most high-end bath fixture suites include a bidet, as do many midpriced suites.
Looking somewhat like a toilet without a lid, a bidet requires its own water supply and drain and is usually installed along the same wall as the toilet, 30 to 44 inches away.
Steam Showers and Saunas
Whether you like the high humidity of steam or the dry heat of a sauna, you can create a health club at home with one or both of these fixtures. A steam shower is easier: Install a self-contained unit, or convert your existing shower into a steam room.
New shower modules with steam units often come with a lighted dome top, a timer, and a seat. If you convert an existing shower, make sure the door seals entirely before installing a steam generator, and if you have solid-surfacing or acrylic shower walls, make sure they won't be marred by the steam.
You can tuck the machinery out of sight in a vanity.
To experience the dry heat of a sauna at home, you'll need a space at least 434 feet to create an enclosure that houses an electric heater topped with rocks (preferably igneous periodite).
Water is ladled onto the hot rocks to produce humidity (but not steam), and soft, aromatic woods such as cedar or redwood are used for the walls and benches. Saunas are available in precut and prefab kits. Steam showers and saunas are not recommended for kids, pregnant women, or anyone with high blood pressure or heart trouble.
Now that you know all about the available fixtures, you can begin to think about which ones are appropriate in your bathroom. On the next page, find the right fittings.
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