A few weeks ago, Kevin was cruising the aisles of the Home Depot near his home in Eagle, Idaho, trying to decide whether to spring for a new cordless drill or to replace the battery in his trusty but old 9.6-volt Makita.

He noticed a man in a quandary next to him in the tool aisle. The man was trying to figure out how to drill a hole in ceramic tile. Since there wasn’t a salesperson to be found this Saturday, the man asked Kevin how to do it. Kevin asked him what he was trying to do. Install a grab bar in a shower was the response.

The question brought back some memories for Kevin. Over the past couple of years, he’s installed these critical safety aids for our Uncle George in Hawaii and for our mother in Eagle. Two years ago, George had open-heart surgery and spent a good deal of time in a rehabilitation center recuperating. He lives alone in a high-rise condo near Makaha Beach on Oahu.

Before the doctor would cut him loose, the condo needed a few safety devices. Throw rugs had to be removed; George’s favorite chair had to be adjusted so he could easily get in and out of it; and grab bars had to be installed in the combination tub-shower. We took turns going to Hawaii to keep George company through his rehab stint. Kevin installed the shower bars during his visit.

Last year, our mom fell and broke her hip when she missed the one step she had to negotiate upon entering her house. More long and painful rehab, and her house had to be made safe, too. It’s a single-level home, so the only thing that had to be done was make the shower safe. More grab bars.

Installing a grab bar in a tiled shower is fairly straightforward, but there are a few tricks. First, decide where you want the bar. In a tub you’ll probably need two bars, one to assist in getting into the tub and one to aid in sitting down, either on a seat or in the tub itself.

Stand in the tub or shower and determine a comfortable height for the bar. Next, sit in the tub and determine the position where the bars are most helpful for getting in or out of the tub.

Grab bars are equipped with flanges that are screwed to the wall with three hefty Phillips head screws. To ensure a solid installation, screw the bar into wall studs if possible. If this means adjusting the location of the bar a little, do it. Level and plumb don’t count here. A diagonal bar is OK. Safety and comfort are the objectives.

If you can’t hit a stud on each end, use metal molly bolts on those locations. Studs are usually located every 16 inches. To find a stud, start from the corner of the shower and measure 16 inches. Drive a small nail through the plaster just above the tile, and with luck, you’ll hit the stud. If not, keep probing with the nail until you find the stud. A dab of caulk will repair the hole. If this sounds a little hit-and-miss (and it can be), a stud finder is an inexpensive alternative available at hardware stores.

To drill through the tile, you’ll need a hammer, a nail set, an electric drill and a masonry bit a little larger than the diameter of the screws you use. Specialized tile/glass bits are available at home centers and hardware stores. They work great and are worth the $7-$8 price, even for a single use. Hold the bar in position and mark the location of the first hole with black marker.

Tap the nail set on the mark just enough to score the glazing on the tile, but not too hard. This gives the drill bit a place to "bite" and keeps it from wandering. With the masonry or tile bit, drill through the tile, cement board and drywall (or plaster) to the wood. Install the first screw through the flange and screw it snug. While holding the flange in place, mark the location of the remaining holes. Then remove the first screw.

Drill the remaining holes through the tile and screw the flange to the studs with wood screws. Where you have a stud, you should be able to hit wood with two screws. For the holes that don’t hit a stud, use a metal toggle bolt. We like to drill a pilot hole into the stud to make installing the screw easier. Use a wood drill bit a little smaller than the diameter of the screw. For added ease, add a little bar soap on the threads prior to setting the screws.


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