I never expected to become a bathroom wall panel geek.
I grew up a mini-Alex P. Keaton (for those of you not old enough to remember he was the young business-geek son on the sitcom Family Ties popular in the 1980’s – yes I’m dating myself here). My heart and passion were business and finance. The dream job I wanted when I graduated from Carnegie-Mellon University with my B.S. (it doesn’t mean what you think) in Business Administration was to get a job as a strategic planning consultant with McKinsey and Company (a hot consulting company).
That’s not how things worked out.
After 4 years doing the ‘corporate thing’ as a Product Manager at a cutting tool manufacturing company, my Dad let me buy (he floated me the loan actually) 50% of his glass block contracting business. Away with the 3-piece suit and fancy mahogany desk. Say hello to jeans and hanging out with ‘gontractors’ (that’s how you say contractors with an Italian accent).
I got into the bathroom wall panel business like most entrepreneurs. I morphed into it. Here’s how:
- Glass block shower walls led me to offering shower bases to go with them.
- Shower bases lead me to acrylic bathroom surround panels.
- Acrylic bathroom surround panels lead me into 4 lines of wall panels (so far) – cultured granite, a decorative PVC composite line, high gloss panels and thin acrylic panels.
I started in bathroom wall panels with standard 1/8” thick acrylic panels – like you see from ‘one day bath’ companies Bath Fitter and Rebath. Today, this line is a small part of what people are buying from us. The world has shifted. We have shifted with it.
With all this being said, my journey into bathroom wall panel geekdom probably doesn’t matter one iota to you (hey- what exactly is an iota anyway?). If you’re like most people, you’re confused researching the plethora (that’s a fancy word I threw in there to make you ‘think’ I’m smart) of choices in wall panels. You’re left to ‘sift through the rubble’ and figure out which bathroom or shower wall panel line will work best for you. Many homeowners are confused in this process. That’s why I wrote this article.
My goal is simple. Explain to you 5 little known secrets I’ve learned in my years educating, selling and (my company) installing bathroom wall panels (you wouldn’t want me installing, I might have the smoothest hands in the bathroom remodeling industry!). I want you to make the best choice for you the first time out.
Below you’ll find these secrets. At the end of the article let me know which ones have helped you and if any others are simply too ‘out-there’ for you (I can – at times – resemble that remark).
Bathroom wall panel secret #1 – Bathroom wall panels are just like people
If you’re playing along in the ‘studio audience’ with me right now you might be saying, “that’s a weird statement.” Bear with me. When I say bathroom wall panels are like people what I mean is they all have their strengths and weaknesses (like you and I). Here are specific examples explaining the pros and cons of various types of wall panels:
- Standard 1/8” thick acrylic wall panels – They are low cost (that’s good), but are thin, have a plasticky look and are a pain in the butt to install (if you’re ever worked with black butyl tape and a product which expands and contracts after it’s cut you know what I mean).
- Solid surface panels – They are thick (1/4” and ½” are most popular), durable and easy to repair if they’re scratched because they have the same color throughout. The negatives, they have a dull matte finish and can stylistically look boring.
- High gloss acrylic panels – These bad-boys are sleek, contemporary and look fabulous in a high-end shower. The negatives are they only come in 7 colors and are not a ‘cheap-date’ (i.e. they come with a big price tag).
- Fiberglass panels – You can get them at any home center store and they are cheap, cheap, cheap (if you have a low-cost rental or you’re looking to flip a property quick this can be a good option). The negative is they look cheap and are only made in standard sizes.
- Decorative faux stone wall panels – These panels are digitally printed to be exact replicas of natural stone patterns without the cost. They are super-easy to install (they are ¼” and can be cut with a carpenter’s knife or standard woodworking equipment). The bad news is they are only printed on the top. If they’re scratched through, you’ll see the white backing behind them.
- Cultured granite panels – These panels are 3/8” thick, durable, come in various patterns and are primarily supplied with a gloss finish which is simple to clean. The negative is the gloss finish is created with a gel top-coat which protects the top surface, but the subsurface is not completely waterproofed.
- Tile-looking laminate wall panels – This (soon-to-be) new entrant into the wall panel market creates the realism of tile without grout. The biggest negative is they aren’t available in the United States yet (look for them in the 4th quarter of this year) and they need to be seemed together (although it’s not hard to do).
While ‘one-size-fits-all’ works well for baseball caps with the plastic inside tabs, it’s not a workable strategy IMHO for bathroom wall panels. If you’re looking for the ‘one best system’ as New Yorkers say, “Fuggitaboutit!” If you’re looking for the right system for you, DO NOT go to a ‘one trick pony’ supplier who sells one system and tries to jamb it down your throat. Look for suppliers who want to first understand your needs and are smart enough to help you find ‘just the right’ (kind of like porridge in the Three Little Pigs) fit for you.
Bathroom wall panel secret #2 – Your home builder or remodeling contractor will fight you tooth and nail if you want to use wall panels. Here’s how to win this battle.
Here’s some facts you should know:
- Bathroom wall panels are not difficult to cut.
- Bathroom wall panels are not difficult to install.
- Bathroom wall panels do exist for custom sized showers.
So, why (might you ask) do builders and remodelers fight you tooth and nail (yes – pun intended) when you want to use wall panels vs. a one piece or tile shower?
Simply, it’s the fear of the unknown. It’s the possibility of having to pay for their first-time-installing and cutting mistakes.
If we’re honest with ourselves we’re all scared to try a new product, sport a new hairdo and venture outside our comfort zone. Couple the fear of the unknown with the time required to learn something new and risk of losing their shirt (this could be a good thing if your contractor looked like Ryan Gosling without a shirt on – but most contractors don’t exactly have the same type of ‘6 pack’ as the ripped abs of your hot TV star, it’s more like full sized keg). It’s simpler for today’s busy contractors to tell you to ‘hit the bricks’ with your ‘new-fangled’ wall panel idea.
The question becomes how you get your contractor past having a bad case of ‘the willies’ when you pop the question about wall panels? How do you get them to install the bathroom wall surrounds you want? Here’s 3 ways to make this happen:
- Find YouTube installation videos showing how these panels are installed. Videos are waaaay better than installation instructions. Most contractors hate to read – that’s one reason they got into the trades.
- Look for an expert (anywhere in the country) who knows the ins and outs of the panel system you’d like to use. Ask lots of questions. Don’t worry about being a pain in the butt.
- Offer to buy the panels yourself and don’t make your contractor responsible if they make an installation or cutting error. Yes –you’ll be taking the financial risk, but it may be the only you’ll get what you want.
Bathroom wall panel secret #3 – Even the coolest, most durable panels become landfill trash when installed over a shower base which fails!
How often do you think about the poured concrete or concrete blocks supporting the upper floor(s) of your home? If your answer is never, you’re like most people.
Now, how important would your foundation be to you if it developed a crack and every time it rained you were left cleaning up a sopping mess (and ripping out your brand new carpeted floor and drywall walls) in your souped-up lower level entertainment center? Suddenly you’re unsexy, Rodney-Dangerfield-esque (I get no respect) basement foundation would kick up more than a notch or two in importance.
You may be wondering why I’m talking about house foundations in this article about bathroom wall panels. Here’s why:
Your shower pan is the foundation of your shower.
If your shower base fails, the wall panels (which sit inside the flange of this pan) will become the burnt toast of your shower project. Just another perfectly good product on the scrap-heap of your local landfill.
Here’s the moral of the story. DO NOT SPEND MONEY ON YOUR SHOWER WALLS BEFORE YOU’RE SURE YOUR BASE IS IN GOOD SHAPE.
If your existing pan is made of fiberglass or is a custom mortar bed system, look out. These pans are the biggest source of shower failures. If your pan is ‘iffy’ and your budget is already squeezed, I recommend putting off buying wall panels until you’ve got the bucks stashed away for the base and the walls. When you do look into a new base – build your rock-solid shower foundation with a product like a cultured stone shower base which is guaranteed for life and won’t flex when you walk on it.
Bathroom wall panel secret #4 – Sizing can be tricky. Don’t buy until you’ve talked to someone who can guide you on the right size.
Buying the right sized bathroom wall panels can be confusing. You may have the following questions during the planning process:
- Where should I be measuring from?
- Should I pull out the old tile and backer board and then measure what I have left?
- Are the wall panels finished at the end and the top, or will I have to add trim moldings?
- Should I run the panels to the ceiling, or make sure the shower head is inside the panels?
If you’re befuddled (now, that’s a funny word) by these questions check out these 3 tips to get your size right the first time:
- Tip 1 – You can cut the panels, but you can’t stretch them – When in doubt buy the panels 1” wider or taller than you need because you can’t magically stretch them, but you can trim them.
- Tip 2 – Ripping out old tiles is messy, but usually the best call – You may be tempted to go over old tiles with new wall panels (it can make your life easier, and who doesn’t like the quick and easy way out?). However, as the saying goes, “you can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig.” If there is water damage behind the old tile and you cover over it, you will trap mold which could result in demoing out everything down the road. That would not be a good day, week, or month when you have to spend even more money to ‘re-remodel’ (no – this is not an actual word, but I’ve seen it happen before). I recommend taking down the old tile, measuring your rough framed opening, installing new backer board and then installing wall panels. Don’t take the short-term easy way out.
- Tip 3 – Going to the ceiling can be harder than you think – Do you think any wall in your house is perfectly plumb, level and square? If you guessed no frickin’ way you’re a winner (OK – I’m not sure what you’re the winner of yet, but as Trump would say it’s going to be very, very big!). Given that your wall is likely as imperfect as your 17-year-old driving 4 buddies to a 1 AM house party, the chance of everything being perfect is somewhere between slim and none. To make your life simpler I recommend either taking your panels up to 84” high (so the shower head is inside the panels), or if you want to go to the ceiling buying panels a few inches short and putting a trim or crown molding over the top (in this case you won’t have to struggle to set the panel if your walls aren’t level and square).
Bathroom wall panel secret #5– The good news is, the best is yet to come.
Any of you who know me (or have read a lot of my articles) have figured out I’m a ‘glass-half-full’ guy. I’m an eternal optimist (along with being a shade on the wacky side).
However, even a pessimist can see the bright future of bathroom wall panels in the U.S. market. Here’s why I say this:
- Foreign wall panel manufacturers are investing here – The coolest line I saw at the Kitchen and Bath Industry Show this year were laminated wall panels which look exactly like tile (even with ‘faux-grout’ joints). This product is so-cool we’re planning to take this line on and are accepting advanced orders before the late 2018 and early 2019 intro date. In Norway (where this product is made) more than 50% of their market are wall panels (they are more popular than tile!).
- Domestic wall panel manufacturers are making bases to go with their wall panels – One who makes the decorative faux stone wall panels now offers matching shower pans (they have started with a 60” x 36” shower pan and will be extending into other sizes soon).
- The best (and most important news) is, YOU like these new generation wall panels – Bathroom wall panels have evolved from the cheap, white, plasticky, thin fiberglass and acrylic stuff back in the old days. The market has progressed into inspired laminated wall panels, solid surfaces, cultured granites, decorative PVC offerings and even optical grade high-gloss acrylics. People now say “WOW” when they see this stuff (your friends and family won’t be thinking themselves, what were they thinking when they bought this crap?). You’re liking the final product. The next step is for the supply, distribution and installation companies need to catch up to what you like.
Like most of you out there, I wouldn’t have guessed where my career would lead me (in this case becoming a bathroom wall panel geek). My Mom and Dad never told me, “Michael, we want you to grow up to be a bathroom panel geek.” With that being said, no matter what kind of work you and I are doing, our careers should be about helping others.
I hope this article has helped you understand bathroom wall panels better. I hope you’re saying the following now:
- I know more about the strengths and weaknesses of various types of shower wall panels.
- I feel I have the tools to convince my contractor to do this install.
- I will make sure my shower pan is in good shape before buying wall panels.
- I know how to figure out the size of panels I need.
- I see there is a lot of cool wall panels available, now I have to get my hands on samples and get pricing.
If you want more help – I get it. Here’s 2 ways to get it:
- Read 5 Things Nobody Tells You About Shower and Tub Wall Panels.
- Please, please, please call me (or a member of my team) at the numbers below. It will be a pleasure to help you (and if I’m keeping it real I’ve still got 2 kids to put through college!).
How can I (or a member of my team) help you?
If you’re struggling with a bathroom or shower remodeling project I (and my team) would love to help. For assistance and factory-direct product supply of grout free shower wall panels, shower bases and glass enclosures nationwide contact Innovate Building Solutions at 877-668-5888. For a bathroom remodeling project in Northeast Ohio call Cleveland Design and Remodeling at 216-658-1270 or The Bath Doctor in Columbus at 614-252-3242.
If you want to connect with me and/or learn more about remodeling, but don’t want to put up with my wacky humor (I get it). Follow me on Twitter @Mike Foti, or my companies @InnovateBuild or @InnovateHomeOrg.
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