Common Tile Applications and Problems

Tile is commonly installed in bathrooms, kitchens, and foyers because it is versatile, durable, easy to maintain, and repels dirt and water. Each area holds slightly different challenges. The Tile Council of America, Inc., publishes the TCA Handbook for Ceramic Tile Installation, which outlines installation specifications that installers should follow.

Dry floors. Dry floors are floors that remain dry most of the time, such as those found in a kitchen or foyer. Cracking is the biggest problem with tiled dry floors. Tile is generally very brittle compared to other building materials, such as wood, and fractures instead of flexing when subjected to load. It should only be attached to a solid, nonflexing subfloor. Since a standard wood subfloor flexes slightly when walked upon, it should be reinforced prior to tile installation.

Wet floors. Wet floors, such as those found in a bathroom, exhibit similar cracking problems but are also routinely exposed to modest amounts of water. The Tile Council of America’s handbook specifies a variety of acceptable wet floor installation methods.

Shower-stall walls. Well-constructed tile shower walls consist of individual tiles glued to waterproof backer board, with grout used to fill gaps between the tiles. Grout is not waterproof, however, so some water penetrates the grout to run down the face of the backer board, behind the tile, to the shower pan or tub. Correctly installing the waterproof backer board before the tiles are attached is the key to preventing leaks.

Waterproof backer board is more expensive than either drywall or mildew-resistant wallboard, so some builders and tile contractors do not use it. This common shortcut creates a potential leak problem when water gets through the tile to the board. Wet board also creates a potential mold and mildew problem, as the grout between the tiles is kept continuously wet from the damp board behind it. Replacing the grout without fixing the damp board problem may not fix the long-term problem. New grout exposed to the same mold, mildew, and dampness that discolored the old may soon discolor.

Dry walls. Installing tile to walls that are normally dry is relatively easy. Tile around fireplaces or kitchen backsplashes is attached directly to the drywall with special adhesives. For dry bathroom walls, tile is often attached directly to a mildew-resistant board or green board.