Tile: Got Problems?


Considering a steam room project? While tile steam rooms have been around for the better part of a century, the issues surrounding them have remained consistent. If proper care is observed during the entire process from design through to material selection and final installation, a tile steam room can last for many years with relatively minor issue. Unfortunately the amount of time, money, and research that this requires means that the majority of traditional steam room projects contain shortcuts and cost-saving measures that inevitably lead to unmanageable maintenance and room deterioration.

In an article written by David M. Gobis  (executive director of the Ceramic Tile Education Foundation) the five most common problems he hears about from tile steam room owners are addressed (read the full article here).


#1: Loosened tile

The leading contender by far is delaminating or debonding tile. This means that the tile has come loose from the substrate (mounting surface). The tile may sound hollow, have a grinding sound, or actually come flying off the floor; this especially occurs on concrete slabs. The cause of the failure may be primarily due to a lack of control joints or soft joints in the tilework and around the perimeter of the area and/or insufficient coverage of adhesive. It is important to the long-term success of a tile installation to provide for movement, which is certain to occur.

The technical reason this failure occurs is that ceramic tile expands and contracts with moisture and temperature at a different rate than a concrete slab or plywood does. Generally speaking, concrete slabs tend to shrink as they cure. This shrinkage can take place for many years. If there is no space to allow a release of the tension created by this “differential expansion,” the tile will come loose. Only the grout will be holding it in place and only for so long. When it goes, it can really cut loose. In the case of plywood, seasonal movement of not only the sheathing but also of the structure occurs with the change of the seasons. Ceramic tile must be installed with the proper setting materials and provisions made for this expected movement. Also buildings move with seismic shifts, settling, heavy winds, material changes over time, and other factors. It cannot be stressed enough that movement accommodation and/or control joints are required in a tile job of any size.


#2: Cracked tile and grout

The second most common problem is cracked tile and/or grout. Frequently cracked grout is a precursor to cracked tile, although not always as there are many causes of cracked grout. Tile cracks because of movement of the substrate or cracks in a slab telegraphing through the tile. If a concrete slab cracks and a ceramic tile is adhered to the slab, the tile will crack too. The slab should be cured for at least four weeks or longer depending on cement to water ratios and ambient conditions. For plywood, specific nailing patterns and spacing of sheets is necessary. Improper installation of the subfloor and underlayment are very common problems.

Illustration: Deflection not only applies to the floor joist but the entire flooring assembly. The test number for tile floor systems is ASTM C-627 and uses a 300# point load.

Illustration: Deflection not only applies to the floor joist but the entire flooring assembly. The test number for tile floor systems is ASTM C-627 and uses a 300# point load.

Another major cause of cracked tile is excess deflection in the substrate. Typically this happens on plywood or OSB construction methods, however suspended concrete systems also deflect. Ceramic tile industry specifications call for deflection less than L/360. This means that in any given span the deflection must not exceed 1/360th of the span. If a span is 10 feet, for example, the deflection should not exceed 10x12"/360 or 1/3 of an inch. This is usually engineered into the construction by the selection of properly sized and spaced framing members, subfloor, and underlayment; but it can be measured in the field, using a laser level to check deflection under an expected load.

#3: Poor Workmanship

Third on our list of oldies but goodies is workmanship. This broad category includes visual results such as grout work, tile spacing, layout, cutting, lippage, and other items that result in a less than desirable job. Sometimes the consumer demands too much, for example very narrow grout joints or no caulk in the control joints. Or designers specify wall-washer lighting that highlights every variation in the tile surface.

Yet there are still many examples of truly unsatisfactory tile work out there. The fix is to remove the tiles in question and replace them correctly. Not a good thing to do, nevertheless sometimes it’s the only way.

#4: Misuse of materials

Next on the list of the fabulous five is the use of improper materials. Materials that are suitable for some uses may not work in others. For example, roofing felt won’t work as a moisture barrier, as an anti-fracture membrane, or as a shower pan liner. Improper placement of certain types of backer boards also causes failure. Bluntly put, there are materials designed for specific purposes. Proper shower pan membranes, high temperature membranes for steam rooms, floor backer boards, vapor barriers, crack suppression membranes, sound reduction materials and other materials must be selected and used properly.

We can only assume this problem comes from a desire to use cheaper materials and to reduce the types in use. But this will create a potential failure and is false economy indeed.

#5: Moisture

Last on our list is moisture and the attendant problems when it encroaches into wall and floor systems. Some of the causes of failure are puncturing the membrane during installation; failing to slope a membrane to drain; installing porous backer boards into wet areas (such as mortar beds and tub lips); failing to caulk joints that move (such as the junction of a tub with the tile work); and other lack of attention to detail that result in gaps in the system.

Tile work is not waterproof. Tile itself generally is waterproof, but water will get through grout no matter what type and how well it’s installed. The mounting surface must be waterproof in wet areas. This is a key to preventing moisture from entering the wrong areas. And just a drop of water a day can lead to dry rot, mildew, and other undesirable results.

Final Thoughts

The past decade has seen the introduction of modular acrylic steam rooms as an alternative option to traditional tile steam rooms. These rooms have been found to eliminate the issues common to tile while operating with more energy efficiency. More information on the Advanced Hybrid Steam Room can be found here.