Laticrete’s director of technical services Art Mintie (right) and a colleague prepare Laticrete products for use in a tile installation.

MAPEI’s new Opticolor grout.

Ask anyone involved in the flooring adhesives and setting materials category to identify their biggest priority these days and the answer almost always involves “easy,” as in easy to use and easy on the environment. Manufacturers say the demand for user-friendly and environmentally safe adhesives and setting materials has come to define a product segment that continues to evolve. The evidence is readily apparent in an emerging generation of lightweight mortars as well as products that help with LEED certification. “Simpler” and “safer” have become the watchwords for adhesives and setting materials.

Installers, who tend to be intensely brand loyal when they find a product that works for them, say they want materials that can speed the job and enhance their productivity. They want products that are simple to use and less prone to common errors. But they also demand versatility -  products that can be used on both floors and walls, for example, or for small and large tiles. Clearly manufacturers have taken notice.        

“We create jobsite friendly products to over-compensate for all the anticipated jobsite challenges,” says Robert McNamara, national sales and marketing manager for Bostik Inc, the Middleton, Mass.-based manufacturer of flooring adhesives. “All in all, we want our customers to really be in a comfort zone when they are using our adhesive materials.”

Manufacturers say they are also benefiting from advances in technology. Engineers are able to accommodate real world demands without compromising other product attributes. Perhaps most important, the goal is to reduce the potential for human error.   

TEC describes 1Flex mortar as a crack isolation system in a bag.

“Historically, adding performance to products typically meant detracting from the usability of the product,” says Rachel Gibbons, brand manager for the TEC, an Arlington Heights, Ill.-based setting materials maker that has been involved in the category for 30 years. “When products are hard to use, there’s more opportunity for error, especially if the installer isn’t trained on the product.”  

The challenges facing the category make training and support a key factor to ensure proper installation, according to John McMullen, exec vp of Custom Building Products. “The real key is education, service and support,” he says. “Our sales and technical support group is the largest in our industry. We provide jobsite, electronic and phone support to architects and contractors, enabling them to use the best products and proper installation methods for their specific project.”

The increased popularity of large-format tiles has stirred demand for adhesives that can hold in place tiles with far more heft than standard tiles. A particular concern involves keeping the heavy tiles affixed to the walls while the adhesive dries.

MAPEI’s technical services manager Mike Micalizzi notes that company has worked to address this need with its Ultra Contact adhesive. “It has a wetting agent in the mortar so you don’t have to back butter your tile formats, “ explains Micalizzi. “This is saving time and money. It comes with lightweight mortars that lock in place on the wall and don’t sag.”

Micalizzi notes that MAPEI is continuing the search for products that give the company an edge in a very competitive field. Its new Opticolor, for example, is designed to be an easy-to-clean resin-based grout that is not corrosive. It can be shipped overnight and curing is easy, says Micalizzi, outlining some of the benefits.

Still, manufacturers caution that “user-friendly” adhesives and setting materials are only effective if the user is friendly with the product specs. New advances often mean new techniques-even for seasoned installers.

APAC’s EZ1071 is a commercial-strength flooring adhesive.

David Ford, vp of sales and marketing for Memphis, Tenn.-based adhesive manufacturer Stauf USA, notes that the company is focusing on those who work closest to the product. Often, he says, it is merely a question of reaching out to installers who have put off learning about new easy-to-use products.

“Our key focus is not distributors or retailers, but flooring installers,” says Ford. He notes that many highly skilled installers who have been in the business for decades may not fully recognize the many new options available to them. “It’s crucial that they’re aware of newer technology today, no matter how many years they have been in the business.”

The spotlight being shined on adhesives also comes from those who are concerned about VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) and other environmental issues. A key concern involves construction sites where a large amount of adhesive and setting materials is being used in the presence of installers and workers from other trades. As a result, manufacturers note that products are being developed to comply with a variety of new codes and standards related to protecting the environment.

For example Barry Wright, executive vp of W.F. Taylor Co., explains that the company’s adhesive product line includes many items with GreenGuard certification and the Carpet and Rug Institute’s Green Label Plus approval. Wright adds that Taylor’s patented Meta-tec chemistry is engineered with non-petroleum, bio-resource renewable materials without compromising the product’s efficacy. 

“Nothing in the history of floor covering has affected our line more than environmental issues,” says Wright.” When we launched our Envirotec line of adhesives based on solvent-free, low VOC in 1990, many in the industry thought it was a novelty line. Yet the presence of VOCs in indoor environments has become one of the biggest issues today.”

UFloor is also drawing attention with a line of solvent-free products. One of the newest is UZIN MK 100, a solvent-and-water-free adhesive wood flooring product. According to UFloor president Matthias Liebert, the new product is a good example of the types of adhesive that are likely to shape the direction of the category in an age of increased environmental sensitivity. 

“We have always believed in creating environmentally-friendly products since the late 70’s and early 80’s,” explains Liebert, whose recently launched company, UFloor Systems Inc, is the North American subsidiary of veteran German manufacturer Uzin-Utz Group. “By 2011, we plan to omit solvents from all of our products.”

“Green issues and LEED credits have become part of almost every specification for buildings,” says MAPEI’s Micalizzi. “We’ve developed a number of eco-friendly products, most recently for wood installation. Additionally, almost all of our mortars and grouts meet LEED requirements.”

The strides forward are not lost on one of the category’s most recognizable players. Laticrete, which has been prominent in setting materials for 50 years, is launching products with anti-microbial properties that have been designed to accommodate the demand for recycling, says director of business development, Sean Boyle.

“Laticrete was the first company to be independently certified by the GreenGuard Institute,” says Boyle. “I’m pleased of our LEED products, inhibiting the growth of mold and mildew in mortars, and being the first manufacturer to put products in plastic bags that are recyclable.”

As is the case with other key suppliers in the adhesive and setting materials category, Boyle says the motivation for enhancing his company’s products comes from a variety of sources including architects, retailers/contractors and government officials, he says.