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Refinishing, liners and kits are three ways to renew a tub

Saturday, May 04, 2002

By Gretchen McKay

There's nothing like a worn or stained bathtub to make your bathroom appear washed-out and in need of a facelift. Ditto with that sherbet-green or salmon-colored tub and tile surround left over from the '50s and '60s.

So what's a homeowner to do, short of spending upward of $10,000 on a full-blown bathroom remodel?

Ed Ryan of DreamMaker Bath & Kitchen strips the old glaze from a bathtub before the new glaze can be applied. (Robin Rombach, Post-Gazette)

One alternative is to hire a plumber to remove the old tub and put in something new, which could cost $2,000 to $3,000 and weeks of inconvenience.

Or, if you've got the time and physical strength, you could grab a sledge hammer and smash the old cast-iron tub into pieces yourself, trek over to the local home improvement center and, for as little as $100, replace that beat-up bath with a modern acrylic or fiberglass model. That's assuming, of course, that you know something about plumbing and are skilled enough to repair inevitable damage to the walls and/or floor.

Or, you can opt for a tub liner or tub refinishing. Both are relatively easy on the pocketbook and in most cases, can be completed in a day or two -- freeing up your time and money for other projects. So what's the difference?

Tub liners

Tub liners are exactly what they sound like -- a custom-molded form that slips snugly over your existing bath without disturbing the walls, tiles, plumbing or floors. Made of high-gloss, impact-resistant acrylic, they take a day or two to install.

Two of the area's leading installers are Re-Bath (412-782-7473; http://www.re-bath.net/), which began manufacturing liners in 1979 and today has more than 100 dealers nationwide, and Bath Fitter (724-728-3770 or 800-645-6317; http://www.bathfitter.com/), a 35-year-old company with more than 100 franchises across the United States.

Installers begin by carefully measuring the tub or tub/wall system, to identify the manufacturer, make and model, and then send those measurements to company headquarters. Re-Bath's inventory boasts about 700 custom molds, including a few for clawfoot tubs; Bath Fitter has more than 500 molds. Once ordered, it takes six to eight weeks to manufacture the liner.

Once the liner arrives from the factory, installers clean the existing tub with alcohol and remove the drain and overflow. After trimming the liner to size, they attach it to the tub using two-sided butyl tape and pure silicone adhesives. The last step: replacing the drain and overflow. With Bath Fitter's one-piece construction, that's it. Re-Bath's wall systems come in separate panels that require caulking on the seams.

"The convenience of this product is that it only takes one day," says Gene DeChancie, general manager of Re-Bath. "And you don't have the fuss and mess created by tearing out plaster and tile."

Tub liners start at about $850, while a tub liner and full wall surround usually ranges between $2,200 and $3,000. For an additional cost, accessories such as domed ceilings, soap dishes, shampoo caddies, shelves and towel or grab bars can be added. Re-Bath and some other companies offer shower pan liners.

One big advantage of tub liners is that they are extremely durable -- that is, they will not crack, peel, rust or mildew. And because acrylic is non-porous, it won't accumulate soap scum or dirt like porcelain. Extremely easy to clean, they're also highly stain resistant.

With proper care (no abrasive cleaners or using anything that stains, such as hair dye, in the tub) a tub liner should last 20 years or more. The only maintenance is recaulking any joints every three years or so.

Tub refinishing

In most cases, refinishing a tub is a one-day project. It is more labor-intensive than installing a liner, however, and can involve the use of hazardous chemicals (and a respirator). Perma Ceram (724-935-0364 or 800-999-0364; http://www.permaceramofpgh.com/) and DreamMaker Bath & Kitchen (412-885-4440; http://www.dreammaker-remodel.com), formerly GNU Tub of Pittsburgh, are two national companies that have reglazed thousands of tubs since entering the refinishing business in the '70s.

After removing any existing caulking, installers clean the surface of the tub with a chemical cleaner to remove any traces of oil, grease or soap. They then prepare the surface for a chemical bonding agent by acid etching the tub to remove any remaining glaze. Next, they sand the surface, scrape off any decals and make necessary repairs (rust around the drain, nicks or cracks in the enamel). After wiping the tub down and masking off the area to be refinished, installers spray on a chemical bonding agent/primer and finally, three top coats of glaze.

For most tubs, the whole process takes four to six hours. The refinished tubs then must sit unused for at least 12 hours before turning on the water. (Because they don't use harsh chemicals, which speed up drying time, DreamMaker refinished tubs can't be used for about three days.)

A standard 60-inch tub typically costs between $400 and $500 to reglaze. Reglazing the surrounding tile, a popular option, adds $200 or more to the price.

Most tubs get worn out over the years because homeowners have sanded off the glaze with harsh cleaning products, says Gene Brannon, owner of the Pittsburgh franchise of Perma Ceram, which refinishes thousands of tubs a year in the Tri-State area.

"We were brought up on Ajax," he says.

When the company first set up shop in 1974, Brannon says, all of the tubs it refinished were old-fashioned porcelain cast-iron tubs. Today, fiberglass tubs account for 30 percent of business.

Reglazing appeals to those who don't like the look of plastic or desire something out of the ordinary. Whereas tub liners come in only a handful of colors, reglazing can be done in any hue. Or, maybe you have one of those old, gloriously deep tubs and the only thing that's wrong with it is it's a bit worn.

"If you had a car with a perfect motor and gorgeous interior but the paint job had faded, you wouldn't drive it to a junk yard and hand over the keys. You'd get it repainted," says Brannon. "This is the same concept."

Properly maintained, reglazing should last 15 years or more, refinishers say. Keep in mind, though, that while a reglazed tub isn't exactly fragile, it can be chipped or cracked if you drop something hard onto it, like a can of shaving cream, a metal shaver or even a plastic shampoo bottle with a sharp cap on it.

Tricky for do-it-yourselfers

Looking to save even more money? At least two companies offer do-it-yourself tub refinishing kits.

TubbyUSA's kit comes with everything you need to cover a 5-foot bathtub (sandpaper, hardeners, paint, rollers, cleaners) and costs just $63, plus shipping (800-218-8318; http://www.tubbyusa.com/).

Integrity Refinishing Coatings' standard kit costs $150, plus $30 shipping, and will cover up to four tubs; custom colors cost an additional $25. Users, however, will need access to a HVLP sprayer (800-773-7336; http://www.integritycoatings.com/).

But buyer beware: The key to a great refinishing job is great preparation. Even the tiniest gap between the drain flange and the porcelain can start a peeling reaction. So can any residue left after the etching process. Much of Perma Ceram's business, in fact, is repairing botched DIY jobs, says Brannon.

"If you don't have something for the paint to properly bond to, it's a nightmare," he says. "It's a very temporary fix, not a long-term solution."

There's a downside to liners, too. If water gets between the liner and the walls, it will get stagnant and smelly and be difficult to repair. And there's no getting around the fact that they just don't look like porcelain. It also can be difficult to replicate the delicate curves on many older tubs.

Whatever method you choose, be sure to take these precautions to avoid being ripped off. Ask the company rep for three or four references -- and then actually take the time to make those calls. Also, check with the Better Business Bureau (http://www.pittsburgh.bbb.org/, 412-456-2700) to determine if there are complaints against the firm. In addition, ask to see the product warranty since they can vary widely.

Brannon also cautions homeowners to ask the rep how long the company has been in business; you might even want to investigate if they actually have a place of business and aren't working out of the back of their truck. Anybody can go to the store, buy some paint and hang up a shingle, says Brannon, "so there are a lot of shysters out there."

Gretchen McKay covers homes and real estate for the Post-Gazette.

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