My Tile Shower is Leaking–Now What?

We hear these questions regularly:

I’m seeing a wet spot on the ceiling beneath my shower…What should I do to stop the water?

Can you come out and check the grout in my shower? I think there must be a hole in the grout somewhere, the tiles are leaking.

Leaking showers can be a homeowner’s nightmare- not only can they create a mess, there’s the potential for mold and structural damage. As such, you should address them as soon as possible. Most homeowners know that it’s a problem to be remedied, but don’t always know what steps to take.

Causes for a Shower Leak: Infographic on common installation issues and potential problems.

Diagnose your Shower Leak: Plumbing or Tile Repair?

First things first: notice where the leak is visible. If you are seeing a leak in the ceiling below your shower, it could either be an issue with your shower pan or the plumbing. Because a plumbing repair is a best-case scenario repair, the first step is to call a plumber. They can open a hole in the ceiling beneath the shower to fix any issues related to the plumbing. The rest is comparatively straightforward – once the plumber has finished the repair, you’ll need to repair the drywall and paint.

If it turns out that your plumbing is not the issue, it’s time for the next step. If you’re noticing problems on the walls around your shower, or around the curb, or your plumber says the plumbing is fine, call your tile contractor to inspect the shower pan and tile. They may remove a tile or two, open surrounding walls, and use a moisture meter to diagnose why your shower is leaking.

Here’s the bad news though: there’s no such thing as “tiles leaking.” Any leak behind the tile is an indication of waterproofing failure. The tiles are only designed for aesthetic and to provide a hard-wearing surface – the materials behind are what provides the waterproofing.

Waterproofing failures often are the result of installation mistakes (see the image above). Unfortunately, the fast pace of change in the tile industry is leaving many contractors behind, despite training seminars and ample directions being available. Check with your tile contractor about methods and materials used, as well as warranties they offer for your installation. Then spend some time reading and understanding the basics of how the system works.

Repairs for your Tile Shower

To be effective, a shower repair needs to remove the entirety of the affected area, redo the waterproofing, and retile. At a minimum, this means rebuilding the bottom half of the shower, including the pan. This will address the leak without the expense of having to redo the entire shower. Many tile contractors are uncomfortable with providing a warranty for a repair of this sort, so keep in mind you as the homeowner will absorb the risk in a situation like that. Additionally, it is sometimes difficult to find an exact match for the existing tile, and some aesthetic compromises must be made.

The absolute best repair, unfortunately, is a total replacement. Furthermore, if you have a steam shower that leaks, you will also need a total rebuild. While more expensive, this ensures a complete repair of the leak, as well as a neat and seamless tile job in the shower itself.  Most tile contractors will also happily warranty a complete shower build, providing the homeowner some peace of mind against this happening again.