Ceramic Tile in Showers: Opportunities and Challenges
December 1, 2006
The Tile Council of North America recently held a board of directors meeting in Naples, Florida. In addition to benefiting from the exchange of ideas with some of the best minds in our industry, we were treated to a presentation by Michael Carliner, staff vice president in economics of the National Association of Homebuilders. Michael offered an enlightening glimpse into the current housing and remodeling situation and provided some forecasts for the future.
One thing that became abundantly clear to me during Michael’s presentation is how misleading statistics can sometimes be. Despite the overall gloomy projections we were hearing about the housing situation in most sections of the country, I began to see some positive indicators as well.
In his presentation, Carliner outlined some significant trends that affect the tile industry. The first is one is probably not news to most of you but perhaps the statistics may be. In the early 1980s, 20-25% of new single-family homes were being built with more than two bathrooms in them. Today, that number is around 60%! Homes with three or more bathrooms in the early 80s only comprised about 10% of single-family units. That number stands today at around 25%. This is why we can’t just follow housing starts and numbers of units sold. We need to focus on increasing per capita consumption of tile and stone. Bathrooms are a perfect place for us to focus on, and with more of them being built we need to capitalize on this opportunity before us.
Carliner also talked about the size of new homes. For a long time the average square feet of a new single-family home continued to rise. However, the trend now is not so much on size but on using quality material. Ceramic tile and natural stone niche perfectly into this trend. And even if the homes do not continue to get bigger, it is clear that the bathroom is one area that consumers will continue to invest heavily in, in both quality of materials and size of the space allocated to it. This is certainly true of the master bathroom, where the trends indicate increased specification of separate, larger showers. It is not uncommon in these larger areas to see multiple shower heads installed, sometimes on walls and ceilings. Often more than one drain assembly is installed in the area as well, to limit pooling of water on the floors. A significant increase in the construction of steam showers has also been experienced.
This is all positive news for the tile industry. But I must add a little caution to the wind here. Proper installation of ceramic tile and natural stone in shower assemblies can be tricky. At the NTCA, where we track phone call job complaints, problems in showers rank high on the list. With the entire world now on alert with the health concerns of the presence of mold and mildew, it is even more imperative that our industry pays close attention to the proper selection of materials, the proper specification of installation methods, and the proper installation of the tile or stone and its related products.
One of my biggest concerns in relation to shower installation is that for several years, organizations like the NTCA and the CTEF (Ceramic Tile Education Foundation) have offered courses on proper shower installation in receptacles. Often these courses have been difficult to fill. With the amount of problems we have seen reported in these applications, this just should not be the case. For many years we saw builders opt to use fiberglass and plastic shower units because they were less expensive and presented fewer problems, or so they thought. This is, of course, changing dramatically and contractors are installing more tile than ever in bathrooms. We all know how disastrous this could prove to our trade if we do not properly install our products in these applications.
Common Shower Installation ProblemsImproper Specification or Use of Materials: There are five backerboard methods, in addition to a traditional mud-set cement mortar application, currently in the Tile Council of America Handbook approved for shower receptacles. Failure to use quality products in showers, and to follow directions from the manufacturers, is the leading cause of failure. Greenboard is no longer accepted as a suitable product for a direct installation of ceramic tile or stone in a shower. Greenboard may be used if a waterproof membrane is applied directly over the entire application. Check with the installation materials manufacturer for these instructions if you are considering this type of installation.
Lack of or improper use of waterproofing membranes: Improvements in technology are helping many contracting companies to prevent shower installation failures. Unfortunately, there are times when membranes are not used or are installed improperly. There are many quality types of membrane systems to use. Mortars have been invented that are also waterproof membranes. Liquid membranes can be applied to the area. Sheet goods can be installed at a minimum over the shower floor and six inches up the wall and three inches above a shower curb. Often today, the entire shower is being waterproofed with these products.
The shower floor should be installed over a minimum pre-slope of ?” per foot toward the drain. Standing water should not be prevalent after showering. Niches such as shower seats, shampoo ledges, soap dishes etc. should also be properly waterproofed. Waterproofed areas should be tested for leaks prior to installing the tile or stone.
Clogging of weep holes or improper installation of a drain assembly: This situation contributes to growth of bacteria in water that is left in the wall and dam assemblies. It can be very expensive to fix if not done right the first time. Following plumbing codes for the type of drain assembly and testing for leaks according to that code is a proactive approach. Follow TCA Handbook methods in shower receptacles in the Preparation by Other Trade sections. Weep hole protectors can also be installed over the assembly to help prevent this from occurring.
These are just a few of the most common calls we receive on common shower installation problems. Suffice it to say that I sometimes worry we talk too much about failures, and not enough about beautiful craftsmanship that lasts for generations. However, the increased amount of opportunities for contractors in these areas makes it vital that we follow the directions of the plumbing and building codes and for those of our own trade. Failure to do so can lead to lost sales opportunities and costly repairs.