Over the next four issues of TILE, we will be highlighting the features and benefits of the new and recently launched Advanced Certifications for Tile Installers (ACT) program. This tile installer testing program was developed with a two-fold purpose: to allow the ACT installer to be differentiated from those who do not have this distinction and to provide the consumer, whether commercial or residential, with a choice of a better and more qualified tile installer.

The ACT program committee was formed in October of 2012 and included five of the leading tile industry labor organizations including; the Ceramic Tile Education Foundation (CTEF), the International Masonry Institute (IMI), the International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers (IUBAC), the National Tile Contractors Association (NTCA) and the Tile Contractors Association of America (TCAA). The Tile Council of North America (TCNA) was subsequently added to the committee bringing the support of its manufacturing members, who were pivotal in the development of the ACT curriculum. The formation of this committee was an unprecedented event, in that it joined the non-union (CTEF and NTCA) and union (IMI, IUBAC and TCAA) tile installer organizations together with a common goal of creating a pool of qualified tile installers without regard to their labor affiliation. 

Over the course of just under one year, the committees drafted, edited and published all the documents necessary to construct the wood test modules, conduct the actual hands-on test, establish evaluation criteria for the hands-on test and administer the online written test. The ACT program originally contained four skills tests including; Large Format Tile and Surface Prep, Membranes, Mortar Bed (Mud) Floors and Walls, and Shower Receptors. Subsequently, the Mud testing was divided, yielding a separate Mud Floor and Mud Wall test for a total of five skills tests.

One key component and strictly enforced requirements of the ACT tests is that the applying installer (applying to take one or more of the tests), must have first successfully passed the Certified Tile Installer (CTI) tests, which are conducted by the CTEF, or he or she must have successfully completed the studies and practices of the IUBAC and received the designation of Journeyman. The installer successfully completing either of these programs has already proven his or her basic installation skills and now moves on to elevate and document their advanced installation skills and knowledge.

The ACT tests are a combination of an open book written test which is administered online and taken at home or in the office per the installer’s schedule and the hands-on test which is provided at regional locations around the country. Upon registration, the installer receives a three book packet consisting of the ACT Study Guide, the TCNA Handbook and the ANSI Specifications. These publications provide the installer with all the study materials necessary to take both the written and hands-on tests. The testing is designed to have the installer take the written test first, followed by the hands-on testing. The combined scores of both tests must be a minimum of 85%. While this may seem to be a high requirement, it speaks to the high integrity of the test and the above average skills and knowledge needed to achieve the ACT designation.

The Large Format Tile (LFT) and Surface Prep exam was one of the first tests on the committee’s wish list due to the popularity and ever-growing size of ceramic tile found in the marketplace today. A further reason for including this test was that many times inappropriate materials are used to “fix” the floor or wall surface deviations.

Although neither the TCNA Handbook nor the ANSI Specifications actually define large-format tile, it is generally understood in the tile industry to be one with any side greater than 15 inches.  The previously mentioned popularity of these tiles is now seeing products 48 x 48 inches — and even larger. Now that we understand what is considered to be large-format tile, the proper installation standards need to be applied and evaluated.

The substrate (floor surface) supplied in this test is purposely constructed to be out of flat, meaning it has low spots that need to be corrected. The installer must determine the location and severity of these problem areas and place the appropriate trowel-applied floor patch to remedy the deficiency. Solving the floor out of flat issues could also be addressed with the use of a self-leveling underlayment. However, the committee determined that the trowel-applied patch was more appropriate since it requires the installer to utilize multiple skills to flatten the floor surface.   

The Handbook, under “Subsurface Tolerances for Thin-Bed Methods,” states the following. “For thin-bed ceramic tile installations when a cementitious bonding material will be used, including medium-bed mortar, maximum allowable variation in the tile substrate — for tile with all edges shorter than 15 inches, maximum allowable variation is 1/4 inch in 10 feet from the required plane, with no more than 1/16- inch variation in 12 inches when measured from the high points in the surface. For tiles with at least one edge 15 inches in length or longer, maximum allowable variation is
1/8 inch in 10 feet from the required plane, with no more than 1/16-inch variation in 24 inches when measured from the high points in the surface.” Understanding the intent of this requirement leads to the conclusion that reinforces the thought that the larger the tile, the flatter the substrate needs to be.

At this point, the evaluator begins his or her work by using the proper straightedge to determine if the installer has met the requirement for the flatness and records the proportionate score. After allowing the manufacturer’s recommended dry time for the patching compound, the installer moves to the next phase of the test.

The tile which is specified for use in this test is a 12- x 24-inch porcelain that has been rectified at the production facility — meeting or exceeding the ANSI A137.1 guidelines as seen in Table 10 Porcelain Tile. According to this standard, the tile must meet a more stringent tolerance than that of a calibrated or natural tile. The use of rectified tile therefore normally allows the grout joint to be smaller than if a calibrated tile had been recommended.

The ACT LFT test directs the tile mechanic to install the tile in a running bond/brick joint pattern with a 1/8-inch grout joint. However, the grout joint size is dictated by three specifications in ANSI A108.02. Section 4.3.8 speaks to the grout joint size relative to the tile edge warpage (which is inherent in all kiln fired tile products and can produce objectionable lippage), but at no time may the grout joint size be less than 1/16 inch. Section 4.3.8.1 calls for the grout joint in a running bond/brick joint tile installation to be, on average, 1/8 inch for rectified tile. Section 4.3.8.2 calls for the grout joint offset to be no greater than 33% when the side of the tile being offset is greater than 18 inches. This offset can only be increased if specified by the manufacturer or approved by the specifier and owner after reviewing a mock-up of the actual tile to be installed. It is the responsibility of the testing installer to determine if the tile supplied is able to meet these criteria and if the tile can be installed within acceptable lippage requirements.

The LFT test further calls for the installation to be completed using a medium-bed mortar.  Although presently there is no ANSI or ISO standard to characterize them (installation method or product specification), they are produced by a number of manufacturers that define their use and suitability. Medium-bed mortars allow heavy and/or ungauged thickness tiles along with tiles where least one side is greater than 15 inches to be installed with a finished mortar thickness which exceeds 3/16 inch. However, these products must meet the requirements of ANSI A118.1, A118.4, A118.11 or A118.15 or ISO standards for C1 or C2 mortars. Since these installers have already met the installation criteria for proper grout installation and finishing through testing provided by the CTEF or the IUBAC, the installer is not required to grout the installation.

Finally, the ACT Evaluator reviews and scores the work provided by the installer from the pre-set Evaluator Guidelines on lippage, grout joint size and consistency, mortar coverage on the back of the tile and flatness. At this point, the hands-on testing is complete. The installer then removes the work that has been evaluated and prepares the test module for the next installer.

Through the efforts of many people, the TCNA Handbook and the ARCOM Master Spec (which is used by architects in the preparation of project plans and specifications), now contains language recommending the use of Qualified Labor on future projects. This combination now has put teeth into the specification, in that a tile contractor must meet these minimum guidelines in order to bid the project. This should go a long way in weeding out the substandard, ill-prepared tile placer (we can’t really call them tile mechanics or professionals) who provide low-ball pricing with no regard for quality or the long-term success of the project.

You can see that the specifications for this ACT test are rather strict and detailed. They were intentionally designed to be so. This further demonstrates the tile industry need for an installer who has met the industry standards and best practices and who desires to install tile products correctly the first time. The consumer now has a choice. A better choice.