This Shower Turned Out To Be A Shattering Experience

Last November Deborah Holmes of Tacoma hopped into the tub, pulled the sliding tub enclosure door shut and started taking a shower while her 2 1/2-year-old son, Nickolas, sat behind her playing with plastic bath toys.

Holmes shampooed her hair, then washed her face. She could feel Nickolas behind her.

Then she heard a smashing, crashing sound.

When Holmes opened her eyes, Nickolas was sitting in a pile of glass. One of the two glass panels enclosing the tub had exploded, showering her son with glass.

One of the two L-shaped pieces of the door frame landed in the tub, the other on the bathroom floor.

"It was very, very scary," said Holmes.

Both Holmes and her son had minor scratches and cuts. Some were as long as 1 1/2 inches. Others were like little pits or holes.

Neither mother nor child required medical attention.

Holmes called her landlord, Tom Rosenbaum of Auburn, who immediately came to Holmes' apartment to check out the problem. Rosenbaum took pictures of the thousands of glass fragments in the tub and has saved them as well as the glass-panel frame.

Holmes took the remaining glass-door panel down.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission will conduct an in-depth investigation of the incident.

Holcam Sales Inc., a Seattle firm, made the sliding tub doors. Classic American Construction, a Seattle company, installed them as part of a remodeling project for Rosenbaum.

Holcam has offered to replace the shattered panel at no cost, but Holmes isn't sure she wants another glass panel. She says she would prefer plastic.

However, industry experts say if plastic shatters, it has jagged edges making it more dangerous than tempered safety glass that shatters into tiny little pieces (like a smashed windshield) about one-quarter of an inch.

For now the family is using a shower curtain.

"Mrs. Holmes doesn't care whose fault it was," says Rosenbaum. "She's just thankful that she and her son didn't get a shard of glass in their eyes. I hope the next victim will be as lucky."

About 10 of the approximately 200,000 door panels sold by Holcam each year do shatter or break, said John Murphy, vice president of Holcam.

"We replace anything that is defective," said Murphy, pointing out that Holcam has stood behind its products for 32 years.

Building codes in the United States require shower and tub doors and patio doors to be of tempered or laminated glass, or something comparable.

Shower and patio doors are designed to explode under pressure like the safety glass in auto windows, Murphy says.

He believes a shower door can shatter when there's a change in temperature, such as a blast of heat focusing on one spot in a shower door, with cold air coming from another source, such as an open window.

Murphy said a sliding, thermal glass door shattered in a similarly unexplained incident at his home last fall.

Jerry Filgiano of American Classic Construction says he'd never heard of an exploding shower door until the incident at the Holmes' apartment.

Filgiano says tempered glass can be affected by extreme temperatures or an impact. "I'm not implying any wrongdoing either way," Filgiano said. "But things don't just fall apart on their own."

Tempered glass by design disintegrates into tiny pieces when it breaks, says Harry Miles, a technical consultant retained by by the Glass Tempering Association.

And it doesn't present the same hazard as regular glass that breaks into jagged pieces.

Miles says he can only speculate on what happened. But he'd guess that the glass may have shifted in its frame and bumped into a screw head or bolt. Then over time and usage, a screw or bolt chewed into the glass.

Tempered glass is weak at the edges, Miles says. Nothing happens for days, weeks or months. Then temperature and conditions combine and crash . . . it shatters.

In Miles' opinion, shower doors with frames are better than frameless panels.

And it's important to have a vinyl gasket separating metal from glass, and a cube or cushion to halt the door from traveling too far to avoid an impact when the door is opened and closed.

We'd like to hear from any readers who have had similar problems with shower or tub enclosure doors.

And we'll let you know what the CPSC decides after looking into this matter.

Shelby Gilje's Troubleshooter column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday in the Scene section of The Times. Do you have a problem? Write to Times Troubleshooter, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111. Include copies, not originals, of documents indicating payment, guarantees, contracts and other relevant materials.