What lies beneath? When it comes to tile and stone installation, let's be honest: more often than not, the consumer doesn't know (or care).

What lies beneath? When it comes to tile and stone installations, let’s be honest: more often than not, the consumer doesn’t know (or care). But retailers, contractors, architects and designers have a strong need-to-know when it comes to setting materials, which is why we asked a few of the most prominent names in the field – LATICRETE’s Sean Boyle, Director of Marketing & Product Management; MAPEI Technical Service Department Manager Leigh Hightower; Custom Building Products’ Sr. Channel Marketing Manager, Construction Anthony Corwin, and Bostik National Sales Manager Brian Kelley – to give us a little insight as to what’s happening today and we can expect tomorrow in the world of installation systems.

 National Floor Trends:So let’s start at the beginning: What’s new in the installation system segment these days? New formulations? Applications?

Anthony Corwin: We are seeing many new types of tile being introduced every day.  Tiles are getting larger with some as large as 4-foot-by-10-foot and will require particular attention to surface preparation.  Glass tile and natural stone are continually gaining popularity; both require specialized bonding systems.  Because of the translucent quality of glass, the color of the mortar becomes critical and must be consistent throughout the installation.

Sean Boyle: For 2012 we’ve added a line of linear drains, pre-formed shower pans, seats and niches as well as a bonding flange drain – all for use in conjunction with our many other installation materials such as our mortar beds, waterproofing membranes and of course our tile adhesives and grouts. Combined with our existing materials, this allows us the exclusive ability to offer a complete shower system installation from the substrate up through and including the grout.

Brian Kelley: Urethane grouts are the most innovative new technology to enter the ceramic installation segment in decades, and we’re partnering with StarQuartz to introduce two new products.

Leigh Hightower: Well, as usual, every time the setting and grouting manufacturers get a little set in our ways, the tile manufacturers throw us a curve. What’s coming down the pike now are these new thin tiles, anything from 6mm down to 3mm, and they’re coming in very large sizes; they’re substantial. Needless to say, it’s requiring a lot of exploration on our part as far as the materials we’re using to set these tiles, as well as the different application procedures. They vary quite a bit from your usual setting procedures; as thin as these tiles are, they require full, absolutely full coverage and support underneath, so that they don’t shatter the first time someone steps on them with a high heel.

Something else, and something we’re happy to be at the forefront of, is how the thickness of the tile is not the only determining factor as far as performance characteristics go. Tiles of the same thickness will have different performance characteristics, depending on their manufacturing process. The TCA recently looked at what we’ve been doing, and they decided that they need to get busy developing some test procedures that define the thin tiles themselves, to relate more to their performance characteristics.

NFT:  Obviously a successful installation hinges on using – and properly applying – the right product for the job. What’s the biggest mistake people make when specifying installation systems?

SB: Mainly contractors or consumers often select the wrong product for their application. Mainly driven by the attraction of a low price, the end user simply does not use the right installation materials required for their application. There are unfortunately some manufacturers that make product performance claims, especially in grouts that are simply overstated, thus the consumer makes a buying decision on those claims and a low price, only to have a faulty installation cost them more money than if they had gone with a proven, reliable manufacturer.

BK: Assuming that new products work the same way that older technologies work.  This is a big mistake.

LH: The biggest mistake I see is that people aren’t using ISO specifications. There’s such a diversity in the performance levels of setting materials all meeting the same specification, like ANSI A118.4. An architect may specify you have to use a setting material that meets 118.4, but he may be doing an exterior installation in a freeze-thaw climate, and the product may have hardly any polymer in it at all. Using ISO specs is a way to get the products they want to do the job the way they want it done.

Granted, some of them have done their homework, but as more products are introduced, they have to vet those, and then those that come after them. ISO specifications allow the architect to specify the performance level needed, and the contractors bidding the work the knowledge that they’re bidding against competing firms on equivalent products, instead of one using a low-end product and another bidding with a higher-performance product.

AC: People do not read the recommendations for installation materials. Many tile manufacturers recommend a polymer-modified thin set mortar that meets the requirements of ANSI A118.4.  Some installers often use what‘s convenient as opposed to what is recommended.  Large format tiles, those greater than 15 inches on one edge, require the use of a medium-bed mortar. Yet we still see installations where only a thin-set mortar was used to install the large format tile.

NFT:  End-users usually select a grout for its visual appeal, but of course it’s much more than that. Quickly, can you break down the different types of grout (epoxy, cementitious, etc.) and their various applications?

SB: Epoxies offer the best performance a grout can offer, tremendous durability, color uniformity and resistance to not just basic dirt, debris and other items that may stain it, but offer chemical resistance as well. It never needs to be sealed and maintains its color for a long time while standing up to all the materials and compounds that it will come in contact with.

Epoxy grouts are also used heavily in industrial applications where the floor will be subjected to harsh chemicals and receive excess wear and tear – the industry (ANSI) specifies certain performance parameters that will mandate a certain type of performance be used.

Cement-based grouts are used in both residential and commercial applications for both floors and walls; they offer solid value to the customer at an economical price.

BK: Epoxies feature low absorption, correct coloration every time, but they’re tough to install.  Cementitious grouts are temperamental, take too much water to clean, too much water in mix, and there’s uneven curing, coloration issues, structural issues. Urethane has color accuracy, low absorption, flexible and easy installation.

AC: Your basic tile grout is composed of cement and sand.  Today, there are several variations on this, some are fast-setting, with higher strengths and improved stain resistance.  To achieve a better stain and chemical resistance, it is necessary to use an epoxy grout; the epoxy resin replaces the cement.  There are also a new generation of ready-to-use grouts based on advanced polymers, which have excellent stain resistance that are easier to use and less prone to cracking.

NFT: What are the three most common questions you hear as far as installation systems go?

SB: “Is a product suitable for a particular installation?” “What product offers the best performance and warranty?” “What is the cost?”

AC: “Do I need to use an anti-fracture membrane in my installation to protect the tile from cracking; which one do I use?”  “Which mortar is right for my installation and is it warranted?”  “Do I need to seal my tile and grout?”

LH: Number one would have to be “What setting material do I use with a large-format tile?” With everything going larger and larger, people are getting more confused as to what they should be using.

The second question is “What setting material do I use for glass tile?” This one is a little tricky. There’s basically three types of glass tiles. One has no coating on the back, and that’s a no-brainer: you can set those with a very good, high-quality polymer-modified thinset. The other two, though, have “paint” on the back of the tile; it’s not really paint, but it’s what the manufacturers put on the back to give the tile color. One is fired at a fairly low temperature; these are very susceptible to the alkalinity of Portland cement, so you have to use an adhesive or an epoxy, depending on the manufacturer. The other type is fired at a very high temperature; the paint is actually fused into the glass on the back of the tile, and with these you can use a good high-polymer setting materials. But you have to be careful out there; we can’t tell you what to set these tiles with, you have to adhere to what the manufacturers say.

“What are the moisture limitations on the product?” is the third most common, I believe, because there are so many people coming over from the resilient sector; they’re used to their sheet goods, rubber-backed products, that kind of thing. Unless you’re using some kind of membrane, there is no limitation.

NFT:  What’s the one question people should be asking when it comes to installation systems, but for some reason they don’t?

SB: “What is the warranty of the product and the manufacturer?” “Does the product and company have a track record of performance?” “Is it trusted?” Sure, that’s three, but they’re all inter-related.

BK: “If it was my house, what products would I use?”

AC: “Is my substrate properly prepared for the type and size of tile being installed?”  There is a multitude of surface preparation products available today and each has its pros and cons.  It’s important to research the proper procedures for surface preparation to assure a durable long lasting installation.

LH: “What are the service requirements of the installation going to be?” Do you need an extra-heavy-duty rating type of tile? If the product is going into a residential bathroom as opposed to the entryway of an auto dealership, we’re talking about huge differences in the performance characteristics of those installations.

NFT:  Compare the mortars and grouts of today with those of, say, 10 years ago. How much have things changed, and how much have they stayed the same?

SB: New chemistries have allowed the development of stronger, higher-performance installation materials across the board, from lightweight components to the use of recycled content. Materials have allowed categories of products to allow for easier, faster installations thus reducing labor costs, be even combining several performance parameters in the same product- for example a thinset that provides anti-fracture performance eliminates the need cost, time and need for a separate membrane.

Things that have stayed the same? Installers are a little slower to change, tending to remain with products or methods they have used in the past, being somewhat skeptical of new products. Not that this is bad, but it is up to the manufacturers to educate and train the industry on new materials that ultimately allow for more tile and stone to be used.

BK: Mortars and grouts have become much more complex.  The tiles and the substrates have changed as well.  Epoxy formulations have improved dramatically. Mastics have diminished in popularity and have been overused in many applications. Dustless, lightweight, non-sag for larger and larger tiles. Floor preparation is very much needed due to substandard substrates.

AC: For the most part, tiles are still made of the same ceramic materials as they were 10 years ago.  What has changed is the size of the tiles, the thickness of the tile and the move to stronger porcelain tile.  This has changed the mix of bonding mortars to higher strength medium bed mortars.  People are more aware of premium grouts that have better stain resistance and are requesting these more often.

LH: Due to competition, we’ve seen what I would call a degradation in the quality of materials meeting ANSI 118.4; it doesn’t take much to pass that spec. When polymer-modified mortars first hit the market, they were fantastic materials; very high polymer content, and able to perform very well in a wide variety of situations. But as competition increased, the polymer slowly began to be pulled out. There are products out there now that barely have any polymer in them that still meet the spec.

At the same time, there have been other advancements in materials that meet 118.4, really really nice materials that perform extremely well, anything from your medium-bed mortars to your non-sag mortars, your fast-setting mortars; these have come on very strong in the last 10 years.

NFT:  Crystal ball time: what does the future hold for installation systems? Where do you see R&D taking things in 5 years? Ten years?

SB: For us it is to continue doing what we have for 56 years – developing innovative materials that first, offer the highest quality, at an affordable price, and allow for faster easier tile installations. We continue to look at new materials in all categories that are environmentally safe and provide for greater uses of ceramic tile and stone in more applications.

LH: The thin-tile trend is not something that is just going to go away, especially with the push toward sustainability. These 4-, 5-foot and larger formats will continue, and I’ve seen a couple of things in relation to them. You will see manufacturers develop setting materials specifically for thin tile; from the testing that we have done, it doesn’t appear that setting materials with really high polymer loads that are able to move extensively are the answer for thin tile. You need very strong, rigid support under these tiles, so I think you’ll see materials come out specifically for these tiles.

Setting very large-format tiles are also a challenge; ever try back-buttering a 4-foot-by-10-foot tile? You’ll see materials come out that can be rolled onto the back of a tile, instead of having to trowel it on.

AC: Building methods will continue to evolve and ceramic and natural stone tile will continue to become thinner and will require reinforced backing.  Installation products will also have to change to meet new requirements.  They will have to be more flexible to accommodate building movement and new polymers will have to be developed and used in conjunction with the cement to bond to new surfaces.  Because of the economy, people expect things to last longer and expect longer warranties; so they will demand premium products.

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