This is a common question that we get asked. There are pros and and cons to all materials so it really depends on where your priorities lie. So, in general, are bathroom wall panels better than tiles?
We would say that yes, they are.
We will look at the various qualities of both products and explain our reasoning.
Preparing The Walls
For tiles, walls need to be plastered and smooth with no protuberances. Any high spots will kick out the tiles which the grout lines will then exacerbate.
Bathroom wall panels interlock with each other so the whole surface floats over any uneven parts of the surface. This makes them perfect for use on unprepared walls.
For extremely rough walls it is possible to fit battens on the wall and attach the panels directly to these.
There are methods that can be used for tiling – such as fitting tile-backer boards. But they have to be installed with a much greater degree of accuracy – especially at the joints.
Ease Of Installation
In this aspect, bathroom wall panels win the battle hands down.
The panels are very easy to cut without any specialist tools. Usually a hand saw and a craft knife will be sufficient for most installation tasks. Progress is rapid and is simply a matter of measuring, cutting to length and sticking in place.
Tiles, however, will need several steps. They need to be fixed in place. They then need to be grouted and finally the tiles need to be polished to remove excess grout when dry. Depending on the tile type and size, specialised cutting equipment may be necessary to ensure a neat finish in complicated areas.
There are occasions where panels need quite complex cuts but the material is much more forgiving to work with than tiles. We would always recommend ensuring that you have some spare panels in case of any cutting issues but this would also be the case with tiles.
So the whole tiling process is slower and more involved than panelling.
Covering Existing Tiles
Both tiles and bathroom wall panels can be installed over existing tiles. But again panels can be installed in this way with little or no fuss. The existing tiles give a decent, flat surface for the panels to be stuck onto with standard panel adhesive.
Tiling will require that the existing tiles are very solidly fixed to bear the weight of the extra tiles attached to them. You also need special adhesive and the existing tiles might require priming prior to installation.
Panels are basically standing on the floor, leaning against the wall so they require no support and hardly any adhesion to remain in place permanently. That is why so many people panel over tiles without any worries.
This is one area where tiles are superior.
Glazed tiles have a very hard surface so do not scratch easily and can be cleaned and scrubbed with impunity. Panels require a much more delicate touch and will get damaged by abrasives and harsh cleaning regimes.
Both will survive a certain amount of impact damage but tiles would require a higher force before succumbing to anything visible. Saying that, wall panels are used regularly in high use commercial properties such as hotels, B&Bs, student accommodation etc.
Both tiles and panels can be replaced in situ if damage occurs – see this guide for instructions on replacing panels
The maintenance-free qualities of bathroom wall panels are part of the reason for their continued growth in popularity. People love tiles but are less than enamoured with the constant battle to keep their grout clean.
Properly specified, properly applied, good quality grout should last a long time. But you only need to fall down on one of these aspects and you will get a long term problem.
There are epoxy grouts on the market that eradicate mould growth but they are expensive and difficult to apply. They do not get used anywhere near as often as they should as they make life a lot easier in the long run.
But none of these problems apply to wall panels. There is no grout so there is nowhere for mould to form. They offer a smooth, wipe-over surface that looks goods for years with zero maintenance.
This one is not quite as clear cut as you can get some very, very cheap tiles.
But even with tiles being so cheap panels can be comparable, with costs start at around £10 per square metre. So they do not cost a fortune. Obviously some panels are more expensive but then again so are many tiles.
One of the biggest costs when decorating is the labour. The more time consuming a task is the more it is going to cost you. If you are getting someone to do the work for you then the panels should work out a lot cheaper due to the ability to fit them in one go and the lack of preparation needed. If you are undertaking to work yourself then this is less of an issue financially and will just depend on how much you value your free time.
Trying to determine which of these two systems is best environmentally is also far from clear cut.
Some panels are made from plastic which many people are trying to move away from. But plastic’s longevity is actually a plus-point when used as a building material. Not only can the panels be recycled if no longer required they can even be re-used. It is possible to remove the panels in one-piece and use them elsewhere if required. This article has more details on re-using panels.
Tiles are made from clays which are found naturally but they have to be fired which uses lots of energy to get them to their final state. They are also very heavy compared with panels so use more energy for transportation. They are not easy to re-use and are not recyclable. They will require more maintenance over their life including quite strong chemicals if the grout starts to turn mouldy.
So are bathroom wall panels better than tiles? Yes, we believe they are.
As can be seen there are some downsides to panels but overall they are a cheaper, easier to fit, require no maintenance and can be recycled/re-used after use.