Photo 5: Most of the wet cleanup waste from a single installation has been reduced, by evaporation, to this dry, lightweight slug that can be safely disposed at a landfill.


Photo 1: The author uses the factory edge of a fiber-cement board to help produce a straight, deep score on another board. Two or three passes with the scoring tool are required.

Lifecycle tests have provided modern proof that ceramic tile is one of the most durable of all building materials. Lifecycle tests provide a reference, but as any tourist knows, sometimes the only remains of an ancient civilization are the tile and mosaic installations left behind. To this day, hundreds of floors tiled thousands of years ago continue to provide beautiful and robust service: many will out-live all of us. In this sense, tiles could be the greenest of green, but their potential long life can be cut short by poorly planned and executed installations and by inadequate maintenance.

To the extent that green tiles and installation materials are available, the trick to being a green installer is to limit the amount of materials ordered for a particular installation, use the cleanest cutting methods to fabricate materials, and make reducing waste materials one of your goals.

Since tiles have the potential to outlast any building in which they are installed, the best way an installer can tap into tile’s green legacy is to simply understand and apply tile industry standards, and to follow manufacturer’s recommendations and instructions. Yes, at one time there was a similarity and conformity of materials and methods, and a very long period of time where installation methods did not change. But today, there are dozens of different construction strategies and hundreds of materials - most of which are designed, marketed, and endowed with “unique” properties and job-site requirements.

Thirty years ago, the Tile Council of America generated most of its operating income through royalties paid on recipes for thinset and grout that were sold to both local and national manufacturers. That is probably the last time in the U.S. when there was such a thing as product uniformity. Today, most manufacturers have R&D labs that innovate and perfect new materials, and as a result, instructions for one brand can no longer be used for another. Not following product instructions is a major cause of material (and installation) failure.

Many installation materials are capable of going the distance, but some are only suitable for light-duty. As a result, they may not be able to hold up under actual use. For this reason, an installation’s intended use must be known from bid to completion, its tile and installation materials must be carefully selected, and the installer must know the industry’s best practices when it is time to put it all together. Careful planning and estimating can result in a reduction of required materials, and careful installation practices can help reduce waste. Following manufacturers’ product recommendations and application instructions, and using best-practice strategies will help ensure your installations are long-lived and green, based on the materials available today.

Reducing pollution and waste on-site should be a major concern for all installers, regardless of the size or type of operation. Two areas where waste and pollution are especially chronic involve fabricating cement backer boards and mixing installation mortars.

Photo 2: This close-up of a CBU shows a typical edge produced by scoring and snapping. The rough edge can be eliminated with a pair of biters.

Green Fabrication

The simplest way to reduce airborne dust when cutting backer boards is to use score-and-snap techniques (Photo 1). Scoring and snapping releases only a small amount of dust, and the practice does not atomize dust like power cutting. This is easily true with gypsum and foam backer boards, or when only a few cuts have to be made (Photo 2). For production-cutting cement boards, less labor-intensive cutting methods are preferred. Unfortunately, not all power-cutting options can be considered green.

Dry-cutting diamond blades have long been used to cut cement backer boards, but on a dust-generating scale of 1 to 10, CBU’s cut with this tool rank somewhere around 15 unless the tool is paired with an effective vacuum system. Rotating blades of all diameters and types can produce an astonishing amount of dust. A slow-speed reciprocating blade generates much less, such as the jigsaw fitted with a bi-metal blade cutting through a CBU in Photo 3. I use the jigsaw to make cuts around plumbing penetrations, and use a carbide core bit to drill holes for tub spout, showerhead, and body spray pipes. I prefer to use a power shear (Photo 4) that cuts quickly and generates the least amount of dust when straight-cutting fiber cement boards (FCB).

Photo 3: Although a carbide blade will last longer, this bi-metal blade cuts through either CBU or a fiber-cement board. The carbide core bit is used to drill holes for plumbing penetrations.

Green Thinset and Grout

Most cured thinset mortar and grout will easily outlast the life of most buildings, but that alone does not make these products green. Whether or not Portland cement mortar manufacturing wears the mantle of green will be decided in the future, but for readers of TILE Magazine who are dealing with mortars now, mixing and waste disposal can be a problem in some localities. How you will deal with it depends on the quantity. Small or occasional tile installers should have no trouble complying with ordinances pertaining to waste disposal. However, some larger operations may need to provide complete water-treatment services at the jobsite. Green waste disposal on that scale is beyond the scope of this article.

Regardless of the size of the operation or installation, the best way to minimize mortar waste is to never mix too much, and always use measured amounts of powders and liquids to ensure consistent wet/dry ratios. Materials purchased by the pallet should be rotated so that older materials are used first. If purchasing by the sack or unit, look for a printed production number or QC tag that indicates a manufacturing date, and always select the youngest materials.

In the past, on most new residential or commercial construction, and on many remodeling projects, leftover thinset or grout was simply hosed out of a bucket on an out-of-the-way patch of ground. But that kind of behavior is certainly not green, and in many locations, will get you arrested or slapped with a fine. A better approach is to manage housekeeping and rely on a maximum of dry scraping, and a minimum of water. For most residential projects, I begin by setting up a bucket that serves as the holster for a power mixer, as well as the “outside” bucket where trowels, buckets, and tools (as well as the mixer) are cleaned. Of course, the buckets I prefer to use are recycled, empty five-gallon buckets with lids.

Photo 4: Power shears cut through fiber cement boards with minimal dust and effort because they slice through the board rather than grind through it.

With leftover materials, I begin by scraping out the bucket with a margin trowel, and deposit the soft mortar into an empty tile box or garbage bag. Then, I use a wet sponge to scrub the inside of the bucket. When that is clean, I pour the slush into the mix bucket, rinse the sponge in the mix bucket liquid, and give the bucket a final wipe. By the next day, much of the sediment will have sunk to the bottom of the mix bucket: if the water level is too high, I pour off enough to drop the water to a usable level, and continue adding waste material to the mixer bucket until it is full or the job has ended.

At that point, unless the installation has an on-site collection or settling tank, I lid the bucket, haul it back to the shop where its contents are deposited in a settling tank (an open-ended 55-gallon drum). The bucket is then rinsed into the tank and returned to service. As materials settle, clear water can be removed, and the tank allowed to fill completely. When all the moisture evaporates, the tank is taken to the landfill for safe disposal.

If you do not need a settling tank and still want to dispose in a green way, allow the muck bucket to settle, pour off the clear water, let the remaining water within the sludge to evaporate – and PRESTO, in a few days, you are left with a relatively lightweight plug that can be safely disposed in the trash or in a landfill (Photo 5).

Resources: TCNA Methods, ANSI standards are available from the Tile Council of North America, www.tileusa.com