Question

I am having trouble finding information on companies that manufacture tub surrounds/walls that are made of low-VOC materials.

Asked by Denise
O Fallon, MO

I am in the process of designing a home for new construction. I am trying to utilize as many eco-friendly products as possible to have the best indoor air quality possible. One of the areas that I am not able to find information on is manufacturers of tub surround/wall units that utilize materials that have little offgassing of VOCs. Any suggestions?

Answer

Molly McCabe, AKBD, CGP, CAPS

Answered by Molly McCabe, AKBD, CGP, CAPS

Bainbridge Island, WA

A Kitchen That Works LLC

February 9, 2011

Dear Denise,

First, I am going to assume that you mean a surround for a combined tub/shower unit (full-height walls).

Fiberglass and acrylic

That said, when I think of "manufactured" tub surrounds the only materials that come to mind are fiberglass and acrylic.

  • Fiberglass surrounds are nasty all the way around: they offgas, they rank low on the durability scale, they are high on maintenance, especially if you live in an area with hard water, and they're typically unattractive.
  • Acrylic surrounds are definitely a step up, but you will not find a lot of choice. Big box retailers have a limited selection of acrylic-surround wall panel kits starting around $350, and Kohler has some acrylic bath-surround combination units that run anywhere from $2,800-$6,500 and are focused on the ADA market. They will offgas some, but not much; they are durable and somewhat attractive.

One strategy for the offgassing is to uncrate the unit and allow it to air out before installing it. Sterling, a division of Kohler, has "value priced" units made of a proprietary material called Vikree (a poly resin and fiberglass composite), but based on my own preview of this product, I would venture to guess that it will offgas, the durability will be lower than acrylic, and the maintenance will be higher.

Solid surface materials like Corian

My favorite tub surround material, especially for bathrooms used by kids, is solid surface, or what most people think of as Corian (with the exception of SwanStone -- not a product I recommend for a variety of reasons, including appearance, durability and fabrication issues).

  • Note that Corian is just one brand of many in the solid surface class.
  • Although solid surface is a petrochemical based product, I would class it as a “green product” because of its high durability and very, very low-maintenance qualities, which can render a very long service life, effectively reducing replacements.
  • When it does hit the landfill, it is essential inert, and some solid surface products have recycled content.

When installed as a tub surround, this product renders very few joints, thus potential for water intrusion is minimized and grout maintenance is not required. However, you will need to re-caulk every once in a while.

There is virtually no offgassing from the product after installation. Please note: the caulks and epoxies that are approved by the major solid surface manufacturers are not low-VOC. My recommendation is that if you are sensitive to VOCs that you not be present when the surround is being installed, and ask that an extraction fan be turned on during the installation.

Lastly, you can clean a solid surface surround with nontoxic cleansers such as baking soda and water or borax and water.

Solid surface surrounds can be quite pricey but well worth considering. Solid surface material panels come in ¼” and ½” thicknesses.

  • Typically the ¼” panels come in a limited number of solid colors while the ½” ones come in a wide variety of patterns and colors.
  • To help minimize the cost, use ¼” panels on the walls and “trim” them out with a contrasting color/pattern band (you could also use the band color on the vanity top to bring a cohesive look to the room).

Large format tiles

If solid surface is not your thing, you can consider large-format tiles such as 12”x12” or even natural stone slabs (slabs will require periodic resealing).

  • These options will minimize grout lines and therefore the associated maintenance with tile grout.
  • The cost of the tile/slab option will again be significantly higher than fiberglass surround but will probably make you happier in the end.

Regardless of what you choose, always remember to use your bathroom exhaust fan and squeegee the walls after every shower to minimize moisture issues in the bathroom and the associated maintenance that moisture can create.

Tagged In: home air quality, durability

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