When it comes to solving problems, people look to professionals with experience. Although a business owner never wants to hear the word “problem,” they must always have a solution — or enough knowledge to find one.

With tile installations, various unexpected issues can arise, especially if things aren’t done correctly. In a world of DIYers, issues have become more prevalent, and understandably so. Searching for ways to eliminate expenses by cutting corners can be one of the most costly mistakes one can make when remodeling or reconstructing a home. Fortunately, we got the chance to sit down with a couple of seasoned professionals to figure out why.

Michael Lyons, who has been in the tile industry since 1994, currently owns and operates Lyons Pride Tile and Marble in Harwinton, CT, which focuses on high-end residential installs throughout central and northwestern Connecticut. “I love tile,” he explained. “I find it to be art with power tools. I have the joy of being able to see a client get teary eyed when we have been able to take their ideas and bring them to an incredible finish.”

Marc Mularoni, who has been in the industry for more than 37 years, is the current director of technical sales for Louisville Tile in Louisville, KY. Before his time at Louisville Tile, Mularoni spent 25 years at H.B. Fuller/TEC Specialty Products, where he worked as technical sales manager. He has also held positions at Dal-Tile and Laticrete.

Jon Namba, who began installing carpet back in 1976, entered the tile industry more than 25 years ago. “Early in 1990 when I was in sales, I looked at some of the tile installations that the subcontractors installed for me. I felt that the quality could have been better so I started attending workshops and seminars and learning the proper installation methods,” explained the current owner of Namba Services, Inc. in Taylorsville, UT. “Ultimately, I began running an installation workroom and started setting my own tile jobs.”

Given the extensive experience this trio has, TILE was curious to see what they had to say about the most pressing installation issues, as well as solutions. Here’s what we found out:

In regard to tile installations, what is the most common problem people contact you about? Does it involve a certain area of the home?

Lyons: I typically get two types of clients. The most prevalent is either a homeowner or builder performing a remodel in which my services are needed. About 80% of these involve bathrooms. In general, these clients know that I am a very fastidious installer who will not wander away from established guidelines and codes. They know this because we do not advertise and they got my name from someone already familiar with Lyons Pride Tile. They also understand that to get this quality there is a significant cost factor.

The other type of call generally comes from a failed installation executed by another installer. In the latter case, 75% are for leaking showers. It is very typical to find sub-par installs by the ‘guy with the best price.’ In some severe cases, these ‘installers’ created tens of thousands of dollars in damage beyond the area they tiled.

Mularoni: The number one problem I am contacted about is grout. Typically, appearance, installed performance or cracking. The next most common problem I am contacted about is loose tile and the potential causes. These do not typically involve certain areas of the project, but wherever tile is used.

I am also contacted on a regular basis, in advance of installation, to discuss proper installation products and methods. This is very beneficial to avoid the problems noted above.

Namba: Our company gets hired to do quite a bit of re-work and re-installation. There is not one common problem or area that really stands out — there are several. For floors, the concerns we deal with are floor flatness, and with the introduction of plank tile, we get calls regarding lippage issues. These can usually be corrected by replacing a few tiles. The area where it gets expensive is when we are called in to redo a shower or tub surround. Many times, we have to do a complete replacement of tile, backerboard and shower pans.

Are there any other issues that you are seeing lately?

Lyons: The largest ‘issue’ as of late is the more stringent flatness guidelines required for the now very popular large-format tiles. When I started in the trade, 4- x 4-inch floors and walls were 90% of our work, and there really was no need to get anal about substrate flatness. Now, with tile formats commonly at 24 inches and occasionally up to 48 inches, the Tile Council of North America (TCNA) has stipulated very strict substrate variation guidelines. This is an issue because now we have to ask other trades to be better (sometimes they get offended) or end up burning a day’s labor for stud trueing or self-leveling. All costs that cannot be estimated until it is install time.

The other ‘issue’ arises out of the newer shower and waterproofing systems. While as a NTCA member, I keep up on all new technology and implement it as I see fit. It is unrealistic to expect carpenters and plumbers to keep up. For example, when we were using cement board products and a plumber wanted to add a grab bar, they simply put a hole into the tile and board and installed an anchor. Now, such items require forethought as the ultralight wallboards will not support anchoring of this type.

Another interesting situation that recently confronted us was a client that wanted a floor-to-ceiling glass panel with no hardware flanking her zero-barrier shower. This had all of us scratching our heads for a while and after several hours of meetings and planning we pulled it off.  New materials and technologies are going to mean new ‘firsts’ for everyone.

Mularoni: Due to the advancement of tile production, large-format tiles are becoming very common. Large tiles pose unique challenges [to the installer] that are not common with smaller tile. Some key challenges of large-format tile:

  • Improper substrate preparation
  • Lippage between tile
  • Bond loss due to lack of mortar coverage
  • Tile slumping/sliding due to improper mortar selection
  • Grout stain resistance

Namba: With the changes in technology, we are seeing the newer products that haven’t been installed properly and therefore don’t perform as they are capable of. Some examples of this are roll-on waterproofing membranes not having the proper coverage for proper waterproofing. Also, the use of large-format tile thinset being used as a leveler, as well as a bonding product. Thin tile installations are becoming more popular and tile setters who have not had experience with these products and thinking their years of experience will suffice are finding out the hard way that these products require a different degree of knowledge and hand skills for proper installation.

How do you go about solving these problems?

Lyons: First of all, the word ‘problems’ is problematic. It casts a negative light. One of my favorite sayings is ‘we don’t do problems, we do creative solutions.’ Once the negativity is dispelled, we can go about solution finding, not problem solving, as a team. Everyone gets input, even the new guy. All ideas are weighed by the owners of the involved companies and we run with the best solution. This isn’t a perfect science, but approaching something in a positive direction often makes the final solution very workable.

Mularoni: The primary solution is to educate our internal Louisville Tile staff, our installation contractors and their teams, as well as architects and designers. Education is provided by seminars, hands-on training/product demos, jobsite visits, visits to architects/designers/builders to promote usage of ceramic tile and discuss proper installation techniques, and with guidance over the phone as needed.

Namba: The best way to solve problems is to avoid them in the first place. Following the TCNA/American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and manufacturer guidelines is the best way to make sure that you don’t get into trouble. Sure, there are times you have to think outside the box to get yourself out of a situation, but I always say, when you go outside of industry/manufacturer guidelines you are making a business decision. The decision is, ‘If this installation fails, can I afford to replace it or can I minimize my exposure? If we make the decision to install outside of industry/ manufacturer guidelines, it’s on us.’

“Go-to” products

With a wide range of companies producing similar products in the industry, Lyons and Mularoni recommended some of their time-tested favorites.

Lyons: I am very specific about what products I use. It is years of experience with these products that help me be effective and efficient. We currently use:

  • USG Durock Ultralight for all wet wall projects, along with their shower pan systems, if applicable. I love that I can have a custom pan made and on the job in five days.
  • Floors are 100% of the time treated with one of the Ditra products once substrate is within requirements.
  • Liquid waterproofing is completed with Laticrete 9235. All mortars we use are from Laticrete as well — a local company employing many people I know, as well as great products.
  • Grouts we use are either Mapei Ultracolor Plus FA or Laticrete Permacolor, depending on the color needed.

Alike Lyons, Mularoni prefers to use products from Laticrete, TEC and Schluter-Systems. Namba has staples he turns to, but isn’t opposed to trying new products available. “We just make sure that if it’s a new product we are trying, it’s on a much smaller scale of installation so we can get comfortable with the product before doing a large install,” he said.

When asked what products perform the best, Lyons deems that a “trick question.” “There are certain companies that have great products and [inadequate] support or vice versa,” he said. “Sometimes, poor representation in the field or at a supplier can steer me from what is otherwise a great product.”

Namba shares similar views, and added that customer service is key, along with reliable products. “We try to align our company with those manufacturers and distributors who manufacture quality products, support us and respond in a timely manner to questions we may have,” he said.