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.


Ceramic tile is not a necessity. It's a luxury. When someone makes the decision to go with tile, they expect to pay a premium price. Why shouldn't they expect a premium product and premium service? Today I got a call from a consumer that exemplifies the challenges tile shoppers face. It was a gentleman asking to speak with a knowledgeable tile professional who could advise him. I thought I'd give it a shot. He said he was looking to add tile to his upscale home, but was befuddled by the lack of knowledge shown by those bidding on the job. He had done minimal research (his words) but could already identify possible issues that none of the prospective stores picked up on when they made their onsite visits. He asked if we had someone who could come over and give him an educated view of how the installation should proceed. He was dangling a fee of several hundred dollars so I figured maybe it's time for me to start thinking about side jobs! What I also thought about was the lack of tile and stone know-how that bedevils our business.

I think few would disagree with the statement that it is unusual to get through almost any flooring or tile project with absolutely no problems. Some may be trivial, others catastrophic, but something always seems to happen. That's understandable given the variety of products and the complexities of installation. But lately we at the Ceramic Tile Education Foundation have been getting a rash of phone calls like the one today from the guy shopping for tile. We keep hearing that expectations are not being met. And it's not just consumers who are complaining. We hear the same gripe from installers, retailers and distributors. So this may be a good time to step back and give thought to some of the major areas that define and shape our business. I have cobbled together a list of five areas that merit attention. The following list is in no way comprehensive but reflects the most recent trends based on our phone calls and email traffic.

The Vision

The No. 1 complaint about sales? Shade variation. The No. 1 complaint about installation? Grout color variation. If the color is wrong, the vision is destroyed. The one thing everyone selling tile should assure every customer buying tile is simply this: The sample will not be an exact match to the tile received at the job site (unless they are from the same stock, which is seldom the case). The sample tile and the job site tile were most likely made at two different times. Tile is baked in an oven (kiln) and like all things that come out of an oven; there will be variation from batch to batch. If the shopper can not accept this reality, tile (or stone) may not be the right choice for him or her. The reasons for variations in grout shading are endless, but the most common complaint we hear is installer related. Poor installation practices lead to mottling or "bleaching." These are not product related issues. Another persistent complaint relative to the performance and the lasting vision of the end user, involves porcelain tile. Simply put: This product is not bullet proof. If it is glazed, that does not mean it is suitable for any application; only those for which it is rated. Glaze wear ratings, 1-5, are only indications of glaze durability; not the durability of the body or bisque.

The Estimate

Some companies use a measuring service, others have the sales floor or warehouse person go out and measure the job. Some will even settle for a picture with measurements. All of these scenarios make me uneasy. If I ran such a company I would expect to lose money and face constant shortages. I'd also be dealing with a fairly high incidence of claims, even in new construction. Estimating involves a lot more than figuring out how much material is required. It's also about doors that need trimming, dishwashers and toilets that must be moved, wood base that has to come out and shoe molding that needs to be added. Where will the installation equipment be used? Does the driveway require protection from wet saws? Is there a secure area for storage while the job is in progress, away from thieves and inquisitive children? Where will the dog or cat be kept? Perhaps most importantly to the decision maker: How much mess will the work crew make and who will clean it up. If you can provide answers to all these questions (and more), you should charge a premium for your services. And customers will gladly pay. Estimating profitably in remodeling projects requires a very knowledgeable person for consistent returns.

The Substrate and Supporting Structure

This could be lumped into estimating, but it is too important. The ability of a surface to receive tile deserves its own special mention because it is vital to success. There really is no one method that is suitable for all flooring jobs, but this is an area where experienced judgment calls need to be made. Can you install over vinyl? Sure, if you have the right thinset, but it is also a compromise that is not without risk. Install over plywood? Sure with the proper type, thickness and setting material. How about putting your tile down on OSB? Never! Should you use backer board or is a membrane more suitable for the application? Lot of homeowners with laundry rooms wish someone would have given them that option.

The most important part of any floor application is the joist spacing and subfloor layer. That is your support structure. The purpose of any underlayment is to provide an independent backing surface for finish flooring. In the real world, often we have no choice but to use an underlayment for its minimal value in stiffening the floor. I have done it, manufacturers sometimes recommend it, but it is not a good choice (especially if you have an easily identifiable place of business.) Remember: Some floors are just not suitable for ceramic tile no matter how bad the customer wants it, and no matter how bad you want to sell it.

Workmanship

Layout, cutting, and fitting ceramic tile to accommodate a particular layout is an art form. In residential projects, it was not uncommon for installers in our company to spend nearly as much time creating the layout as installing the tile. The industry perspective on layout is that all cuts shall be balanced with no less than one-half tile. That requires what is known as a Dutchman, which is two tiles cut to the size of a full tile and a short tile. This should only be used on rare occasions. A customer has every right to expect a balanced installation. Anything else is a dangerous path and only used under isolated situations.

Proper layout is critical to achieving the vision of the customer, and consequently their happiness (not to mention their willingness to pay). I have even been tipped for good layouts by happy customers. If there are questions as to what is acceptable, the customer should be consulted prior to installation. Ideally one person should be assigned this responsibility on every job. Other areas of concern are the traditional mottled grout complaints. Lippage-one tile sticking up higher than the others- is a growing concern with increased use of large unit tiles. On new construction, substrate trades should be held accountable for their performance. It is reasonable to expect them to adhere to their industry's standards because those are the standards the tile industry uses for our recommendations. In remodel projects the person overseeing the job assumes the responsibility. Floor flattening can be simple or costly but a job with no preparation of any type required is extremely rare.

Had the customer been given proper care instructions for this tile flooring, a costly replacement could have been avoided. In this case an acidic cleaner was used for regular floor care. The light deposits on the dark gray caulk (formerly the color of the grout) are dead cement particles.

Floor Care

One thing I noticed as my years progressed at the same location was increasing number of complaints about tile flooring "wearing out." (It is a reality of our business: If consumers can find you, they'll complain about near anything as long as they own the home.) In most instances these wear complaints were due to soiling and easily remedied. Purchasers are often convinced that tile requires little or no care. While it is very easy to care for, it does require some maintenance. In most instances a vacuum or dust mop is all that's needed for normal cleaning. Excessive mopping is not a good idea as it simply relocates the soil over a larger area removing very little unless extraction is used. Neutral cleaners are preferred for light cleaning and alkaline cleaners when heavy duty cleaning is required. Acids, including vinegar and water mix, should never be used as part of a regular maintenance program. Oil based cleaners should also be avoided for the slippery film they leave behind on glazed tile.

Many people are fixated on sealers, believing all things should be sealed. Both penetrating and topical sealers have their place and should be considered for stone, some polished porcelains, and unglazed tile. However, they serve no purpose on glazed tile. Grout sealing is a good thing, but a good grout job is better than a good sealer. Another word of caution on using sealers: Remember the purpose of a sealer is to allow reaction time for cleaning. They will hold out contaminates for a given period of time depending on product, but they do not waterproof or stain proof any tile job.

That is my rambling for this month. I invite you to submit any question or relative item of interest that you would like to see covered in a future article. We always welcome your comments and ideas.