Comparison- Are all Frame-less Shower Enclosures the Same?
If you are looking to update your bathroom, you might be wondering if all frame-less shower enclosures are the same. Comparing frame-less shower enclosures options requires a little education. That might be an understatement. We have spent over 37 years constantly learning about shower hardware and staying on top of the newest innovations in glass.
This is a common question and the answer is not simple-if you get 3 or 4 quotes even, they will likely be nv ery different. We cannot stress this enough, make sure you are comparing apples to apples. Unlike some retail products such as furniture or kitchen appliances you select, each Glass Company that offers frameless enclosures has different methods of installing them, some use knock-off hinges and hardware, and also the quality of the actual glass. This comes as quite a surprise to most consumers. With the market conditions the way they have been in recent years here in South Florida(we service Naples, Bonita Springs, Estero and Fort Myers), we see many in the industry cutting corners in various ways. You might find variations in pricing of 20-40%! There are reasons for this and buyers need to ask a lot of questions. Some places consider “U” channel method of installation frameless, in fact years ago, we were one of those places! Over time we listened to our customers and heard what they wanted- a frameless shower enclosure. They didn’t want to see the metal channel. We now consider the clamp method as frameless and the “u” channel method as semi-frameless.
We hope these tips help you to make the most educated decision when purchasing your shower enclosure. Frameless doors will outlast most of the improvements you make in your home. The shower enclosure investment you make should be an educated one!
Clips or U-Channel for your frame-less shower enclosures?
Is the enclosure being installed with “U” channel, or glass clamps at fixed panel locations? Look at your quotes carefully, this method should be CLEARLY defined. If it’s not, most likely that company is hoping you haven’t done your research and simply won’t know the difference! “U” channel is considerably less expensive for two reasons.
- The aluminum material is much less expensive than the clips used for a fully frameless clamp method system.
- In addition, there is much less glass processing and fabricating: installing with “u” channel allows for less accurate glass sizes (entry level technician can install these) and no fabrication, or cut-outs are needed to house glass clamps.
*Homeowner tip: The typical “u” channel method has been largely phased out in recent years as a “frameless shower door”- preferring the clamp method as a fully frameless shower door. Designers always prefer this method and know to specify this when it comes to their discriminating clients. If you are looking for a truly frameless look, the u-channel will not provide that. Choosing ‘All clips’ will generally add 20%+ to the cost of the enclosure- due to the cost of the fittings as well as the additional glass processing required. This method also requires more precision measuring and installation- you will have only the most experienced technician perform this installation. With a handful of knowledge and some common sense, we came up with a happy medium. It’s our Preferred Method.
Frame-less Shower Enclosures, Our Preferred Method
We have found an installation method that we feel is the best of both worlds, a clip, and u-channel installation. To achieve that true frameless look, we don’t use any u-channel at the side walls, just one single clip. At the base of the fixed panel, we use a small u-channel that is out of your sight line. A frameless enclosure installed with this method is aesthetically pleasing and functional. In the photo below you can see how great this looks. The u-channel at the base eliminates the need to seal with excessive silicone, the less silicone the better! This installation method provides the clip look, without paying the higher all clip price.
What type of hardware is being used for the frame-less shower enclosures?
At The Glass Shoppe A Division of Builders Glass of Bonita, Inc. we have been using Portals and CRL hardware for over 20 years. They both provide only the best hardware available on the market. A few years back one of our sales reps told us about another option in hardware that was half the price of CRL. We inspected the hinges and were excited to find they looked identical to the ones offered by CRL. We placed our first order and installed 2 showers right away. Our glass technicians immediately noticed that this knock-off hardware was not even close to the quality we wanted to offer our clients. The door did not operate smoothly and they had a hard time tightening the hinges enough to safely keep the glass from slipping out. That was a quick lesson learned for us and we took action to remove the hardware and replace it with our tried and true CRL hardware.
Just because a hinge or clamp looks the “same” as what another company is proposing, do not assume! Methods for securing glass with fittings can be totally different: types of fabrication needed to secure panels can vary greatly- just as the construction can vary. And each clamp has different weight tolerances as a result. Ask what hardware they will be using! The important questions should be- “Does this hardware require fabrication to the glass?. The inferior, less structural option is the ‘notch-less clamp.’ Any Glass company primarily using this notch is cutting corners. Plain and Simple. Which leads to the question, “where else are they cutting corners?”
Here is a perfect example, an unfortunate and costly experience for a homeowner who thought they were saving some money. A few years back we received a phone call from a woman we will call Julie, who was referred to us by a contractor we had done many custom shower enclosures for. Julie recently had a frameless shower door installed by another popular company in the area, and although she was pleased with the appearance of the door, the door kept hitting the fixed panel and knew this didn’t seem right. The door was hinged off of another fixed panel and didn’t feel secure, it was moving when the door was opened. Julie checked around with others to ask if they had similar situations with their shower doors. She realized something wasn’t right when others were not having this problem. Julie stated the company had come out three times to adjust since the installation, but it seemed to be an ongoing situation and wanted an alternate opinion. Was there this much maintenance on a frameless shower door? If so, why wasn’t she told this?
What we found: The enclosure was installed with absolutely no safety or engineering.
This made it a dangerous accident waiting to happen. The enclosure was constructed of 1/2″ glass- panel, door hinged to glass, panel configuration. The fixed panels were secured using “U” channel that had been cut into 2″ pieces, to resemble clamps- yet requiring no fabrication to house the “clamps”. Truthfully, we had never seen anything like this. The “u” channel is not designed to be used this way and was not nearly strong enough to house the 200lbs+ panel. The door was hinged off of this fixed panel, which means all the weight of the door is being carried by the fixed panel. Upon opening and closing the door, the fixed panel flexed horribly- showing the flawed design and installation. This type of installation, glass to glass hinging, requires the must structural clamp on the market. Our second finding was the hinges used. Our tech didn’t even have to remove the hinges to inspect them, He knew right away that these hinges were not designed to carry the weight of this door. A quick calculation of the glass weight and we found the glass weight of the door exceeded the hinge’s weight capacity by 30lbs. Between the fixed panel flexing and the door glass slipping from the hinges, the door was hitting into the other fixed panel (also installed with the make-shift glass clamps). We advised her to not use this enclosure at all and that it be taken down immediately to avoid any pending injury.
In the photo below you can see how we properly install a shower enclosure like this. We were the first ‘Header-free’ Shower Company in the area to offer this new design!
The structural clamps you can see on the left side are the only clamps approved for this type of installation. They are larger than our standard clamp, require 2 holes be fabricated through the glass, and also have a back leg for additional support. We also prefer the pivot hinge for a glass to glass hinging application. The pivot hinge secured at the bottom holds 90% of the weight. The alternative option of patch hinges put 100% of the door weight to be supported by the glass it’s joined to.
Lesson: Do not assume that just because someone has a legitimate business, they provide a legitimate product. You get what you pay for. She had gone with the lowest bid, assuming she was comparing apples to apples.
The lowest bid should, in fact, be a bit of a red flag. We find our reputable competitors in Shower Door companies, like My Shower Door and Shower Door City, are priced in line with our price structure. Shower Door City might come in lower, but they often use the notch-less clips that we don’t recommend. The many mom and pop shops in Naples and Bonita Springs are often so behind in the industry, they won’t even mention clips, as they are still stuck in the days of installing only U-channel. I would recommend checking out the showrooms of each company, but very few of us actually have a showroom. Let that be another red flag! If they don’t have a showroom, they shouldn’t be considered reuptable. Move on!
Other factors that contribute to price change in frame-less shower enclosures:
- Glass Protection for cleaning- A glass that has been protected with a glass protectant will be something you will be so thankful for in the years to come. Glass protectants reduce cleaning time dramatically and also prevent water stains from ever permanently etching the glass. I call it ‘insurance’ for your shower door. Insurance for those times you might be in a hurry and not have time to squeegee the glass. Guests in your home can do some damage to the glass quite quickly if they are not properly cleaning it every time. A Glass Protectant, We are Certified Enduroshield Applicators, will give you that insurance that your glass is protected, no matter what! We like the 5-year product, which can be reapplied when needed for a lifetime of protection.
- Tight fit installation– You might assume that your frameless shower will have a tight fit. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case. Companies that do a lot of new construction, or track homes, operate on very little margins and they can’t risk the glass not fitting. They use a 1/4″ gap as the standard spacing to allow for error. The preferred spacing or gap is 1/8″ to 3/16″. In addition, most walls are not plumb. We custom order the glass to fit your walls. This is considered ‘out of square’ and the only way to get a nice tight fit. We find this in most of the showers we do. While there is an additional cost to fabricate the glass out of square, we consider it to be a standard requirement and do not charge our clients extra for this.
- Using stock doors– Many companies will stock up on overseas standard size stock doors. These standard doors can be purchased at a steep discount. We have never used stock standard doors, for a few reasons. Stock doors are only available to accommodate a wall mount hinge. The preferred pivot hinges, simply can not be used on stock doors. In addition, stock doors are made overseas, with inferior glass. The glass is noticeably greener and also ‘softer’. This means it is prone to scratching and also hard water stains that will permanently etch the glass. The domestic glass is a harder glass that will retain its beauty.
- Configuration variations – glass to glass hinging is more expensive than wall mount or pivot hinging.
Do you want to have a header at the top of your frame-less shower enclosures? Header-less designs, shown above, are now available in glass to the glass applications. The price point m might be higher, but well worth the worth the cost. Especially if a truly frameless look is desired. If your enclosure has a return panel, such as a 90 degree or 135 degrees, how are these panels being “tied” together?
- Hinge type– Are pivot hinges being used or wall mount patch hinges for your frameless shower door? Wall mount patch hinges are considerably less expensive, but we have found they are not as strong and the glass can slip out of the hinge over time. In the early days of frame-less shower enclosures, we used these hinges as our standard. We frequently had to make warranty calls to adjust the glass as it slowly slipped from the hinge. After trying the top and bottom mounted pivot hinges, we haven’t looked back. The top and bottom mount pivot hinge is hands down the best hinge on the market. This is the superior choice because 90% of the weight of the door is on the bottom hinge. We now consider the top and bottom mount pivot as our standard hinge, and the warranty calls have stopped. They simply function as they should and provide a maintenance free shower door. They have passed the test of time.
- Clamps– Through the glass clamps are more costly than “sleeve over” or open channel clips that fit over the top of the glass. Through the glass is a higher end look and requires more expensive hardware and additional glass fabricating(holes will be drilled into the glass!) This method is the only we will consider using. It is the only option for a structurally sound installation.
- Glass thickness– Frame-less shower enclosures with 1/2″ glass is more expensive than 3/8″, for the long-term benefits this upgrade will not be regretted. We encourage you to visit our showroom so you can feel and see the difference. A 1/2″ thick shower adds a richness you have to see. The weight of the 1/2″ door just feels good to open and close. It feels solid and instantly higher end. Since adding 1/2″ door displays to our showroom, we have found it sells itself.
- Installation Crew– a master glazier is more expensive than someone who is at entry level. All of our shower enclosures are installed by a glazier with over 15 years experience. The Master Glazier is always assisted by an apprentice glazier.
- Ultra Clear or standard clear– frame-less shower enclosures with standard clear glass actually have a green hue. Ultra Clear, or low iron glass, is the only glass that is going to appear optically clear. Ultra clear glass has impurities and iron removed to provide the clearest look. Ultra Clear glass has many different trade names. You might hear ultra clear glass referred to by a specific type- Starphire, Low- Iron, Crystal Clear or Opti-white are some of the more popular names. With the popularity of white marble and white subway tile, the standard glass can really change the appearance of your shower tile or marble. The white tile will no longer look white, but green. This side by side comparison photo is so dramatic, ultra clear has become our new standard.