When deciding which type of material to use for your shower, you'll consider durability, ease of maintenance, the raw cost of the materials, and the overall cost of the shower installation. If you're considering installing the shower by yourself, that's another major factor. The decision nearly always narrows down to two choices: a prefabricated shower stall or a custom-built ceramic tile or stone shower.
Prefabricated shower stalls are less expensive and faster to install than custom-built tile or stone showers. They come in a fairly limited number of sizes and styles. Prefabricated shower units may not be as durable or long-lasting as custom-built showers, and they offer less flexibility in terms of design. One distinct advantage is that they are easy for experienced do-it-yourselfers to install.
Custom-built ceramic tile or stone showers are more expensive and time-consuming to install than prefabricated shower stalls. But they are more durable and long-lasting, and they offer thousands of style choices. With a custom-built shower, you can choose the size, shape, and materials of your liking for a shower that is tailored to your needs and preferences.
Pre-Fabricated Shower Units
Pre-fabricated shower stalls are usually fiberglass or acrylic kits created in a factory and shipped to your home in one or several pieces. They can be installed by a professional crew or by an experienced do-it-yourselfer.
Most shower kits include a shower pan and two or three solid wall panels, although some are one-piece shells, in which the shower base or bathtub is integrated with the walls.
One deciding factor in the choice between a one-piece or multi-piece unit is whether you can get a one-piece unit through the doors of your home. Homeowners often choose multi-piece units for this very reason. The multi-piece pre-fabricated shower kits usually come with everything you need: a shower pan or tub, molded wall panels with shelves and soap dishes molded into them, and even the shower door.
Pre-Fabricated Shower Wall Kits
An alternative to a full bathtub/shower kit is to use a wall kit, an excellent option if your bathtub is in good shape and doesn't require replacement.
A wall kit includes only the alcove wall panels, not the bathtub or shower pan. The tub stays in place, but you cover the walls above the tub with prefabricated panels that complete the shower enclosure. Direct-to-stud units can be applied over bare studs if you have removed wall surfaces, or directly over existing tile or wallboard walls if they are in good shape.
For a faux-tile look, the panels can be molded with simulated grout lines. Higher-end wall panels made with solid surface materials can closely mimic the look of marble or granite.
Custom-Built Tile or Stone Showers
Custom-built ceramic tile or stone showers are built on-site and are constructed from scratch by carpenters and tilers.
Carpenters construct the structural frame for the alcove, walling it in with cement board panels such as Wonderboard or Durock. Tilers then step in and finish the tile or stone work.
The shower door must be custom-ordered to size and installed by the carpenter. Because experienced labor is required, custom-tile showers are usually considerably more expensive than prefabricated shower units, although luxury-end prefabricated showers come close in cost. A custom tile or stone shower, though, exudes luxury in a way that few prefabricated shower units can approach.
Do-it-yourselfers may use a hybrid option: installing a prefabricated shower pan, then finishing the walls with custom tiling. Tile shower pans are difficult to construct, and installation becomes much easier if you start with a factory shower pan and then tile the walls.
Pros and Cons of Pre-Fab Showers
Once considered an economical but plain choice by homeowners and by the bathroom remodel trade, pre-fabricated stalls now come in an ever-increasing variety of styles to suit even higher-end bathrooms.
Although, pre-fab kits generally do offer fewer design options than tiled shower stalls. The plastics used in prefabricated showers are not easily recyclable, and they will not decompose if the materials someday reach a landfill. Economy kits are available only in-stock sizes, but upper-end kits (which are also expensive) may be custom-ordered to precise dimensions.
Prefabricated showers are essentially plastic of one form or another, and they are considerably lighter than custom tile showers. In a home where there are structural floor issues, a prefabricated shower is a much better choice. However, one-piece units sometimes don't work for remodeling because the size prevents them from passing through doorways. One-piece units are intended mainly for new houses or additions, where they are put in place before doorways are completed.
Many units can be installed by a do-it-yourself remodeler with moderate to advanced skills. In fact, a new shower can be completed from start to finish in a single day. Custom-tile showers often take a week or more, even in the hands of a skilled pro. Typically, prefabricated showers are much cheaper than tiled stalled shower stalls, often by many hundreds of dollars.
Acrylic or fiberglass shower pans have some flexibility and will not crack if there is a small amount of flex to the subfloor. Normally, the prefabricated base is embedded in a thin layer of mortar for stability, but unlike custom tile shower pans, leaking almost never happens with prefabricated shower pans.
Most prefabricated kits have seams only in the corners and along the top of the shower pan or tub. One-piece units have no seams at all. Fewer seams mean easier cleaning and less likelihood of leaking. Prefabricated showers are easier to keep clean than ceramic tile showers, with their multitude of grout lines.
While cracked ceramic tiles are fairly easy to replace, once a crack appears in a prefabricated shower, it is difficult to make repairs. Fiberglass repair kits can be used to make spot repairs, but they will be noticeable. The only other option will be full replacement or relining.
Repairs are difficult
Lower real estate value
Not environmentally friendly
Pros and Cons of Custom-Tiled Showers
The principal advantage of a tiled shower is that it allows for more creativity since there are thousands of different colors, patterns, and sizes available in ceramic and porcelain tiles. Since these showers are built from scratch, there is literally an infinite range of design options possible.
Plus, a tile shower can be built to fit any available space. Despite the initial size of the tile format, it can always be rearranged and cut to create a shower stall of any imaginable size.
Two downsides of custom-built showers: cost and installation difficulty. Custom tile showers are almost always more expensive than prefabricated shower units due to the high cost of the skilled labor force. Motivated do-it-yourselfers can install their own custom-built tile or stone shower, but it is exceedingly more difficult than installing a pre-fab unit.
Ceramic tile is natural since it is made with natural clay, not plastic. Ceramic tile is a premium building material that will slightly increase the resale value of your home when compared to synthetic shower materials. Especially when paired with ceramic tile bathroom floors and stone countertops, a custom tile shower will be a selling advantage.
Although ceramic tile itself is very easy to clean, tile showers have grout lines that need to be maintained. Unless regularly sealed, they will be prone to mildew, cracking, and possible leaking. A large ceramic tile shower puts many hundreds of pounds on a floor structure. Unless the floor is very sturdy, it may flex and break the grout joints or even the tiles themselves.
When constructed with a custom tile shower pan, this is a difficult project for most DIYers and a lengthy, labor-intensive project for pros. DIYers may choose a middle option: mating a fiberglass/acrylic shower pan with tile walls. Shower pans, in particular, can be prone to leaking over time if they have not been perfectly installed and maintained. Wall tiles can also leak if grout lines aren't maintained and regularly sealed.
Increased real estate value
Likelihood of leaks
Difficult to install