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Know the Code on Grab Bars

Grab bars are crucial in accessible bathrooms, whether around a toilet or in a shower stall. Code requirements for grab bars are part of the International Code council’s ANSII-ICC A117.1 standard. A summary of its requirements follows:

  • A toilet needs a vertical bar in front of it, and horizontal bars next to and behind it.
  • Both roll-in showers (which are big enough for a wheelchair) and transfer showers (which aren’t) require horizontal bars on at least two walls.
  • A transfer-type shower also needs a vertical bar on the showerhead wall.

A117 specifies the distance from each bar to walls and floors, but code experts say that many contractors get it wrong, raising the chance that the bath won’t pass inspection and exposing the contractor and facility owner to liability.

Avoiding such problems means paying attention to bar height and length, and making sure there are no obstructions.

Be careful with height

In toilets and showers, the tops of horizontal grab bars need to be 33 to 36 inches from the floor. In a transfer shower, the bottom of the vertical bar must be 3 to 6 inches above the horizontal bar on that wall.

The problem is that installers often aim for one edge of the range, and end up a bit high or low. Depending on the inspector, even a fraction of an inch can get you cited for noncompliance. The answer? “If you’re the architect, dimension the bar on the plans in the middle of the range,” advises Ken Schoonover, a code consultant in St. George, Utah. “If you’re the contractor and the plans show a range, install it in the middle.”

Get the right length

For many years, code specified that the leading edge of the parallel bar next to a toilet be at least 54 inches from the rear wall, and the rear edge 12 inches from the wall. Because most contractors use a 42-inch bar, getting one dimension right automatically made the other correct also.

Then in 2009, ICC changed the rear-edge 12-inch standard from an absolute to a “maximum” distance. Because of this change, a lot of installers now place bars closer to the rear wall, according to Dominic Marinelli, vice president of United Spinal Association, a disability services consultancy based in Jackson Heights, N.Y. But most installers are still using 42-inch bars, which end up short of the 54-inch requirement. The simple solution, of course, is to use a longer bar.

A shower may actually need a shorter-length bar. That’s because the 2009 code requires shower seats in all accessible showers and prohibits the grab bar from extending over the shower seat.

Avoid obstructions

Obstructions consist of items like shelves and paper dispensers. “They’re often installed too close to the grab bar,” says Kim Paarlberg, a senior staff architect with ICC. Code requires a minimum clearance of 1 1/2 inches below grab bars and 12 inches above. If the bar is on a framed wall (rather than a stall partition), she recommends recessed shelves and dispensers.

Some problems can be traced to the framing crew, which needs to install blocking in the wall to which installers can fasten grab bars. “Often they either don’t think about blocking until it’s too late, or they put it in the wrong place,” says Jay Woodward, another ICC senior staff architect. For both showers and toilet stalls, the fix is obvious: The contractor should confirm blocking before installing the drywall or cement board.

Woodward actually wrote the book on the new code requirements. Significant Changes to the A117.1 Accessibility Standard is $28.95, available from the ICC.