Whether installed on the floor or, as seen here, on the wall, tile offers unmistakable beauty and sophistication. It can also cause unbelievable headaches when not installed properly.

One thing you can count on as an educator is questions and more questions. The reason one chooses to teach a given subject is hopefully their love of that discipline. As a tile installer and now educator I can tell you: If you love the tile business, there is no better place to be than the Ceramic Tile Education Foundation. Situated on the Clemson University campus in South Carolina, this educational organization is funded by the tile industry and closely aligned with the Tile Council of North America. I am fortunate to experience the ultimate in my own personal education here, which I am then able to share with others. It is in this spirit that I share some of the typical recent questions we have received.

From Mesa, Ariz.: Are there any standards under which an entire shipment of tile can be deemed out of standard for color or texture? My client had ceramic tile installed that is not the same color or texture as the mill sample from which he made his initial selection. Most of the installed tiles are textured with deeper, recessed pockets that have a distinct grayish color. He feels the more conspicuous grayish spots, especially around the edges, make the tiles look dirty. Two inspectors reported the problem as soiling but our inspection revealed very little soil. The grayish discoloration is part of the finish, not surface soil, grout haze or contamination. Still, the homeowner is very unhappy with the installation. I have not been able to find any published standards to resolve this one way or another. I would really appreciate your help.

Rule No. 1: If shade variation is a problem, do not install the tile. It has long been an accepted industry practice to allow returns on stock material when shade variation is an issue. Most samples are clearly marked to confirm that the sample is representative of the product. The only thing that can be assured when purchasing tile from samples is that it will be different. Why? Even with the high degree of automation in today's plants, each time a tile production run occurs, some variation is to be expected. Perhaps this was not adequately explained during the sales process and while it may have proved inconvenient, the installation should have been halted. Many manufacturers and distributors use a proprietary system developed by the Ceramic Tile Distributors Association, the CTDA Color/Shade Variation Program. The program uses graphic representations of each variation along with full-color photographs of actual tile installations. Two photographs of each variation type are provided. You can get more information atwww.ctdahome.org/education/shade.shtml

From Green Bay, Wis.: We recently had tile installed throughout our home. I believe my floor is fairly level but now it just appears unlevel given that the tiles are so poorly set. There are several areas of our floor where the edge of one tile is significantly higher or lower than the adjoining tile. In some cases, the lips are as much as 1/4" although a majority are around 1/8 of an inch. It's as though the installers never really took the time to properly level the tile when laying it. The spacing between the tiles is good. A few of the larger lips are in prominent walk paths where you can actually stub the sole of your shoe and trip.

The variation in the height of adjoining tiles is called lippage. This is defined in the ANSI (American National Standards Institute) standard A108 A-3.3.7, Installation of Ceramic Tile, lippage refers to "differences in elevation between edges of adjacent tile modules." It can be influenced by many factors such as: A) The allowable thickness variation of the tile modules when judged in accordance with manufacturing standards, B) The allowable warpage of the tile modules, C) The spacing or separation of each tile module, which would influence a gradual or abrupt change in elevation, D) Angle of natural or manufactured light accentuating otherwise acceptable variance in modules and E) Highly reflective surfaces of tile modules accentuating otherwise acceptable variance in modules.

Additionally, variations in the flatness of the substrate will also affect lippage quite dramatically. In many cases, when tile is installed by the thinset method over an uneven substrate, the installed surface will not meet lippage standards. Please note: the inherent warpage should be measured and discounted from allowable lippage.

From Bullhead, Ariz: The home I built here in the summer of 2003 includes approximately 1,300 square feet of 14-inch tile, with light colored (linen) grout. Right after installation I noticed a light colored haze remained on all tile surfaces when the floor was mopped with plain water. Also, the grout disintegrates into a sandy powder when rubbed with a finger. I can use a toothpick to dig holes completely through the grout all the way down to the subfloor without even damaging the toothpick. This soft grout condition exists throughout the entire home. When the builder refused to fix the problem, I reported him to the Arizona Registrar of Contractors (ROC) and they essentially ruled that the soft grout condition was my fault because I didn't ask the contractor to install sealer. When I complained, they said that if I didn't like it I could take the matter to court. So I did. I assumed this would be an open and shut case. But I was wrong. The ROC is fighting my complaint tooth and nail, and apparently intends to litigate its bogus decision to the bitter end. The problem is, I can't afford the attorneys and experts necessary to fight back. I can't even afford to attend the trial. I thought you might be able to help.

I cannot begin to imagine how grout sealer would have done anything to improve the hardness of the grout. Quite the contrary, depending on the sealer, it could actually cause an issue in some instances of premature application. Grout made with an excessive amount of water or polymer additive, the liquid that goes into the grout, ultimately must evaporate. This excess liquid can cause a weak grout structure by providing excessive capillaries or tunnels in the grout. Another common cause of soft grout and shading issues is excessive water used in the cleaning process. Properly installed ceramic tile grouts can have compressive strengths that rival concrete. I would suggest you contact the grout manufacturer and obtain a performance data sheet which would clearly indicate the recommended methods and properties. Actual "defective" grout is very, very, rare.

From Dallas, Texas: I need insight on using asphalt impregnated felt paper as an underlayment. I seek advice from you because I do not want to get a biased answer from any manufacturer. We do not currently use this method, but have in the past and it has necessitated numerous repairs. I'm looking for information that will assist me in dealing with the original installer of these tiles. Specifically, was this ever an approved method? If so, what were the specific installation instructions? Are there any methods to correct tiles from "popping up"? Any response will be used for my informational purposes and I will not divulge my source (unless you authorize me to). Thank you in advance for any assistance you might be able to give me.

We get this question so often I have a form letter/email we send out. Many swear they have used this method successfully a number of years with no problems but letters such as yours indicate otherwise. Some contractors have used felt paper as an inexpensive type of anti-fracture membrane. Unfortunately, this type of installation generally does not provide suitable bond strength between the tile and the floor nor does it hold up to moisture and it can promote fungal growth. The internal make-up of an anti-fracture membrane is such that movement in the concrete or wood substrate is not directly transferred to the tile. Although the membrane is bonded to the substrate and the tile to it, the membrane stretches where needed to prevent or reduce force transference. These membranes are either trowel applied or sheet applied. In many cases multiple components or steps are part of the system. Performance varies also - it is important to check with the crack isolation membrane manufacturer regarding their installation instructions and intended use. Some of the industry's largest manufacturers of felt paper have tested their products extensively in the TCA Lab and none have ever achieved results that would meet the industry requirement for crack suppression. Consequently, none recommend the application. If the tile is "popping," that is a very different issue called lack of movement accommodation.

These are just some of our most recent mail related to tile issues. I could truly spend weeks, perhaps months assembling similar tales covering tile issues across the complete spectrum of tile related products and installation. Maybe when I retire I'll write a book titled "A Thousand ways to Ruin a Tile Installation." But I think not. It's just too depressing a subject for those of us who love our industry and its craft workers. Let us instead expend our efforts to raise the bar of quality in sales and installation.