Ceramic tile is unusual in that it has been green for thousands of years. Ceramic tiles found in the pyramids in Egypt, for example, date back to 4,000 B.C., and many look as fresh as the day they were made. Tile is the undisputed king of longevity among all finishing materials used in construction. This fact was underscored in a floor covering comparison commissioned by the Tile Council of North America (TCNA) and conducted by Scharf-Godfrey. According to this study, ceramic tile has the highest life expectancy and lowest cost per year of all the materials in the study. These included hardwood, stone tile, laminate, terrazzo, stained concrete, carpet, sheet vinyl, poured epoxy, and VCT.
There is no question about the life span, but ceramic tile’s green credentials can vaporize if its manufacturer is wasteful or if an installation is sub-standard. Since the 1980s, ceramic tile manufacturers have completely revamped the way tiles are made and fired. Kilns that belched flames and gobbled energy have been replaced by highly efficient machinery that recycles heat and significantly reduces energy costs. As well, you won’t see any more settling ponds filled with sludge; instead, waste materials are recycled back into new tiles. Tiles emerge from kilns ready to pack and ship in hours instead of days. Unfortunately, some of these tiles are installed poorly, rendering them short-lived and not very economical. To ensure ceramic tile’s green lineage, installers have to do four things: insist that all installations follow tile industry standards (1), read and follow installation material label instructions (2), work safely (3), and eliminate wasted materials (4).
Industry Standards and Label InstructionsContrary to what many installers believe, the ANSI A108 specifications, and the methods found in the TCA Handbook, are not recommendations, but rather minimum standards, below which failures can be expected: low-end benchmarks. The analogy I use with installers who claim the standards are recommendations is parents who are pleased with little Johnny’s D+ report card. Yes, he passed, but his grades will be unacceptable to any college he might apply to. Relying on the minimum standards may make perfect sense to a value engineer or a low-end installer, but with a reduced lifespan, it’s hardly what I would consider a green installation. Profitable installers use the industry standards to sell upgrades such as thicker subflooring and underlayment, waterproofing and crack isolation membrane systems, premium thinset mortars or latex additives, and movement joints.
At one time, most US grout and mortar manufacturers used recipes developed and licensed by the TCNA. This practice, which supplied the association with a hefty share of its operating expenses, peaked in 1989. After that, royalty revenues declined because by then, most manufacturers developed their own products. When most grouts and mortars were made with standardized recipes, mixing and application information was generic regardless of the brand. Now, however, since most brands are different, generic instructions no longer apply.
Nevertheless, some installers pay little attention to label instructions, and material failures occur. Usually, when this happens, the tile fails along with the materials, and as a result, all your time, energy, materials, and labor are completely wasted. In one failure I investigated - a well-known Las Vegas hotel with more than 3,000 shower stalls - not only did the original showers fail, but the second and third replacement showers were also doomed because label instructions were not followed. A mountain of wasted materials was the result, with replacement costs topping $50 million: not just non-green, but a disgraceful black eye for the tile industry. I should point out that none of the problems at this hotel were caused by human error - not by a material failure. In my entire 42-year career in tile, I have only encountered three material failures.
Working SafelyIt’s not enough to simply buy green materials, because even they can cause health and safety problems if used incorrectly. Every installer needs to be aware of the potentially negative effects of the process of tile installation in four different environments: the installer’s personal space, the entire job-site, the immediate neighborhood surrounding the site, plus the global environment. Light or occasional exposure to tile installation materials is usually not a problem for most people, but for a career installer, chronic exposure can lead to skin, respiratory, and orthopedic problems. Having the right personal safety equipment and practicing safe working habits can prevent these problems. Safety equipment includes the obvious, such as safety glasses, goggles, or face shields, ear buds, heavy gloves for rip-out work, rubber gloves for grouting, and knee pads, but a conscientious installer will have other equipment to keep contaminants away from other workers on the job site. These include using power tools that have a port to connect to a job vac, and fitting the vac with a HEPA filter. I consider the Craftsman vac I use to be a clean-up AND safety tool, and to make the job-site environment as dust-free as possible, I fit the vac with a HEPA filter (Craftsman part #17912).
As a companion to a job vac, another tool, relatively new to the market is a device called the Waletale, which clips onto the rim of a five-gallon bucket and connects to a vac to significantly reduce dust generated by the mixing of mortar and grout powders. I consider the Waletale an essential part of my safety tool kit (the Waletale is available at: www.contractorsdirect.com for about $20). When linked to a HEPA vac, this tool safeguards the installer, the job-site, and the surrounding community. This tool offers convenience as well, especially when it’s raining or cold: when paired with a HEPA vac, mixing can be done indoors, cleanly and without the usual clouds of dust.
Dumping grout water down the drain has never been acceptable. Dumping down a gutter or storm sewer is equally unacceptable since much of this effluent may simply drain into a stream, lake, or ocean. To eliminate this kind of pollution, I use a scaled down version of a settling tank. To do this, I rely on a minimum number of buckets with tight-sealing lids. I use one bucket of water to clean and rest my power mixer. This bucket is also used to clean trowels and other tools, and by the end of the job, the lower half of the bucket is filled with sludge. A lid ensures that I can transport the bucket back to my shop without spillage. There, I allow the sludge to settle for two or three days, after which I remove the lid, pour off the clear water, and allow the remaining water to evaporate. This can be done outside in warm weather or inside during cold. After a few days, all that remains is a shrunken cake of sand and cement particles that can be safely discarded with other job debris. Large shops can setup an array of settling tanks to accomplish the same goal. The EPA is moving on plans to reduce or eliminate the liquid sludge generated by Portland cement products.
Reducing WasteFinally, regardless of whether an installer uses green or non-green materials, one green practice that can reduce the drain on resources, as well as save money, is to mix or use only enough materials to get the job done. Mortars and grouts usually have coverage tables printed on sacks, and if kept in cool, dry storage, leftover materials will remain viable for up to six months.
Building green is not another fad: It is important for the health of the earth and all the people, animals and plants who live here.
TCA, ANSI A108, and ANSI A137 Handbooks are available from the Tile Council of North America: www.tileusa.com