International trade and standards for ceramic tile were the focus of discussions as delegates from 15 countries met in Clemson, S.C., home to the Tile Council of North America (TCNA), to develop new standards for ceramic tiles. Decisions made during the meetings are expected to influence the global tile business at a time when the U.S. industry is bouncing back after years of increasing imports and offshore production.

Delegates considered several crucial questions about technologically advanced ceramic tiles that experts see as the future of construction; some tiles fight smog by breaking down nitrogen oxides (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) to produce a cleaner atmosphere, others hinder microorganism growth to create an antiseptic environment.

The agenda also included discussions of what standards ought to be met for a tile to be labeled as "sustainable," potentially affecting tax incentives for green construction and certification for using sustainable materials. Water absorption testing, rectified tile tolerances, performance standards for "thin tile," and myriad other technical topics were also covered in the three-day meeting of the International Standards Organization (ISO) Technical Committee 189, the standards body that presides over international standards for ceramic tile and tile installation materials.

Based in Geneva, Switzerland, ISO has scores of technical committees that set standards for a variety of industries, ranging from screw threads to fire safety. "The standards we develop are used to level the playing field," said John Sanders, committee secretary  "They facilitate international trade in this type of commodity."

Proposals and standards developed by ISO, such as those discussed in Clemson, are voted on by 28 participating countries, Sanders said, with at least 75% required to adopt it. Attending were delegates from Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Colombia, Germany, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Norway, Spain, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and the United States. "These meetings are a boost to the industry and get decision-makers together talking about standards that are relevant to where the industry is going," said Eric Astrachan, TCNA's executive director and head of the U.S. delegation.

Ceramic tiles are tested for the industry in the Bishop Materials Laboratory and the TCNA Product Performance Testing Laboratory in a facility in the Clemson Research Park that is shared by the National Brick Research Center and the Tile Council, through a joint industry-university partnership. The National Brick Research Center is part of Clemson's College of Engineering and Science. The dean, Anand Gramopadhye, welcomed the delegates, adding, "They will have an opportunity to see one of Clemson's world-class facilities. Our partnership with the Tile Council of North America enables us to provide crucial testing and research services to the industry. The technology we employ here can help inform decisions that have a global impact."

"We felt it was important for committee members to see these research facilities," said Astrachan. "When people have questions or bring up alternative ideas in the discussion of standards, we can check those out in the lab."

Tile standards are mandatory in the European Union, Sanders said. Although voluntary in the United States, many companies comply with standards because failing to do so would make it tougher to sell in the United States and harder to export goods, he added.

U.S. demand for tiles is rising as the housing market recovers. While about 70% of the nation's tiles are imported, the domestic industry is making a comeback, Astrachan said, adding that the availability of natural gas has lowered costs to run factories. The United States also has the advantage of plentiful raw materials, highly skilled workers and lower labor costs than Europe, he said. "We are seeing the largest increase in the number of factories in recent memory. A lot of those are being built in Tennessee and Texas," he said.

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