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Shower vs Shower System: Building A Custom Shower To Fit Your Budget

In recent years, showers have become the main focus of most luxury bathroom remodels. Big bathtubs – especially whirlpool tubs – have largely fallen out of vogue in favor of expansive custom showers: rather than shower vs bathtub, the debate these days is shower vs shower system, almost forgetting about bathtubs entirely. After all, it’s a whole lot easier to enjoy a high-end shower when you’re in a hurry first thing in the morning than it is to fill up a big bathtub and find time to soak in it. But when it comes to actually building a custom shower, figuring out what elements you really need, which ones you can afford, and what will produce the shower experience you want can be a little confusing.

Shower vs Shower System

AXOR Citterio 3-Jet Shower Head 39740001 from Hansgrohe
AXOR Citterio 3-Jet Shower Head 39740001 from Hansgrohe

A typical shower has a pretty simple setup: a shower head, a diverter, and maybe a tub spout if your shower and bathtub are combined. Upgrading a cheap shower head to a nicer one is a good, simple, and relatively affordable way to vastly improve your shower experience, and isn’t a bad investment for a small-scale renovation or DIY project. Shower systems, though, are a step up in complexity, featuring some combination of multiple shower heads, body sprayers, hand showers, and other luxury features, like built in lights or sound systems.

Keep It Simple: Elegant Minimalist Shower Systems

Kauai III Shower Spa 1011-III-CH-2.0GPM Shower System from the PULSE Retro Line
Kauai III Shower Spa 1011-III-CH-2.0GPM Shower System from the PULSE Retro Line

The simplest shower systems are really only a small step up from a typical shower, and in many cases can be upgraded in the same way, using existing plumbing and without doing much, if any, work involving cutting or drilling tile or pipes. These simple shower systems typically consist of a rainfall showerhead attached to a long stem (so it’s raised up high enough to give you the full rain-like experience), and a hand shower that can be raised or lowered along the stem (for use either as a standard shower head or a body sprayer) and detached for easy spraying. Depending on the model, though, not all simple shower systems can have both shower heads turned on at once, so be sure to check the fine print on your model before you buy.

Complete Custom Shower Systems

The real advantage of custom showers is that you have total control of the placement, type, and flow of all your shower heads, allowing you to get a truly full-body shower experience (by CTA Architects Engineers)
The real advantage of custom showers is that you have total control of the placement, type, and flow of all your shower heads, allowing you to get a truly full-body shower experience (by CTA Architects Engineers)

Often when people talk about shower systems, though, it’s in the context of fully customized shower stalls, which often require very extensive renovation (if not the complete demolition and rebuilding of your shower). Like simpler shower systems, these involve multiple shower heads – usually a rainfall shower head and a hand shower, but also include wall-mounted (and individually-plumbed) body sprayers, all of which can be used simultaneously. In a fully rebuilt shower, it’s possible to have body sprayers on three of the four walls of your shower as well as the ceiling, allowing you to be sprayed with water from almost all angles. If you’re planning on retiling your shower, it’s a good time to consider extending your plumbing to accommodate additional shower heads, since this is very much a large-scale, big-budget sort of project.

Finding A Middle Ground: Shower Panels

Modena Stainless Steel Thermostatic Shower Massage Panel FSP8011BS from Fresca
Modena Stainless Steel Thermostatic Shower Massage Panel FSP8011BS from Fresca

That said, if you want a full custom-shower experience without the major renovation price tag (and headache), you’re in luck: shower panels offer a sort of middle-of-the-road, best-of-both-worlds option. Like streamlined shower systems, shower panels are built in a single solid piece that attaches to your existing plumbing, though in this case rather than a pipe or post, it’s an actual panel – one with shower heads and body sprayers mounted directly to the surface. Depending on the model, these typically have at least two or three body sprayers, a rainfall shower head, a hand shower, and sometimes an additional fixed shower head – all for about what you’d pay for all the parts individually, without the complex installation. Shower panels aren’t a perfect solution, though; because they attach to your existing plumbing, they can’t produce the same volume of water as a true shower system (and again may or may not be able to have all the elements active at once, depending on the model). Even fairly elaborate panels can’t give you much more than 180 degree water coverage, so while you’ll have all the same parts, they spray a little less total water than a custom-built system.

Luxury Upgrades For A Limited Budget

Croma C 100 3-Jet Handshower 04072820 from Hansgrohe
Croma C 100 3-Jet Handshower 04072820 from Hansgrohe

To me, though, the shower vs shower system debate is something of a false one. While there’s certainly a world of difference between a $20 shower head and a thousands-of-dollar luxury shower stall, the middle ground is much richer than the extremes would have you believe. Upgrading from a standard shower head to even the very highest-end one will still cost you less than most of the other options on this list, and would generally be overkill. Well-aerated, multi-function shower heads with good water pressure are all most of us really need, and upgrading to a hand shower can really put your experience over the top, while still keeping your budget (and the scope of your project) manageable. So don’t be put off by the prospect of a too-large renovation: getting a more luxurious shower could be as simple as splurging on a really high quality shower head.

Practical Considerations For Any Shower System

Single Lever Handle Waterfall Faucet Shower System S3059CW from Sumerain
Single Lever Handle Waterfall Faucet Shower System S3059CW from Sumerain

Wherever you fall on the shower vs shower system spectrum, there are a few important things to consider before you call your contractor. First and foremost, it’s important to remember that if you get a shower system that puts out a lot more water than your current shower head, your water heater might not be able to keep up – and there’s nothing worse than your eagerly-anticipated shower turning lukewarm part way through. A big enough shower might also need a higher-capacity drain, since you’ll have a higher volume of water flowing through it. Which brings up a final (and unfortunately easy to overlook) point: in addition to the installation cost, any upgraded shower system is going to come with an equivalent bump to your water bill – both from the higher volume of the water it will use, and from the extra time you’ll probably be spending in it!

The most important thing to keep in mind when upgrading your shower is that there’s no one perfect luxury shower, and the shower vs shower system debate is less black and white and more of a spectrum. You have to consider what features you really want and will use, and how they’ll fit long-term with your lifestyle and design goals. The good news is, whatever your needs, there’s a shower system out there that will fit them!

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