The ProForm Shower Pan from Bonsal
For many years, ceramic tile installation was a job reserved for the tile setter who knew how to float mortar beds on floors, walls and countertop surfaces. There are still those in the industry with mastery of mortar-bed skills, but they are becoming harder to find. Traditional techniques involve more than just floating mortar, because to do a decent job an installer has to know how to waterproof the job. Tile and grout are not waterproofing materials, but rather materials that are not harmed by water and protect the waterproofing membrane system installed below them.

In some areas of the United States, there is a shortage of professional installers, and opportunities abound for the floor covering installer who can also list tile installation on his or her resume. Setting the tiles properly should be relatively simple for a quality-conscious floor covering installer, but what about the setting bed?

This National Gypsum backerboard allows for a curved-surface application
During the recent Coverings 2001 tile and stone exhibition in New Orleans, attendees received more than their share of insights into new and innovative products from a variety of exhibitors, including James Hardie, USG Corp., Mapei and Braxton Bragg. While at the show, I found evidence that the tile industry is responding to the need for waterproof, and increasingly user-friendly, setting-bed materials. In the area of fiber-reinforced backerboards (known as CBUs, they are usually gray in color, with square reinforcing mesh showing through the surface), National Gypsum Co. displayed a version featuring a non-directional, non-woven polyester mat on the setting surface. It is designed to allow the board to be applied to a curved surface with a radius as tight as 18 inches without showing any signs of cracking or surface distortion. The polyester-mat backbone of this board is similar to the mat bonded to sheet membranes, or supplied with liquid-membrane systems.

TEC Specialty Products Inc. showcased a self-leveling compound application system for the floor covering contractor who needs to install a level setting bed for ceramic tile quickly. The system is designed to compete with cement backerboards, boasting an improved compressive strength while providing a smooth, level setting-bed surface. Designed around a pump, the system includes a mixer for preparing batches of the compound, hoses for delivering the mix to the floor site, tools to help provide even distribution of the product, and factory support and training.

TEC's Smooth Start Contract Self-Leveling Underlayment
A different kind of pump was on display at the Custom Building Products booth. The compact operation allows a single operator to apply more than 5,000 square feet of waterproofing/crack isolation membrane over which floor tiles may be installed directly. As buildings become thinner and more flexible, the need for isolation from structural movement increases. This membrane system is based on a ready-to-use, proprietary compound and uses conventional airless-spray technology. In addition to protecting the tile from structural movement, the system acts to protect the structure from moisture leaking past the tiles or through the grout. For a surface preparation contractor, the system can be used for any finishing material that requires a thin, load-bearing, waterproof surface.

A large percentage of the tile installed in the United States is done so in wet areas. Most of the tiles are exposed to movement generated by expansion or contraction of the structural materials, movement of the structure, or both. There is a growing market for both crack-isolation and waterproofing applicators; this system is designed to compete aggressively with conventional sheet and liquid-applied systems.

Another high point of exhibition came from Bonsal. While well-known for their adhesives, grouts and surface preparation products, the company’s lineup of tile backer products, designed to complement standard tile backer panels, were the first to catch my eye, especially a one-piece, waterproof, three-sided jamb designed to slip over (and be fastened to) a standard 2-by-4.

Titan/Speeflo PowrTwin model 5500 shown with Custom Building Products' Level Quik
What really got my attention, however, was the company’s answer to the challenges of shower installations. A traditional all-tile shower, built to industry standards with a sloping subfloor, pan, clamping drain, and gently sloping tiles set on a thick mortar bed, is one of the most complicated of all tile installations. In conjunction with a specially designed, shallow-profile, square-framed drain, this innovative system is designed to eliminate the need for a pre-sloped subfloor, a shower pan, the sloping mortar bed, even the curb.

Every year brings something new for ceramic tile, and as more and more pre-manufactured setting-bed components become available, the skill requirements for installing quality ceramic tile installations is reduced. All that is really required for the floor covering installer is the ability to bed the tiles adequately in an even layer of adhesive, and be able to grout the tiles to a smooth, pleasing finish – no mortar bed required.