Tile Files: Why quality tile installation is a must - Apr 2018

By Scott Carothers

Whether your client selects porcelain or ceramic tile for a restaurant floor, a commercial restroom, an entryway, a bathroom or any room in a home, chances are high that the goal is to provide a surface that will look beautiful for many years and perform well under any conditions. This is not an unreasonable goal. Given that tile is a permanent surface designed to give decades of beauty and performance, a quality tile installation should be completed by a skilled and qualified contractor. Here’s why.

There’s much more to a successful tile installation than just placing tile in mortar and grouting it. That’s especially true in areas where water needs to be managed properly. 

Constructing a tile shower, for example, is one of the most critical installations that can occur. It needs to be done properly so that it and the rest of the home are protected from water intrusion. To put this into proper perspective, the average residential shower used by a family of four handles approximately 45 times more water than the roof of a home in the heaviest rainfall areas in the United States.

For an installation of tile to be successful in areas with direct sunlight, it is imperative that tile industry standards are followed. The 2017 TCNA Handbook for Ceramic, Glass, and Stone Tile Installation, published by the Tile Council of North America, calls for a perimeter expansion space at walls and cabinets along with expansion joints being placed in the tile installation at a maximum of every 12’ in each direction. Failing to accommodate this sunlight-induced movement can result in the tile lifting up, usually in the center of the floor, which is known as tenting. This unfortunate situation is extremely expensive to replace.

A sometimes-overlooked detail of a soon-to-be-installed tile installation is the flatness of the substrate, whether it is a floor or a wall. If the tile being installed is smaller than 15”, the substrate must not deviate any more than 1/4” when measured with a 10’ straight edge. For tile with any one side longer than 15”, which is known as large format tile, the substrate must be flat to within 1/8” when measured with a 10’ straight edge. When tile is installed in areas not conforming to these industry guidelines, the resulting installation can, and most times does, exhibit lippage. Lippage occurs when one tile is either higher or lower than the adjacent tile. This higher tile is not only unacceptable aesthetically, but on floors it can be a trip hazard, which can result in an accident and potentially even a lawsuit.

Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder; however, time-tested principles play a major role. For example, installers must ensure that patterns repeat regularly in an installation, and that proportions make sense.

Once the tile pattern has been determined, the grout joints throughout the installation should be in alignment. Allowing the grout joints to vary in size along with not maintaining the pattern will be evident and, most times, unacceptable. Another factor to consider is the one-third offset standard found in the American National Standard Institute (ANSI) book, which calls for the tile joints to be at a one-third point to the adjacent tile rather than the previously used 50% offset. Since most rectangular tiles have inherent warping along the long side, this one-third offset helps to minimize lippage.

To be certain that the completed tile installation resembles the tile sample board, consumers should also utilize the manufacturer’s aesthetic classification chart for color variation. This chart, which is voluntarily supplied by the tile manufacturer, provides the prospective buyer with a visual guideline of how much color and texture variation will occur in the tile. This range begins with “V0,” which is very uniform and smooth in texture, whereas the “V4” tiles are substantially variable with random color or texture differences from tile to tile, where one tile may have totally different colors or textures from the next tile. It is wise to view a larger sample board or dry-lay the tiles from a box to determine if the appearance will be satisfactory.

The pace of change in the tile industry has been dizzying, starting with tile sizes that continue to grow, along with the popularity of products such as wood plank tiles, which are long and narrow. As the tiles continue to get longer and wider, the required installation techniques and materials have changed and are very different from those used in the past. The extremes call for new, more technical installation materials.

For example, the longer tiles require that installers know how to accommodate inherent warpage associated with large format tile as well as how to provide a surface that will allow these products to be installed without lippage or at least within the allowable tolerances provided in the tile installation standards.

Tile industry standards require minimum mortar coverage of 80% in dry areas and 95% in wet (showers) or exterior areas. Natural stone tile installations require 95% coverage in all applications. This refers to the contact area of the bonding material (thin-bed mortars, large and heavy tile mortars or epoxy adhesives) with both the back of the tile and the surface being tiled.

The new “tile installation normal” requires tile installers to be familiar with the latest product developments and installation techniques. Hearing the overused statement, “I’ve been doing it this way for over 20 years and never had a problem,” should be reason for concern. Many of the products routinely used today were not available five years ago, let alone 20 years ago.

Qualified labor refers to having the most qualified professional perform the scope of the work being specified rather than basing the buying decision on the lowest price. The TCNA handbook committee strongly recommends using installers who have demonstrated their commitment to their craft and taken the time to stay current with the latest materials and methods. Because tile is a permanent finish, the lowest bid should not be the driving factor, but rather who is the most qualified to perform the scope of the work specified; installers should own and know how to use the two most critical tile industry reference manuals, the TCNA handbook and the ANSI Standards.

The tile industry standards found in ANSI A108/A118 and the methods published in the TCNA handbook address the acceptable details and best practices for installing ceramic, porcelain, glass and stone tile for all types of installations. They can identify which TCNA handbook detail will be used to construct the project, thereby ensuring that it will be a great-looking and long-lasting installation for clients.

Qualified tile installers belong to industry-recognized tile associations and take their profession seriously. For tile contractors, it is the National Tile Contractors Association or the Tile Contractors Association of America. Detailed technical support based on tile industry standards is a hallmark benefit of contractor membership.

If your tile contractor is a Ceramic Tile Education Foundation (CTEF) Certified Tile Installer (CTI) and holds advanced certifications for tile installers, you can rest assured that the tile installation will meet your expectations. These installers have been critically examined by the only nationally recognized third-party training and certification foundation on their knowledge of the recognized methods and best practices and their ability to use them to produce great looking and long-lasting installations. A CTI will have a certificate and wallet card with his or her CTI number assigned by the Ceramic Tile Education Foundation, which can be verified on the CTEF website (ceramictilefoundation.org).  

For specifiers, consumers and homeowners, it provides a mechanism for identifying the level of proficiency of prospective tile installers. It also encourages them to use only the best-qualified installers, ensuring that their tile project is installed correctly the first time and will look beautiful for years to come.

This certification program is particularly valuable since there are no national or consistent state-to-state guidelines for tile installation. That’s why the CTI program comprehensively tests the skills and knowledge of experienced tile installers via an online open-book, multiple-choice exam and a hands-on test that is administered across the United States. Both are based on current industry standards and best practices for producing a sound installation that exhibits high quality workmanship. Those who successfully complete the CTI program become Qualified Labor as outlined in the TCNA handbook.

The CTEF launched the CTI program in 2008 to provide a means for good, knowledgeable tile installers to verify their skills and promote themselves to potential clients and employers.

When you visit ceramictilefoundation.org, you will find information not just on tile installation training and certification, but also on resources for homeowners and specifiers, along with a zip code locator for finding CTIs in your geographic location.

As you might imagine, there are many details that must be completed properly in every tile installation so your client doesn’t experience problems with the system’s performance. Every tile installation presents many demanding challenges that require an experienced, professional, qualified and certified tile installation contractor. 

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