HOT TOPICS – Dealing with substandard tile, part 1

By Lesley Goddin

On Dec 29, 2017, on the NTCA Members Only Facebook page, a discussion developed from comments from NTCA Member Damian Arine of Sun Country Customs in Arroyo Grande, Calif., about the challenges of contractors dealing with substandard tile.

Arine, frustrated with a proliferation of flawed product, asked why companies are “allowed to stamp a regulatory committee stamp on their stuff when it is obviously not up to any standards? It’s an ongoing thing. If you call and bring it to their attention, you might get an apology and some money taken off your order. But it still doesn’t change their methods.”

Arine continued, “I used to just deal with the problems. Now I bring it up to everyone who will pay attention. The distributor. The rep…even the company itself. Maybe one day it will make a dent but until then I’m blessed with being given different but ‘the same material,’ or tee shirts.”

The situation is compounded by the real-world situation the contractor is up against, Arine said. “It’s a horrible situation. You bitch at the distributor too much; well, they’re going to stop referring you. The homeowner wants it done and you want to save face.”

This discussion spurred the desire to investigate how contractors around the country are dealing with similar challenges, in two parts – looking at the problem; then looking at the solutions.

We do not have the space here to detail ALL of the horror stories about substandard, out-of-caliber, incorrectly fired, etc. tile, but suffice to say that every contractor we contacted had experienced this at one time or another.

For instance, Arine sent this photo of this unevenly-mounted tile. He said, “Best solution is to take them all off the sheets and install individually. Now this was a small shower floor so it didn’t add a ton of time. But it was still time. If I wanted compensation who do I go after? The homeowner didn’t know what they were buying. The distributor just sells it.”

Jeremy Waldorf of Legacy Floors in Howell, Mich., described a nightmare 550-sq.-ft. job in which the 12” x 24” porcelain tile sourced from a local distributor started breaking “in strange patterns” and resulted in pieces “literally falling out of the middle of the tile.” No matter what Waldorf tried, this continued. When he contacted the supplier, the rep told him that it was a firing issue that made the tile brittle and the installed tile would be durable, but each tile would have to be waterjet cut. “That just wasn’t going to happen,” Waldorf said. Though the supplier took the tile back and refunded the client’s money, it still meant this one-man business had to load up 550 sq. ft. of tile back on the truck, have the client re-select a new tile and then deliver the new truckload of tile three days later. His solution was to never use that brand of tile again.

Dealing with the problem

So, what to do? In broad strokes, these are the suggestions by small contractors and NTCA experts who have wrestled with this problem:

  • Understand the standards and know the TCNA Handbook methods
  • Don’t buy the tile
  • Order extra and do mockups
  • Stay ahead of the job
  • Do not install substandard tile
  • Be wary of homeowner-purchased product from big box stores
  • Keep clients informed of the twists and turns and progress of the job – both good and bad
  • Work with reputable distributors
  • Request all technical information before starting a project when working with unfamiliar suppliers or owner-supplied material; clarify that numbers for the project are based on it meeting standard
  • Educate the client to have reasonable expectations of what to expect from the job

Stay tuned to the April 2018 issue of TileLetter, when we’ll look at these suggestions in a little more detail. Want to add to the discussion? Feel free to email
[email protected] with your suggestions, experiences or observations on this topic.