Want to know the pros and cons of shower pans vs tile shower floors? Historically there have been inherent problems with tiled shower floors as well as concerns about fiberglass/acrylic shower pans. We’ll discuss these issues in this article so you can make a more informed decision.
Economy of the Shower Pan
So basically, the economical choice is the prefab shower pan that comes in 3 varieties. There are fiberglass, acrylic and cast iron shower pans, in ascending order of price.
The downside of prefab fiberglass and acrylic pans are about the same. They’re relatively boring and they have a useful life of about 10 years. By that time they will stained or discolor and possibly cracked, the latter depends on how well it was installed.
While cast iron is more durable I don’t think I’d enjoy having a bathtub bottom and tiled shower walls. If that appeals to you, go for it.
Okay, it’s true that you’ll save some money on the prefab shower pan, compared to a tiled shower floor. However, if you’re planning to tile the walls above the pan, then you’ll have to remove some of you’re wall tiles to replace the pan in the future. So don’t spend too much to tile those walls. (Yes, you can buy enough extra tiles to retile the bottom 2 feet when the pan needs to be replaced).
Now, for a rental property the choice is clear, the shower pan is the way to go, and here’s why. A traditional wet bed tile shower floor needs to be resealed on a regular basis and/or re-grouted. If that’s not being done then you’ll typically get leaks followed by stains to the ceiling beneath, alone with mold and decay.
Traditional Tiled Shower Floor Method
So you put the cheaper shower pan and cheap tiles on the walls and you save money, but maybe you want something a little nicer. And depending on your budget, that means a tiled or designer tiled floor.
Wet-bed is the traditional method of tiling a shower floor that’s been done for 100 years and is still being done today. It consists of a rubber liner being installed beneath a 2 inch layer of cement, which is then topped with more cement and tile. These rubber liners are notorious for eventually leaking. So if you already have a nicely tiled shower stall that you’d like to hang on to for a while, do the required maintenance. If an excellent installation job was done, it should last 50 years.
However, there are several places where the wet-bed method can go wrong. If the floor is not pre-sloped before the liner goes down then any water getting through the tiles will pool under the cement, rather than running to the drain. In that event the cement bed will get saturated, because cement does and will absorb water.
But even when the liner is properly sloped these showers can eventually fail because water gets past the rubber liner at critical junctions. This usually happens in the corners and at the curb, rotting the wood and causing leaks into the ceiling below, and results in shower failure.
Tiled Shower Walls Also Mold
Not only can tiled floors leak but also tiled walls can leak, and you’ll have mold behind the walls. And it doesn’t matter if it’s a prefab pan or tiled floor, both installations can have this problem. When the bottom end of the wallboard gets wet, where it contacts the shower floor, it wicks up water about 1 ½ feet, causing mold behind the tile.
People think that cement board is impervious to water, but it’s not. Both cement board and green board will absorb water and will mold. This occurs when the wallboards come in contact with the shower floor. So they shouldn’t ever touch each other.
Regular resealing of the grouting has been the standard for at least 50 years, and this can help. But it needs to be resealed every year or the grout will both allow water penetration, and stain making it difficult to clean. But as we just stated, the real problem is the mold.
Of course, wherever you have shallow or missing grout you’ll always get water coming in contact with the wallboard.
Today’s Brush-on Waterproofing
It’s always been all about the quality of the installation, and you probably know that. But today, that means waterproofing the walls and the floor, before the tiles are installed. Just 20 years ago this wasn’t done.
Not only is the wallboard encased behind coats of brushed-on waterproofing, but also is the bottom edge of each wallboard. So no water penetrating the tiles will ever enter the wallboard when using cement or green board.
If your installer uses conventional methods but doesn’t rave about the waterproofing they do, then find another installer. Both green board and cement board will absorb water and mold if it gets wet and should be entirely waterproofed. Not only the walls, but a traditional cement bed floor should likewise be waterproofed, see photo.
One more thing, cement board or green board should never touch the shower floor, which was installed first. There should be a ¼ to 1/2 inch gap, which is then filled with silicon or some water impervious material.
Today’s Waterproofing Systems
But there are even better options now. Now you can buy water impervious foam sheets for both the walls and floor that don’t need waterproofing. Only where the sheets join do they require a sealant, which comes in a tube. Likewise the walls and floors are connected with this same sealant. These are waterproofing systems.
As with brush-on waterproofing, even if water gets under or behind the tile, it can’t penetrate the wall or floor. This is a game changer for tiled showers.
The Sloped Shower Floor for Tile
Therefore, if you’re want a tiled shower floor, then today you’ll want to use one of the these foam-board waterproofing systems. The wet bed cement floor is on the way out and the prefab sloped shower floor has arrived. There are still many old-schoolers, though, who have been doing the traditional method for 25+ years, and are still doing it today.
There’s also a hybrid installation method using a sloped foam floor or even sloped mortar floor (but not wet-bed) with conventional wall materials that are waterproofed. Now we actually prefer this method which uses a waterproof membrane over cement board walls and a custom sized sloped mortar floor (when the shower footprint isn’t a standard size) or a prefab sloped foam floor when it is.
Any way you do it as long as it’s totally waterproofed you’re okay. Waterproof wall boards or fabric are available in kits with or without prefab sloped floors. Some of these kits include special glue/sealant for all the joints that is better than silicon, such as Wedi and Schluter.
The key for a tile shower floor today is to not use wet-bed cement floor, but rather one of several prefab sloped shower floors available that water will never penetrate. Heck, you don’t even need tiles. If the floor and walls are completely waterproofed then no water will ever enter the structure beneath it. That also means no more decay and mold.
So today, it’s either an acrylic/fiberglass shower pan, or a sloped foam floor with tile. We have an article that looks at the whole bathroom remodeling project also, and another article that provides a step by step anatomy of a master bathroom remodel including how to waterproof a shower enclosure with Schluter fabric.
High end product manufacturers are Wedi, Schulter and Oakley; the latter is just a floor panel. So the tiled floor has been saved by bulletproof installation products. Now you can get that beautifully tiled shower and keep it for 50 years, at least. Or you can save money, with the acrylic/fiberglass shower pan if you prefer, the choice is yours.
If you’re in our area and would like us to look at your bathroom remodel project, please give me a shout so we can come over and give you a professional quote.