This being the Surface Prep issue, it would be a great month for me to write the editorial but alas that is not my job for FCI, for which maybe I should be thankful. Most often, I do not have strong feelings one way or the other about editorial directions or issues. As an educator my choice of methodology has been to deal with fact and it is very rare that I have an opinion and wish to editorialize about anything, publicly anyway. Lately, I am developing an opinion about something and that is those who consider themselves floor covering installers. There have been numerous recent events (failures) passing my desk that have involved many substantial and well-known floor covering stores. Tile has certainly been a boom to many floor covering professionals who have embraced it and for others a curse. Properly selling ceramic tile and installation is certainly much more challenging than most products. If you disagree, you're doing something wrong.
Floor covering installation itself is in my opinion a difficult and challenging occupation given substantially less appreciation and remuneration than it deserves. Those who consider themselves floor covering specialists have to be well versed in not only numerous types of products and their basic installation requirements, but possess a general knowledge of building construction. The majority of basic installations can easily be accomplished using a professional floor covering installer. However, basic is the keyword here. In estimating or assessing any structure for a successful ceramic tile installation, much greater knowledge is needed than a general understanding. This is where a ceramic specialist is needed. Measuring and logistical issues are important consideration on a ceramic project, but there is much more information needed to make informed choices and pricing the job accurately.
Recently the tile industry recommendations have been changed to reflect code recommendations. If it all sounds a little complicated, it is. The best way to avoid problems is to follow the recommendation contained in the Tile Council of America handbook. All of the floor rated assemblies listed will perform over properly constructed code compliant structures. In days past, one could look at the floor structure and make an educated guess on performance. Those days have pretty much passed by. These requirements hold true for above grade concrete structures as well. Because use of concrete in building structures requires a substantial amount of performance engineering, failures due to deflection are rare, but certainly not impossible. With concrete floors, we also have a single plane of movement that does not exist in wood structures. If all this confuses you, I am making my point about a specialist, if it does not confuse you, move to the front of the line.
Once we have a supporting structure and proper subfloor, we need an appropriate underlayment. For new construction, the choices can be simple; we have a multitude of backer boards, membranes, or wood underlayments to choose from. With ceramic tile, unlike other floor covering products, there is no such thing as a single layer floor that is certain. Where things get a little more complex and require a specialist is in remodeling. Often we are asked to go over existing floor covering such as sheet vinyl or vinyl tile. Often, these products are installed over thin wood underlayments using staples. I even have photographic proof of a tile and underlayment installed over a commercial level loop! Here is where things get both risky and expensive. In the perfect world, we would remove all such underlayments. That is not far from the real world approach needed. Removing underlayment(s) and vinyl products eliminate the compressibility that comes with each layer of a flooring sandwich. Because the customer desires the best floor for the lowest reasonable price there will always be those who take the leave it all in place approach. Locally, we would call such an installation a resale special. They are fine for dressing up the home and passing the problem and expense on to the next owner. But, this type of installation is not for those who desire long term performance and a return on their investment. Manufacturers will have us believe we can tile over nearly anything, which is true, but durability is another issue. It takes a seasoned tile specialist to recognize what will and will not work.
We have finally worked our way to setting materials. This is an increasing area of confusion for everyone. Times used to be much simpler. Each manufacturer had maybe 5 or 6 different thinset mortars, a few types of liquid additive, and two types of mastic, floor and wall. For grout we had sanded for joints an 1/8" and over and unsanded an 1/8" and under. Even with that limited selection, we always sarcastically felt a chemical background was needed to make the proper selection. I would argue that is not very far from true anymore. Selecting a thinset today can be mind boggling to say the least. There is no easy way to assess performance, nor are their any standards currently in place to allow specification of performance. Today most setting material manufacturers have over 30 different thinsets available. There are at least 10 very different types of grout among setting material manufactures and only slightly less choices in mastic.
Today we have large tile, impervious porcelain tile, glass tile, homes (allegedly) built to minimum code compliance sans the added load for tile, smooth concrete, premature traffic, and poor environmental conditions just to name a few of the biggies. This from my perspective is one of the greatest challenges we face in the sale and installation of ceramic tile and a good part of my choice of topics for this months column. Retailers and installers alike tend to gravitate to the least expensive product that will do the job. Truth be know, most will do the job in a minimally acceptable fashionassumingeveryone else has and will do their job. Making that assumption is a very poor choice as it is highly unlikely. Setting materials are the least expensive component in the installation process even if premium materials are used. Hopefully this selection process may get a little easier in the future. The American National Standards Committee and the International Standards Organization are both currently working a standard that would easily identify the performance properties of various thinsets.
- Premature traffic which could be resolved using the appropriate thinset.
- Using epoxy over a damp surface causing a release, water over epoxy yes, under, no.
- No thinset under the backer board causing cracked tiles and grout.
- Using liquid waterproofing products and not having adequate film thickness to make it waterproof causing a weeping installation, which can be much more damaging than a leaking installation.
- Going over curing compounds upon which the entire floor released as the furniture was being moved in, something that could have been easily noted using a water drop test.
- Installing large glass tile and using thinset to level the substrate causing the glass to crack as the thinset cures (shrinks).
- Installing porcelain tile with "pre-mixed" thinset in a basement. It is not cement.
- Backer board installed over 5/8" CDX sheathing as a subfloor. No such thing as CDX and tile; additionally, all subfloor panels must be tongue and groove.
These are all calls or emails received the week prior to my article being due. Without exception (or admission anyway) each one professed lack of knowledge on the issue or said, "That's the way we always do it and never had a problem before." There are numerous tile industry associations that do their very best to create sound recommendations, standards, and help educate those with the desire to understand ceramic tile and installation. Many are listed in the back of this magazine. Maybe it is time to join one or seek out some education so you can make tile as financially rewarding as it is challenging.