Over the last couple of weeks, TILE Magazine had the opportunity to speak with a group of experienced professionals within the tile industry about different aspects of tile installations. Since defective installations and misinformed installers have been becoming more prevalent, these industry veterans were asked to provide some solutions to common problems, including how to ensure the success of an installation, what factors need to be addressed and what to avoid. Panelists in the session included:

•          James Woelfel, President and Technical Committee Chairman of the National Tile Contractors Association (NTCA); Vice President and Estimator at Artcraft Granite, Marble, & Tile Co. in Mesa, AZ

•          Dale Kempster, Technical Director at Schluter-Systems (Canada) Inc.; Vice President of the Materials, Methods and Standards Association (MMSA)

•          Steve Taylor, Director of Technical and Architectural Marketing for Custom Building Products in Seal Beach, CA

•          Scott Carothers, Director of Training and Certification for the Ceramic Tile Education Foundation (CTEF) in Pendleton, SC

If you had to give installers three tips/pieces of advice about how to complete a successful installation, what would they be?

Taylor: For a successful installation, it is [most] important to prepare the surface. If you want the tile to be uniform and flat, you must start with a flat subfloor. Self-leveling underlayments such as Custom’s LevelQuik RS and cement patches will help achieve the industry recommended tolerances. [Secondly], choose the right mortar. Consult the TCNA Handbook because it will help you identify the grade of mortar needed. If you are installing tile with one side larger than 15 inches, use a mortar designed for large-format tile (LFT). Custom offers a variety of LFT mortar options. [Lastly], use a highly stain-resistant grout. You will not need to come back and seal the grout, and the customer will be happy for years. It’s one of the reasons we invented Fusion Pro.

Woelfel: In Las Vegas, Nyle Wadford and I presented on how to avoid installation failures, and I boiled a successful installation down to four things:

•          Use proper tools and materials correctly.

•          Know the industry standards and guidelines.

•          Use quality qualified labor.

•          Have proper oversight.

Kempster: [First and foremost], proper preparation; making sure that the substrate is flat and meets the industry requirement of 1/4-inch in 10 feet, and if the tile is longer than 15 inches on one side, 1/16 inch in 10 feet. Verifying residual moisture in concrete is within industry guidelines and no bond breakers. [Secondly], know the challenges of the installation. What type of traffic is anticipated? Is there a lot of natural light? Darker tile may need more movement joints. Is there need for waterproofing, crack isolation or uncoupling? [Lastly], ask questions and find out what your clients’ expectations are, make sure they can be met, and if not, have some alternative solutions.

Carothers: [First], survey site conditions and use the appropriate products to correct substrate deficiencies. [Secondly], follow the ANSI guidelines, TCNA Handbook and industry-accepted best practices for the proper installation of tile and associated products. [Lastly], read and understand all of the manufacturer’s recommendations and installation instructions before starting the work. Continue to ask questions until you get satisfactory answers.

What are the most important things that an installer needs to ensure a long-lasting installation (products, tools, etc.)? Why?

Kempster: Knowledge and experience is the key. There are plenty of good products and tools out there, but they have to be used and installed correctly. Education is available through manufacturers and industry associations like the CTEF or trade shows. Our industry is constantly evolving and learning never ends.

Taylor: Training is probably the most important tool the installer can get. Proper installation with premium products will assure that the tile installation will last for years. Technique is critical. For example, Custom recently teamed up with the NTCA to produce a new version of the “Trowel & Error” video to educate the industry on how important troweling techniques are to tile installation performance. Good troweling techniques help to prevent cracking when tile is well bonded and supported.

Woelfel: Using the proper setting tools is a basic fundamental in proper installation. [Also], the use of the proper mortar; crack isolation system and grout; and the manufacturer “systems,” such as the use of mortar, crack isolation and grout from the same manufacturer, is the best way to ensure a long-lasting installation. Some manufacturers will give 25-year warranties or more on materials. Please note that these manufacturer recommendations supersede any industry standard such as those created by ANSI or the TCNA.

Carothers: I believe it comes down to three things:

1.         Tile industry-accepted training while working for a qualified mentor to ensure proper installation methods and techniques. The day you stop learning is the day you die.

2.         Knowledge is crucial to success. Good work yields a solid reputation and builds consumer confidence, whether it is residential or commercial.

3.         Installer certification such as the CTEF Certified Tile Installer (CTI) program proves the abilities and knowledge of the better installer which differentiates them from the average installer.

Have you seen an increase in the amount of improper installations recently? If so, do you think it can be attributed to anything in particular?

Carothers: Very unfortunately, yes. The answer is threefold. The first is the lack of competent training. Doing something the wrong way over a long period of time does not make it right. There is an old industry saying, “I’ve done it this way for 30 years and never had a problem.” [I think to myself], “Really?” This cancer continues when the unqualified worker “trains” the next generation to do it the same wrong way. A prime example of this is the trick of spot bonding, which is better known as “five spotting,” tile in order to eliminate edge-to-edge lippage. The second is the apathetic attitude of the tile placer (this person is not qualified to be called a tile installer). The lack of qualified labor, as defined in the TCNA Handbook and the ARCOM Specifications, in the field allows tile to be thrown in without regard to proper methods and/or manufacturer’s recommendations, all for the sake of an unattainable schedule. The mentality of “Just throw it in as fast as possible” is commonplace and followed entirely too often. This method thrives until failure occurs. The curious part of this plan is that there is never enough time to do it (the job) right the first time, but there is always time available to put it in place properly the second time. The third is the price-driven economy. It is nearly impossible to get good quality work when consumers and general contractors demand the lowest price and continue to drive the price of installed tile even lower. This work is normally provided by poorly trained and unqualified individuals. You only get what you pay for — or maybe not! After the job is completed and the end user realizes the error, it is too late. Quality comes at a price, but experience has shown that it is cheaper to do it right the first time.

Kempster: There has been a big increase in failures using the “spot bonding” technique which is not recognized by any of the trade associations in the U.S. or Canada. These installers are not competent and are using this technique as a shortcut from avoiding the proper prep, as I mentioned previously.

Taylor: We are seeing more installations fail because of improper installation. There is a shortage of trained professionals and those installing tiles are not aware of the proper techniques. Training videos such as Custom’s “Top 5 Tips” and other videos from the NTCA really help tile installers become better at their craft.

Woelfel: I don’t know if I have seen an increase in failures, but I have seen an increase in stupid failures. The failures I have inspected lately have lowered the bar in how not to set tile. Basic failures like lack of slope on balconies, lack of movement joints and a lot of lack of coverage issues. The increase in work and the lack of qualified installers is what is driving these failures; the NTCA is stepping up and is creating a hands-on apprenticeship program so we can at least try to increase the number of qualified installers.

Are there certain standards you believe contractors and installers need to abide by in order to ensure a prolonged installation? If so, which ones?

Woelfel: The TCNA Handbook, the ANSI book and manufacturers’ recommendations are the standards that all ceramic tile installations need to meet. A lot of people have a fear or just don’t care about these standards, [but] they are there to help with a successful installation.

Kempster: They need to have a good knowledge on ANSI A108, the TCNA Handbook (in Canada, the TTMAC 09 30 00 Tile Installation Manual) and the NTCA Technical Reference Manual. They don’t have to memorize these documents, but have a good working knowledge on how to find the information they need.

Taylor: Installers need to be familiar with the ANSI standards for the products. They should also study the NTCA Reference Manual and the TCNA Handbook for proper installation methods for their particular project.

Carothers: There is no doubt on this one. The tile industry is built on established and proven standards and best practices. The difficulty is getting every installer in the field up to speed on these documents: the ANSI Specifications, the TCNA Handbook, and the NTCA Reference Manual. Additionally, tile installers need to establish their own standard of pride in the quality workmanship he or she provides.

When you’re called to fix an installation that was completed by “cutting corners,” how do you assess the situation?

Woelfel: We do get a lot of calls asking us to step in and finish an installation or correct an existing installation. The first thing we do is to see if fixing an existing installation is viable, such as, “Is the existing installation meeting industry standards?” “Can we piece the installation together?” Or, “Is it less expensive and time-consuming to start over?” I would say 95% of the time we have to remove the existing installation and start over. The issue is that our company does not want to inherit someone else’s liability.

Kempster: Whenever I go to evaluate a tile installation, I make sure that I have permission to take a tile or more up to see what is going on underneath, checking the coverage of the mortar, substrate condition, nailing patterns if it’s a wood substrate, troweling technique and the size of trowel used.

Carothers: In my store, we adopted two difficult policies: “If we don’t sell it, we don’t install it” and “We don’t ‘fix’ anything installed by others.” When we controlled the products being installed, we knew the quality and the appropriate installation methods. Attempting to fix work done by others is recipe for failure. It is virtually impossible to know what was or was not completed properly by a visual inspection which was especially true with stall showers. The only sure way is to tear it out and start over.

Taylor: We do not fix installations, but do make recommendations. Many times, if too many corners have been cut, they can only be fixed by completely removing the tile and re-installing it the correct way with the proper materials.

Do you have any personal experiences/examples that you can detail?

Kempster: One of the worst installations I went to see was where an uncoupling membrane was used and installed upside down, as well as the tile; to add more insult to injury, they did not clean the grout off the tile. It was a complete disaster; the installer was a carpenter who told the owners that he had done many tile jobs in his time.

Woelfel: We just finished a hotel in downtown Phoenix, AZ, where the general contractor called us in to supplement another company’s labor. We worked seven days a week in order to bring the job in on time. It was a struggle working on a job with another installer, but we got the work done and, in the end, even took over most of the job because the other installation company was not competent enough to complete the installation.

Carothers: We had a local builder who built a large number of stall showers in upper quality homes on moisture-resistant drywall — a product that the drywall manufacturers don’t recommend in wet areas — which started failing after two years. These houses were a longtime source of income for us.

Taylor: We have seen a lot of installations where spot bonding is used to install or level the tile. This creates voids under the tile and even a small impact will crack the tile.