The naming of the category is the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Our industry is focused full tilt on the bigger issue at hand: the development of proper product standards. The urgency for standards is relative to the pace of product acceptance in the market. Customers and product specifiers have rapidly embraced thin tile and do not have or are not waiting on standards to guide product transport, handling and installation. As a result, we’re seeing some thin tile products specified and sold without detailed instruction on truck unloading, removal from the specialized crates, proper handling and use of correct installation equipment, cutting methods and techniques. Too often, contractors have been left to just “figure it out.”
Thankfully, the industry is joining forces to address the urgent need for standards with training and education to reach contractors nationwide. Clearly, there’s no time to waste. Some contractors, hesitant to install unfamiliar materials, are quoting 50 to 300% more than traditional tile installation fees. And, of course, lack of knowledge and training can lead to negative experiences and failed installations — detrimental for the long-term success of a burgeoning product category. The key to turning these unknowns into opportunity lies in education.
New standards must address issues from start to completion of an installation. For example, we’ve developed a technical guide for the Laminam by Crossville brand that speaks in detail to everything contractors must know: arrival of product — including unloading from truck and removal from crate, choice of tools and setting materials, methods of fabrication and installation procedures. Here’s a look at specifics from our technical guide that apply to all thin porcelain panel products.*
Receiving and handling
Crates for these products are typically over 10 feet long and 3 feet wide and are delivered in a truck lengthwise. Extended forks are required to handle the crates; otherwise traditional forks will strike and damage the material from underneath.
Use proper tools for removing the material from crates. Thin porcelain panels weigh between 1.5 and 3.0 pounds per square foot, depending on thickness — much lighter than traditional tiles. However, because their dimensions are so large, simply lifting them out of the crate by hand can cause damage. Specialized tools have been developed using frames with suction cups to allow for safe handling of the material not only out of the crate and around the jobsite, but also during positioning for final installation.
Thanks to the lean profile, these panels are extremely easy to cut with the right tools and, if handled correctly, breakage can be virtually eliminated. Specialized scoring devices have been developed that can produce precisely scored cuts as narrow as a ½-inch strip down the entire 10-foot length of a thin porcelain tile panel. Diamond-tipped hole saws can produce perfect holes of any size using normal drills and a little water. With proper training, contractors can learn to fabricate the material with ease.
When specifying this material, it’s essential to be aware of all technical characteristics for the preferred product. Generally speaking, this material functions much like the traditional porcelain tile we are used to. However, the reduced thickness means the point load of the material is reduced and voided under the tiles if full coverage of setting material is not achieved and, thus, breakage can occur more quickly than with tile of traditional thickness. Also, the edges of the thin porcelain tiles are more vulnerable to crushing or breakage when lippage is present. Given these vulnerabilities, setting/troweling techniques achieve maximum, edge-to-edge coverage beneath the thin porcelain panel.
We recommend use of a re-designed trowel called the “zipper trowel” that allows fresh, wet mortar ridges to lay down in an over-lapping pattern that promotes full coverage. Further, specific setting materials with wetter mix ratios that improve working time and coverage are also recommended. To deal with the lippage issue, we recommend new embedding techniques that allow for the reduction/elimination of voids under the tiles and the use of edge leveling systems that are more common to the stone trade. This combination of new ideas, tools and techniques assures that critical coverage and tight panel alignment can be accomplished so the installed product performs as expected.
Beyond the helpful information of a technical guide, we strongly recommend hands-on training for installers. Nothing compares to in-field learning that allows contractors to gain skills by directly working with the material under guidance of those who’ve created the procedures and standards. Suffice to say, this product is not for under-qualified tile installers, but it can offer opportunity for those out there seeking to set themselves apart and grow their businesses.
As a by-product of the development of standards for this new tile category, our industry is, at last, coming together on issues such as substrate improvement, proper classification of setting materials, maximizing coverage and use of leveling systems. We’re collectively addressing these topics as part of the qualified labor training initiatives now active across the industry.
We look forward to even more industry-wide consensus, as we work together to finalize accepted practices for this category and, ultimately, usher in third-party, minimum performance criteria for products that can be successful in the marketplace. This won’t be an easy path, but it is a necessary one. The current ANSI 137.1 standard does not allow for sampling, analyzing and defining warpage, facial and thickness dimensions, and wedging variations for tile products that are 3 x 10 feet. The significantly thinner tile body of 3 to 6 mm will require new values for lippage, point load and impact resistance. An additional test for edge chipping may have to be developed. Most agree that having a product standard is critical to establish what a “good” product is before we can have an installation standard. Both are crucial to the long-term success of the category.
Thin porcelain tiles and thin porcelain tile panels are amazing products, with installation opportunities that go beyond those of traditional tile. When we back these beautiful, versatile products with effective, thorough instructions, resources and training, we all stand to gain. Working collaboratively with commitment to the integrity of the products we create and install, our industry will take a shorter path to mutual long-term success with this exciting category.
NOTE: These tips are not intended to be a solitary resource of education on thin porcelain panel handling and installation.