A good bathtub or shower unit, if installed correctly, should last for decades. Over the years, they can be repaired. But eventually, they will become too damaged for spot repairs.
Acrylic or fiberglass tubs and showers can severely crack or may develop large holes. Cast iron or enameled steel tubs can rust, chip, or crack. When your tub or shower does go bad, a full replacement is sometimes 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.
What Are Tub and Shower Liners?
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 molded to the precise contours of a factory tub or shower and installed by a professional team.
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.
Bathtub and Shower Liners Cost
Tub and shower liners may cost more than you imagine and can approach the costs for a full-scale tub or shower replacement, without the added value—a full replacement adds much more value to your bathroom (and your home value as a whole) than a shower or bathtub liner.
Costs for a basin-only liner and installation can begin at around $725 for labor and an equal amount for materials. This would include leveling and preparing the current tub; installing the tub liner; connecting the plumbing and making sure it works; and taking away the old liner.
To install a tub basin liner and surround walls will increase labor costs by around another $300. Again, roughly double the cost of labor to calculate the cost of the materials (basin and surround). As a general idea of the cost of full-service liner installation, Custom Bath Liners will do a one-day full bathtub and shower makeover starting at around $3,000.
Make sure to get multiple bids on your job, as well as bids on a full tub or shower replacement. A variety of factors can go affect the costs of a liner. First, PVC plastic liners are typically cheaper than acrylic, usually by several hundred dollars. Also, both the cost of local labor, as well as the costs of shipping a liner long distances, can affect the cost of the liner. Many companies and contractors will do a full-scale tub or shower replacement; few will do a tub or shower liner.
Buying a Bathtub or Shower Liner
Bathtub and 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 full-service installation companies but rarely the materials for lining your tub or shower. Another idea is to 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.
Tub and Shower Liner Installation
Measuring the Tub or Shower
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.
Ordering the Liner
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 or PVC, 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.
Installing the Liner
Once the liner is delivered to the site, 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.
Final Work and Cleaning
Can You Install Your Own Liner?
Do-it-yourself bathtub or shower liner installation is difficult; generally, it's best to call a liner company to do the work.
Because there are so many different shapes and sizes, no 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.
However, you can do half of the work by yourself: the surround. It is possible to buy prefabricated shower surround panels that can be used to cover the back walls or alcove walls of a shower or a tub. These will not cover the tub itself or the shower pan, but they can be used to cover over a poor tile job or an existing surround.
The panels are cut to fit and usually include corner moldings to seal the seams. Strictly speaking, these do not qualify as liners but are instead surround kits. Since it can be difficult to find off-the-shelf surround kits from home centers that match up perfectly with professionally installed tub liners, it is usually best to have both installed by the liner company.
Pros and Cons of Bathtub and Shower Liners
Ability to cover bad walls
Little to no mess
Minimal unpleasant fumes
Don't correct underlying issues
Can trap water
Weak underfoot feeling
Make space smaller
Liners are quick fixes. Tub and shower liners are a faster fix than completely demolishing and replacing your bathroom, and liners cover up bad walls because, unlike tub or shower refinishing, liners extend above the bathing area and up the walls. Plus, while demolition is necessary for a full bathroom remodel, tub and shower liners do not require any demolition. Tub and shower liner installation does come with some off-gassing from the adhesive used to attach the liner to the tub or shower, but the smell is considerably less than those produced by spray refinishing processes.
Liners mask but fail to correct underlying problems. The moisture in bathrooms can create mold and can even eat away at structural elements. These problems remain if they are not addressed before a liner is installed. Tub and shower liners can also trap water: Should any water become trapped between the original surfaces and the liner, this can create an environment for mold and mildew to grow. Liners may feel weak, spongy, or less than stable underfoot. Because you are adding a layer of material, your bathtub inside will become slightly smaller when you use a liner.
Liners are intended to occupy a middle pricing territory between refinishing and complete replacement. Yet for some homeowners, tub and shower liner costs often are close to that for a full replacement, and they don't add as much value to the property.