What do you do with a washed-up bathtub? You could replace it with a new one, but that's not an easy proposition. Most tubs are set in an alcove or corner, lapped by the flooring and wall finishes to create a watertight seal and tied down in at least two places by plumbing. If you're ready for a full-scale bathroom remodel, replacing the tub makes sense. If you're not, you're looking at creating a real mess and spending $2,000 to $3,000 for little visual change. But two better options are available to price-conscious homeowners with tubs in need of a face-lift: tub liners and tub refinishing. Both add years of life to an existing tub at a fraction of the cost of full-scale replacement— and in a fraction of the time.Tub Liners "Some people collect art, others collect old cars, but my boss collects tubs," says John Heckenlaible, marketing director for Re-Bath, a Mesa, Arizona—based company that has been making tub liners since the 1970s and today is the nation's largest franchiser of tub-lining products, with almost 100 installers in 47 states. Another national company, Luxury Bath Systems of Bensenville, Illinois, has its own collection. With these old tubs reliner companies create exact molds, which they use to make liners that fit tubs perfectly, wherever they're installed and whatever shape they're in.
Here's how the process works:
A local installer sends precise measurements and photographs of the tub to company headquarters. The company identifies the model, pulls it off the shelf and with a sheet of 1/4-in. ABS acrylic—the same material football helmets and airplane windshields are made of—vacuum-forms an exact mold of the tub. The result is a 35-lb. liner that slips over the tired tub like a new glove. To install it, the local rep cleans the old tub with denatured alcohol, removes the drain and overflow and trims the liner so it fits snugly against the walls. Then, using a combination of two-sided butyl tape and silicone adhesive, he attaches the liner to the old tub. He finishes up by installing a new drain and overflow, and caulking the seams. Once the liner is delivered, which can take four to eight weeks, a single workman can install it in six to eight hours, and the homeowner can bathe in it that same evening.
Reglazing, or refinishing, a worn-out bathtub is a more site-intensive process, calling for chemicals that are hazardous enough to require a respirator and special protective suit for the technician who does the work. "Basically, a refinisher turns a residential bathroom into a spray booth for a few hours," explains Mike Grampp, who runs a thriving 11-year-old tub refinishing business in Richmond, Kentucky.
The first step in reglazing involves masking the surfaces around the tub to protect from overspray and properly venting the bathroom to extract the toxic fumes. After he has removed the caulk, the refinisher swathes the tub in hydrofluoric acid, a highly toxic agent that not only dissolves what's left of the porcelain glaze but also etches the surface so the new finish will adhere.
Next, the refinisher washes away the hydrofluoric acid, installs new caulk and dries the tub with the help of a fan. He then sprays on two coats of a fast-drying epoxy to promote adhesion of the finish coats. To finish, he gives the tub a cleaning with a tack cloth to remove any dust particles or insects, and then sprays four applications of a polyurethane finish coat with sanding in between. Finally, the refinisher polishes the tub. The whole process takes a single technician about four to six hours, depending on how extensive the repair is, but the tub needs to cure for a minimum of 24 hours before the water is turned on.
Which is for You? There's no question liners are more durable than refinished tubs. Indeed, Re-Bath shows off the resilience of its product in its San Jose, California, showroom by banging them with a hammer. But liners also cost much more -- they run $800 to $1,000 installed. Plus, you'll be given a sales pitch to install panels of acrylic wall liners around the tub. The panels come in as many as 20 colors, with marbleized varieties, too, and run about $150 for an 8-ft. model. Refinishing a tub, on the other hand, costs $200 to $450. Although most customers choose white, refinishing is available at a slightly higher price in virtually any color that paint is, compared with the five or so colors (generally white, almond, biscuit, gray and black) most liner companies offer. The Reglazing Company, in Lubbock, Texas, charges $195, while Surface Doctor, a Colorado Springs, Colorado, refinishing company with 120 franchisees throughout the U.S., charges an average of $345. "We're rarely the cheapest in town," says Chuck Pistor, president of Surface Doctor, "but with no barriers to entry, anyone can say they're a refinisher, and you often get what you pay for." Pistor, in fact, acknowledges that fly-by-night refinishers have tainted the industry's reputation: "People hear stories that it peels, or it won't last," he says. "We have to explain that there are differences among refinishers, and that it's a great product if it's done with the right materials and techniques." Liners have their drawbacks, too, particularly with regard to esthetics. Some people like the clean, simple lines of the liner look, but if you've got an older tub with some character and definition in the skirt, liners have a hard time replicating them. In addition, liners are plastic and they look plastic. And if there is leakage around the liner and water gets under it, it can be squishy and smelly, and difficult to deal with. Warranties vary widely for both products. Grampp Tub Refinishing offers a 5-year limited warranty, while dealers for Luxury Bath Systems are all over the map, offering 3- to 10-year to lifetime warranties. Surface Doctor offers a 5-year warranty on its refinishing, but, says Pistor, "It'll last 10 to 15 years if you take care of it." Warns Luxury's president Davis Glassberg, "Be skeptical of a company that's only been in business six months offering a lifetime guarantee. Also, read the warranty on your contract. What they are covering is just as important as the terms of the warranty. An unconditional warranty is a lot better than a limited one." Both industries shy away from working on fiberglass tubs, and most liner companies won't do jetted tubs, nor will they line claw-foot tubs. Chipped, dented or even rusted-through tubs are no problem, however, but be prepared to pay more if repairs are necessary.
Tips for Picking a Company You'll find refinishing and tub lining companies in the yellow pages and on the Internet, but the best advice is to act as you would when hiring any contractor -- by asking lots of questions. First of all, get recommendations from friends and neighbors. Also obtain references from the salesperson (and check them!), and find out how much training the installer has had (Re-Bath requires a nine-day course). "Word-of-mouth is our best advertising," says Davis Glassberg, of Luxury Bath Systems. "Ask how long the company has been in business, too," he adds. If you're considering a tub liner, determine whether the company has your exact tub model before you sign a contract. Call the headquarters where molds are made if you don't get a convincing answer. Also avoid companies that use PVC liners. They are less expensive, but they tend to yellow with age, and they are thinner than acrylic. Because there's no regulation or certification of this industry, ask for product-safety data sheets on adhesives and any other chemicals that will be used. Different refinishers use different chemicals, and you should be skeptical of any claim that the solvents are "safe." They may well be after they've been washed away or once they have dried, but make sure the refinisher ventilates the room thoroughly, and cautions you to stay away from the work area until the fumes are gone. If you follow these suggestions, you will get a safe installation as well as a tub that looks brand-new.Where to Find It: American Bath Co.
N. Babylon, NY 11703
800/615-8066 Grampp Tub Refinishing
330 Moberly Ave.
Richmond, KY 40475
859/623-4796 Luxury Baths Systems
232 James St.
Bensenville, IL 60106
1055 S. Country Club Dr.
Mesa, AZ 85210
800/426-4573 The Reglazing Company
5228 34th St.
Lubbock, TX 79407
806/797-1000 Surface Doctor
Colorado Springs, CO 80918