How Are Walk In Tubs Made?  Acrylic or Gelcoat!

Depending on the manufacturer walk in tubs vary on how they are built, and on what surface material they are made of. Walk in tubs can be acrylic fiberglass reinforced or gel-coat fiberglass reinforced. These are the two primary materials and manufacturing methods being used today. There is no question Acrylic is a far superior product and it is what consumers are asking for. Today all manufactures of normal household regular bathroom tubs, which is a huge market, are building superior products using (warm to the touch) Acrylic as the tub’s cleaning surface. Steel tubs are still available but are limited to only a couple of sizes. Take a walk in to a large box store like Home Depot or Rona, and you won’t find a gelcoat tub in the store. Gelcoat fiberglass is practically non existant in the regular bathtub tub industry, although still available for shower stalls it is fast being replaced with acrylic. Manufactures can give a much longer “legitimate warranty” on a acrylic cleaning surface.  

Gel coat can begin to break down and look terrible after a number of years, remember those old gelcoat fiberglass kitchen sinks and ugly shower bases and stalls, all hairline cracked and stained harbouring all kinds of germs and bacteria! For many years walk-in tubs and accessible shower stalls were only being made using gelcoat fiberglass contruction. This industry has a much, much smaller market, some would consider it to be a niche market, but it is growing. However it lags way behind making the switch to acrylic due the high costs involved for companies all ready making gel-coat walk-in tubs to re-tool and the length of time it would take to recover their investment.  New companies entering this growing market within the last ten years are using state of the art Acrylic manufacturing methods and almost all these companies are in Asia. Regardless what you read or are told by salespersons representing gelcoat sanitary manufactures about how good their triple or marine grade bacteria proof gelcoat is, there living in the wrong decade! Informed consumers are not buying sanitary products with gelcoat as the cleaning surface.

Gelcoat is coloured polyester resin sprayed onto a mold then reinforced with polyester saturated fibreglass. Unlike acrylic it is not a sold material therefore offers no insulation. Being more porous and brittle than acrylic, the gel-coat/fiberglass surface has a greater tendency to dull and discolour over time. Some other drawbacks to using gel-coat/fiberglass is the hardness of the gelcoat surface. 

When a tub flexes the gel-coat, being less than .5mm in thickness can develop hair line cracks at stress points if the tub is not adequately supported, and scratches that show up over time cannot be repaired. There are some pros to a fiberglass tub which include the fact that they are much lighter in weight which makes them easier to carry and they are also less expensive to manufacture.

Why is gelcoat used in the Marine Industry

This picture shows a plug taken from a boats hull, you can see how thin the green coloured gelcoat really is. The pleaure boat industry uses gelcoat fiberglass almost exclusively because its far more cost effective for large surface areas and mass production. However, after a boat’s hull is removed from its mold there is much work still to be done. The hull will need to be prepared for primer and  paint.  Depending on the age and condition of the mold used this process can be very labor intensive to attain a bottle smooth surface. Once the gelcoat surface is prepared it is primed and painted with a two part expoxy marine grade paint to prevent the gelcoat from oxidation, staining and water absorption which can lead to hull blistering. Even after all this the boat owner will still need to follow a regular maintenance schedule to protect the gelcoat surface.  None of this is done to protect the gelcoat cleaning surface on sanitary products like walk-in tubs or showers stalls made from gelcoat fiberglass. 




 This is what happens when gelcoat is used on sanitary surfaces.

The gel-coat surfaced fiberglass walk-in tub below was installed new in 2008, the photo was taken in December 2011.  It was purchased and installed in Vancouver by one of the major suppliers of gel-coat fiberglass walk in tub companies at that time,  Premier Care, no longer in business!  The woman it belongs too is very particular, and cleans it regularly. Observe the green staining from mildew beginning to form on the porous gel-coat surface, despite her best efforts to keep it new looking, the more she scrubbed the worst it got, very typical of gel-coat cleaning surfaces.  She was persuaded to spend $14,500.00 plus tax by the commission sales lady representing Premier Care during the in home consultation.









Unlike the gel-coat fiberglass tub in this photo, tubs built using Premium High Gloss Acrylic, are easy to clean and will remain looking new for a lifetime.




Difference Between Acrylic and Gel-coat Surface

Acrylic is a sheet of material that is heated and vacuum-formed over a mold, creating a continuous waterproof membrane. Acrylic sheets are available in thicknesses up to 30mm but for walk-in tub and shower applications thicknesses from 3.17mm to 6.5mm is the industry standard. It is then reinforced with acrylic resin saturated fiberglass for added stability and insulation value. The manufacturing process is more complex and labour intensive than the gel-coat fiberglass manufacturing process. Acrylic is non porous by nature, warm to the touch and retains its high gloss finish better than any other material. Acrylic is well recognized for its ability to withstand constant use and cleaning. It is not necessary to use harsh or abrasive cleansers, clean ability is excellent.

Let’s compare gel-coat to acrylic surfaces on some very specific characteristics

Acrylic Surface

  • Non Porous
  • Excellent repairability
  • Colour fast – Excellent
  • Useful life – 30 + years
  • Initial cost – Moderate
  • Strength – Strong
  • Surface – High Gloss
  • Thickness – 3.17mm – 6.5 mm
  • Clean-ability – Excellent
  • Styles – Wide Variety
  • Value – High
Gel-coat Surface

  • Porous
  • Good repairability
  • Colour fast – Fair
  • Useful life – 1-8 years
  • Initial cost – Low
  • Strength – Fragile
  • Surface – Matte
  • Thickness – .2 mm – .5 mm
  • Clean-ability – Poor
  • Styles – Moderate Variety
  • Value – Fair
The big plus with acrylic is that it is a solid surface, meaning it has a very high filler content. If you have a Corian or similar countertops in your home, then you know what solid surface material is. No mildew, mold or bacteria can penetrate because it is non porous. Acrylic; being a solid surface, is easier to clean, has a glossy finish and will last for many years. It will not fade over time as the colour is all the way through the material not just on the surface. Whereas, with gel coat fiberglass the gel coat rubs off or can develop hair line cracks at stress points and then the pores/fibers of the fibreglass are exposed.Once the pores and fibers are exposed they can harbor bacteria, mold and mildew and grime and soap scum get imbedded into the surface which begins the breaking down of the product. Using a gel-coat is like having a paint sprayed onto the fibreglass to “seal” it. It wears off over time which is why it fades and wears and becomes even harder to keep clean. While fibreglass costs less, it will never last longer or as long as acrylic.

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