Nothing affects the price and performance of a bathtub more than the material from which it is constructed. Before shopping for a tub, it's important to determine which material best suits your budget and lifestyle. Start with our guide to learn the advantages and disadvantages of the most popular materials.
Fiberglass-reinforced plastic, or FRP, is the least expensive option on the market. Made from layers of fiberglass coated with resin, the material is very lightweight and available in many colors. Unfortunately, the material is thin and unstable, prone to fading and cracking, and easily scratched by abrasive cleaners. The life expectancy of a FRP tub is typically less than 10 years.
Enameled steel is made of steel sheets that are coated with porcelain enamel. One of the least expensive options, this type of tub is heavier than fiberglass but still quite lightweight. It's available in standard sizes and is easy to clean. The material has drawbacks: Steel conducts heat, meaning tub water cools quickly; the surface is prone to chipping and rust; and there are limited choices for colors and shapes.
Acrylic is the most popular bathtub material. Sheets of acrylic are softened around a tub mold and then reinforced with fiberglass and resin. The material offers the greatest design flexibility, as it can be molded into virtually any body-hugging shape, complete with armrests, headrests, and grab bars. High-quality acrylic is two to three times thicker than fiberglass, providing a richer color that won't fade and is less likely to scratch. With proper maintenance, an acrylic tub can last 30 or more years. Acrylic tubs can cost twice as much as FRP or enameled-steel options.
Cast-polymer tubs are made from crushed stones mixed with polyester resin that are then finished with a gel coat. The engineered stone typically replicates the look of marble, granite, or onyx, but it's also available in a range of solid colors. It comes in many shapes, it's easy to clean and stain-resistant, and any surface scratches can be buffed out. On the downside, cast polymer is pricier than acrylic, is brittle, and cannot be repaired if cracked, only replaced. If cast polymer provides the look you want, shop for brands certified by the Cultured Marble Institute or approved by the Institute of Associated Plumbing and Mechanical Officials.
Cast-iron tubs are made of enamel-coated molded iron. This classic material is the most durable option and offers excellent heat retention. It can be coated in virtually any color, and the thick enamel is chip- and scratch-resistant. Cast-iron tubs can be professionally resurfaced if they get worn or damaged. On the downside, these tubs are among the most expensive and are extremely heavy, weighing as much as 1,000 pounds. They may require structural reinforcement for the floor to support the weight, which makes an upper-level installation particularly complicated and expensive.
Proprietary composites, the newest entrants to the bathtub marketplace, include American Standard's Americast and Briggs' UltraTuff materials. Heavy-gauge steel bonded with porcelain enamel creates a tub that offers all the benefits of cast iron with half the weight. Unfortunately, selection is limited, the tubs are relatively expensive, and they are typically special-order products that can take weeks to get.
If you're adding a tub to your bathroom, check out our Bathroom Planning Guide for tips, configuration ideas, and how to work with a professional. While you're at it, get a squeaky clean bathroom floor, too.