Q: We have a spare bedroom and bath in the basement of our house. The stall shower had been lined with wall board with a vinyl or Formica-type surface. After more than 20 years of infrequent use in a damp basement, the surface began to blister.
We had a local handyman replace the shower enclosure with similar new paneling in 2005. The stuff he used is called melamine-faced panels, “ideal for tubs, showers and kitchens.” I believe he bought it at Home Depot. After only one year, the bottom 4 to 5 inches above the shower pan began to discolor, then essentially turned to mush — and the shower is no longer usable. The backing on the board is just pressed wood.
Fortunately, we have two showers in the upper floors, so it’s not a disaster, but if we do it again, obviously we don’t want to use the same stuff. What type of paneling should be used, and do you have any guesses as to why the stuff we used disintegrated? We can hardly go after the handyman because the stuff he used says it’s ideal for the purpose.
A: To state the obvious, the reason the shower panels failed is the exposure to water. The backing, not the melamine face, is the culprit.
Our readers may recognize the melamine polymer in its more common form: dinnerware. Melamine plates, cups and saucers are staples in families with little kids because they are attractive, hold their designs and are virtually unbreakable. As a facing for a shower panel, they are impervious to water and easily cleaned. The backing, on the other hand, is probably made of medium-density fiberboard, a composite product made of wood waste and resin.
If water gets behind the melamine face to the backing, the panels will fail. If the joint created where the panel meets the shower pan is not well caulked, water from a shower wicks up the panel backing and causes discoloration, flaking, bubbling and ultimately disintegration. We think that both panel failures were caused this way.
Rather than recommend another type of paneling for the shower, we suggest you consider the following options:
1. If this is a do-it-yourself project, as it would be for us, we suggest you go with ceramic tile over a cement backer board. For a 3-by-3-foot shower covering three walls 6 feet high, materials should cost in the neighborhood of $300, assuming a standard 4-inch tile available at home centers. The sealed grout, tile and cement backer board, when properly installed, create a water barrier that will last for decades.
We’ve always found tile setting to be fun and satisfying. The investment for basic tools is small, and if a wet saw is required for the job, it can be rented for a day. Basic tools include a trowel, a tile cutter, tile nippers, a couple of sponges, a grout float and a plastic bucket or two. A basement shower is the perfect place to hone your new skill. The learning curve is not very steep, and the mistakes you do make won’t be as apparent as they might be in the master bath.
2. If you’d rather not tile, another alternative is to replace the failed melamine panels with extruded plastic panels. Or you could go one better and replace the shower pan also and install a one-piece plastic shower unit. A word of caution here: If you decide to go this route, measure the shower unit and the doors in the house to make sure you can get the shower from the delivery truck to the basement.
We’d suggest you go this route if you’re looking to hire the job out. Installation can be tricky, so it’s better left to someone who has done it before. To protect yourself, we suggest you make sure the worker is licensed, bonded and insured.