A ceramic tile stall shower or tub surround is installed to meet several consumer goals. It must direct the water from the shower head to the drain without compromising any of the structure in between, and of course, it must be water-tight. It must also be functional, easily maintained, aesthetically pleasing, trouble-free and long lasting.

In order for the shower area to function properly, it must be created and installed by a skilled craftsperson that would be included in the category of qualified labor as listed in the Tile Council of America (TCNA) Handbook. A fine example of these skills is showcased in Photo 1. These talented mechanics include the hand skills and the knowledge of current-day best practices and industry standards in their everyday work ethic. When these artisans are paired with top-quality materials, life is good.  Notice the attention to detail in Photo 2 which is what every consumer should expect and receive in a tile installation.

In order to provide this level of excellence, the above referenced attention to detail is critical and best provided by an installer who has met the stringent requirements of the Certified Tile Installer (CTI) program provided by the Ceramic Tile Education Foundation (CTEF). 

Unfortunately, not all individuals installing tile today come remotely close to these qualifications. Without this focus on quality, corners are cut and critical steps eliminated in order to save money and time. This cheaper, substandard and lower quality work is a black eye for the entire tile industry.

In this article, we are contrasting the one against the other, allowing you to decide which path is the best one to follow. The driving force behind this article is a combination of two job-related circumstances that have crossed my desk recently. Of course, I hardly ever receive correspondence from folks who are completely satisfied with their new tub or shower installation and can’t wait to share this news with others. You have guessed it; the calls and emails I receive originate out of anger, disgust, disappointment and financial loss.

Please understand that our purpose here is not to outline all the negatives involved in having either a residential or commercial installation completed, but rather creating consumer awareness of a better way to get it done which is not driven by the lowest price.

In the first call, the consumer was relating that the self-appointed “shower expert” told her and her husband that he would do everything necessary to install three new stall showers that would meet the objectives listed in the first paragraph. Unfortunately, none of these qualities were provided, with the exception that the partially finished work actually looked great. But, jobsite progress photos evidenced many improper practices as you will see.

The first and most egregious error was that in all three showers, the tile was bonded directly to moisture-resistant gypsum board, commonly known as green board. The ANSI Specifications in A108.01-3.5.1.1 state: “CAUTION — Gypsum board (ASTM C1396/C1396M), including water-resistant gypsum backing board, shall not be used in critical exposure areas such as exteriors, showers, saunas or steam rooms.” Likewise, the gypsum board manufacturers in their printed literature do not permit the use of these products in wet areas. The question arises. Why did this expert know-it-all do this? We can only presume that it was cheaper and faster. Or, he did not know the industry requirements for properly installed tile, especially in a wet area.

In Photo 3, you can clearly see the inappropriate green board. Additionally, the contractor coated the nails and seams with joint compound which will emulsify and lose bond when it is wetted by the thinset mortar. Notice that there is no thinset mortar troweled on the wall which is the second error. ANSI A108.5-2.2.2 states: “Apply mortar with flat side of trowel over an area no greater than can be covered with tile before the mortar skins over. Using a notched trowel of type recommended by mortar manufacturer, comb mortar to obtain even setting bed without scraping backing material. Cover surface uniformly with no bare spots and with sufficient mortar to insure a minimum mortar thickness of 3/32 inch (2 mm) between tile and backing after tile has been beaten into place. Tile shall not be applied to skinned-over mortar.”

The third error stems from the tile placer applying a dollop of mortar on the back of the tile and pushing it into place, an industry non-approved procedure known as “spot bonding.” In this practice, only a portion of the tile surface is bonded to the wall leaving open voids that will collect water and temporarily discolor the grout joints.

This tile placer made many additional errors on this job which are not listed here, but the most serious was nailing backer board on the shower curb. This one alone can cause a failure in a very short period of time. Again, there are time-proven methods that work. He either didn’t know them or chose not to use them, both of which are unconscionable.

However, there is more to this story beyond poor quality unfinished work and it gets ugly. When the project was about 80 percent completed, this individual demanded to be paid in full before he would complete the work. A heated discussion ensued between the husband and the tile placer, requiring the county sheriff to be called. The sheriff found it necessary to issue a restraining order against him and he was told to never return. This is not the way a professional tile installer or any contractor, for that matter, should act or attempt to resolve a dispute.

Now, the consumer is stuck with three partially completed showers, all of which were installed improperly. This is where the anger, disgust, disappointment and financial loss come into play.

You may ask, “How did she know that green board was not an appropriate substrate to receive tile in a wet area?” In her quest to resolve this problem, she went online looking for answers.  Several gypsum board manufacturers’ websites said not to use this product in a shower area. She made a number of phone calls and further researched on the Internet finding industry standards relating to showers. The question here is, if she was able to find this information rather quickly and easily, why didn’t the tile individual do likewise? Most likely, the often repeated statement from poorly trained individuals when a problem arises would be repeated. “I’ve been doing it this way for 20 years and never had a problem.” Doing something the wrong way for whatever number of years is still wrong.

Fortunately during her inquiries, she found a CTI in her area that was brought in to determine how bad the situation was and what would be required to make it right. The CTI examined the three partially completed showers and reviewed the in-process photos taken by the homeowner.  He confirmed the use of green board along with other tricks that go against industry standards and best practices. His response was that all of it must be removed and start over.  

Her final statement to me was, “I didn’t know you (CTEF and the CTI program) existed. If I had done my homework in advance and knew that there was a program out there to certify an installer’s abilities, we would not be in this predicament.”

The second situation was very proactive rather than the reactive situation in the last story. In this case a man, who had the abilities to do so, was designing his new home. However, when it came to the tile work, he was at a loss. Fortunately, he called on a friend who had connections to the tile industry. His emails asked for guidance as to the appropriate materials to be used along with the proper installation methods. The latter was easily determined through the use of the TCNA Handbook and ANSI Specifications.

When the conversation shifted to the installation, my recommendation was to find, interview and check the references of the installer before hiring them. The best and most comprehensive list of qualified artisans is contained in the CTEF website, www.ceramictilefoundation.org. I also directed him to the downloadable resources provided on the website, including Nine requirements of a Quality Tile Installation; When to avoid hiring a tile installer: 10 warning signs, What to look for when hiring a Quality Tile Installer; and the TCNA bulletin, Choosing Your Tile Installer.

His last question was, “Do you also think I should specify a CTI and what might that add to my cost?” My response was, “Absolutely, always specify a Certified Tile Installer. However, it would be difficult to predict whether using a CTI will or will not add to the cost of the project, but having a knowledgeable and skilled installer on the job pays tremendous dividends and provides peace of mind.”

The bottom line is this: Select from the list of CTIs in your area. Investigate both the products being used and the potential tile installer. Obtain and verify references. Require a contract outlining the project specifications, requirements and expectations. Never take the lowest bid; in the end, it will cost you more than you anticipated. And finally, shop wisely. The caliber of installer that you need and want does exist. Go find them, reaping the benefits of a long-lasting, beautiful tile installation.