Tile and Stone: What Do You Mean ‘The Installation Failed?’

What Do You Mean ‘The Installation Failed?’

By Steve Rausch

When I starting in the flooring industry in 1974 at a full-service retail store in Cincinnati, I remember being told that there really weren’t any books or classes on ceramic tile and stone installation so just go onto the job with our best crew and learn what you can. Besides, what can go wrong? Oh baby, were they ever naïve.

The failures at that time seemed to be: the tile not meeting squareness and thickness standards, bonding and grouting materials inconsistency, installation technique failures, surface preparation issues and of course, some moisture management issues.

Fast forward to 2017 and I still hear some of those same failure issues. There are no excuses today as we have many books and classes, and certification programs to ensure no failure. Yet, we seem to have job failure and finger pointing.

There are many reasons we still have installation failures today, including: installer error; sub-surface problems; substrates and underlayment problems; mortar and setting material issues; grout issues; specific product installation procedures/methods (stone/glass/porcelain tile, as well as exterior); and finally, maintenance issues.

The Pre-Installation Discussion

The installer isn’t always at fault, but sometimes things happen that should have been caught by them. Many times, not knowing is a worse problem than doing something wrong. As a professional, you are expected to know the proper way to deal with those challenges. To be a great installer today, you must become a great teacher and share knowledge with everyone involved.

  1. Discuss expectations with the customer before starting the job. You sometimes just look at a job and know there will be issues. Rather than trying to do your best and just overcome them, why not just stop and discuss them before you invest your time, labor, and money in a no-win situation. Discuss the desired layout of the tile selected, the size of the grout joints, the color of the grout, the potential color and shading variations of the tile selected, etc. Many times, customers don’t realize that what they are asking for isn’t going to be as easy as it looks in that latest magazine.
  2. Review the job site, floor prep and expansion joints with your client. Out of square walls, unlevel floors, and expansion joints must be discussed before starting the job. Also, don’t forget to mention the effect of the sun beating into a glass-surrounded floor and its subsequent issues.
  3. Discuss what will be required in the way of waterproofing to ensure a problem-free installation.
  4. Job cost differences. Discuss the differences between a mud bed shower pan and a premanufactured foam pan. If you discuss this potential extra cost requirement up front, and the benefits it will provide, then you’ll avoid the battle to get paid when you’re finished.
  5. Discuss what will be required to properly maintain the installation. Provide each customer with a starter pack of products to properly clean and maintain the installation.

Labor Errors

The number one labor error I hear of almost daily is: I did it the way I always do with ABC products, but when I used XYZ products, it failed. Yep, that is probably correct, it will fail. That’s why every class, every book, and every professional will tell you to install following the manufacturer’s instruction for the product you used – not the one you like the best because it’s easier.

The second labor error I hear about is trying to use thinset to correct or level the subfloor issues. The name, thinset, really does mean thin and setting material – not gobbed on to try and level a low spot. This product will shrink if applied too thickly.

Applying too much or too little setting material for the application. You can’t use a 1/8” V notch trowel for 18″x18″ heavy tile. This gets somewhat complicated due to trying to follow two different manufacturers’ installation instructions – the tile manufacturer will (or should) tell you the size and type notch trowel they want used and should give you the proper ANSI material specification for the mortar they recommend. Then, verify on the bag of the mortar that the product you are using is proper for that tile size and weight. If not, stop the job and call both customer service numbers and get this resolved before you end up buying that job.

Backer boards not used when needed, or used improperly, or not properly installed. I’ve found cracking tile and grout due to a 3’x5’ backer panel being glued down with  a squeeze container adhesive material in a very light “S” pattern. I’ve found a 3’x5’ backer panel being installed without a leveling bed under it and moving on a high spot. I’ve found a 3’x5’ backer panel that had six drywall screws in the entire panel to hold it and heavy, thick stone tile on the wall. Again, the manufacturer of the board will tell you in the instructions what they require for proper installation.

Not understanding complete materials properties, requirements, specifications to do the installation. If you have any doubt, then refer to the TCNA Handbook for Ceramic, Glass, and Stone Tile installation or the NTCA Reference Manual. Always have both publications with you and wear those pages by making sure you’re doing the assembly the proper way, with the proper materials. This is critical because the inspector who comes out to inspect a potential job failure can either be your best friend or your worst enemy. If you show that you used the proper materials, in the proper way, the inspector will make you money by getting the product manufacturer whose product failed to pay you to remove and replace that job. If you, as the installer, caused the problem, then the inspector will identify those issues you failed on and you will be buying a new job.

Product Issues and Failures

We can effectively combine subsurface problems, substrate problems and underlayment problems together to have a general discussion about the failure potentials. Underlayment generally refers to trowelable or liquid-poured materials used to level the subfloor. They generally come in either Portland cement-based or gypsum-based products and require specific installation instructions and procedures specified by the manufacturer. The three main issues of failure here are loss of bond, cracking, and a soft or powdery finish. Most every manufacturer has a specific sealer that needs to be applied before application, and some have finish sealers that help the setting materials grab better. Many of these products require a minimum thickness, but a few will allow you to work from a feather finish up to 2″ thickness or more. One of the main issues to use caution about is the required cure time before applying tile as this varies greatly, sometimes up to two weeks.

Substrates can be as simple as an existing concrete or plywood floor system, mortar beds, or any number of backer board panel units. Another area of substrates to consider is concrete blocks, poured concrete walls, steel studs or wooden studs. Each has its own benefits and pitfalls ready to cause failures.

One general concern is about deflection on floors and walls, and the movement of the surface induced by live or dead loads on the structure. This motion or movement will cause either cracking or breaking of the finished tile assembly. It is difficult to measure the possibility of this without engineering help so if you suspect movement possibilities, stop the job and get help so you don’t end up buying this job.

Also, substrate systems are usually covered by local building codes so be sure to investigate before installing. Backer board panels are especially popular today for most tile installations. However, they expanded from CBU materials to newer technology materials. Each and all of these products have specific requirements manufacturers will teach you about. Do no assume you know what is required as these updated materials have all changed, including basic CBU units. As discussed earlier, most backer panel units require a leveling bed under them as well as mechanical fasteners and taping of the joint seams, especially on corners.

Regarding mortar, setting materials, and grout potential failure issues, realize that no other area of tile and stone installation products have changed as much in the past several years as this product category. Manufacturers are literally changing and introducing new products monthly. Many are doing some wonderful and exciting tasks that were completely impossible just a few years ago. Consider the performance requirements of each product available from the manufacturer of each and every product.

You may want a quick set or a long open time – both are absolutely possible, just not from the same product. Don’t think that by just adding less or extra water will make the product work better. It won’t, and it will likely ruin the product so follow exact instructions. As we discussed earlier, thin set is a specific product for a specific purpose, as is medium bed mortars, which are designed to be used between 3/16” to 3/4” applications. Most mortars are available in both dry-set, as well as modified types, and now we have the newest Improved Modified Dry-Set category.

Again, it is absolutely essential you work with the manufacturer that made the mortar to get the proper installation instructions. The last thing you want is bond failure of your setting materials because you picked up just whatever bag was laying around and it wasn’t the proper product for this installation application.

Grouts have the same issues and situations as setting materials. New technology products include quartz aggregates, urethanes, resins, as well as expected cementitious-based grouts. There are also a full range of pigmented color grouts, single and multi-component grouts, and other proprietary variations available today. Again, it is mandatory you work with the grout manufacturer to avoid job failure. There are inherent problems possible with all grouts, but in all cases, the corrective measures vary by the manufacturer. This includes common issues such as efflorescence, crazing and/or cracking of joints, latex migration, rough or textured joints, and pinholes. Grouting your finished tile job is certainly more complex today thanks to the technologically advanced products available.

Installation Procedures, Methods for Unique or Special Situations and Applications

Certainly, large tile, thin tile panels, glass tile, natural and synthetic stone tile have all changed the landscape over simple clay body tile that most of us learned on. Not to mention, the many variations of installation on interior, high water management situations, high traffic or abuse areas, exterior areas, hot or cold weather conditions, hot tubs, shower systems and applications, steam showers, curbless entry showers, decks and balconies, radiant heating system issues, etc.

Before starting a job with these products and installation areas, attend an installation class for the special application you have coming up and study the TCNA Handbook and NTCA Reference manual to better understand the assemblies, how to construct them properly, and how to work with the manufacturers to learn the specifics of what and how to handle their products made for these applications. Manufacturers of thin or large panel tiles regularly offer classes to instruct you. They can also sometimes help you with the cost of the training by giving you the products and tools you need for these situations.

There are many potential pitfalls to ceramic tile and stone installations using today’s products and method, but by taking the time to properly educate yourself, you can be the best friend your customer has ever had for many years to come as they enjoy the fruits of your labor.

If you have any questions, feel free to contact me at Rauschsteve@comcast.net.

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