Ceramic shower stalls no longer a problem

Friday, September 30th, 2005

Once prone to leaks and crumbling tiles, trouble-free ceramic tile showers are now easily installed

Steve Maxwell

The Kerdi drain cutaway for a shower drain designed to keep a shower in tip-top condition.

Installing the waterproofing material for ceramic tile showers from Schluter Systems

Every time I step into a ceramic tile shower and turn on the water, I’m jealous. How can any other shower experience compare with the solidity of the tiles underfoot, the sharp sound of water splashing against hard surfaces and the inviting warmth that builds in the walls and floor after squandering gallons of hot water on yourself?

I’ve tried to convince myself that the practicality of a fibreglass shower stall makes so much more sense. But somehow, that doesn’t cut it.

The only consolation I had up until now is that ceramic tile shower stalls are often risky and troublesome to build for all but the most experienced tradespeople. That’s why I opted for a serviceable, fibreglass unit when I outfitted the bathroom in my own house more than 10 years ago. But now, even that solace is lost to me.

Thanks to advances in shower installation, the old threat of leaky, crumbling ceramic shower stalls is a thing of the past. Diligent do-it-yourselfers can complete a first-rate job building a reliable ceramic tile shower, while professionals will enjoy speedier installation times. The key has to do with what goes underneath your tiles.

Traditionally, the main challenge with ceramic tile shower stalls has always centred on the difficulties of waterproofing. While it’s easy to find waterproof tiles, the grout between them are a different matter. Even when coated with sealer, you can’t expect three or four millimetres of porous, site-mixed grout to keep water out forever. And unless the tiles and grout are installed over a waterproof, sub-surface membrane, water leakage will eventually cause loose tiles and rotten wood. Then there’s always the perennial threat of water leakage around drain outlets.

This is the kind of trouble master tile setter Werner Schluter sought to solve when he began to market hardware and accessories designed to improve traditional ceramic tile installations.

The Schluter Shower System is a case in point, and it uses specialized, synthetic materials to create a waterproof pan and wall system that readily accepts ceramic tiles. And it even includes a substantial made-in-Canada component. This isn’t the only foundation for a durable shower, but it’s one of the most foolproof.

The base of the Shower System, or pan as it’s called in the trade, is made of high-density expanded polystyrene foam and comes in two parts that dovetail together on the floor as they nestle into a coat of thin-set mortar.

This is the part of the system that’s made in Canada for international sales. The pan includes a pre-punched, central hole to accommodate the drain flange system that comes with the kit. A third piece of foam forms the 15-centimetre-high curb that keeps water within the pan during use.

The Shower System also includes enough synthetic, non-woven fabric material, Kerdi, to cover the inside of the shower stall framework and make it waterproof. Perhaps the best part of the Schluter kit is the detailed instructional video that comes on CD-ROM. It’s readable on both Mac and PC computers and provides a field-worthy overview of the installation process.

Never installed tiles before, but want to try? There are two excellent resources. The first is a book, Setting Tile, by Michael Byrne. It’s a classic, covering all the traditional tile setting techniques, including detailed information on cutting and securing ceramics.

A more recent information product is a pair of videos (also available on DVD) put out by Hank (The Tile Doctor) Visser. One is on floor installations, and the other covers showers. It’s the video equivalent of following a kind, knowledgeable and patient 40-year veteran of the tile setting trade while he completes several jobs. You can learn more about the videos at www.hankthetiledoctor.com, or order by fax at 1-231-275-3116. He even extends a standing offer to answer technical questions by e-mail. Although the videos do come from the United States, they crossed the border easily for me.

Steve Maxwell is technical editor of Canadian Home Workshop magazine. Send questions to [email protected]

© The Vancouver Sun 2005

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