Consider a Liner When Your Bathtub or Shower Goes Bad

Alcove Bathtub
Alcove Bathtub. Getty / Neo Vision

A good bathtub or shower unit, if installed correctly, should last for decades, but eventually, it will go bad. Acrylic or fiberglass tubs and showers can crack or develop holes, and cast iron or enameled steel can chip or crack. When your tub or shower does go bad, all-out replacement is the best solution. But it is also the most expensive solution and one that might not fit your budget at the moment.

If you're not ready to replace a tub or shower, surface refinishing or reglazing is one option, but the results are often less than ideal, and the fix is a temporary one, at best. But there is also another option available: installing a bathtub or shower liner.

How Liners Work

A bathtub or shower liner is a solid piece of acrylic or PVC plastic designed to precisely fit into the contours of your tub or shower unit. Unlike refinishing, in which a spray coating of epoxy, urethane, or polymer material is applied, a liner is a solid unit that is manufactured to the precise contours of a factory tub or shower and installed by a professional team. 

When you contract with a firm to install a liner, a local installation pro will first visit to take precise measurements and perhaps photos of your bathtub or shower unit. A central office takes this information, identifies the manufacturer of the tub or shower, then fabricates an exact shell of the tub or shower unit from 1/4-inch thick ABS acrylic, using vacuum-form technology.

The acrylic shell is similar to the material used in many tub and shower units but is a thinner layer of acrylic. It can take as much as eight weeks for the shell to be prepared, but once it is delivered, installation takes just a few hours. First, the old fixtures and drain fittings are removed, then the shell is inserted right over the old tub or shower unit, using silicone adhesives and two-sided tape.

New drain, overflow, and faucet fixtures are installed, and the work area is cleaned up. Complete installation is usually completed in a single day. 

Usually, the liners come in two parts: a bottom unit that fits over the bathtub or shower pan, and an upper section, the surround, that extends from the edge of the bathtub or shower pan up the walls. The two-part construction makes installation easier. The installation team will tightly seal the joints between the lower portion and the surround. 

Cost

Tub and shower liners may cost more than you imagine and can approach the costs for a full-out tub or shower replacement. Make sure to get multiple bids on your job, as well as bids on a full tub or shower replacement. Nationally, average costs for a liner that covers a bathtub and three-wall alcove surround run from $1200 to $1500, but costs of up to $4,000 are not uncommon for usual sizes or where tile-look surround panels are specified. A variety of factors can go affect the costs of a liner.

  • Materials. PVC plastic liners are typically cheaper than acrylic, usually by several hundred dollars.
  • Location. Both the cost of local labor, as well as the costs of shipping a liner long distances, can affect the cost of the liner. 
  • Type of labor. An installation by an unlicensed handyman will be cheaper (and likely less dependable) than one by a franchised contractor affiliated with a national manufacturer of liners. 

A variety of cost-estimating tools are available from sources such as HomeWyse. For example, bathtub and alcove liners fall in a range of  $1100 to $1400 for a basic liner installed by an unlicensed handyman, up to a range of $1500 to $1900 for a premium liner installed by a licensed and franchised installer. 

Buying a Bathtub or Shower Liner

Bathtub/shower liner suppliers are a relatively small group. Usually, they are locally franchised contractors affiliated with a national manufacturer of liners. An online search for "bathtub liners" will produce sources for liners. Or, you can discuss your needs with a consultant at a local big-box home improvement center.

Large store chains such as Home Depot and Lowes work in conjunction with local franchisees to offer a variety of installation services, including liners for bathtubs and showers. 

Here are some of the nationally recognized firms specializing in bathtub and shower liners: 

No DIY Option—Usually

Do-it-yourself bathtub liner installation is not possible, at least at this time. Because there are so many different shapes and sizes, no big-box retailer can stock liners for purchase off the shelf by consumers. The only real option for a full liner installation is to work through a contractor affiliated with one of the national manufacturers of liners.

You can, however, buy prefabricated shower surround panels that can be used to cover the back walls or alcove walls of a shower or a tub. These won't over the tub itself or the shower pan, but they can be used to cover over a bad tile job or an existing surround. The panels are cut to fit and usually include corner moldings to seal the seams. Strictly speaking, these don't qualify as liners but are instead surround kits. They are, however, suitable for DIY installation. They are not cheap, though. A surround kit that mimics the molded look of tile can cost between $500 and $1,000

Pros

There are several advantages to using a liner as an alternative to a full replacement for a bad tub or shower:

  • Quick fix. Tub and shower liners are a faster fix than completely demolishing and replacing your bathroom. 
  • Covers up bad walls. One clear advantage of liners over refinishing is that liners extend above the bathing area and up the walls.  
  • No demolition. Demolition is necessary for a full bathroom remodel. Liners do not require demolition.
  • Fewer fumes. Tub and shower refinishing processes produce a lot of unpleasant and unhealthy fumes. Liner installation does come with some off-gassing from the adhesive used to attach the liner to the tub or shower, but not nearly to the extent caused by spray refinishing processes.

    Cons

    But you should also be aware of some negatives when it comes to liners: 

    • Liners are a cover-up. Liners mask but don't correct underlying problems. The moisture in bathrooms can create mold and even eat away at structural elements, and these problems remain if they are not addressed before a liner is installed.
    • Trapped water. Should water get trapped between the original surfaces and the new liner, this can create an environment for mold and mildew.
    • Hollow feeling.  Liners may feel "spongy" or less than stable underfoot.
    • Expensive: Liners are intended to occupy a middle pricing territory between refinishing and complete replacement, but costs are often are close to that for full replacement.
    • Reduced dimensions: Because you are adding a layer of material, your bathtub will become slightly smaller in size.