Installation: Tile Failure? Again?

By Steve Rausch

I learned to install tile back in the mid-1960s from the “best” tile installer/craftsman in Dayton, Ohio. His name was Claude and he had come to Dayton from Germany where he learned from the “best” tile installer in his village. He claimed to never have a tile failure, that is, when something failed, it wasn’t his fault — the failure was caused by those bad U.S. materials that didn’t work like his German materials did.

Installation: Tile Failure? Again?Further, Claude knew nothing of product installation standards or any installation standard, so naturally, he didn’t teach me any unnecessary stuff. Claude only installed tile using the full mud bed installation method. That new glue/stick method was just junk in his mind. He always worked as an independent because big tile companies wanted him to install their way, which wasn’t the same as Claude had learned in Germany.

Today’s mystery failures are mostly a combination of an installer’s lack of knowledge about how to match and properly use the installation tools, setting materials, and products in the environment they are designed for.

In 1972, I went to work for a company that sold carpet, vinyl, wood, and ceramic tile. They sent me to a one-day class led by a setting material manufacturer to learn more about proper tile installation. Although the training didn’t serve any real purpose except to indoctrinate us into properly using that manufacturer’s products, it did open my eyes to the world of product and installation standards.

Installation: Tile Failure? Again?Today, we have multiple documents available that not only ensure product quality and performance as the label proclaims, but they also provide detailed instructions on required job site conditions and proper installation methods, detailed assemblies for each specific application such as wet areas, and the necessary specifications that help ensure the consumer and end user the job will be completed as intended.


These documents include, but certainly aren’t limited to, ANSI publications, ASTM publications, TCNA Handbook for Ceramic Tile and Stone/Marble Installations, and the NTCA Handbook. Each of these publications address specific and different aspects of tile installations so you can’t rank them or suggest one is better than another. They are all needed and quite frankly, required, for different purposes depending upon where you are in the installation process. You should have a current copy of each of these in your truck or office to review for each job before you install it. These documents cost you very little, but many manufacturer’s representatives have copies that they will give you for free if you just ask them. Communication is certainly the key here.


I’ve personally been involved in well over 100 installation classes since 1972, however, my most recent class was about five years ago I’m certain if I tried to install tile today, I would be doing it incorrectly for today’s products’ needs and methods. Setting materials, even mortar or mud, is much different today; it’s not just “dirt in a bag” like it was just a few years ago. Every setting material manufacturer has altered their formulations within the last five years to improve the characteristics of even their most basic products. Certainly, tile manufacturers have changed product specifications in the past five years, and even the tools used to install are newer and improved. Look at any of the advertisements in this magazine to see the changes with either improved older versions or tools that didn’t exist previously.

Installation: Tile Failure? Again?I want to clearly state that it is not an unknown reason nor a single mistake or problem that causes most failures. Today’s mystery failures are mostly a combination of an installer’s lack of knowledge about how to match and properly use the installation tools, setting materials, and products in the environment for which they are they are designed.


Unfortunately, I still see tile installed in wet areas without waterproofing considerations, which has been specifically listed for more than five years in the TCNA Handbook on every wet area assembly, proper backer materials, correct quality of/or incorrect selection of setting materials, and improper technique. This includes spotting  (five spot bonding) the tile or not troweling (keying in and cross combing) the material into the tile or backer properly.


I recently saw a failure involving a 3’x5′ backer board held down to the subfloor with four roofing nails. How should it have been done properly? As always, the starting point is the backer board manufacturer’s written installation instructions. Uncoupling membranes do not replace backer boards in most assemblies. They are designed for an entirely different purpose!


I challenge you, the active, quality installer today with this question: When was the last job you had to tear out and replace because of installation failure? My bet, for a cup of coffee at the next trade show, is within the past 30 days. This is inexcusable! For the benefit of all installers, I would like you to send some photos of failures to me for an upcoming article as we learn from others’ mistakes.


Most importantly, every professional in every industry has requirements for ongoing continuing education, usually annually, to remain certified as an industry-recognized trade professional. Doctors, lawyers, architects, and now professional tile installers such as the NTCA 5 Star-recognized contractors, all understand what Claude never did: to avoid installation failures, you must receive/refresh your training, and stay current with the latest materials and methods available.

There is no excuse today for any installer not to improve, update, and refresh their skills at least every other year.

Today, there are many training opportunities and testing programs for entry-level, experienced and advance installers, provided by manufacturers, (Ardex, Schluter, WEDI, Noble, Mapei, Laticrete and others provide monthly, regional classes at little or no cost), the National Tile Contractors Association offers monthly Road Show training classes that come to your neighborhood tile distributor and put on evening classes, and the Ceramic Tile Education Foundation offers certification opportunities to verify your skills. There are many others who want to provide every installer with proper training followed by qualified, independent certification programs that verify your skill level accomplishments.


Further, the NTCA has a fantastic series of online training programs for $50 per year for access to every program — that is far less than just one callback to a jobsite to investigate or repair a failure. There is no excuse today for any installer not to improve, update, and refresh their skills at least every other year.


Finally, I want to mention the importance of utilizing the opportunities available to take in trade shows such as The International Surfaces Event (TISE) and Coverings Show, both of which offer not only a single place to meet and discuss with the manufacturers their latest improvements and newest product offerings, but also provide educational classes and demonstrations of those offerings. You should also investigate taking plant tours, research and testing lab tours, and seeing/reviewing job-site installation failures, and documentation forms that quickly point out the most common failures to avoid. The costs of training (financial- and time-based) is minor compared to having just one single failure. The available resources in this industry are incredible!


If you need help determining where to go or what your specific needs are, please feel free to contact me by email at; or call (404) 281-2218. I will help direct you towards the proper source of information.

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