Invented as a way to wash off fast, showers have evolved into a prized source of relaxation, often with spa-like amenities. Steam shower with colored lights and piped-in playlists, anyone?
No wonder showers account for 17 percent of a typical household’s water bill. That’s led to a new generation of showerheads designed to put less water to better use. Thermostatic valves have done away with the shock of temperature swings, exposed shower risers have turned into design statements, and panels of frameless glass show off artfully tiled walls and invite in natural light.
Add built-in niches for essentials, a handheld shower, and a built-in bench, if there’s room. If you’re craving something more special, consider body sprays set in the walls, a steam shower setup, and radiant floor heat to take the chill off all that tile.
How Much Does a Shower Remodel Cost?
Do plan on making an investment: Baths in general cost more per square foot to renovate than other parts of the house, partly because running plumbing is pricey and making wet areas watertight, well lit, and ventilated requires a host of skills. “As with any renovation, an experienced GC can help you decide where to spend and where to save,” says architect Jerry Allan of Afton, MN, who adds that clients often come to him with photos found online and little idea of what is needed to achieve the look they are after.
Even if all you are doing is rebuilding your old leaky shower in the same place but with better waterproofing and updated finishes, it pays to read up on best practices and product choices. Start here.
How Big Should Your Shower Be?
Figure out the footprint. One budget-wise and space-efficient solution for creating a nice-size shower is to take over a tub alcove, typically 3 by 5 feet. Even a 3-foot-square space can work well, and “You don’t need to go wider than 42 inches,” says South Carolina designer Sandra Gaylord.
Considering a shower big enough for two? If you’ve got at least 60 inches in length, you may be able to put a showerhead at each end. When possible, Gaylord likes to place mixer controls toward the room side of the shower in lieu of centering them, or on the wall opposite the showerhead if it works with the design. This allows for turning on the water without getting soaked, and, she adds, “it just looks nicer.” Regardless, make sure the controls are easy to reach when you’re standing outside the shower.
Determine Your Drain Location
If you’re rebuilding in kind without making changes to the shower’s size and shape, you’ll save money by keeping the drain where it is. And if the footprint is a standard size and shape, a prefab shower pan that’s presloped toward the drain will also save time and money—one made of solid polyurethane that’s tile-ready can deliver good performance and a high-end look. To move the drain, expect to pay $300 to $600. A new drain with a horizontal outlet and a thick foam board to elevate it (Kerdi-Drain-H and Kerdi-Shower-CB, $164; Schluter) allows you to locate the replacement up to 3 feet away from your existing pipe.
Plan for extras. Review the plumbing plan with your contractor, making sure the shower valve and showerhead are at a comfortable height, as well as any body sprays—and that they meet local water-usage code. Block out spots for niches, along with a grab bar or two—handy if only when scrubbing your feet—and a bench if space allows. If a steam unit is on your list, you’ll need spots for steam heads and wired controls, plus a steam generator outside the shower. More wiring may be needed for in-floor heat and the latest smart controls.
Two Ways to Waterproof Your Shower
In both of these This Old House-approved methods, a shower’s walls and floor are covered with waterproof materials before the tile goes down.
Mortar bed + membrane
Mark Ferrante and his son and partner, Erik, have tiled showers for Silva Brothers for 30 years and “never had one leak,” Mark says. Their old-school secret: a custom soldered copper pan packed with a thick bed of mortar, which provides a stable substrate for tile. But first, they cover the mortar bed with two coats of a two-part, liquid waterproofing membrane, and skim-coat the walls with thinset—twice. With wait time, the job takes three days.
Prefab foam components
Tiling pro Alex Perez, who works with This Old House home builder Jeff Sweenor, is glad his days of lugging heavy cement board and waiting for plumbers to install pans and drains are behind him. With the lightweight Kerdi-Board foam wall and floor panels and related curb assembly (Schluter), all of which come covered with a waterproof, thinset-compatible membrane, he can prep a 36-by-36-inch stall in just 6 hours, then start tiling.
It’s easier to tile up to the straight edges of a square drain cover than to nibble tiles to fit around circular ones. Trough-style linear drains only require the shower floor to slope in one direction, and are most often placed along the shower’s back wall. Some linear drain covers accept tile. Others, known as wall drains, are located behind a narrow gap at the base of the back wall.
Types of Shower Doors
Frameless glass is widely available today, but style choices still abound. Just don’t forget to hang a squeegee—clear glass is subject to water spotting.
Open and shut
Sheets of glass create an airy feel. Hinges can be adjusted to allow doors to swing into the shower, so wet doors can drip inside the enclosure.
Shown: Dreamline Unidoor Frameless Hinged Shower Door in Oil-Rubbed Bronze, $719; Kitchen & Bath Authority
Where space is tight, a splash guard—a panel that’s hinged or stationary—can suffice. Works best for bathers who are careful where they aim the spray.
Shown: Vigo Zenith Frameless Fixed Shower Door in Black, $440; The Home Depot
Folding doors can be a solution when there’s no room to get by a fixed panel or to accommodate a door swing.
Shown: Basco Infinity Semi-Frameless Bifold Shower Door, about $500; Wayfair
A sliding door hung from a track with wheels meets a fixed panel (or another slider for bypass doors), eliminating a space-hogging door swing.
Shown: Dreamline Enigma XO Fully Frameless Shower Door in Oil-Rubbed Bronze, $800; Lowe’s
Black grids give doors an industrial edge reminiscent of factory windows.
Shown: Delta Everly Frameless Mod Soft-Close Sliding Shower Door in Matte Black with Ingot Glass, $571; The Home Depot
No Shower Door
This enclosure makes the most of a small space, with no curb or door to contend with. A ceiling-high glass sidewall ushers in light.
Similar to shown: Vigo Meridian Framed Fixed Glass Panel, about $420; Wayfair
Barrier-Free Shower Enclosures
Barrier-free shower enclosures are not only accommodating but also space enhancing, as they impart a luxurious, spa-like feel.
Some things to keep in mind:
- For a shower floor to sit flush with the rest of the bathroom, the framing under the shower pan has to be lowered, or the floor outside the shower has to be raised.
- Position the drain as far away from the shower door as possible, and extend the pan’s waterproofing membrane at least 4 inches up adjacent walls and at least a foot beyond the pan’s edge (farther can’t hurt).
- Be sure to aim the spray away from the door.
4 Things About Shower Fittings
While a showerhead can deliver the goods without breaking the bank, expect to invest in quality valves, controls, and even finishes if you’re after a certain look.
1. Weight matters
That’s one way plumbing pro Kevin Bilo assesses quality valves and fittings: “A cast-bronze or -brass valve body is going to last longer and give you fewer problems than one with lightweight parts.”
The same applies to other fittings. Painted plastic won’t weigh as much, or hold up as well, as solid brass with an electroplated or PVD (physical vapor deposition) finish.
Bilo also recommends valves with ceramic-disc cartridges, which stand up to the gritty minerals that may flow through pipes better than old-style washerless cartridges.
2. Suss out the showerhead
Ones that let loose 2 gallons of water per minute or less earn the coveted EPA WaterSense label, inspiring manufacturers to get creative in achieving maximum sense of drench.
Look for those with easy-to-clean silicone nozzles that aim for full-shoulder coverage, and spray controls that are easy to work. The best showerheads use pressure-compensating flow controls to make the spray feel fuller—like air infusion (Grohe and Kohler), window-wiper-style motion (Delta), crisscrossing patterns (Speakman), or a spiraling spray (Moen)—to trick the body into thinking it’s experiencing heavy rain.
Adjustable sprays can offer differing sensations, from soft to intense. Rain showers are designed to hit the top of your head first, but don’t assume they will deliver more water than wall-mount showerheads.
3. A hand-shower is handy
It can be docked high or low, on or off the shower riser, and unhooked for a targeted spray—also useful when cleaning the walls. Typically, there’s a toggle between the handshower and the showerhead, though some newer systems allow simultaneous use. There are also combo fittings (like the one at left) that make use of an existing valve.
Shown: Retrofit System 260, $848; Grohe
4. A thermostatic valve gives better control
It adds a few hundred dollars to your project, but offers safety and convenience a standard pressure-balance valve cannot. The latter will prevent scalding if a toilet flushes while you’re showering, but doesn’t offer easy or foolproof temperature setting.
With thermostatic valves, you get two controls, one for volume, the other for temperature—the second of which you can set and forget. These valves automatically and quickly adjust the water to within a degree (or less) of your desired temperature.
Shown: Delancy Collection Two-Handle Thermostat Valve and Trim, from $225; American Standard
Shower Vents and Lighting
The right light: Plan for one or two recessed ceiling fixtures in the shower ceiling. They must be UL-rated for wet locations, with sealed gaskets to stop moisture from getting into the ceiling cavity. Master electrician Heath Eastman recommends low-profile LED fixtures, which save energy and will operate for years before flickering out. Wire them to a separate GFCI-protected switch outside the shower, and equip the switch with a dimmer for late nights and early A.M.
Vent fan basics: A properly sized bath vent fan—with at least 1 cfm of airflow per square foot of bathroom floor—will suck out moisture that can otherwise condense on ceilings, walls, and mirrors, contributing to peeling paint and mildew growth. A fan located inside a shower enclosure must be wet-rated and installed with GFCI protection.
Look for quiet operation, with a sound level of 1 sone or less—so quiet you might forget it’s running. To eliminate that kind of guesswork, choose an Energy Star–certified fan that will turn on automatically when it senses rising humidity, with a timer you can set to run for at least 20 minutes once the water’s shut off. Want a vent fan with a built-in light? Eastman suggests wiring a separate switch for each function.
Shown: Panasonic’s WhisperSense DC fan with LED light has built-in moisture and motion sensors. $290; The Home Depot
Meet the wet-area room
Borrow a European idea and make an entire bath space waterproof. In a true wet room there’s no shower enclosure—the whole room is tiled—and the drain is centered.
But the air can get cold, and not everyone wants to squeegee every surface that gets soaked. Many new baths are including a so-called wet area, where shower and bath are coupled on one side of a transparent room divider. Keep in mind that the whole area needs to be finished like a shower enclosure—think about tiling the ceiling as well as the walls—and you will need separate drains for a tub and a shower.
A vent fan coupled with a heating element can provide warmth and moisture control. In-floor radiant heat will help tiled floors dry faster.
Shower Wall Options
Shower-wall surfaces are moving toward the monolithic, with large-format porcelain tiles—measuring 2 by 4 feet and more—and stone or stone-look slabs (akin to countertop material) becoming increasingly popular.
It’s a dramatic, uninterrupted look with the bonus of sidestepping grout’s many issues, including vulnerability to stains, mold, and water penetration.
Because natural stone is heavy and may need sealing, thinly sliced engineered stone and solid surfacing are on the rise. The best new products are as durable as natural stone, more stain resistant, and easier to install—the lighter, the better. One product that’s making waves: Cosentino’s Dekton Slim sintered stone slabs, which come 4 mm thick and as large as 126 by 57 inches (from $58 per square foot, uninstalled).
Adding to the seamless look, the line offers large-format floor tiles with a “grip” finish to match.
No floor is slip-proof, but you need to get it as close to that as you can. Small tiles about 1 1⁄2 or 2 inches in diameter are skid-resistant because there are lots of grout lines, but tile with a grippy surface is even better.
Shop for matte-finish tile that feels sandy or textured, like unglazed quarry tile or a naturally rough or honed stone. If you prefer larger-format tile, look for the “dynamic coefficient of friction” (DCOF) rating, the result of voluntary testing that tile products undergo.
DCOF RATING 0.42 OR HIGHER WHEN WET = GOOD SLIP RESISTANCE
On occasion, a window interrupts an exterior shower wall. If you don’t want to close it up and sacrifice the natural light it provides, This Old House general contractor Tom Silva recommends installing a unit made of waterproof fiberglass and treating it on the inside just as you would on the outside of the house.
Once you’ve taken the steps below, he suggests installing a shower curtain above the window and closing it when the shower is in use, both for privacy and to protect the opening from water.
- Protect the rough opening by applying a waterproofing membrane to all exposed wood framing.
- Use cellular PVC trim to cover the window’s edges.
- Caulk around the trim with a mildew-resistant sealant, except along the bottom edge; that way, any water that gets past the trim can escape.