Selecting Bathroom Fixtures Showers and Bathtubs

The Shower as Spa and Therapy Center

If you would like to go a bit beyond an ordinary shower, today's showering choices give you a lot of options.

Among the options available to consumers are showers that deliver hydro-massage, as well as showers that mimic the experience of a steam room at a health club or spa. In fact, that's the whole idea - to transform a standard shower into one of life's indulgences, a retreat that offers physical and emotional wholeness and balance.

While in the past, most home showers wouldn't have been able to drive more than one showerhead, new technology can deliver and distribute water for a custom shower or home spa.

New shower designs address the fact that not everyone is the same size by making their components adjustable. Some products feature showerheads with telescoping arms that can be effortlessly adjusted up and down, and radially as well. The adjustability can help in other ways, too: If you don't want your hair to get wet, just move the arm down.

To complete the home spa experience, consider adding steam to your shower. Steam has a way of slowing you down, and it promotes breathing and relaxation.

From practical to pampered, new shower innovations make it easier than ever to relax and unwind in the privacy of your own bathroom

Power Showers

Multiple head showers are becoming more frequent upgrades to existing bathrooms. Many add-on units do not even require revising the existing plumbing. They attach to the shower wall and merely supplement the existing showerhead.

For those who feel that ordinary house water pressure may not be enough for the true therapeutic experience, manufacturers are beginning to offer power showers.

These multiple showerhead cabinets are fitted with pumps just like whirlpools that feed high-pressure jets in the unit. Adjustable from merely misty to blow-you-out-the-door, these units are the ultimate extension of the pioneering Water-Pik messaging showerhead of 30 years ago.

Steam Showers

As anyone who has ever been to a steam room can attest, steam may be the ultimate environment for complete relaxation. New products make the option of a steam bath right in the shower easy. At about the same price as a hot tub, steam showers are an affordable luxury for many homeowners.

There are two basic approaches to steam showers. The first is to purchase a self-contained unit. This is almost always an acrylic unit carefully sealed to keep the steam in, a good idea unless you want to turn the whole house into a steam room — and deal with a lot of moisture-related problems. They also usually contain the steam generating unit which otherwise has to be hidden in a wall or under a cabinet.

Limited choices in styles and colors, however, do not fit every bathroom style. The other option, a custom steam shower, can match any decor. The key is to ensure that the shower door fits tightly enough to keep the steam contained. This almost always means a custom-fabricated door.

Then there is probably going to be some plumbing to run pipes from the steam generator to the steam cabin, and some electrical work to connect the controls. All in all, a custom-built steam shower will run about double the cost of the same-sized self-contained unit.

There are three basic types of showers: showers built over separate tubs, integrated one-piece tub-shower units and stand-alone showers. All these types are prefabricated by a number of manufacturers, and all can be custom-built by a qualified local craftsman.

Integrated Tub/Shower Unit

These units, typically made of acrylic or fiberglass, consist of a tub and surround as either a one-piece unit for new construction or a three- or four-piece system for remodeling. Openings are provided in for the showerhead, faucet, and drain. These may include integrated doors, an integrated curtain rod, or just a slot into which a rod may be inserted. Many now include cast-in seats and shelves that provide a place for shampoo and body wash, as well as backing for grab bars. An increasing number incorporate a fungicide in their composition that retards mold and mildew. Both materials are easy to clean and maintain but prone to scratching. So, some care is required in both their use and their maintenance. But with just a little care, these fixtures will provide good service for many years.

In most cases, an integrated tub/shower unit is the least expensive shower option. But, do yourself the favor of laying out a few extra dollars and getting a good one. Generally, if you buy through your plumber, you will get good quality. If you buy through your local lumber store, you may not. And, there is no easy way to tell good from bad quality in these units except by knowing what to look for and conducting a close examination. But, generally, the thicker and heavier it is, the better it's quality.

Shower Over Tub

If the look of fiberglass or acrylic does not appeal to you, and the limited color selections give you pause, then you re a good candidate for the most widely installed shower/tub option, the shower over tub.

Almost all tubs installed today include a shower built over the tub. Except in a period bath, you will rarely see a tub by itself. In effect, the tub is used as a waterproof shower base. A curtain or shower door closes off the tub when the shower is in use. The shower doors are actually called "shower enclosures" a term that refers to doors that take the place of a shower curtain. The doors may slide or open outward. The other three sides of the shower — called the "tub surround" — are usually ceramic tile.

But, there are some new materials for surrounds on the market that are worth a look-see if you are planning a new shower. Solid surfacing materials such as Corian® and Onyx® have found a place in bathrooms as shower surrounds along with the older standby, Swanstone®. So have the true stones such as granite and marble, although the skills required to cut, shape and install solid stone panels are still not commonly found, and these are high-maintenance materials. Even wood and metal, particularly stainless steel and copper have been used as shower surrounds. These are, however, rare and expensive, and require almost daily maintenance.

But even with all the new materials, ceramic tile is still the gold standard of shower construction. Tile is the most designer-friendly material with virtually unlimited colors and patterns to suit any decor.

Still, many people don't like tile showers because they remember the crumbling, stained tile shower in their parents' bath. Things have definitely changed, however. Technology has eliminated virtually all of the problems that used to plague tile showers. Water-resistant and even water-proof backer surfaces have replaced the old "water-resistant" drywall backing and eliminated leaking entirely. The new urethane and epoxy grouts are very stain resistant, making the chore of scrubbing grout a thing of the past. Of course, not every ceramic tile is suitable for a wet environment like a bathroom. To find out more about which tile to use, see Porcelain vs. Ceramic, What is the Difference?. Many of today's tiles, designed specially for bathrooms, incorporate a fungicide, like Microban®, that kills mold and mildew on the tile but is entirely harmless to people and pets, although it's probably still not a good idea to eat it.

Stand-Alone Showers

A shower that does not include a tub is a stand-alone shower. These can be prefabricated, usually of acrylic, fiberglass, stainless steel, or enameled steel, or built on site. Custom-built units are typically faced with ceramic, porcelain, or stone tile but may use any of the alternate surround materials discussed above.

Custom tile showers used to be very expensive. Building one involved forming a sloped shower base out of concrete — a task not for the timid — then covering the walls with concrete board and finally with tile.

Today's technologies have made the process much simpler, faster and less expensive. Pre-cast shower floors made of a super-dense foam (so strong, it is also used for truck ramps) can be trimmed to fit almost any size and shape of the shower. They are not only faster to install but cannot crack, and, therefore, have fewer leaking problems over time.

The old technology, concrete backer boards, which can absorb water, has been replaced by engineered water-proof membranes that cannot. Introduced over 20 years ago, the new materials were slow to catch on but are now in fairly wide use as their durability has proven itself.

Wondering How to Get Rid of Water Spots on Your Glass Shower Enclosures? Well, Here's How.

It's far better to prevent spotting and staining in the first place. Here's how.

Which is not to say that custom showers are now cheap. They're not. Expect to fork out between $2k-3k for a custom tile shower but that's quite a bit less than the average $4k and up that they cost just 10 years ago.

Accessible Showers

With accessibility growing more important as the North American population ages, curbless shower designs are increasing in numbers and importance. Rather than a curb along the outer edge of the shower to keep water confined to the shower enclosure, curbless showers use a slope in the shower floor that directs water to the back of the shower where it drains. To make this work properly, the shower base must be slightly recessed into the floor.

Curbless showers require considerable advance planning. Although they can be added to an existing bathroom, the process often involves considerable modification to the floor framing which adds considerably to the cost. However, if you intend to age in place in your existing home, the prospect of not having to modify the shower to improve accessibility in the future is well worth the additional cost now.

What to Look For in a Shower

Here is a summary of what to look for when planning for and purchasing a shower.

Door Swing

If you are considering a unit with a hinged door that opens out, make sure there is enough space in the room for doors to swing.

A shower door should swing freely without interfering with a task area where another bathroom user may be standing. There are few things more annoying than being assaulted by a shower door while brushing one's teeth.

A hinged shower door should incorporate some mechanism to prevent water from dripping from the inside of the door onto the bathroom floor. Often this is a gutter built into the door frame that channels the water back into the shower.

All hinged shower doors must swing out. Doors that swing in are prohibited in most localities by plumbing codes. (For more information, see the Illustrated Rules of Bathroom Design).


Prefabricated shower units come in more-or-less standard sizes starting at 32" x 32". Custom-built showers may, of course, be of any size and shape that conforms to the minimum design standards for showers (see the Illustrated Rules of Bathroom Design for more information and recommended minimum sizes).

If considering a single-piece pre-fabricated shower unit, measure halls and doorways so you know the unit will fit through. Generally, a three- or four-piece model designed for remodeling needs will be more suitable. If you are careful, you can probably install one of these yourself. Always read the installation instructions, and have square and plumb framing to attach it to. But for the few dollars it costs, the peace of mind might be worth having a plumber do it for you and guarantee it against leaks.

Water Flow Rate

We typically think of showers with a single shower nozzle mounted on an arm slightly above head high. Many shower heads are marvels of engineering that allow every kind of water flow from a slight mist to needles that will almost cut rock and everything in between. The multi-flow showerhead, however, has been upstaged by the multi-nozzle shower head which has all these same features but with two or more nozzles in one head. What all showerheads have in common is that the water flow from the head cannot exceed 2.5 gallons per minute (gpm), as required by the Federal Energy Act. Here multiple heads have the advantage because they can each produce 2.5 gpm, a large gap in the Energy Act that needs to be plugged when Congress gets over acting like a kindergarten class and gets back to work.

Designers have done wonders with mixing air into the shower flow so that the shower feels like you are getting more water — but you never get more than 2.5 gpm. To legally get more water flow, you have to add more showerheads. Many showers now feature both a fixed shower head and a hand shower. Showers heads can be installed in the ceiling and walls, and shower towers contain up to a dozen different shower heads for that complete showering experience. Many towers are designed to be retrofitted to existing showers. One of the good effects of the federal restriction on shower water flow is that a modern shower uses less water than an average bath. For more on water saving, see Saving Household Water.


Acrylic or tempered glass is required by building and safety codes for use in shower doors of any kind. Tempered glass is better. It is more scratch-resistant and easier to keep clean. A shower should have a slip-resistant floor. Look for slip-resistance in any prefabricated unit, and if building a custom shower, use only rated slip-resistant tile. Also make certain any prefabricated unit includes grab bars, and install at least two grab bars in any custom unit — four is better.


Bathtubs are probably the most durable household plumbing fixture. Many stay in use for over 100 years — some are now nearly 150 years old. Nearly every home has at least one, many more than one. The tub may be supplemented by a stand-alone shower or whirlpool but at least one basic bathtub is virtually required in every American home.

No longer just a place to wash off the daily grime, tubs are becoming one of the luxury spots of the average home — a place to relax and soak away the cares of the world in deep comfort.

Bathtub Materials

Tubs not only come in a multitude of sizes, colors, and styles but in a variety of materials as well. The choice and combination depend on individual needs and tastes, as well as architectural limitations. Bathtubs are made from porcelain on steel, acrylic, fiberglass, cast iron, and cultured marble, and some more exotic materials such as stone, copper, aluminum, stainless steel, and wood (which we will not get into here).

Porcelain on Steel

Porcelain on steel is the most common type of tub sold. It consists of a one-piece thin stamped steel shell coated with heat-fused porcelain enamel. Porcelain enamel is a glass coating bonded to metal by fusion at a very high temperature. This process forms a smooth attractive finish that is resistant to acid, corrosion, or abrasion, is flameproof, colorfast, and sanitary. It also makes these units reasonably priced and relatively lightweight.

Comparing Bathtub Materials

Pros Cons
Fiberglass ($200-400)
  1.  Warm compared to steel or iron, easier on the posterior.
  2.  Lightweight. Easy to install.
  3.  Relatively inexpensive.
  4.  Wide range of sizes and styles.
  5.  Easy to repair if damaged.
  1.  Gel-coat finishes can fade over time and are not as durable as other finishes.
  2.  More flexible than iron or steel tubs and can crack if not properly installed. Installation is not a task for do-it-yourselfers.
Acrylic ($300-450)
  1.  Warm compared to steel or iron, easier on the posterior.
  2.  Acrylic will not fade or discolor.
  3.  Lightweight. Easy to install.
  4.  Relatively inexpensive. Slightly more expensive than fiberglass.
  5.  Wide range of sizes and styles.
  6.  Easy to repair if damaged.
  1.  If not properly reinforced during manufacturing, can crack and split in normal use. Go with a well-recognized name brand to avoid this issue — or let your plumber pick the tub.
  2.  More flexible than iron or steel tubs and can crack if not properly installed. Installation is not a task for do-it-yourselfers.
Steel ($350-500)
  1.  Porcelain enamel surface is very hard and unlikely to be damaged by ordinary use.
  2.  Easy to clean.
  3.  Unlikely to fade or discolor even in very deep hues. Keeps its sheen for a long, long time but eventually, the accumulation of thousands of tiny scratches will dull the surface. Fortunately, it's fairly easy to polish the enamel to restore the like-new look.
  4.  Relatively inexpensive. Slightly more expensive than fiberglass, much less expensive than iron.
  5.  Heavier than acrylic or fiberglass but not nearly as weighty as iron.
  1.  Steel tubs, especially in the economy lines, are flexible and may crack and fracture the extremely inflexible porcelain enamel surface — especially if not installed properly.
  2.  If the enamel surface is chipped, the tub will rust. Chips are easy to repair, however.
  3.  Not available in nearly as many sizes, colors, and styles as acrylic or fiberglass tubs.
Cast Iron ($400-900 but tubs from design studios can run up to $4,000 and more)
  1.  Usually has a heavier coating of enamel than steel tubs.
  2.  Very durable. Many 100-year-old tubs are still in use.
  3.  Easy to clean.
  4.  Unlikely to fade or discolor even in very deep hues. Keeps its sheen for a long, long time but eventually, the accumulation of thousands of tiny scratches will dull the surface. Fortunately, it's fairly easy to polish the enamel to restore the like-new look.
  1.  Very heavy. Installation will be more expensive simply because more labor is required just to get the tub into the bathroom and in position.
  2.  Limited sizes and shapes.
  3.  The most expensive of the standard tub materials.


Heat-formed acrylic is vacuum-molded from sheets of colored acrylic and reinforced with fiberglass to make it resistant to chips and cracks. It is economical and lightweight, and it can be repaired if damaged. Acrylic is chemically inert, immune to almost all chemicals, and requires only a mild liquid, non-abrasive cleaner to keep it looking like new. It has a natural luster, and a non-porous finish that is easy to clean but it's subject to scratching and can discolor over time — especially in strong sunlight.


Gel-coated fiberglass is generally the least expensive material for bathtubs. It is lightweight, easy to install, and can be molded into a variety of shapes. Hefty layers of fiberglass and foam insulation form a base for a smooth gel coat surface. While the finish won't last as long as other materials (it shows wear after 10 to 15 years) and can scratch or fade, it is also easily repaired and resurfaced. Many combination tub-and-shower units are made of fiberglass.

Cultured Marble

Cultured marble is a man-made product, manufactured from crushed limestone and polyester resin, with a gel-coated finish. The gel coat is specially formulated to produce a tough, durable, transparent surface resistant to normal wear. The process produces a unique range of colors, patterns, and veining. Cultured Marble is stronger and less brittle than true marble and much less likely to stain.

Cast Iron

Enamel-coated cast iron is the most durable bathtub material, and usually the most expensive. The word "cast" refers to the method used to produce the tub and has nothing to do, as many people think, with the quality of the iron used. It's just plain old iron.

The casting method involves pouring the iron in a molten or liquid form into a mold that defines the shape of the finished product. The thickness of cast iron makes its surface resistant to acids and provides outstanding protection against chipping, scratches, and dents. It's very impact resistant and displays the richest, most highly polished finish of all bath materials.

The typical glazing is thick enough that it can be buffed down several times using a process similar to buffing an automobile finish. Any but the very worse chips and dents can be refinished and restored using an epoxy glazing that is nearly as durable as the original.

These tubs are extremely heavy, and because of the weight, cast iron isn't the best choice for large tubs unless the bathroom floor is specially reinforced. Removing a cast iron tub is often a Herculean task that requires the tub be broken up into manageable pieces using sledgehammers and metal saws.

Bathtub Styles

Most bathtubs, over 80%, in fact, are designed to fit into a recess in the wall of the bath. These three-wall alcove tubs are largely an invention of the Kohler company which perfected the style in the early 1900s. They became popular in the 1940s and 50s when smaller, fitted bathrooms were introduced in post-war tract housing. The alcove tub replaced the freestanding clawfoot tub — the earliest bathtub style, adapted from the shape and size of a livestock feeding trough — its original use.

Soaking tubs have a rich history dating back to the Roman baths of antiquity. The Japanese version, the Ofuru, is popular in the U.S., particularly on the West Coast.

The newest tub style is the walk-in tub. This tub has a watertight door which eliminates having to step over and into the tub, a handy feature for those whose balance or ease of movement is impaired.

Three-Wall Alcove Tub

The most popular tub type in the UlS. and Canada today is still the basic, 5-ft. alcove model designed to be built into a three-walled inset in the bathroom. This is the tub you probably already own. Millions of these units are sold every year. There are also longer and shorter built-ins and special units that attach to two rather than three walls. There is very little style difference between any of these models, and almost no difference in quality if the tub is made by a major brand.

Freestanding Bathtub

The most familiar of these bathtubs is the clawfoot tub. There are also pedestal and other legged models. The pedestal bath is a tub on a stand or pedestal. The legged models have some kind of leg holding them off the floor. The clawfoot is just one, albeit the most popular, leg model.

Sunken/Drop-In Tub

These are tubs that mount in a hole in the floor or more commonly in a raised platform in much the same way that sinks are installed in countertops. True sunken tubs are somewhat awkward to get in and out of, so most such tubs are installed in a platform. Either way, the tub requires extra carpentry and tile work, which adds significantly to its final cost.

Corner Tub

A corner tub can be a built-in or a drop-in. They are usually installed without integrated showers under windows where they provide a handy ledge for plants, decorative items, soaps, oils, etc. Corner tubs are available in standard 5' and 6' lengths. These tend to use a lot of floor space, however, so they may not suitable for most small bathrooms. For small rooms, there are smaller tubs but tall people might not find them comfortable.

Soaking Tub

These tubs are generally installed adjacent to a shower. The shower is used for actual washing. The tubs are for relaxing after the shower. They are deep tubs, often inset into the floor or a low deck, deep enough to allow a person in a sitting position to be immersed up to his neck. Although traditionally made of wood, tile, or, more rarely, metal; soaking tubs are now commonly made of polypropylene reinforced with fiberglass, or acrylic.

Whirlpool Tub

This is just a bathtub fitted with jets that propel a current of warm water in a swirling motion. It may be of any of the types described above but is most often either an alcove or drop-in tub. Most tubs made by major manufacturers can be fitted with jets, and at least one tub maker, Jacuzzi, sells nothing else.

Walk-in Tub

The most recent addition to the world of bathtubs, the walk-in tub features a water-tight door that opens to allow the user easy access without having to step over the rim — which may be a problem for those with impaired mobility. When the door is closed, it can be filled with water just like an ordinary tub but it has to fully drain before you can open the door to get out. Most have interlock systems to prevent the door from being opened while it is full of water, and this is a feature we strongly recommend. Priced at $5,000 and more installed, we think accessible showers are a better, and more economical choice but if you are mobility limited and want a bathtub, this is probably the bathtub for you.

What to Look For in a Bathtub

One of the most hotly debated subjects in bathroom remodeling is what is the "best" bathtub. The cast iron purists scoff at the modernists who prefer acrylic and fiberglass and think cast iron is horse-and-buggy technology. In the end, however, a decision about the right tub for you is an intensely personal decision. Here are some thoughts.


Cast iron is generally the most expensive followed by steel, acrylics, and fiberglass. Fiberglass and acrylic tubs start at about $200. But, some store brands, can be bought for somewhat less. A cast iron tub will generally set you back at least $600 and will cost more to install. Plumbers charge for having to carry that 300 lb. monster up the stairs. The basic tub color is white. If you want any other color, there will usually be a surcharge. Features such as air or water jets can quickly drive up the price.

Comfort and Ergonomics

Metal tubs can be cold to the touch when first entered. Acrylic and fiberglass are not. A standard 60" (5') tub may be too short for anyone over 6' tall. A longer tub would be better if space for it can be found.

Tubs are being designed in every conceivable size and shape, of a variety of materials, and with several comfort features. The best way to choose one is to think about how it will be used, and then to go to a showroom and sit in a few models to find out what feels comfortable. (OK, you'll look stupid. But one must sacrifice a little dignity to get the perfect bathtub.)


All modern tubs, except the very lowest quality, will give years and years of good service. Most will outlast you and your house, so there is no reason to buy the most durable tub when any reasonably durable unit will do.

All tubs can develop problems. Steel can dent, acrylic and fiberglass can be cracked if hit hard enough. Cast iron can chip. Dents are tough to repair but most chips and cracks can be repaired so the damage is virtually invisible and as strong as the original. Keep n mind that with reasonable care, such damage is rare.


In a perfect world, the size of your tub should fit you. The decision, however, may be based on the simple fact of how much room you have in your bathroom. If all you have is room for a standard alcove tub, then that's what you need to buy.

Measure carefully. You cannot get a standard 60" tub in a 59" alcove. Don't assume that your old tub was a modern standard size. Before the 1950s, "standard" was a flexible concept. A standard 5' tub may have been just 57". If you are not sure a tub will fit, ask your plumber. He or she is the one who is going to install the tub and is even more interested than you are in the perfect fit.

If possible, try the tub to ensure you can easily get into and out of it. Standard alcove tubs sold as "soaking tubs" are as much as 20" deep compared to the usual 14-16". For some people, that's too deep to comfortably climb in and out.

Faucet Basics

For the money, a basic American faucet may be one of the best consumer values around. Designed to last a lifetime, all but the cheapest certainly will, and if they don't, the manufacturer will at least replace the defective parts.

Modern finishes are unlikely to flake or tarnish. Modern plating and coating processes, including electron beam physical vapor disposition, can imitate anything - brass, nickel, pewter, even gold. Epoxy coatings can keep that new finish looking new for a long time, with proper care. (Continues)

Rev. 05/20/18