Tile Shower Surrounds

Elegant, Beautiful…. but Costly to Repair?

A stunning tile shower surround can be a homeowner’s dream and even the cornerstone of the home as part of a master bath suite that leaves everybody talking; but when tile shower surrounds are not installed well, they can fail and leak and lead to expensive, nightmare repairs.

Tile shower surrounds can be one of the more difficult systems to evaluate during a home inspection. This is because the reliability of tile depends almost exclusively on what the tile was mounted on and what it was mounted with. As you might imagine, this is not visible once the tile is installed. The following article will provide some insight into how tile systems work and what to look for so you can see for yourself if your tile shower surround is really as good as it looks.

Mortar Set Tile

In the old days, tile was mounted in a bed of mortar. We called this tile, “mortar-set,” tile and I will sometimes see homes from the 1930’s with the original Pepto-Bismol colored tile that is still in fantastic shape.  This was a beautiful way to set tile, even if the color palates of the day left a little to be desired.

Modern Tile

Fast forward to today and it can be anybody’s guess as to what products were used to set and mount your tile shower surround. Lots of homes in the 1980’s and 1990’s had tile set on “greenboard” – this is a type of sheetrock rated for wet locations, but by many accounts this was not well-suited to being inside shower surrounds. Good installers today use some type of a cement board backing system on which to mount their tile.

When it comes to adhering tile, there are dizzying arrays of products available. While a hardware store might carry dozens of brands of products, the adhesives come primarily in three types:

  • Mastics are essentially liquid glue systems and though some are rated for wet locations, many experts agree that mastics are not well-suited for the inside of a shower enclosure
  • Thin-set products more closely resemble a traditional mortar and are the most common adhesive system used in showers
  • Epoxy resin systems can be difficult and unpleasant to install (because they set so quickly and smell horrible),but they are very durable when done right

The sheer number of different products seems to invite mistakes, especially if you are not an experienced tile setter.

Inspecting your Tile Shower Surround 

When inspecting tile, I like to break down my inspection into a series of red flags. The first thing to evaluate is how professionally the tile seems to be laid. Does the overall presentation look professionally set? Off-set tile, crooked tile, pans that are not sloped to drain, drains that are poorly set, and tile that does not layout in a clean pattern are all indications of amateur installation. They make me wonder about what I cannot see behind the tile and I wonder how these will perform.

The next red flags to look for are first stages of failure. These red flags include stains on tile and grout and white mineralization stains leaching from the tile – these could indicate that water is getting behind the tile but its possible that all you need to do is clean and re-seal the tile.

The next set of red flags to watch for are signs of genuine tile failure, these red flags include cracked tile and loose tile. These could indicate a need for complete tile replacement and may conceal hidden water damage.

Orca Home Inspection Services outlines potential signs of failure in tile shower surrounds

Mineralization can indicate the first stages of water retention.

Cracked, loose and discolored tile are signs of water damage behind the tile

Cracked, loose and discolored tile is a sure sign of failure

Dylan Chalk of Orca Home Inspections is experienced with the use of moisture meters

High moisture meter reading in a pattern that indicates moisture combined with discoloration in the tile

Testing Procedures

I will often use a screw driver to gently, “sound,” the tile to see if I can hear loose tile.

I will also use a radio wave moisture meter to look for signs of water retention behind the tile. These are expensive instruments that can give false positives, so they are a diagnostic tool best left to those with experience using them.

What should you do?

If you own a tile shower surround already, be sure to clean and seal the tile; this is important annual maintenance to slow the movement of water through the tile and grout and prolong the useful life of the tile.

If you are going to install your dream tile job in your house, my advice: do it right or don’t do it at all.

  • Take time and research the best products to use
  • Prepare the job right and use reliable backing materials
  • Set the tile with materials that have a proven track record

One of my favorite alternatives to tile is the old, “cultured marble.” Think of thick slabs of plastic made to look, however modestly, like stone. While this product will not win beauty contest, I cannot tell you how many old cultured stone shower surrounds I see from the 1970’s that still seem to be working well. Sometimes, function over form is not such a bad idea, especially if you are on a budget.
Another option is using tile on the floor of the bathroom, where everyone will see the tile, and using cultured marble inside the shower where it is often obstructed by a shower curtain anyway.

I hope this helps explain an expensive maintenance item I see frequently on home inspections. Remember: knowledge is power when it comes to house hunting and home repairs.

Dylan Chalk is a home inspector and the owner of Seattle-based Orca Inspection Services LLC – www.orcainspect.com. He is also the founder of ScribeWare software offering innovative and simple report writing solutions. Follow his house-hunting tips from the field on Twitter @ https://twitter.com/dylanchalk1. Or see his blog @ http://getscribeware.com/blog

Dylan Chalk

Dylan Chalk is the owner of Seattle-based Orca Inspection Services LLC – www.orcainspect.com. He is the founder of ScribeWare inspection report software offering innovative and simple report-writing solutions – www.getscribeware.com. He is also the author of The Confident House Hunter – a book to teach home buyers how to look at and understand houses: Cedar Fort Press Due out July 2016 – www.dylanchalk.com

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