Q. I would like to purchase a bathtub. Is there any difference between porcelain over steel, fiberglass, or the ABS heavy-duty plastic tubs?
A. There are three primary types of tub and shower units - less cast or steel. They are gel-coated fiberglass, acrylic reinforced with fiberglass., and acrylic backed with a structural composite. Side by side, these products look very similar; however, there are important differences.
The gel-coat products, when constructed with high-quality ingredients, can be very hard and durable. The manufacturing process is critical, as the liquid gel-coat must be applied evenly on the molds at the correct temperature. Gel-coated products if damaged or scratched can be repaired with great success. Repairs performed correctly are permanent and virtually invisible.
Acrylic units are usually constructed using large sheets of solid-colored acrylic plastic. These sheets are heated so that they soften. The softened sheets are then stretched over a mold to achieve the desired shape of the shower or tub unit. This stretching process, however, sometimes causes the acrylic to be very thin as it stretches around corners. Those units with the highest percent of acrylic tend to offer higher performance levels. Repairs to these units are not always successful.
Many homeowners in the past were dissatisfied with the fact that the floors of these units flexed like oilcans. Some of the acrylic units backed with composites have addressed this problem. The other units often need to be set in wet plaster (five-gallon pail of the pre-mixed joint compound) or mortar to provide a solid base. This may be required or recommended in the installation instructions.
The care of either cast iron units or the alternatives is important. Never use cleansers that contain abrasives, as these can scratch both cast iron and plastic fixtures. If you simply make a habit of cleaning the tub or shower area every 2 weeks, you will avoid the heavy soap buildup that often necessitates heavy scrubbing. Virtually every manufacturer has a recommended cleaner that they strongly suggest you use. Follow these instructions and you will have a beautiful tub and shower area for many years.
Finally, if you do select one of the acrylic or fiberglass, you can keep it looking new by applying once a month, car wax. It just takes a few minutes and you use spray-on car wax applied to the surface to the wall surfaces only. Never apply wax to the floor of the unit. Buff this wax out and it will be as shiny as new.