When we talk about tile’s durability, I often think of the image of a solitary tile shower stall on the second story of an area home that withstood the devastation of a 1988 tornado. That blue 4×4 tile seemed to stand out defiantly in a neighborhood ransacked by nature’s power.
The property damage and loss of life that night were devastating, but, 24 years later, thinking of that shower reminds me of all our craft used to be. Tile was the substantial, durable, and standard bathroom material. The color choices might have been few, but the installation was meant to last.
Today tile is a designer product, a limitless ‘feature’, and often an ‘upgrade,’ and yet we spend many of our hours tearing out our competitor’s poor installations and tiling them as they should have been done the first time. It isn’t the fashion or even the function of the tile itself that’s made the difference in durability. It’s what’s under the tile – what you can’t see.
Stephanie Samulski does a great job explaining the change in tile installation methods and the consequences in the Tile Council of North America’s 2012 Handbook. Here’s an excerpt from Stephanie’s article:
In the earlier days of tile setting, “there were only a few methods of installing tile – bonded mortar beds and unbonded mortar beds. For several reasons, the resulting installations were likely to be problem-free, and indeed, many of them are still around today.
- First, mortar beds were, simply stated, good. They helped tile installations withstand building movement and the installer created the substrate, for a nice flat finish.
- Second, because mortar bed methods had been in use for hundreds of years, the knowledge and understanding of how to properly execute them was high.
- Third, there was a culture of tile setters, a fraternity of sorts, of the tradesmen who knew how to turn a pile of sand and a couple bags of cement into substrate, setting material, and grout. Anyone who could do this was, by necessity, thoroughly trained, and the industry benefited from this built-in training and quality control mechanism.
Fast forward to today. Even though mortar bed methods are still recognized as the best choice for many scenarios, most jobs are being specified with thin-bed installation methods because these thinner, lighter installations are faster and less expensive to install. They are also less expensive to design for: floors don’t need to be recessed, lighter duty framing materials can be used, and the installation is 75 percent lighter than if a mortar bed were specified. This has allowed tile installations to be more affordable and more readily available.
But what else happens when a labor-intensive, highly skilled method of installation is almost completely supplanted by methods that don’t require years of training? The built-in competency requirement diminishes. Outside of a few state licensing programs, very little is in place to make sure a tile contractor knows industry standards and best practices and has good installers. The consistent uptick in tile consumption over the last fifty years attracted workers and business owners who recognized a growth industry with very few obstacles to getting started, and many good companies and installers entered the trade, but at the same time less-skilled workers and less-qualified business owners set up shop as tile contractors too.
The perception popularized by television shows, internet blogs, YouTube, and the like – that tile setting is so easy you can do it yourself – is a fallacy that oversimplifies the craft. While materials exist now that make it look easy and allow nearly everyone to attach tiles to a floor or wall, knowing the right materials for the project and installing them properly to last the life of the building is, in some ways, even more difficult today than it was when only mortar beds were used. With all the improvements to setting materials through the years and the changes to how buildings are constructed, tile setting has gone from a skill-centric trade to a knowledge-centric trade. Knowing what will work over the life of the building requires real expertise.”
As the TCNA Handbook states, “Because tile is a permanent finish, the lowest bid should not be the driving factor, but rather who is the most qualified to perform the scope of the work specified.”