Ceramic tile and stone is one of the fastest growing categories of flooring. One only need look at the most recent acquisitions by Mohawk and the world flooring market to understand that. Ceramic and stone sales are increasing nationwide regardless of the region. What may have once been thought of as a “warm climate flooring” has changed with the wider use of radiant heat systems. Also the variety of materials and the value these types of flooring add to a space have made them more desirable.

With the growth of these flooring materials comes the challenge of installing and selling them. Sure, the “warm weather” regions can usually be expected to have some of the most knowledgeable sales people and installers when it comes to their familiarity with tile and stone, but we’re still challenged by the fight over pricing for installation and the general lack of knowledge of the products. This leads to problems no matter where in the U.S. these products are sold, even in high-use areas.

Tile and stone products require a great deal of skill and knowledge to install successfully. Doing something wrong, which is more often the case than not, causes most of the ceramic tile and stone failures we see. Let’s look at some recent examples to give you an understanding of the types of troubles that can confront you.

Example one: A 15,000 square foot home in Florida with marble tile flooring installed for two years has hollow sounds throughout. The homeowner is concerned that the tiles will start to pop loose and come up. When the flooring was tested, the hollow resonance is evident in over 60% of the flooring, on two floors and the outside pool area.

When tile was taken up to examine the installation, the cause of the hollow sound was evident. The mud-set the flooring was placed into was overwatered and granular; there were voids in the mud. The mud exhibited evidence of setting up and the bond of the tile to the mud was weak and incomplete. Though the tiles were not visibly loose, the hollow sound was evident when the floor was walked on. This condition could indeed eventually lead to tiles coming loose and even cracking in higher traffic areas.

Because the examination revealed the hollow sound was the result of installation compromises, the homeowner was pursuing the builder and the flooring contractor for damages and replacement. This was an installation problem in an area where floor tile is a standard. You would think that in a multi-million dollar home the most qualified and professional installers would have been employed, but the proof indicated that this was not the case.

Example two: A marble tile floor in a building in NYC experienced hairline cracks. An isolation membrane was used, which is supposed to prevent or at least minimize any movement beneath the tile so that the flooring is isolated. However, the isolation membrane was not doing its job. As a result faint, whitish cracks were appearing in the marble just beneath the surface. Movement was still occurring, which was creating the hairline cracks due to tension from the unrestrained shrinkage in the thin-set mortar.

Cracks are caused by pulling forces (tension) in the mortar, creating stress between different sections of the thin-set. Just as a dry lakebed will show a cracking pattern from the separate areas of compression that cause tension, so too will marble flooring. The resilient sound control mat contributed to the problem because it didn’t restrain the shrinkage as it would if the tile had been bonded to a rigid material like concrete. This, too, was an installation problem.

Example three: Tented tiles, which means the tiles are lifting upward and pushing against each other to create a tent-like appearance. This was the result of substrate movement in this particular case. The tile floor was installed in a home with a plywood substrate over concrete. The wood itself in this sleeper-type system is subject to expansion and contraction. The concrete on grade at this home was contributing additional moisture to the wood, also influencing its movement. The tented tile was the result of that movement; the tile and the installation were not the problem this time.

These are only a few of the thousands of ceramic and stone flooring installation issues that occur regularly. As beautiful and popular as stone and ceramic tiles are with the continued growth they enjoy in the marketplace, it is imperative that knowledgeable installers work with them. This segment of the industry has the most stringent installation guidelines and professional training programs of any flooring product in the industry. Do not go in thinking you can figure things out as you go along – you are almost guaranteeing a failure. If you want a piece of the ceramic tile and stone pie, this is a flooring opportunity that demands attention to detail, great skill and knowledge.