At Rheinschmidt Tile & Marble, we recently completed a 160,000-square-foot tile installation at a shopping center in Carolina, Puerto Rico, a suburb of San Juan. For anyone who has not had the chance to visit the sunny island of Puerto Rico, it is a small island measuring only 35 miles by 105 miles. With a population of over 4 million people, it also has some of the world’s busiest shopping centers.

Our family business is from Burlington, IA, and we specialize in shopping center floor installation work nationwide. We were introduced to the island when one of our customers asked us to do some work for them in San Juan more than 20 years ago. We have been working there ever since.

Plaza Carolina is our most recent installation in Puerto Rico, and one of our oldest. We installed a new layer of tile over the existing floor back in 1989. I worked as a helper for my dad at that time. I had studied Spanish for five years in school, but nine months on a construction site in Puerto Rico doubled my Spanish vocabulary. We have worked on quite a variety of projects in the San Juan area since then.

Since Puerto Rico is an island 1,000 miles away from Florida, shipping becomes a challenge. To work in Puerto Rico, you have to learn how to handle import taxes on the tile, but also on the tools you send over (even the used ones). When it comes to manpower, we always plan on bringing 100% of our workforce from the U.S. due to a severe shortage of skilled workers on the island. When you do hire local workers, make sure to brush up on the local labor laws, including vacation pay requirements, mandatory Christmas bonuses and double-time pay for any work over 40 hours. But the real challenges on this project were in the project details, most notably lead paint in tiles and a compound substrate problem.

Becoming a lead abatement contractor

There have been lots of regulatory changes regarding lead-based paint in the past few years. Many commercial projects now have to certify that they are free of lead-based paint prior to obtaining a permit for renovation work. Since lead paint doesn’t often impact a tile installation, I knew little about it. However, during the lead paint investigation performed by Zimmetry Environmental of Puerto Rico, they discovered that the glaze in the ceramic tile contained lead. Ok, now what?

Even though the lead content was baked into the glaze (non-leaching), according to the new regulations imposed by the Environmental Quality Board (EQB) of Puerto Rico, or Junta de Calidad Ambiental (JCA), the tile had to be treated as special waste, and the floor had to undergo a proper lead abatement process.

This news came at a time when work was quickly drying up all over the country. While we normally work on three or four shopping centers at a time, this was our only prospective job. And now, even this project was getting shelved. To keep the project alive, we had to think creatively. We researched our options and decided to become a lead abatement contractor. We were determined to find a cost-effective approach to lead abatement that would still accommodate our customer’s bigger concern — keeping the stores open.

Becoming a lead abatement contractor in Puerto Rico involved sending one of our project managers, two superintendents and a dozen installers to lead abatement training in Puerto Rico. Analytical Environmental Services of Puerto Rico provided the training, and helped us through the Lead Abatement Contractor application process. We completed the courses and personally visited the EQB with application and payment in hand. A few months later, we were officially certified to perform lead abatement on the island of Puerto Rico.

After reanalyzing the project using our own workforce for lead abatement, we were able to get the project back under budget. We were also able to propose a process for the lead abatement which allowed the stores to remain open every day. Becoming a lead abatement contractor and rebidding the job set the project back several months, but the job was back on the books.

Today, the lead abatement process is complete, and other than a few bumps and scrapes, it was a success. However, I am not looking for any more work as a lead abatement contractor.

Dealing with a difficult substrate

Even before the lead abatement became an issue, the initial challenge was how to remodel a tile floor with a difficult substrate. The existing floor was a 2-inch mud bed, with 1-inch-thick precast terrazzo tiles laid butt joint, and a layer of glazed ceramic tile over that. Consultant Jim Acri of Acri Stone & Tile Consulting, Inc. was called in to help determine the approach that best suited the customer’s needs. During his visit, he noted that at the upper level, the most recent layer of tile (ours) had undergone a significant number of repairs — indicating a failure of some type. The tiles removed for inspection showed full coverage, and the thinset was bonded to the substrate and to the tile in most cases. From this, it was determined that the upper level was experiencing much more structural movement than the previous installation method could handle. Therefore, another tile overlay was not an option. That left two choices: remove both layers of tile and mud and start over, or remove only the top layer of tile.

Acri came up with several conclusions. The upper level was showing signs of movement. The old tile overlay was failing, but lasted for nearly 20 years before showing significant signs of distress. The conditions of the concrete beneath the mortar bed were unknown. With these facts in mind, it was his recommendation to remove only the top layer of tile and to install new tile with 100% anti-fracture membrane coverage. This would allow the existing terrazzo tile to remain in place to protect the original mud bed installation. The lower level was in better condition, but still showing signs of failure. The approach here was also to remove only the top layer of tile, but reinstall with anti-fracture membrane only at control joints and visible cracks. The owner went along with the recommendation, and we now had a plan of attack.

The goal was to perform the lead abatement removing only the top layer of tile — without damaging the terrazzo tile installation beneath — while keeping the storefronts open during the day. To improve the bond of the new tile installation, the terrazzo tiles were shot blasted. To accommodate the installation of large-format tiles, the floor was self-leveled or ground to within 1⁄8 inch in 10 feet where possible. After the installation of the self level, the anti-fracture membrane was installed. And finally, the new tile floor was installed and grouted.

A successful installation

When I started writing this article, we still had 15,000 square feet of tile to install. Today, the floor is complete. In total, we removed 160,000 square feet of tile in the lead abatement process. We maintained the integrity of the existing terrazzo tiles underneath — protecting the aging mud bed from coming loose. We installed nearly 8,000 bags of Mapei Ultraplan One Plus Self Level and almost 90,000 square feet of NAC’s ECB anti-fracture membrane. And as of today, all 160,000 square feet of Ergon Alabastro Evo Tile, which was provided by Ceramic Technics of Atlanta, GA, is installed.

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Installation Details

Installer: Rheinschmidt Tile & Marble, Burlington, IA

Tile Consultant: Acri Stone & Tile Consulting, Inc., Albuquerque, NM

Tile Products: Ergon Alabastro Evo Tile supplied by Ceramic Technics of Atlanta, GA

Installation Products: Mapei Ultraplan One Plus Self Level from Mapei of Deerfield Beach, FL, and ECB anti-fracture membrane from NAC Products, Inc. of Akron, OH