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Why Tile Installations Fail

by Roger

woodchester mosaic

Tile, more than any other flooring, has the ability to literally last as long as the structure in which it is installed – or longer.

For instance, the photo to the right is part of a Roman mosaic known as the “Great Pavement” at Woodchester, Gloucestershire, England. It measures 48 feet by 48 feet and was once the hall of a Roman villa. It contains about 1.5 million pieces of stone each 1/2″ square. It was laid around 325 A.D.!

There is no doubt that tile and stone are very durable materials. So why do tile installations fail? Quite simply – improper installation. Improperly constructed tile or stone installations will usually fail within the first two years (which is why I extend at least a two year warranty on all my work :))

According to Dave Gobis, the former executive director of the Ceramic Tile Education Foundation and member of the NTCA Technical Committee and ANSI A108 and TCA Handbook committee, “In probably 98% of the instances, it is – pure and simple – failure to follow instructions and observe established installation guidelines.” (source)

I would like to, for the purpose of this article, split the failures into two different categories which constitute most all installation failures I replace here in Fort Collins, Colorado. The first, movement, deals with a possible failure of every type of installation from floors to shower walls. The second, waterproofing, deals mainly with showers but may also be the cause of countertops or other tile installation failures.

Movement

It does not matter whether tile is installed over a wooden or concrete substrate, there will be movement – always. I can not emphasize this enough. Due to temperature, humidity, ground moisture, and a host of other reasons, there will always be movement to some extent in your substrate. Concrete slabs deal with this with control joints and all wooden structures are built in a manner to accommodate movement to the extent needed (in most cases).

A proper tile or stone installation must also be built in the same manner. From the use of proper underlayments and setting materials to the placement of control joints and expansion space. the proper materials and methods must be utilized to ensure a lasting installation.

All materials will expand and contract at different rates. By not taking this into consideration an installation failure is virtually guaranteed. The guidelines  for proper tile installation are set in ANSI standards. They are: American National Standard for the Installation of Ceramic Tile – ANSI A108, American National Standard for Setting Materials – ANSI A118, and American National Standard for Ceramic Tile Products – ANSI A137.1.

If there is no allowance for substrate movement through the use of control joints, proper materials, and setting methods, the movement in the substrate will be transferred through to the tile and grout. When tile and grout move nothing good ever happens. The most common is cracking grout. The worst case scenarios will lead to tile actually cracking and/or becoming unbonded to the substrate.

Waterproofing

The other major problem involves improper (or lack of) waterproofing of a shower. A major misconception is that tile, stone, and grout are waterproof – they are not. While tile is usually effectively waterproof the grout is absolutely not waterproof. Water can, and will, “wick” through grout and reach the tile substrate. If the shower is built properly this is not a problem at all.

A properly built shower  involves the ability to properly disperse any moisture which reaches the substrate. It should be effectively waterproof before a box of tile is even opened.  There are several different methods of accomplishing this which I will not go into for this article. Suffice it to say that your shower should be able to deal with water properly before tile is installed.

An improperly built shower has the power to be  more of a problem than simply cracked grout or tile and looking bad. It can cause serious, expensive damage to the room in which it is installed as well as any area surrounding it up to and including actual structural damage.

Improperly constructed showers can also lead to health hazards in the form of mold, mildew, and a number of other unwanted, unhealthy environmental factors.

How to prevent this

The simple answer is to hire a qualified professional. Hiring an inexperienced or uneducated “contractor” can actually put your health at risk. Many, many unknowing homeowners have done this in recent years because a lot of people who had absolutely no business doing so, claimed to be a tile “contractor”.  The boom of the housing market until last year coupled with the lack of licensing or standards testing in most of Colorado led to just about anyone being able to claim expertise in this area.

Keep in mind while speaking to contractors that most installation failure is due to the installer – not the product. Improper installation will always lead to problems.

The most important part of finding a qualified tile contractor is research. Ask questions. Find out with whom you are dealing. Those of us that are professionals in our field have absolutely no problem with any of these – none. If someones seems like they bid at an extremely low price there is probably a reason for it. Is it someone with a truck and a trowel or is it someone that has been in business for many years and answers your questions?

For some reason people feel that hiring a tile professional is monetarily out of reach, this is not true.  Take into consideration what may happen if you don’t. Not only will you eventually end up paying to have it done again, the second (proper) installation will cost you more in terms of tearout and preparation as well as fixing what may have been damaged due to improper installation.

Most professional contractors are fairly priced for what we do. You will not get your tile (properly) installed for $2.00 per foot. If someone offers you that kindly show them the door. Depending upon what you are having tiled and the materials you choose, however, you may be able to have it properly installed for $5 – $7 per foot (here in Fort Collins, CO) and have it properly warrantied to boot. Hiring an experienced, educated professional tile contractor is a cheap way to ensure the durability and quality of your tile installation.

Jim Terry

My ceramic tile buckled up about a half an inch after 16 years. No earlier warning within the first 2-3 years as you indicated in your article. A structual engineer said it was improper instalation of the tiles. Why, in your opinion, did it wait so long?

Reply

Roger

Hi Jim,

The two year timeline I referenced above was mainly for shower tile installations where water is the main cause of a failure (or improper waterproofing, to be more precise).

With a flooring installation one of the main causes of failure is lack of expansion/perimeter joints. With normal seasonal movement ceramic tile can expand and contract up to 3%. Over a period of 16 years the constant pressure of tile expanding and lack of accommodation for that expansion will cause the installation to ‘tent’, or lift, as you’ve described. That can happen after installation anywhere from 6 months to 40 years.

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