Avoiding Tile Troubles
May 22, 2008
Recently someone asked me why I always have to talk about problems; why not about all the good things instead? For me personally, the answer is twofold. First, I am a technical guy and those of you who read this column on a regular basis know there is little flowery prose in what I have to say. I don’t think I do that well at creating the impression of the lasting beauty of ceramic tile. My strengths lie in actually creating that lasting beauty. Truth be known, I have never had any formal training in writing and actually never even typed until my current employment at CTEF. My English language skills are less than perfect, causing proof writers to have fits to the point at which they have given up. To top it all off, I am a rather grumpy guy as are most contractors I know. I think the grumpy part comes from years of constant abuse by others, like all the floor prep I have given away. Without question, when it comes to describing pretty, it is neither me nor my department. Secondly, I honestly can not recall the last time someone called me to say how everything on a job was great, went wonderful, and the project was nothing less than perfect. As a matter of fact, I don’t think I have ever received such a call indicating all three traits. There has never been the perfect job and in all likelihood never will be. To be sure, there is some awe-inspiring work being done out there, but inevitably compromises have been made along the way, which is what life is about.
Writing about awe inspiring beauty is a function that other publications perform admirably. At FCI, our focus is on the installer and the day-to-day mechanics of getting a job properly installed. We try to educate others to the best of our abilities on good, sound, successful installation practices. Often the focus may be the latest in industry standards or perhaps interpretation and application of existing standards. We also try to focus on the latest trends in both products and installations, some good, and some bad, others too early to tell. The goal of all this is simple, to get all the products properly and profitably installed. Every job an installer takes is a roll of the dice so to speak. Despite some (perhaps many?) claims to the contrary, there is no such thing as the perfect product, the perfect standard, the perfect installer and thus the perfect job. Perfect is available only in the World of Perfect while we live in the Real World. The products we install and the guidelines we install them by come from the land of Perfect. The successful installer is able to take the products and recommendations from the land of Perfect and make them work in the Real World. What this really comes down to risk assessment. Only by knowing the basis of the product performance claims, the structure, and installation performance requirements is the installer able to make successfully make reasonable judgments. There will always be compromise in every installation. He who has the knowledge to understand what those compromises should be and chooses wisely will be the profitable player in the market.
Thinking of installation compromises in the terms of risk assessment, let’s look at a few of the typical comments we hear when we are either thinking about or have made the decision. Assuming a competent person makes the statement let’s talk specifically about the phrases “it will never work,” that is a “questionable practice,” “it does not meet industry standards” or the ultimate: “it will fail.” “It will never work” is real simple; never say never. Anything is bound to work some of the time and the proposed method may even have some merit. This is where understanding the application and limitation of products come into play. Even if the products are viable in some applications, are they going to meet the performance expectation of this installation? The term a “questionable practice” is a little more elusive to define. If something is questionable inevitably it will also work on occasion. The question now becomes is this job that occasion. There are regional practices that are commonly done in a Southern climate and will not work in a Northern climate. Soil conditions are different imparting greater movement in a structure. Vapor drive in walls is different. The type of lumber used in buildings varies. Products appearing “the same as” are also often very different.
As I wrote this, I received several emails about a contractor-designed waterproofing system using products not suitable for the application. His comment was it is the same as XXX only a different manufacturer. He has performed these installations problem-free for more than 10 years. In this application the product he is using has had numerous confirmed failures over the years typically at the earliest 10 years, commonly longer. So does it work? Surely. Do they all fail? No, not by any means. But the fact that a good portion do does make it a questionable practice. Perhaps most confusing is the term “does not meet industry standards.” First one must grasp just what is the “industry” and these standards. The tile industry is a very intimate segment of the floor covering market due to its size. Whether you’re from Iowa or Connecticut if you spend any amount of time in the tile industry you make inevitably make friends nation-wide.
So just what are these “industry standards” for ceramic tile? In the United States we use the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) for standards development. ANSI A108 has been the standard for ceramic tile installation and ANSI A118 for installation materials for many years. This document sets the definitions and standards for proper installation of ceramic tile. The A108 was last revised in 2005. One of ANSI’s requirements is that all standards are revisited and re-approved every five years however standards work is a continuing ongoing process every year in-between. The Tile Council of North America is approved and recognized as the secretariat for the ANSI standards in the U.S. ceramic tile industry. The secretariat is the one who collects suggestions, organizes the meetings and publishes the results of the committee. All of the ANSI standards, definitions, and methods are subject to open review called transparency. Notices of work and balloting results are sent to all interested parties and posted on the standards development page at www.tileusa.com This not only allows for comment but prevents any one group or industry segment from dominating the process and thus promoting inferior standards. These standards are designed to act as a platform for establishing common ground between the manufacturers, specifiers, middlemen, installers, and end users. Only organizations are invited to participate and voting members in the standards generating process however anyone may attend. Those organizations that have an interest are invited to send voting members to the committee meetings. This is a very wide-ranging group from the Engineered Wood Association to National Home Builders and Remodelers, Tile Product Manufacturers, and installation labor. Any group with a legitimate interest may apply. The existing committee reviews and approves new applications. It is not an individual serving on the committee but rather an appointee of the organization he or she represents. No legitimate interest is excluded and anyone may submit comments and suggestions to the committees. The make up of the committee is audited by ANSI to confirm that no single segment dominates the process. To be considered for a standard all anyone must do is submit their proposed product, installation specifications, and supporting ASTM recognized test data. Suffice it to say it is a long and complicated process; however nobody is excluded from participation.
The TCA Handbook, the other more recognized document is meant to be a guideline, it is not a standard. That committee is run in a fashion very similar to the ANSI process however the committee members make the decisions what to publish. It is reviewed but not subject to revision without permission of the committee by Tile Council of North America. The committee members, who all attend at their own expense as with ANSI, always have the final word on what will and will not be published. The goal of all these standards and guidelines is to achieve minimum performance criteria. These minimum performance criteria are crafted and typically unanimously agreed to by manufacturers, dealers, installers, and end users alike. If any single one of the 40 or so people on the committee disagree, the entire group stops and discuss the concern.
So, what does it all mean? Hundreds of the most knowledgeable people in the business representing each product and type of person involved in the construction and tile installation process donate untold amounts of time and money to publish installation recommendations for the cost of the document. It is a daunting task and a true industry wide effort to make these voluntary recommendations. Yes, that’s right; they are completely voluntary in every respect. No one is precluded from installing any product on any job, in any manner they wish. The only time industry guidelines must be followed is when they are part of a contract or referred to by local code. The only time manufacturers instructions, which are always based in part on standards and guidelines, must be followed, is when a warranty is desired. When a problem arises that is often when many first hear of standards unfortunately.
Both ceramic tile products and installations grow more complex each year. It was not that long ago I installed tile daily for a living. Other than the usual trials and tribulations of installing what I remember most is my inability to keep up with both new products and understanding them. There has certainly never been a more challenging time in my career to keep abreast of the latest industry developments than that of the past 10 years. Both products and the dynamics of installations are rapidly evolving. We will continue to do our best to keep FCI readers on the cutting edge of change so they may make educated choices and keep their installations will remain problem free.