How To Choose the Right Shower or Bathtub Surround
By Tim Koehler
Bathtub surrounds or shower wall surrounds need replacing? Fixing up to sell, remodeling or building your dream bathroom? Surrounds are available in many price levels. They can be tile installed on the job site or can be bought as a kit. Read on and I’ll walk you through the different types of surrounds, pros and cons, price levels, and give you some installation tips.
Tile Shower and Bathtub Surrounds
have been the standard for many years. Tile is perceived as high quality, and stock tile can be inexpensive. So you can have a high perceived value with a less expensive product. The most popular tiles for bathtubs and showers are ceramic, porcelain, and glass. Some of the newer tiles have the look of stone or marble. Tiles come in a variety of sizes so you can have different looks depending on the tile size.
• Pros: Tile is attractive and with some of the newer looks you can have a stunning, designer look on a budget. Durability is tile’s best quality. There are thousands of colors and patterns to choose from.
• Cons: Grout is tile’s worst enemy. It is porous, will stain easily and is hard to clean. It’s not flexible and if the house settles, which most houses do, the grout will crack and allow water to seep in. The best way to keep your tile wall looking new is to squeegee and dry it off after every shower. Grout requires maintenance. Buy the best quality grout sealer you can find and use it often. Tile work is labor intensive and is not easy to install for the inexperienced.
Note: The smaller the tile, the more grout you will have to clean.
Bathtub Surround Kits
and shower surround kits are available in most home improvement stores. These are available in different materials such as ABS plastic, PVC, fiberglass, acrylic and solid surface. Some of the less expensive kits do not require any cutting or trimming. More expensive kits do require trimming to give a custom look. Wall surround prices vary greatly from a couple hundred dollars to thousands. There are so many types made of so many different materials that my comments are general and you should look closely at each manufacturer.
Fiberglass, ABS and PVC Plastic Surrounds
bathtub surrounds are the least expensive. These products are geared towards the do-it yourselfer and multi unit housing developments.
• Pros: Least expensive kits on the market. These kits are easy to cut and install with standard tools.
• Cons: The material is thin and the finish may be rough and porous making it difficult to clean. The end panels for this type of kit may not be deep enough to go past the end of the tub. If the panel does not form a “leg” around the tub and water leaks past the shower curtain or door, the sheetrock or plaster will be ruined in just a few weeks. Some kits come with trim pieces to finish off the edges. These can be unsightly and look cheap. Color choices and styles are limited. You can find these at most home improvement stores.
Cultured Marble Surrounds
bathtub surrounds are a man-made composite consisting of crushed limestone and resin (high tech glue). The finish is a gel coat. It is sprayed on and air hardens. The finish can resemble real marble or not.
• Pros: It has a luxurious, high gloss look and is resistant to most shampoos, soaps, hair dyes, and make-up but it will scratch easily. Color choices range from solid colors to marble and granite patterns. Typically you would purchase these from a local manufacturer. Manufacturers can make panels or individual pieces most any size you need. This works well for a design that requires some different size pieces. This material is relatively easy to keep clean especially if you use a car wax on it.
• Cons: Cultured marble is heavy. You may need two people to install it because of the weight. Cutting is messy because it is a limestone base and a masonry saw blade is used. It can chip easily but it can be repaired. Lighter colors can yellow after a period of time.
Acrylic Bathtub Surrounds
are higher quality. They are typically carried by professional remodelers or special ordered from home improvement stores.
• Pros: The material is thicker, light weight, non-porous and has a finish that is smooth and easy to clean. A wide range of colors and patterns are available. Acrylic can be thermoformed with return edges so it can be installed over existing ceramic tile walls. It is a very tough and durable man made plastic. Corian counter tops are made of acrylic as are airplane windshields, skylights, and outdoor signs. The color goes the whole way through the material so if you do scratch the surface, it will not be a different color. Light scratches and blemishes can be buffed out with a polish. The finish will last a lifetime and can be repaired. Being of higher quality, it usually has a longer warranty.
• Cons: This product can be more difficult for a do-it-yourselfer to install. Only basic tools are required, but if you are trimming edges to go over existing tile walls, it can be tricky. Certain cleaners are caustic and will cause significant damage to the finish. Often, this type of surface damage is not repairable.
Solid Surface Surrounds
Bathtub surrounds are made of different man-made plastic composites. They can be cast or compression molded. Swanstone is a good example of a solid surface surround. Solid surface also includes engineered stones which are marble, granite, or quartz chips mixed with a resin (glue). Once it hardens, it is polished smooth.
• Pros: Solid surface is the most expensive wall surround because the material is much thicker than other products and it is consistent throughout. Solid surfaces are heavier than acrylic or fiberglass. Some are manufactured as standard kit sizes and some are custom made. Many colors and patterns including real stone patterns are available.
• Cons: These surrounds are the most expensive but are worth the extra money. They do require specialty tools for installation and, depending on the individual skill level, may not be do-it-yourself friendly. Allow adequate lead time; it may take up to 6 weeks or more to get.
Bathtub Surrounds – Installation tips:
• The surface that you are installing your wall surround over should be solid and free of any dirt or dust. Use cement board for tile. For wall panels use a moisture resistant wall board with a mold inhibitor in the facing as well as the core. Never use standard “sheet rock” or “dry wall”. If it comes in contact with moisture, it can be a breeding ground for mold.
• Check the walls for plumb (true vertical). The more walls are out of plumb, the more trimming will be required. In severe cases you may have to fir out the wall.
• Use the mastic (glue) that the manufacturer suggests. Sometimes silicone caulk is used as an adhesive. Apply adequate mastic. Once you have applied the mastic, pull the wall panel away from the wall to see if the panel and mastic have made good contact. Don’t leave the panel until the mastic has set up enough to hold the panel in place.
• Use high quality caulking. Buy the best you can – this is no place to go cheap. Re-caulking is a nasty job. Use a caulking tool for a nice even, slick look. They are available at any home improvement store.
• If you are installing bathtub surrounds over an existing bathtub, check the level of the tub. If the tub is out of level, this may be a sign of subfloor or structural problems. Make sure you check this out before installing.