Choosing what to cover your shower or tub walls with can be just as difficult as choosing flooring in your home. There really is a lot to choose from: natural stone tiles, ceramic tile, ceramic porcelain tile, (Yes, there is a difference between ceramic porcelain and ceramic!), cultured marble panels, or one-piece fiberglass or PVC shower/tub insets. Also a decision is needed on covering the walls to the ceiling or just part way.
In choosing a wall covering for your shower or tub/shower combo here are a few points to consider:
Some of these decisions will be decided by existing factors such as the size of your shower, only a tub or only a shower, whether it is a addition, remodel or just changing the existing style and decor. Stand-alone showers also have the added choice of what to do with the shower floor. Install a prefabricated shower pan, a "hot mop" shower pan, PVC or other waterproof membrane lined shower pan.
The prefabricated shower pan is generally made of PVC; you can also order pans in cultured marble or fiberglass with an acrylic coating. These types of pans sit directly on the unfinished floor (sub-floor) of the shower. The only additional work after demo of the existing shower is adding the sub-floor atop the floor joist. Once the shower pan is in place and secured, you are done with the floor.
If you are going to tile your shower floor, you have a choice of which shower pan process to complete. A "hot mop" shower pan is hot tar poured over the mortared shower floor, which is a very smoky and smelly process. This type of shower pan is not as favorable as the membrane shower pan in recent years, partly due to the hot mop shower pan tendency to leak and cause mold odor and growth in your shower. The only way of ridding that is by removal of the shower pan. The membrane shower pan is covering your mortared shower floor in a PVC liner. This has been reputed to be the longer lasting shower pan if properly installed.
Deciding to cover the walls all the way to ceiling or not is a personal choice but one that needs to be considered. The pros and cons are basic: If the walls are covered only part way to the ceiling, there is a lip or ledge to collect dust and dirt, if the walls are covered all the way to the ceiling, there is not.
Tiled walls: While a freshly tiled shower is beautiful, no matter what type of tile is used, it is necessary to perform a rigorous maintenance routine to keep it beautiful. It is necessary to clean (wash down with clean water and wipe any left over soap, shampoo or conditioner off) and dry your tiles after each shower for long lasting beauty. For natural stone tiles, remember to check any cleaning agents used for acceptable use with natural stone tiles.
Natural stone tiles are porous and absorb moisture and chemicals. Soap, shampoos and conditioners can dull your tiles over a short period of time. Mineral deposits in the water can also dull your tiles. If choosing natural stone tiles for your shower walls, be sure and seal your tiles and grout. Sealing the tile and grout is not waterproofing or a one-time application. Tile and grout sealers aid in the prevention of the tiles and grout absorbing chemicals that can damage the tile finish and be absorbed into the grout. Most manufacturers and contractors recommend that you seal the tiles and grout at least once a year.
Ceramic tiles and porcelain tiles do not require sealing, however the grout between the tiles does. As with natural stone tile, ceramic and porcelain tiles also need to be cleaned and dried after each shower for long lasting shine.
As stated above, there is a difference between ceramic porcelain and ceramic tiles. Ceramic tiles are made of clay and have a water absorption rating of more than .05% with color or design being a coating on the surface. Ceramic tiles are easily scratched or chipped and drilling holes for shower valves or tub spouts is easier than with ceramic porcelain.
Ceramic porcelain tiles are generally made by dust pressing (dust from quartz, clay, feldspar and other inorganic raw material) which causes a denser tile leading to a lower water absorption rate. To be considered porcelain tile, the water absorption rate must be less than or equal to .05%, additional classifications as to their strength and durability are also made. Porcelain is stronger than ceramic and is harder to chip, scratch and drill a hole through. Some porcelain tiles called "full body" porcelain carry the color and design throughout the thickness of the tile. These are generally more expensive.
Cultured marble panels: In past years, these panels would discolor and turn dingy looking even with proper maintenance. Heat, moisture and chemicals affected them. However today the industry claims this has been resolved. Cultured wall panels are nice for the installer, but spendy for the customer. Maintenance of cultured marble is relatively easy as there are no grout lines to contend with. A simple squeegee after the shower is all it takes. If hard water deposits accumulate, they can be removed with vinegar, to restore the shine, a gel-gloss can be applied. (Recommended for shine maintenance once a year.) For more detailed cleaning, be sure to use a product that is non-abrasive.
One-piece fiberglass or PVC shower/tub insets: These are generally used in new construction or remodel projects for the simple reason of access. These one-piece shower/tub insets will not fit through a bathroom doorway, even with the door removed. Installation is relatively easy but cumbersome. Costs can be high if a custom size is needed, but for a standard size, they are pretty inexpensive compared to installing individual components of the shower pan or tub and installing tile or cultured marble.
In choosing shower/tub wall coverings, deciding how much time you are willing to devote to maintenance of the walls after the installation can be more important than how much you want to spend on the project.