Tile installation product manufacturers say there are four common mistakes that installers and contractors make again and again. They do not prepare the surface properly, use the wrong adhesive or mortar for the job, mix the grout with too much water and do not place the movement joints correctly. Any one of these can cause problems with the installation – all four will guarantee failure.

In order to avoid these problems, installers and contractors need to ensure they are up-to-date with the latest standards and carefully read the manufacturer’s instructions. Do not choose a product by price alone, and never skimp on an important detail simply because there is too much to do and too little time to do it in. Each step is there for a reason, manufacturers state.

Surface preparation. According to Mike Venturelli, QEP’s vp sales of ceramic tile tools, proper surface preparation is the most important aspect of any installation. “If the surface is not prepared properly, nine times out of 10 the adhesive is not going to bond to the surface.”

Surface preparation is essential because a project is only as reliable as the substrate to which it is bonded, noted Leigh Hightower, MAPEI U.S.’ technical services mgr. He said to make sure the surface is completely clear of any potential contaminants. “There is not a lot of bond strength in paint overspray, curing compounds and normal dirt and grime.”

Harold Ostrander, H.B. Fuller Construction Products sr. area technical mgr., said that preparation may be time-consuming, but it is always worth the extra effort. “Yes, cleaning the area and preparing the surface will take extra time, but it will significantly reduce the chances of failure.”

John Buser, president of Dust Collection Products, added that dust should be kept to a minimum when removing old tile or abrading the surface in preparation for new tile. “One mistake we hear about a lot is installers going in, removing the tile and resurfacing the floor without proper dust collection. It infuriates the customer when there is dust all over the floor and walls.”

Using the wrong adhesive or mortar. Arthur Mintie, LATICRETE technical services director, said that just because an installer is comfortable with a product doesn’t necessarily make it the right fit for every job – or sometimes for anyjob. “Just because an installer or contractor has been using certain techniques and materials for many years and has entered into a comfort zone with them doesn’t mean those methods and materials should still be used today.”

Hightower noted that every installer and contractor should follow industry standards to select appropriate products. “Time after time, we see contractors get into financial trouble or in bankruptcy because they try to cut expenses by using products that do not meet the quality standards required for specific jobs. The products listed in each of the TCNA Handbook methods by ANSI and especially ISO performance characteristics should be followed as the minimum quality products required to accomplish the installation.”

He added that in most situations, the contractor who chooses products of an even higher quality than the minimum standard levels is much more likely to complete a successful installation.

Ostrander said when choosing a product, it is important to education oneself on all the available options. “Be sure to ask questions, read the manufacturer’s technical data and follow product recommendations before choosing products and materials for your installation.”

Additionally, know what you want to accomplish with the product, noted Steve Taylor, Custom Building Products director of architecture & technical marketing. “Choose the appropriate mortar and grout for not only the tile selected, but also for the surface it is being bonded to.”

More on thin-set application. According to Sean Gerolimatos, Schluter Systems technical director, installers and contractors should always check to be sure they are getting the proper amount of coverage when working with thin-set mortars. “Without proper thin-set coverage to the tile, the risk of damage to the tile covering greatly increases, even in residential applications with light foot traffic.”

The checklist may include floor leveling, selecting suitable notched trowels and back-buttering the tiles. “There is no single set of rules that guarantees success in this regard,” Gerolimatos added. “Tile setters must verify how to achieve coverage at the outset of the installation and periodically check a tile to make sure they are having continued success.”

Venturelli said it is important to pay close attention to the condition of the trowel. “A trowel wears down, and if it’s about three or four years old, I guarantee it’s not achieving the needed coverage.” He added that manufacturers will typically recommend the proper size of trowel to use for an installation; make sure to follow that recommendation.

Improperly mixing the grout. Contractors and installers will often use too much water when mixing a grout to make it easier to apply, according to Hightower. This practice leads to problems. “The more water that is used when mixing the grout, the higher the risk of discoloration. Excess water also requires much longer for the grout to reach its initial set.”

Because the grout hasn’t set, it’s very easy to wash away the pigment. “Until the grout has reached that initial set, the pigment is not locked in and is free to be removed from the grout joint by the cleaning process. This will result in grout that’s not the right color, as well as splotchy grout or even efflorescence,” Hightower noted.

Ostrander added that not using the correct grout-to-water ratio will not only negatively affect the color, but can also lead to degradation of the grout’s physical strength as well.

Not planning for movement joints. Gerolimatos sees a common mistake made during installation planning: “Contractors and installers are not making provisions for movement joints in the tile covering.” This is a serious mistake, he said. “Movement joints are required to limit stress building in the tile covering due to movement from changes in temperature, moisture content and loading.”

If an installer or contractor is called back because of tenting in the tile floor, that is a sure sign the movement joints haven’t been adequately placed, Hightower noted. “The tile must be able to move a small amount in relation to the substrate. In order to do so, it must have somewhere to go. Without the proper movement joints in accordance with TCNA EJ171, the tile has nowhere to go but up.”

Choosing your tools. A long list could be made of all the tools a tile installer or contractor will need from surface preparation to final installation, including flooring abraders, tile saws, dust collectors, buckets, sponges, rags, trowels, spacers, power mixers, grout floats, chalk boxes, levels, caulk, rubber mallets, etc. Despite the many different types of tools needed, manufacturers all agree on one thing: Choose professional-grade products, and only from brands you trust.

Mark Pennine, ARDEX Americas tile and stone specialist, said that contractor-grade tools are usually the best bet because they will most likely be quality products. “These types of tools are of good quality and can give precision results.”

Taylor noted that buying from trusted brands can ensure the product is also dependable, something that “will not wear out or break down during the installation.”

Quality tools are also supported by quality information, Gerolimatos added. “This includes clear guidelines on suitable applications and installation instructions at a minimum.” Test data demonstrating a product’s performance and compliance with relevant standards can also ensure the contractor or installer is choosing the right tool.

Mintie stressed that the most important tool of all is knowledge. “The more knowledge one has regarding a specific pre-installation condition, the better that person will be at handling the project correctly.” He said if more professional tile contractors and installers embrace ongoing education about their field, “tile installation will continue to get better and more failure-proof.”