Large thin porcelain tile update, part I
Contractors share wisdom about successful LTPT installation
By Lesley Goddin
Large. Thin. Porcelain. Tiles. You’ve been hearing a lot about these in recent months and years. The lightweight, environmental benefits of these tiles – which start at thicknesses (or thinnesses) of 3 mm – combined with the ability to install them over existing surfaces with nearly any surface graphic imaginable thanks to digital printing technology make these tiles a game changer in the industry.
There’s one caveat that has some contractors a little gun-shy: no hard and fast standards exist for their installation right now, even though TCNA is in avid talks about the subject. The NTCA, together with TCAA, IMI and IUBAC – the founding associations of the Advanced Certifications for Tile Installers (ACT) – have come out with a position statement that recommends installing no large thin porcelain tile (LTPT) on the floor that is less than 5.5mm thick. There are considerations in handling and moving the units and recommendations on mortar too.
So, today, what does a contractor who wants to use these fabulous new products need to know for a successful installation? In part one of this story, we asked contractors experienced with this product category to share their wisdom about working with this material, and have included information about certification of Thin Tile Porcelain (TTP) that is currently in the works in the ACT program. We’ll share information from manufacturers in part two of this exploration of LTPT/TTP.
Martin Brookes, NTCA Five Star Contractor and owner of Heritage Marble & Tile in Mill Valley, Calif., has been involved with large thin porcelain tile since its introduction to the marketplace, due to a high-end residential bathroom that was installed with the 3mm material about four years ago.
Ensure logistics, employ proper equipment
Brookes has this suggestion: “With high rise interior installation it is important to make sure the material can actually be transported to the job site via elevators, stairwells, etc., without breaking the material,” he said. “Having the right equipment, like that from European Tile Master provides, and investing in installers attending training seminars like NTCA offers, are vital for contractors to avoid the costly pitfalls.”
Brookes also is one of several contractors who are sharing their knowledge with those new to the field. “I have PowerPoints from LATICRETE and MAPEI that I share with fellow contractors. I also try to educate the competition on how to follow substrate preparation guidelines, which in my opinion, is key as well as the handling of the material.” Brookes recently attended a training on thin porcelain tile installation with Custom Building Products, and applauds regional training being done by Crossville and other manufacturers. “Hopefully the education will prepare [contractors] better on how to bid and work with the material to their advantage,” he said.
Another tile contractor who has had a lot of experience with LTPT – including installing it in an Installation Design Showcase posh lounge vignette at the most recent Coverings – is NTCA Five Star Contractor Lambert Tile & Stone in Eagle, Colo.
Substrate prep is key to success
While LTPT installation standards are still in the works, “the NTCA is recommending the use of best practices,” said Dan Lambert, who owns the company with wife Elizabeth. “Large thin porcelain tiles have much higher tolerances for substrate and finish flatness. As an installer I have found that this cannot be overstated. Every detail of what, and how we do what we do under the surface is critical.
“Through my experience with LTPT up to 5’ x 10’ x 1/4” thin, there are several very key components to a sustainable installation,” he said:
#1 – The substrate must be perfectly flat and level with no deflection. There is no room for error since the tiles themselves cannot be simply pulled off to verify coverage and add or subtract mortar where needed.
#2 – It is critical that the substrate and tile have the mortar keyed into both sides before combing the mortar. The mortar must be of very high quality mixed with a softer consistency that will hold the form of the notch, without being outside of the manufacturer’s recommendations. Depending on climatic conditions the timing of mortar application can be critical. The mortar should not skin over. Some conditions may require up to two installers on a piece of tile and two on the substrate. It is key to keep consistent with the final comb angle on both sides.
#3 – Edge leveling spacers are a must.
#4 – Proper tooling is a must for receiving, transporting and installing these materials. This requires a substantial investment on the part of the tile contractor.
#5 – The cost for one piece of tile alone can be compounded by a simple mistake. It is highly advised to double check all measurements, even use templates.
#6 – Having a team who works great together and communicates well with each other is extremely important, especially the larger the tile is.
#7 – These are still tiles and as such, movement accommodation is required per EJ171.
Lambert warns against just “anyone” attempting installation of LTPTs, but to leave the installation to trained and qualified installers.
“Sales professionals should be advised to carefully determine if the LTPT is the best choice for a specific project, taking into consideration logistics of a job and qualified labor available,” Lambert said. “To help with successful sales and installation of LTPT, top industry tool, mortar manufacturers and installation professionals are combining efforts for future educational programs to be held at participating tile showrooms around the country.”
In meetings with architects and distributors, Bart Bettiga, executive director of both NTCA and the Ceramic Tile Education Foundation, has seen several other important points arise that dovetail with Lambert’s observations.
“Make a sensible decision on whether it is absolutely necessary to use thin material on the floor,” Bettiga said. “Often, the thicker material could be used on the floor, like 5.5mm or thicker, and the thin material could be installed on the walls.
“If it is necessary, determine if the larger material can be cut down to more manageable pieces or sizes so that coverage can be checked, logistics can be dealt with, and expansion joints can be more easily managed,” he added, emphasizing, “make sure that no one quotes labor prices except the tile installer. Make sure the installer can demonstrate the ability to perform this work.”
ACT certification for TPT coming fall 2014
Though standards have not yet been set, the industry is intent on validating skills of tile professionals who are currently doing the work of installing these products.
“We are progressing with the development of the new thin porcelain tile testing for ACT,” said Scott Carothers, director of training for the Ceramic Tile Education Foundation (CTEF). Currently, the test module is designed, the prototype built, and the study guide and written test questions are under development, with the test projected to be ready to administer by fall 2014. A thin porcelain tile testing update will be presented during Total Solutions Plus in San Antonio in late October 2014.
In the absence of standards, “we are utilizing the resources of the major LTPT and mortar manufacturers to build the hands-on and written tests,” Carothers said. To ensure success and avoid failures, “It is vitally important that the industry draws attention to this product category and establishes a testing mechanism that will qualify installers on the product handling and installation of LTPT as quickly as possible.”
Stay tuned to TileLetter for ongoing updates, and for wisdom from large thin tile porcelain manufacturers in part 2 of this article.