Installing Gauge Porcelain Tile Panels: Go Big or Go Home
By Robb Roderick, National Tile Contractors Association technical trainer
The trend over the last 30 years has been toward the installation of larger and larger tiles. It seems everyone loves tile but hates grout. One of the newest products, gauge porcelain tile panels/slabs (GPTP) is no exception as they are growing in popularity each year. The gauge porcelain tile panels and slabs are commonly defined in ANSI as “A ceramic tile of size greater than or equal to 1-meter square (11’ square). A product less than 1-meter square shall be regarded simply as tile.”
The new gauge porcelain tiles/slabs can be as large as 5’ by 10’. They also have been referred to as thin tile with the thickness ranging from 3mm to 6mm. These panels can be installed on walls and ceilings, on a variety of substrates such as concrete, concrete block, mortar beds, cementitious backer board, fiber cement backer board, fiber reinforced gypsum board, as well as gypsum board/ drywall.
There are two recognized methods of installation over wood: Method F250-Stone in the TCNA (Tile Council of North America Handbook) which requires an additional layer of plywood before installation of the backerboard, or Method F141 requiring a mud bed installation over the wood substrate. Some manufacturers limit floor installations to tiles having a 5mm minimum thickness requirements.
When I was first introduced to these large tiles, I was a little skeptical about how they would do in the market — with manufacturer training required to purchase the panels and a significant expense in getting tooled up. I was apprehensive about starting this new endeavor. Looking back, it was one of the best decisions I made as a business owner. Leading to the most profitable portion of my business, as well as connecting me with more clients and work than I would have had without getting into it. Don’t be afraid to transition yourself from installing traditional large format tile to gauged porcelain tile panels/slabs.
There are currently standards for the manufacturing and the installation of these large panels. The standard applies only to interior installation, but standards for exterior installations are being formulated. The standard for panel manufacturing is found in ANSI A137.3, and the installation standard for interiors is found in ANSI A108.19. The standards for exterior installation of GPTP were just recently released in ANSI A108.20. You should be familiar with all the standards before starting to install these products.
There is more training on installing GPTP than any other product category in the tile industry. The NTCA as well as setting material, tile, and tool manufacturers all provide hands-on training all over the United States. The training usually lasts one full-day and you are taught how to cut and handle the panels. In most classes, you work with a small group of 4-6 people and install at least one panel on the floor and one on the wall.
Outlined in the standards are the proper tools for the jobsite as these large and thin panels require the use of suction cup frames with a rigid spine, large rail cutters and a very solid and flat table is necessary for fabrication. For loading and delivery, extended forks for forklifts are required.
Mortar coverage requirements for these panels is 85% with no voids exceeding 2” square. Correct troweling technique on both the panel and substrate are critical to achieve these standards on such a large tile. There are special trowels, as well as vibrating sanders and beating block which can help facilitate air release and the collapsing of mortar ridges to achieve maximum mortar coverage. Latex modified mortars can be used and must be installed both on the tile and the substrate with directional troweling on both (going the short direction of the tile). The standards also require lippage control devices (leveling clips) in these installations.
Surface prep is essential for success with the standards requiring no deviation in the substrate of more than 1/8” in a ten’ radius as well as no more than a 1/16” deviation in more than 24”. This means in most every situation the surface to receive GPTP will require prep work. There are three recognized materials to render these surfaces mud, cementitious patch, and self-leveling.
Always consider the service rating and the area of installation when selecting your gauged porcelain tile panels. The service rating is determined by the ASTM Test Method C627 also known as the Robinson floor test. The Robinson floor test can give materials and methods a rating from light to extra heavy.
Many tile manufacturers have partnered with setting manufacturers and can give recommendations for the appropriate thin-set to use with their panels as well as advice on the appropriate environment for their product. Some panels have a mesh and resin backing to support them so reaching out to the manufacture helps ensures you get the right adhesive.
These panels usually require a minimum of a three-man crew for installation and handling of the panels. Pre-jobsite planning is important as some of these panels may not fit in elevators or through certain doorways. Create a plan to get the panels in the building before bidding the project.
In conclusion, to be successful keep in mind these three things: 1. Attend a training program on installing GPTP, it will increase your confidence and is required in our standards. 2. Make sure the surface your installing tile on is flat, check it with a 10’ straight edge and render the walls or floors to the standards of no more than 1/8” deviation in 10’. And 3. Use the appropriate tools, don’t try to get by without them or it may cost you later. If you do these three things you will increase your odds of success in this big world.