What Is The Difference Between A Shower Pan And A Shower Base?

Ossiana Tepfenhart
by Ossiana Tepfenhart

When you first decide to make a DIY shower installation happen, you’ll see a lot of talk about adhering tile to a shower pan, or finding the right thinset for a particular shower pan brand. You might also start hearing people discuss picking up the right shower base. These terms seem pretty similar, but is there a difference between a shower pan and a shower base?

A shower pan and shower base both direct water to the drain, but there’s a big difference between a shower pan and a shower base. The shower pan is the surface beneath your feet, made of acrylic, fiberglass, metal, or stone, costing $100 to $3,000 to install. A shower base is the cement structure beneath the shower and costs an average of $500-$800 to install.

If you aren’t sure what each term means, you need to hit the pause button before you go shopping or pull up instructions. Otherwise, you might make a mistake. This article will hopefully help you clear up the air and learn about the differences between these two vital parts of your upcoming shower install.

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What Is The Difference Between A Shower Pan And A Shower Base?

Both shower pans and shower bases funnel water towards the drain. They also can both involve having tile placed on top of them. But that’s where the similarities end. A shower pan and a shower base have a lot of differences that make them totally different from one another.

The biggest difference is what they refer to in terms of structure. Here’s what you need to know:

  • A shower pan is a single-piece portion that is meant to fit into a small alcove. A shower base refers to the understructure and subfloor of the overall shower. You may need to put a shower pan over a base to make it work.
  • You always need a shower base, but a shower pan isn’t always necessary. Without the subfloor for your shower, there’s no way to install a shower pan. It’s meant to support the pan. You also can’t install a tile floor without having a subfloor first. The subfloor is the only thing that keeps your shower area waterproof.
  • A shower base is usually made of mortar, a shower pan is made of other materials. Shower pans can be made of fiberglass, acrylic, ceramics, stone, or even metal.
  • A shower pan often comes with a built-in slope, while shower bases need to be sloped by hand. Most contractors will use a trowel to slope the concrete or mortar on a shower base.

Can A Shower Base Refer To Other Parts Of A Shower?

The term “shower base” tends to be a catch-all among people doing DIY shower installs. While many use the term as a way to talk about the subfloor and substructures of the shower, it’s also become a term for shower pans as well. Some have even used it to refer to the combination of the shower pan and liner. However, the shower base actually refers to the structure underneath the actual shower.

What Are They Made Of?

Both shower pans and shower bases are made of water-resistant materials to withstand the wet environment that is the shower floor. However, because they serve entirely different purposes, they require distinctive construction. Since shower bases are the substructure of a shower, they are most often constructed of cement mortar.

Whereas, shower pans are a physical part of the shower the shower that you see and step on, they are typically made of fiberglass, stone, metal, ceramic, or acrylic.

How Are They Installed?

Overall, the installation of a shower pan is a much easier process. A shower base, on the other hand, requires more time, preparation, and skill to install correctly. Shower pans are single-piece units that are easily fitted into the alcove of the shower. Once level, the pan is attached to the wall with screws and the walls of the shower are built up around on.

The substructure, or shower base, is built from wet cement, a sand mix, or a similar type of motor. This type of installation requires special skill to set the cement at the proper angle that allows proper drainage down the shower drain. Although this can be achieved by the average DIYer, for best results, it is recommended to hire a professional to install a shower base.

Should I Use A Shower Pan?

While it’s possible to install a tiled floor on a shower subfloor, that doesn’t always mean it’s a good idea. There are several reasons why a shower pan is now considered to be a wise investment by most contracting crews. The biggest reasons include:

  • Extra Protection. A shower base alone isn’t always enough to prevent leaks, especially if you’re using grout to install tile. This puts people who avoid using shower pans at a risk of leaks. Shower pans add an extra layer of protection.
  • Easy Tiling. You can find a slew of guides about installing tile over a shower pan online. They’re excellent for tile installations, and make the entire process easier.
  • No-Tile Solutions. If you want to, you don’t have to apply tiles to your shower pan if you don’t want to.
  • More Customization. You don’t have to stick to a plain white shower pan, nor do you always have to tile them. Shower pans come in a wide range of colors and materials that can add serious flair to your bathroom.
  • Fast Installation. If you choose to go through a traditional shower tile floor installation, you’re going to have a long wait due to the curing times for all the materials. Shower pan installs can be a one-day process, which can make a huge impact on your ability to get back to normal.
  • Easy Maintenance. Shower pans are generally seen as easier to clean than typical tiled shower floors.

Why Level the Floor Under a Shower Base?

The shower base is only as level as the floor beneath it. Although they are made of very durable materials, an uneven floor will cause the base, and pan above it, to flex and give under the weight of those who use it. Over time, the shower base will start to creak, pop, and give when it is stood on.

Because of this, it is absolutely vital that the floor underneath the shower base is properly level to prevent and further damage. Aside from regularly caulking cracks, the only remedy for this issue is to tear out the base and reinstall it on a completely level floor.

How Much Does A Shower Pan Cost?

Technically, having a shower pan is an extra when you are installing a shower—even though they are highly recommended if you want to have a modern shower. If you choose to get a shower pan installed in your home, expect to pay anywhere from $100 to over $1,000 dollars to buy the shower pan. Custom-made shower pans can cost as much as $3,000 or more.

Installing a typical shower pan setup will cost between $1,000 and $3,000 for both installation and materials. Tiling your shower pan can increase that average cost, especially if you want to add specialty tiles.

How Much Does A Tile Shower Base Cost To Install?

This can vary based on the type of tile that you want to get as well as the method of installing the tile as well as the tile materials that you choose. The costs of installing a tile shower floor without a shower pan can only be done through the help of a professional tile installer. With that said, most pan-free tile setups are cheaper than their tiled shower pan counterparts.

What we can tell you, though, is how much a typical shower base alone can cost. According to current statistics, installing a shower base alone will run you between $500 to $800. This does not include the cost of tiling or adding a membrane for your new shower floor. When budgeting, keep that in mind and make sure to ask a contractor what else needs to be done.

It’s important to emphasize that you need a shower base. Even if it’s pricey, you can’t skip on it. This is a non-negotiable part of your shower installation, since you will need to get a shower base for any level of waterproofing to work.

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Our Final Take

If you were curious about the difference between a shower base and a shower pan, the truth is that it’s a semantic issue. A shower pan is a single-piece tray that can act as a shower floor or get tiled. A shower base is usually the term for the underside and foundation of the shower floor. Both items use a slope to direct water the shower drain and both offer some level of waterproofing.

The big difference that you need to be aware of is that a shower pan cannot be installed without a shower base. A shower base is a mandatory part of any install, and can have a floor installed on top of it. So, if you’re considering installing a new shower, you will need to figure out whether you want to install a shower pan or not.

Admittedly, shower pans are pretty pricey, even if you don’t tile them. However, the benefits they offer are many and they also happen to be the only way to have a tile-free shower floor. Whether or not they are worth the price is up to you.

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Ossiana Tepfenhart
Ossiana Tepfenhart

Ossiana Tepfenhart is an expert writer, focusing on interior design and general home tips. Writing is her life, and it's what she does best. Her interests include art and real estate investments.

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