Time once again to open the mailbag and respond to some of the questions readers have sent. Whether they ask about situations that are common or unique, the volume of mail suggests there is no shortage of questions about tile. That may be a reflection of our industry’s lack of formal training. To the unschooled, something that would be a minor issue to a trained pro suddenly looks like a manufacturer’s plot to fleece the installer and pad the bill. But keep in mind that there are two sides to a story. With rare exception we only hear one. The opinions therefore are based solely on the information provided and may not accurately reflect the actual issue. As always we look for issues that seem the most pressing, and rest assured we did some judicious editing to protect the innocent.

Q:I’m a homeowner and I don’t know much about tiling floors. What I do know is that my 17’ x 21’ kitchen floor had to be torn up this week and replaced after only two years. It had six broken tiles, and no grout left in one third of the kitchen. The original installer re- tiled the floor and spot re-grouted once. Neither worked. I hired a second company to re-grout, but the tiles kept breaking and the grout disappeared.

This is what I know about the floor: its 18” by 18” porcelain tiles were laid with 1/4 backerboard. The original vinyl floor was not secured with nails or screws before thinset was applied. Non-sanded grout was used on both re-grouts. The tiles sounded hollow when a new contractor came to estimate and could be lifted with minimal effort (there was little glue on the back).  I have spent so much money on my dream kitchen and haven’t been able to enjoy it. I would like the original contractor to give me my money back for his labor and the cost of the tile. Is this unreasonable?

A:A most unfortunate set of events. We are not qualified to offer business or legal advice so we’ll stick to the technical issues. Before any tile installation, the floor needs to be assessed by a qualified professional. Tile is heavy and not all floor construction can carry the added weight. While it is common to apply underlayment over existing vinyl floors, you are inviting problems. The sheet vinyl underneath does not provide the support needed for ceramic tile. There is too much movement. (That’s why you have cracked tile and loose grout.) You also need to use the proper amount of bonding material, and that too appears questionable in this case.

Also, if I understand correctly, cabinets were installed after the tile work was completed. This is a poor practice. Loading the floor with additional weight after installation can cause loose tile in the best of circumstances. It is my opinion that your floor needs some additional work before trying to replace the existing installation. You may want to call someone besides the first two contractors. It appears they are somewhat lacking in even remedial knowledge.

These types of stories really get to me and they have become very common. Someone saves for a dream kitchen and is victimized by either an untrained or uncaring “professional.” Unfortunately, as residential tile is not a health and safety issue, there are no codes to force adherence to professional installation standards. Instead, in this case the end user faces a legal quagmire in which there will be no winners and neither will ever be made whole.

Q:A guy called us and asked about problems with the tile in his auto showroom. It’s from a reputable porcelain manufacturer--graphite is the color. He said the grout was a little too light when it was installed, so it was cleaned with phosphoric acid and turned darker. Over time the grout turned near white. Somebody then applied a grout sealer, which soon evolved into a daily situation. The tile would be cleaned in the evening but the next morning, after only a couple hours of use, shoe tracks were everywhere. The manufacturer says the tile is on standard and it is not at fault. This is probably the fourth situation like this we’ve seen in the past 6 months. Have you ever heard this complaint? Is it something about the flooring used in car showrooms? We were also asked how to clean tire marks off near-white tile. (Those black marks are next to impossible to clean off.) Any advice?  

A:This is fairly common-and avoidable, if the installation is done right. Polished porcelain used in auto showrooms quite often can be an even greater (and also avoidable) issue with the open pore structure of the face. In the interest of space,  here, briefly, are some things to ponder:

The manufacturer in question may have a clear glaze on the “unglazed tile” to prevent staining.

Lighter colored grout suggests over-washing. This causes some cement and pigment loss, leaving white silica sand exposed with the diluted cement and pigments becoming attached to the tile surface

Consider the cleaning technique used. They used an acid to burn both the dead cement and good cement from the tile and grout to expose the original color. The amount of acid dilution required to do this would have a very negative impact on the surface tile.

Anytime you use acid it burns the face of the tile. In this case microscopic examination would no doubt confirm that part of the protective glaze application applied in the firing process was also burned off. Under a microscope, the raw surface of the tile would resemble a pineapple instead of an orange. Maintenance will be greatly impacted as pineapples are much harder to wipe clean than oranges.

Use of a sealer on grout joints offers very little value. The value is substantially less than a good compacted and properly cleaned grout joint would offer. Based on the information provided I will speculate that some sealer found its way to the tile surface and was not adequately removed. When the sealer carrier dissipates it leaves pore -clogging solids that help make grout stain resistant. In this case it appears to have been left on the tile surface as well, causing the  whitish appearance. This will readily show normal foot traffic

The oils commonly found in automobile tires will stain all types of floors. I suspect the stains they are seeing come from oil migrating into the sealer solids left behind on the tile surface. It would be possible to have this condition with or without the current tile floor conditions under the right circumstances, but not overly common. A lot depends on the composition of tile. If they could have avoided making the tile surface like a pineapple, it could well be a non-issue.

So what we have here is someone who does not know how to grout further damaging the floor with an acid cleaner, then using sealer as a remedial measure but they don’t know how to use that product either. I seriously doubt the floor can be brought into a condition of reasonable maintenance without replacement. Sorry, but the only hope for this floor would be a topical dressing which will require substantial maintenance, defeating the purpose of the ceramic installation.

Q:I have a client asking for paper face-mounted glass tile on an exterior wall. The setting material directions call for mud and lath, which I agree with. But they also specified epoxy grout. My experience tells me it is a bad idea in an exterior application. The manufacturer also does not address the need for any expansion joints. Am I missing something here? This job is about 700,000 sq ft. on walls.

A:  Excuse me? Did you say you’re covering 700,000 sq. ft.? What is this, the Great Wall of China? First, I would not go with epoxy grout. There is no reason for it and it may actually induce failure. Glass is very expansive, epoxy is not, and that may cause fissures to develop and allow moisture penetration. Once moisture has penetrated, the wall will not be able to breathe. This could cause some very unsightly focused effloresce, and with enough heat and moisture, possibly delamination. I think if you express those specific concerns they may be willing to change the spec. For a job of this scope, some shear bond data with the specific product would be ideal. You might want to get an all-clear on environmental protection required for the in-progress installation too. If this tile bakes in the sun, you’re in trouble.

As for the expansion joints, that information is covered under reference to industry standards and included in all manufacturer instructions. For the scope of this job, I would request product specific expansion data so an engineering calculation of the appropriate joints and placement could be incorporated into the project. I would request the joints be detailed on the plans as they will be numerous and of aesthetic concern as well as a bid item. These items should all be considered as very significant. You may also want to acquaint yourself with the new glass mosaic standards. Good luck! (FOLLOW-UP:  The writer erred when he sent his original email. It was not 700,000 sq. ft., but rather a $700,000 job. I don’t think that makes it any less significant, do you? They did change the specification, allowing the installation to breathe and providing for expansion.)

One Final Note

Remember tile installation is no longer a predominately skill-based business. It’s a knowledge-based business. Manufacturers should take into account the conditions needed for success as well as the effect their products will have on existing installation systems. In today’s extremely competitive environment, every segment is eager to land a sale. Taking products to their outer limits requires an installation pro who is extremely knowledgeable, so he can properly make a responsible risk assessment. Join a trade organization, attend trade shows and network. Seek out the knowledge you need to protect your profits.