What is a bath remodel? A bath remodel generally consists of a bathtub with a shower fixture. This allows one to take a bath or a shower in the same space. There are five tub/shower configurations:
- Separate bathtub with tile surround walls.
- One-piece bathtub and shower combination using fiberglass or acrylic.
- Two-piece bathtub and shower combination using fiberglass or acrylic.
- Four-piece bathtub and shower combination with separate fiberglass or acrylic walls.
- One-piece bathtub with solid walls.
Let’s take a look at each separately and consider the pros and cons.
Bath Remodel with Separate Bathtub and Tile Surround Walls
For this bath remodel, there are 4 types of bathtubs with this configuration:
Cast iron bathtub
Along with tile surround walls, this is probably the best bathtub for your tub/shower. This will also be the costliest – but not by much! A typical 60″ long x 32” wide cast iron tub costs about $700. The same size acrylic bathtub (see below) runs about $600. But it will be the highest quality, strongest, and most durable system. When properly installed, it will not flex, contract, bend, or separate from the tile surround walls. This is incredibly important in assuring the system stays waterproof. When water gets into the walls, mold will quickly develop and begin destroying your house. Mold can also be especially harmful and fatal to people. In addition, under normal use cast iron is almost impossible to break. It is extremely durable. The Kohler Cast Iron Warranty is lifetime.
This is a good option when weight is a concern. An empty cast iron tub weights around 400 pounds vs 80 pounds for acrylic. Adding water and a 175-pound person adds another almost 600 pounds. The full user weight of cast iron (1,000 pounds) is half a ton! This might be too much for a second floor. On a first-floor concrete slab, it is fine. Although acrylic is stronger than fiberglass, it will flex and produce a minor separation between the tub and tiled wall surfaces. This should not be a problem provided the tub was installed correctly. It must also include an integral tile flange. Acrylic tub warranties are typically for 1 year.
These are cheap substitutes for cast iron. They rust and easily chip. They also have a hollow or “tinny” sound.
I’ve noticed that when I remove steel bathtubs, the undersides are very rusted. If you have one of these tubs, always replace it when you retile the surround walls. Steel tubs usually come with a 12-month limited warranty or an express limited lifetime warranty. Like their fiberglass cousins, this is an inexpensive and widely used new home builder and home remodeler bathtub material. It typically will not separate from the tile surround walls. A steel tub weights about 75 pounds. Steel bathtubs typically cost $150-$300.
Also known as FRP, or Fiberglass-Reinforced Plastic. Fiberglass bathtubs are made by forming layers of fiberglass into the desired shape. Then coated with a Gelcoat resin. This is typically the least expensive bathtub; it is also the least durable. The surface can (and will) crack, scratch, and fade. Fiberglass tubs are thin and do not have a stable feel.
Never use a fiberglass bathtub when installing tile on the walls. They flex and bend easily. Fiberglass tubs will separate from the tile walls soon after you begin using it. These tubs also have a habit after 5-10 years of developing slow leaks under the drain. When you finally find out about the leak, the mold and rot damage can be significant. Fiberglass bathtubs typically cost $210-$350.
I will not install a fiberglass bathtub or tub/shower surround.
One-piece Bathtub and Shower Combination Using Fiberglass or Acrylic
These come as a complete system for a bath remodels and new construction.
A one-piece bathtub is manufactured as a complete unit. There are no seams or separate pieces.
When clients inquire about removing these units for their bath remodel, it appears like an easy change out. It is not. Here is why. These one-piece bath/shower units are installed prior to drywall, flooring, toilet, sink, and cabinets. These are typically installed before the final enclosing third wall is built around it.
Removing the old 1-piece tub/shower is not difficult. Notice that the perimeter of the 1-piece tub/shower has a nail fin. This nail fin is nailed or screwed into the studs to secure the tub/shower unit. Drywall is installed directly over these nail fins. The drywall must be removed from these nail fins prior to removing the tub/shower unit. Next, the nails or screws are removed. Now the unit is ready for removal after additional steps are performed. Removal consists of cutting it into several pieces and discarding.
However, installing a new 1-piece tub/shower requires one of two approaches for a bath remodel:
- Remove the drywall, toilet, and cabinet. Install the new 1-piece tub/shower.
- Remove one of the short walls and slide the replacement tub/shower unit into place. Rebuild the short wall. This may require removing and then replacing the hot and cold-water lines along with the drain and vent stack. Moreover, this is not always possible if there is a narrow hall, exterior wall, or other bathroom adjacent to the 1-piece tub/shower. This second approach is not always a viable option.
Two-piece Bathtub and Shower Combination Using Fiberglass or Acrylic
The tub and wall surround can be purchased separately.
In this bath remodel configuration, there are 2 pieces, a tub and separate wall surround. This is typically how a removed 1-piece tub/shower is replaced. This eliminates the need to remove a third wall. However, the toilet and sink must be removed along with sufficient drywall to slide the new tub into place. I have seen where other contractors have lifted and then forced the tub into the existing spot without removing the cabinet. The results were less than spectacular.
Consider for a moment trying to install a 60-inch bathtub into a 60-inch framed opening. Consider further that a horizontal (flat) object requires less space for movement than an angled object.
The only way to make this situation work is to force the bathtub down after cutting the supporting wood framing, weakening the wall. This results in damage to the tub and structural integrity of the wall. The installer usually quickly makes a repair to the tub and you are none the wiser. Except now you have a damaged tub that will worsen over time. The hot and cold-water temperature variations, weight of the water, and your body will cause the repair to fail. This usually happens within a few years. Long after your check clears. If tile goes on the walls instead of the matching wall surround, the tile will crack where the wood was removed. If someone were to fall against the area where the wood was removed, the surround will likely break. It is a no-win situation – except for the installer who now has your money!
Four-piece Bathtub and Shower Combination with Separate Fiberglass or Acrylic Walls
For this tub configuration, the surround can be purchased separately.
In this bath remodel scenario, the tub/shower has 4 pieces; a tub and 3 separate wall surrounds. These are a terrible option. They will leak, causing dangerous and unhealthy mold growth in your walls. The seams are connected using a snap-and-pin system, glued in place using construction adhesive, or a wedge and lock installation system.
These are the easiest systems to replace an existing bath/shower system of any type. It is also the least expensive system. Four-piece systems are found in flipped houses, apartments, and rental properties.
Many contractors will use a hybrid of this system to get the bathroom or tub/shower remodel price down really low. They do this by removing only the tub. Then, they install the new tub and simply install these panels over the existing tile. Another variation to get the bathroom or tub/shower remodel price down super low is to use a tub liner with three panels. In this situation, the entire original tub and surround walls remain. See the article What Is the Best Kind of Bathtub to Get? A four piece system is perhaps, the worst possible situation. Severe mold, rot, and mildew damage is common with four-piece systems. Your health will also be compromised. Never use a four-piece tub/shower combination or bathtub liner. It is cheap and very dangerous to your home and health! You will pay a very heavy future price.
One-piece Bathtub with Solid Walls
Solid wall surfaces include Onyx®, Swanstone®, and Corian®. These products use various forms of alumina trihydrate crystals and special polyester resins. These are high-end bath remodel products. The cost runs anywhere between $40 and $250 per square foot. All have very strong positive traits. These panels are available in a variety of colors and styles.
These products are extremely durable and easy to maintain and clean. Onyx manufactures tub and shower wall panels along with shower pans (aka receptors or bases). They do not make tubs. They also make a generous line of accessories, sinks, countertops, and mosaic tile.
Onyx has the best warranty by a wide margin. It has a forever warranty. Cast in cultured marble molds, they have the look and feel of stone and granite. They are available in more than 70 colors in both matte and gloss finishes. Onyx has been around since 1985 (35 years).
Swanstone has been making products since 1964 (56 years). They have a very easy to use web site. Customers can order samples at no charge. They also have a wealth of Price Guides and Booklets on their website. It is available in 40 colors and a variety of finishes. They make shower pans, tubs, wall panels, and accessories. They also make countertops and sinks.
Color and texture are consistent throughout, with no surface coating to crack or chip. Compression molded, not cast, Swanstone will not crack or craze like other materials — and it is easy to maintain, since it will not mold or mildew. Five times stronger than other solid surfaces, Swanstone will not break, even when hit with a hammer.
Swanstone is heat resistant to 450°F – the best in the industry. Walls can handle steamer units. Swanstone is impervious to damage from common household culprits. Acetone will not etch it; cosmetics and beverages cannot permanently stain it. Swanstone is a major competing brand of Corian and benefited by the expiration of DuPont’s Corian patent.
DuPont manufactures Corian. It has been around since 1967 (53 years). Corian is available in over 120 colors, a variety of finishes, and 3 thicknesses. It has a 10-year warranty. Products include shower and tub wall panels, sinks, and countertops. They also make textured walls that are truly unique.
Corian is non-porous, stain resistant, and has a seamless appearance. It is repairable and renewable: Cuts and scratches can be buffed out with a Scotch-Brite pad or orbital sander. Corian is only heat resistant to 212°F, non-porous and does not need sealing. It is easy to clean and maintain.
Generally cheaper than quartz or granite countertops. However, re-sale value is less than granite, marble, or quartz. It can be dented and scratched as it is a softer surface (but repairable). It does not handle heat well. Hot pans can burn Corian (often repairable). Some cleaners and chemicals may cause discoloration.
From my experience, all wall panels become brittle with age. When we remove these panels in homes that are 25-40 years old, they break into very sharp pieces. Almost like glass. Although I have never heard of any wall panel failure, my concern would be in a seismic event. Since these panels are so heavy, if one was to come loose and fall, an adult or child could be seriously injured.
For a through discussion on bathtubs, see What Is the Best Kind of Bathtub to Get?