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How to Choose the Right Shower Surround

When It’s Time to Replace Your Shower Surround

There‘s a pretty good chance you’ll replace your shower surround (or bathtub surround) eventually. You may be remodeling, upgrading to the bathroom you’ve always wanted, or making your house more appealing before putting it on the market. Whatever your reason, when it’s time to replace, you’ll have to make decisions in two key areas. You’ll have to decide what kind of shower surround you want, and you’ll have to decide if you want to tackle replacing the shower surround (or tub and shower surround) yourself or hire someone to do it.

Replacing the Shower Surround: What Kind of Material?

You have a number of options for your new shower surround. As you might expect, each has certain advantages and certain drawbacks.

The Tile Shower Surround

Tile is a common choice for shower walls. Most people see tile as being of high quality while in reality, it’s often inexpensive. That’s an appealing combination. You can achieve an attractive designer look without breaking the bank, and tile is durable as well.

Tiles are available in various sizes, colors, and materials. The latter include glass, porcelain, and ceramic, sometimes manufactured to look like marble or stone.

But tile is not without its potential problems. It’s pretty much a sure thing that you’ll have to contend with the fact that the grout is tough to clean and stains easily. Grout can also crack as the house settles and let water seep in.

If you do choose tile for your shower surround, it’s a good idea to buy a high-quality grout sealer and apply it frequently. To keep tile looking new, it’s also a good idea (although not necessarily a practical one) to squeegee and dry it after every shower.

The Acrylic Shower Surround

An acrylic shower surround (or tub and shower surround) is a high-quality item, generally procured via a professional remodeled or special-ordered from a home improvement store.

The material is an acrylic shower surround is thick but lightweight, non-porous, and has a smooth, easy-to-clean finish. It comes in many different patterns and colors, and because acrylic can be thermoformed with return edges, you can install it on top of existing ceramic tile as opposed to needing to rip the tile out.

An acrylic shower surround is made of tough plastic, and the color goes all the way through, so a scratch is unlikely to mar its appearance. If you do end up with an unsightly light scratch or other blemishes, you can buff it out. Because the finish is so resilient, you can expect your acrylic shower surround to come with an excellent warranty.

One thing you must be careful of, though, is that some cleaners are caustic and apt to damage the finish in a way that can’t be fixed.

The Fiberglas, ABS, and PVC Plastic Shower Surround

This sort of shower surround is the most inexpensive. They are popular with do-it-yourselfers and the builders of multi-unit housing.

The low price is part of what makes them an appealing option, but to a significant degree, you get what you pay for. Which is to say, the material is thin, and the finish may be porous and rough. If it is, it will be harder to keep clean. You may not find a style or color you particularly care for, either.

Perhaps the most serious potential problem of this sort of shower surround, however, is that the end panels are sometimes not deep enough to go all the way around the end of the tub. If they’re not, and water gets out past the shower curtain or door, it can ruin plaster or sheetrock in a surprisingly short time. Sometimes this sort of shower surround comes with trim pieces to prevent this problem, but they tend to look cheap and somewhat ugly.

The Cultured Marble Shower Surround

These are made of a composite of crushed limestone and resin with a gel-coat finish. The cultured marble shower surround can look like real marble if you want, but other options are available as well.

The cultured marble shower surround has a classy, glossy look and most soaps, shampoos, etc. won’t hurt it. You can get one in a solid color or patterned to resemble marble or granite. It will be fairly easy to keep clean. (Tip: Use car wax on it.)

As with the other choices, there are some drawbacks. The cultured marble shower surrounds scratches and chips easily, and lighter colors may eventually be yellow.

The Solid Surface Shower Surround

The term “solid surface surround” can refer to a variety of materials. The surround can be made of engineered stone (granite, marble, or quartz tips mixed with resin) or a plastic that is either compression-molded or cast.

A solid surface shower surround is the most expensive of all because the material is so thick and consistent all the way through. Many colors and patterns (some mimicking real stone) are available.

The Shower Surround: Do It Yourself?

As you ponder whether to install your new shower surround yourself or pay someone to do it, it’s useful to understand that, in addition to the differences cited above, the various types of shower surround can present particular difficulties, and the installations can differ in terms of overall difficulty.

As a general rule, the more inexpensive the kit, the easier it will be to install the new shower surround. In addition to this principle, though, there are some specific considerations. An acrylic shower surround will almost certainly have to be trimmed if it’s going on over existing tile shower walls. Cultured marble is heavy enough that the installation is likely to be a two-person job, and you’ll need a masonry saw to cut the cultured marble. A solid surface shower surround also requires special tools.

If you do choose to install your new shower surround yourself, here are some tips.

  • Before you start, check the level of the tub. If it’s not level, don’t proceed with the installation. You may have structural or subfloor problems that should be addressed first.
  • Plumb the walls. If they’re not vertical, expect to do more trimming.
  • Clean the surface you’re attaching the shower surround elements to.
  • Back your shower wall material with an appropriate substance. For tile, that’s cement board. For shower wall panels, it’s moisture-resistant wallboard with mold inhibitor in both the core and the facing. If you attach to ordinary sheetrock or drywall, there’s a good chance you’ll end up with mold.
  • Use the glue recommended by the manufacturer. Use an adequate amount, and once you’ve applied it, pull the wall panel away from the wall long enough to be sure the glue and what it’s supposed to be gluing have made good contact. Keep paying attention to the panel until you’re sure the glue has set sufficiently to hold it where you want it.
  • Use high-quality caulking. If you don’t, you may find out to your displeasure that re-caulking is an obnoxious chore.
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