A Brutally Honest Guide to Choose the Perfect Shower Pan
Updated March 31, 2019
Let’s get real. There’s no such thing as a perfect shower pan, just as there’s no perfect person. Shower pans are not a one-size-fits-all proposition.
There can be, however, a perfect shower pan for your specific situation.
Here’s the problem you’ve likely run into trying to find the perfect shower pan for your job. When you visit shower base manufacturers web sites what do you think they’re pushing? This is not a trick question.
They’re pushing their pans. They’re claiming their units are the ‘ultimate fighting warriors’ against all shower evils. They have the best pan known to man, woman and child (as if kids are even interested).
You’re left to sift through the B.S. You’re left to read on-line reviews (to the extent you have the time and desire to do this). You’re left to come to your own conclusions (even though you’re not a bathroom remodeling – or shower pan expert – and don’t play one on TV. Come to think of it, no one plays one on TV either).
As a guy who leads a business which daily is knee-deep in wholesaling and installing different types of shower bases, I’ve had the ‘pleasure’ (sarcasm intended) to see the good, the bad and the ugly in shower pans in our journey to make bathrooms great again (OK – if I’m being hones, most bathrooms weren’t great in the first place).
The goal of this article is simple. It’s to help you find the perfect shower pan for your situation. To do this we’ll look at different goals you may have. Here’s some popular shower pan goals. See if yours is on the list.
- Goal #1 – You’re looking for a cheap base. You own a home in a not-so-great section of town you’re looking to flip. You need a pan which fits a tight budget.
- Goal #2 – You’re looking for a base which is simple to clean. You’re tired of living your life scrubbing grout joints or staring at a dirty fiberglass shower pan you can’t get clean no matter what you do.
- Goal #3 – You want a contemporary design. Most shower pans you’ll find are big, bulky and ugly. You’re trying desperately to find a design which looks modern.
- Goal #4 – You need a roll in or one level shower pan. Sometimes a shower pan isn’t a want, it’s a need. A member of your family isn’t getting around like they used to. You need to find a pan which works but doesn’t like it belongs in a hospital room.
- Goal #5 – You want a shower pan which is built like a tank. Since the last pan cracked and leaked onto your mahogany dining room table you vowed this will never happen again. This time you’ll look for a shower base built like a tank.
- Goal #6 – You need a custom size. You don’t want to pay an arm and leg for it. So many shower floor pans – from walk in designs to odd sized tile showers to drains in weird locations – require custom sizes. You don’t buying one to cause you take out a 2nd mortgage, but you want a nice-looking shower which lasts and won’t be a pain to maintain.
So, now that you’ve checked out the 6 goals, let’s dig into the brutally honest guide to the perfect shower pan which will help you achieve you find the best one for your situation.
Situation #1 – You want the cheapest shower pan you can find
You’re looking to fix up a home on a tight budget. You’re looking to flip this home or keep it as a low-priced rental. You – in no way – want the Taj Mahal of shower pans. After all – whose paying attention to the shower pan anyway, you say to yourself.
You need cheap…a low, low price.
There are 2 pans which will fit the bill. They’re made of fiberglass and acrylic. Your cost will vary between $100 to $400. They won’t make a Ritz-Carlton fashion statement, but since your goal is a ‘Motel 6’ price, they’ll work OK. Here’s more info about them:
- Cheap option #1) A fiberglass pan with a gel-coat top surface. Fiberglass pans are relatively strong, but when they get scratched (a thin gel-coat protective surface is on the top), they’re frankly a pain in the butt to ‘attempt’ to get the scratches out. Fiberglass pans are known to yellow and look dingy over time. With that being said, if you want a cheap, get- ‘er-done pan, they’ll do the job (as long as you don’t stay in the home too long).
- Cheap option #2) A ‘standard’ acrylic pan. Standard acrylic pans (note – later we’ll talk about reinforced acrylic pans in situation #5 which are different) are also pre-molded like they’re fiberglass ‘brother.’ The advantage of acrylic over fiberglass is they’re available in a wider range of colors and are colored throughout. They don’t show scratches like fiberglass. They aren’t structurally as strong as fiberglass (so in the ‘standard’ versions they may flex when you walk on them). They’re available in standard shapes and sizes and work well for common bathrooms where you’re doing a tub to shower conversion or need a simple corner shower.
Situation #2 – You’re looking for a base which is simple clean
If (as your Mother used to say) “you’ve had it up to here” (wherever here is) with cleaning the bottom of a tile shower, I totally get you.
People LOVE the look of tile… initially. It’s the eventually (and the cleaning) which gets you. It brings you (literally) to your hands and knees with a scrub brush begging for mercy.
Refuse to be a victim of a difficult to clean tile shower or fiberglass pan.
Two options win-big for cleaning simplicity.
The first is the acrylic shower pan mentioned above. It’s gloss finish allows water to bead off. You can simply wipe your pan off with a towel.
The second option is the super-durable (more about this later in situation #5) cultured stone shower pan. This pan also doesn’t absorb moisture. No dirt will build on it. It’s available in a matte finish (with a textured bottom) so you can’t see water spotting like you will with a gloss surface.
Situation #3 – You want a contemporary shower pan which doesn’t look like it was designed 30 years ago
Let’s be real here and say most shower pans look butt-ugly, are behind-the-times and are a feature you’re hiding behind curtains or an obscure glass shower door.
They have clunky 5” high curbs. These curbs are a nightmare to step over. You’re constantly worrying about Mom or Dad falling and ending up in the hospital. Most pans look like they were designed by the guy (yes – back then it likely was a guy) who created the split-level home used on the set of The Brady Bunch back in the 70’s (yes – I’m old enough to have watched this show).
Today’s bathroom designs are minimalist. Today’s bathroom designs have sleek lines. Today’s bathroom designs are often contemporary, even when the rest of the home is not.
Don’t stand for a shower pan designed ‘back in the day.’ Look for pans (like the contemporary acrylic pan shown below) which have clean lines.
Look for 2” high or 3” high curbs which aren’t cumbersome to step over. Look for straight lines to fit today’s interior styles.
Another option would be a cultured granite pan using a low profile (2” tall) or mid-height curb (3” tall) which has a squared (not rounded) design. They’re durable, colorful and built like a tank (more about this in situation #5 below).
The third contemporary shower option is a one level wet room. This ‘hidden shower pan’ (which uses a product called a shower base former) is set on top your wood joists. It allows bathroom and shower floors to be at the same level. It’s not only sleek, its also safe.
Situation #4 – You need a roll in one level bathroom and shower
Get the ultimate in sizing flexibility and a one level design with a wet room system. There are no curbs to climb over. The one level shower and bathroom floor are efficient. I’ve seen this first-hand when visiting my wife’s Grandfather. He had a tiny wet room bathroom in a 4’ x 6’ space in Italy. Can you believe that? In addition, a wet room system is not dependent on standard sized bases. It can fit any bathroom -big or small.
The other 3 options for roll in showers are more ‘traditional’ bases which are set on top your subfloor. Here they are:
- Option 1 – A ready for tile shower pan – The ready for tile pan comes pre-made to your size and is pre-sloped. They are can be made with a ramped entry or designed to be set ‘down onto the joists’ for a one level design.
- Option 2 – A cultured marble shower pan – These pans are heavier than the light-as-a-feather ready for tile shower pans, but have the advantage of being built like a tank. They come in over 30 colors. You don’t need to add tile to the top surface. They can be engineered to go onto the subfloor or set ‘down on joists’ like the ready for tile unit discussed above.
- Option 3 – An acrylic shower pan – Acrylic roll in pans have more size limitations than the two custom systems discussed above. If you can find the acrylic pan in the exact size you need, you’ll save you money. One caution. Make sure you get a reinforced acrylic pan which has support underneath. These units won’t flex with a person, their caregiver and a wheelchair rolled on them simultaneously.
If there’s one thing, I’ll recommend you stay away from it’s a ‘on-your-site’ built roll in shower where the contractor wants to ‘drop the floor’ and pour concrete inside. These site-built systems are prone to failure. They’re only as good as the human being who installs them. If your base fails, you have a HUGE (or HUGELY as Trump would say) problem.
Situation #5 – You want a shower pan which is built like a tank
If you’ve lived through a leaking tile or fiberglass shower pan you know what aggravation it caused. Damage onto your first floor living room or dining room didn’t exactly make a good day (or should I say months with the hassles of contractors traipsing in and out of your home).
You’ve vowed to NEVER, EVER, EVER let this leaking shower pan problem happen again.
You want a permanent solution. A faulty shower pan will be expunged from your ‘permanent record’ (as they used to say in grade school).
To eliminate this problem, get a base which is built like a tank. This can be a solid surface or cultured stone shower pan.
The solid surface pan will be the ultimate when it comes to eliminating scratched surfaces (because they’re consistent throughout). The challenge with solid surface pans is they are a TON of money.
A more cost-effective option is the cultured marble shower base (or a cultured granite shower pan – basically they’re the same but use different patterning). This pan has a gel-coat top surface with a solid man-made stone base underneath. It’s super-durable and will not crack (unless you have an earthquake and that’s a bigger problem). With over 30 different patterns you’ll find one which works for you.
Lastly, a lesser known (and even more cost-effective alternative) is a reinforced acrylic shower base. This base has an MDF core underneath, so it won’t sag. Since they are made in larger quantities, they are lighter on your budget.
Situation #6 – You need a custom shower pan which won’t cost you an arm and a leg or fail
Custom shower bases which fail are a BIG problem. The largest number of failures with custom pans I’ve seen have been poured concrete (also called ‘mud-set’) units which were site built with tile on the top.
The reason these systems were used is they can be built ‘as you go’ and are simple for the tile-setter or remodeler to customize. The problem is these concrete bases using black waterproof liners fail far too often. Some common problems are they are sloped improperly, or the rubber membrane wasn’t put in right and it causes leaks. There are better systems.
If you love, love, love tile (and are willing to put up with the grout maintenance) don’t use the poured concrete approach. Consider waterproof site-built systems made by Wedi and Schluter (no, I’m not getting a paid endorsement here). They are straightforward to install. They will cost more than the ‘mud-set’ approach, but you won’t have your contractor practically living in your home to get the job completed. They’re a far better deterrent vs. leaking than a ‘mud-set’ pan.
Another approach is to use the waterproof ready for tile pan discussed in situation #4. What’s nice about these pans is they can even be built with curved curbs like the one used for this glass block shower (that’s an advantage vs. the Wedi or Schluter systems).
Another idea is the one level wet room system discussed previously. With this system if you choose a linear drain, you’ll not only get a waterproof room, but can use large format tiles as well (and cut down the number of evil grout joints).
If you hate tile (and his evil stepbrother the grout joint), then the cultured granite shower pan will not only give you sizing and drain location flexibility, but your top surface will be finished (and require no maintenance). That’s a no maintenance, no leaking custom shower you can count on.
While there is no such thing as the perfect shower pan (or perfect person for that matter), there can be a perfect shower pan for your situation. Take this article and pick your most important goals from the 6 listed. Then go to the 6 ‘situations’ and identify the pan(s) which work best for you.
Narrow your research to shower pans which fit your goals and situation.
If you still don’t want to do the ‘heavy-lifting’ to figure out the right pan, let your fingers do the walking (OK – definitely not through the ‘old-school’ Yellow Pages). Let one of our shower base and shower wall panel design team members ‘drive the bus’ and guide you through the process. I know I for one (and my team for others) would be excited to help you. Please call the numbers below.
For Nationwide supply of tub and shower wall panels, shower enclosures and shower bases call Innovate Building Solutions at 877-668-5888. For a remodeling project in Cleveland contact Cleveland Design and Remodeling at 216-658-1270 or The Bath Doctor at 614-252-7294 in Columbus Ohio.
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