How to Compare a Custom Tile Shower Pan to a Solid Surface Pan
While few people would argue a shower pan isn’t the sexiest part of a bathroom remodel, even fewer would argue (especially if they’ve dealt with a leak or hate, hate, hate grout maintenance) it isn’t important or doesn’t impact how much they like (or don’t like) their bathroom.
A shower pan is the ‘foundation’ of your shower. If it fails (or is a pain to maintain), Houston (or insert your name here) – you have a problem!
While there are many types of shower pans on the market (including fiberglass and acrylic which won’t be discussed in this article), tile and solid surface (and for this article I’m going to lump cultured granite and cultured marble pans into the ‘solid surface’ category) are EXTREMELY popular if you need a custom shower base.
The challenge is figuring out if tile or solid surface is better for your job. Here’s 7 critical factors which can determine your best choice between a tile pan and a solid surface base:
- Factor #1 – If you want an easy to maintain shower
- Factor #2 – If you want a good-looking pan which oozes style.
- Factor #3 – If you need THE CHEAPEST pan you can get because your budget is razor thin.
- Factor #4 – If you need the custom pan which is simplest to install
- Factor #5 – If you need a pan for an accessible one level wet room shower
- Factor #6 – If you want a custom pan which is guaranteed not to fail (because you have NO INTENTION of dealing with a leaking shower pan EVER again!)
- Factor #7 – If you need a custom pan which works with a curved glass design
In this article I’ll take a ‘deep dive’ (OK – I just had to throw in one of those overused corporate phrases I hate just for fun) into these 7 factors and dish up – IHMO which system (tile or solid surface) is the ‘winner’ based on each factor.
At the end if you think I’m full of ‘it’ (whatever ‘it’ is) or right on the money please comment below. A good debate is as American as apple pie…or if you’re an Italian American like me…. as American as pizza (or is pizza even American?). So, let’s look at the 7 factors.
Factor #1 – You want an easy to maintain custom shower pan…and the winner is…SOLID SURFACE
Let’s face facts. With a tile shower pan it’s not the tile, which is the pain to maintain, it’s those doggone grout joints. And because grout maintenance is such a big business, you can’t escape ads from companies whose livelihood is built around grout maintenance. And who wants a ‘friendly house call’ from a Grout Medic or Grout Doctor or Groutsmith franchise (just to name a few)?
Do you really want a ‘medic’ or a ‘doctor’ working through the dusty and painstakingly looooong process attempting to renew the look (and the structural integrity) of your custom shower pan? Or worse yet, let’s assume you don’t call out the ‘Grout Doctor’ and instead ‘get the pleasure’ (sarcasm intended) of cleaning your own nasty molded and bacteria-filled grout joints as your spouse is out GOLFING! I’ll bet in those moments you want to S-C-R-E-A-M???
Solid surface pans eliminate grout – and cleaning hassles. Grout in one word is…
Therefore, when it comes to installing a low maintenance custom shower pan, solid surface bases (which are COMPLETELY non-porous) are the hands-down winner!
Factor #2 – You want a stylish shower pan which oozes character…and the winner is…TILE.
If you’ve seen an imaginative tile shower pan (like the image below) its practically a work of art. Your floor is the canvas. The different tile sizes, colors, patterns, and textures are the paint.
Solid surface – while durable as all get-out – is (for the most part) boring. Sure, you can get a matte or gloss finish in over 50 or more colors, but these basic solid surface colors can’t shake a stick at the artistry of an imaginative tile job done by an experienced tile setter. Of course, I’m assuming you can find this ‘tile artist’ – which is getting more challenging by the day – as craftsmen (or craftswomen) are a needle-in-a-haystack to find.
But all in all – if you want a stylish shower pan which oozes character the winner is…TILE!
Factor #3 – I need the CHEAPEST custom shower pan I can get…and the winner is….IT DEPENDS (are you DIY’ing the job or hiring a professional bathroom remodeling contractor)
No matter how you slice it (or who ends up installing the floor pan), installing a tile shower is a dusty, dirty, and doggone time-consuming process. And if you’re DIY’ing the job – and your labor costs are FREE (the magic word), you’ll save money doing a custom tile shower pan (especially if you do the job the ‘old school’ way and build a mortared mud-set shower pan which uses very low cost materials).
Basically, with a DIY job you’re trading your ‘free time’ vs. paying a tile setter. With a DIY option, a tile floor (using cheap materials) will cost you less (assuming you don’t screw up the install and spring a leak down the road).
Now, on the other hand, if you’re paying a professional bathroom remodeling contractor (or the tile subcontractor they’re hiring and marking up in the bid) the economics of a tile shower pan vs. a custom solid surface pan will be dramatically different. It’s nice to know if you have a curved base or weird angles – you won’t be relying on an individual tile setter to not only get the shape right, or make sure it’s waterproofed properly if you use a solid surface base instead.
So, here’s the bottom line. If you want the cheapest custom shower pan (and are willing to DIY the job and trade your time for money), then tile will be the ‘winner.’ If you’re paying a professional to do the installation which option is ‘cheapest’ will vary from job to job (and which tile you use, the pattern it’s laid in, what type of tile base you’re creating and the labor rates of your local contractors).
So – the winner of the cheapest custom shower pan is….IT DEPENDS!
Factor #4 – If you need a custom pan which is the simplest (and quickest) to install…the winner is…SOLID SURFACE
While solid surface pans weigh a ton (for example a 60” x 32” pan weighs in at 120 lbs.) and are a pain to move around – you’ll love that the base arrives to the job site completely done. There is minimal (unless you must attach the flanges) to no site work you need to do with solid surface. You set the pan. You hook up the plumbing. It’s done. And in some cases (see factor #6 below), it’ll even be guaranteed for life.
Now – no matter what tile shower pan system you use, there’s significantly more work than a custom stone pan. At a minimum (like with this waterproof ready for tile shower pan pictured below) you’ll have to cut and set the tile onto the pan (which is no small job).
If you’d like the flexibility of a site built (yet still waterproof) tile pan – a component based system like Wedi or Schluter or HydroBlok will reduce installation time and improve quality (and are easier than a ‘mortar bed,’ old-school tile shower pan).
However – if you want a custom shower pan which is easy-peezy to install – SOLID SURFACE is the hands-down winner.
Factor #5 – If you need to create an accessible one level wet room… the winner is…TILE
When people contact me about one level wet room systems its for one of 2 reasons:
- Reason #1 – A family members NEEDS an accessible shower due to a mobility challenge.
- Reason #2 – They simply like a sleek, minimalist shower and a one level wet system fills the bill.
However, whether you (functionally) need or (aesthetically) want a wet room you’ll likely stare down the barrel of the same challenge. How do you cost-effectively get a one level shower and bathroom – yet still make sure it’s waterproof and structurally sound.
And here’s the bad news I’ll share from years listening to homeowners who are trying to figure out the best custom wet room system to use….
It’s confusing to figure out.
They (and in some cases their contractors) minds are blown away trying to determine which system is best. They’ve heard horror stories of wet room installations where the contractor has ‘dropped the floor’ (‘er cut into the joists) and the system has failed.
They’re confused and worried they (or their contractor) will screw up.
What many people don’t know is European manufacturers have led the way with waterproofed tile-based wet room systems for years. These systems can be time (and cost) effective to install. They don’t require cutting into the joists. It’s for this reason I’d recommend tile for your wet room.
Now, don’t get me wrong and think you can’t use solid surface to create an accessible (and low maintenance) pan. It’s just that to use this system without impacting the structure below you’ll need a ramped solid surface base. However, ramps make your bathroom look a little ‘Grandmother-ish’ (‘er geriatric),
I’m not a big fan of a ramped base (note, I choose to think of myself as perpetually young and don’t want a ramped shower pan to make me think otherwise). In addition, showers with ramps are a turn-off if you’re looking to sell your home to a younger family.
If you want a one level wet room, go with tile.
Factor #6 – If you want a custom pan which is GUARANTEED not to fail… the winner is…SOLID SURFACE
If you ask your contractor about the guarantee with tile and the grout joints which come with a custom tile shower you might get a chuckle or two. Everyone knows grout joints are porous – which is a baaaaaad ‘character trait’ if you’re looking for a rock-solid guarantee against leakage for a shower floor pan. And contractors don’t guarantee grout joints.
On the other hand, solid surface is an engineered stone and built like a tank. One manufacturer even boils their warranty down into one simple word. This word is….
If you’re looking for a ‘solid’ (yes – that pun was intended) guarantee the clear winner is…. SOLID SURFACE.
Factor #7 – If you need a custom pan with a curved glass design which isn’t a pain to install… the winner is…SOLID SURFACE
Maybe you have your eye on a curved glass block walk in shower (like you’ll see below) using the space your tub occupies today. Or you’re looking to use a ¼” to 3/8” thick curved glass enclosure to add style and interest to your small corner shower but want an upgrade from a flimsy acrylic or fiberglass base. The question is – would a tile shower pan or solid surface base work best.
While both tile and solid surface are possibilities, if you want the installation to go up quick, without worries about leaking – my winning choice would be SOLID SURFACE. Here’s 3 reasons I’d stay away from the tile and would use a stone base:
- Reason #1 – With solid surface you won’t have to use small mosaic tiles if you want a curved wall (and need a curved curb) – Curved tile curbs – while stylish looking – are not only time consuming to install, but you get the added (long term) pain of grout joint maintenance. With solid surface – on the other hand – the curve is preformed (and grout-less) so the shaped design is never a hassle to you.
- Reason #2 – With a tile shower pan you’ll need to buy an expensive curb cap for the curved wall to sit on – Since cutting tiles along the top edge of a curved shower curb is a pain, you’ll (likely) be purchasing a solid surface or granite curb cap (like you’ll see below) if you go the tile route. And these curb caps cost between $400 to $700. They aren’t a cheap date! A solid surface pan eliminates the need for a separate curb cap.
- Reason #3 – If you go the tile route and don’t buy a ‘ready for tile pan’ you’ll need to create your own radius. Imagine trying to create the radius in this uniquely curved glass block wall without a preformed ready for tile base (like was used in this job)? It would be a major pain (and the tile job wouldn’t be any picnic either). With a solid surface pan, you can do mammoth showers with curves like the one below without worrying if the base and the wall will ‘play well’ together.
While there are pre-curved ready for tile pans which make doing a curved and tile shower simpler – using a solid surface base with a curve makes planning and installing a custom shaped shower much easier.
All in all, the solid surface (premade) base takes time and mind-bending planning out of the process. The winner for a curved glass design is solid surface.
What custom pan do you think is best? How can we help you find your best choice?
As you can see from this article there are A LOT of factors to consider in choosing the best custom shower base (and there are even more factors beyond cost, curvature, style, guarantee, and the wet room possibilities we’ve covered here).
However, the only thing which matters at the end of the day (and at the beginning of the day also) is what’s best for you. So, no matter if you live in Accident, Maryland or Friendly, West Virginia or Ding Dong, Texas (and yes – these are actual city names), it’s smart to get help choosing between a tile and custom stone pan. And this is where me and my team would love to help.
Call 877-668-5888 for nationwide supply (or for a local installation design advice and contracting help in Cleveland call 216-531-6085) or click for Free Design Assistance.
Thanks for reading,