5 Questions to Ask Before Hiring a Tile Installer

Ready to transform your home with the elegance of a tile kitchen backsplash, a curbless shower, or a new heated tile floor? You’ll need a tile installer. Typically, homeowners do not already know what kind of results the tile installation contractors in their area can provide. If you plan to do your due diligence by looking through portfolios of contractors’ past projects, there is something you should know before you schedule installation services. Regardless of how stunning tile may look on the surface, the risk of costly failures may lurk underneath if materials are not installed properly. Sometimes such failures do not happen right away, and then homeowners assume that problems are caused by factors unrelated to the installation. 

So, how can you decide whether a contractor will perform a high quality installation? Ask questions.

Every installer should know the installation requirements for the types of projects they do on a regular basis, and for unfamiliar projects, they should know how to find and apply industry standards. This article will arm you with educated questions you can ask prospective contractors. Depending on the responses you get, you can select the contractor you believe will be most likely to achieve a beautiful, lasting installation. 

Questions You Can Ask Tile Installers

1. What will you do to minimize unevenly laid tiles?

When one tile is not even with the adjoining tile, this is called lippage. The reason there are industry standards for “allowable” lippage is that every installation will have a certain level of lippage, no matter how skilled the installer is.

Our Answer
We will be diligent about properly preparing the substrate to avoid lippage. Sometimes, even allowable lippage can appear to be more pronounced than it is, especially on walls. In certain situations, we will create a 4’x4′ mockup to showcase your tile and selections so that you can see for yourself what to expect, including the appearance of lippage. This approach is particularly effective if your lighting is installed prior to the tile installation. Unlike tiles, lighting can be easily adjusted or changed once in place. To learn more about tile and lighting, read our article, “Gorgeous Lighting Possibilities for Tile Installations.”

2. How will you prepare the substrate to avoid cracks, chips, and broken tiles?

The surface upon which your tile will be installed is called the substrate. Good, solid substrate prep makes a huge difference in avoiding cracks, chips, broken tiles, and other problems. Substrate prep requirements differ from one installation to the next, so there is no one specific answer to this question. Your contractor should explain which ANSI Specifications for substrate prep apply for your installation.

Our Answer
We follow the TCNA Handbook and current ANSI Specifications for our installations, and we will be happy to walk you through the details of your substrate prep. 

If a contractor plans to build up thinset under tiles to make the tiles flat instead of fixing the substrate, do not hire this contractor. Patch materials should be used instead. Thinset shrinks and pulls away from under the tile where no one can see it. Tiles are then susceptible to cracking and breaking. If thinset shrinks and pulls the tile down with it, then there will be lippage. Tiles are then susceptible to chipping along the edge.

3. What steps will you take to prevent loose tiles?

For tiles to stay in place, proper adhesion of tile to the substrate is necessary. A successful bond must take place between the tile and thinset interface, as well as the thinset and subtrate interface.

Our Answer
We consistently achieve rock solid installations that can last for decades or more by following industry best practices every step of the way, from substrate preparation to mixing of setting materials to tile setting methods. We take advantage of every opportunity to prevent loose tiles.

Take setting methods for example. When we set a tile, we select the most appropriate thinset and mix it according to the manufacturer’s instructions. We use the proper trowel size to ensure the appropriate amount of thinset is applied. By troweling in straight lines instead of swirling motions, we prevent air pockets from forming in the thinset. We lift tiles every now and then to check coverage. There are many other examples like this.

A lot of talented installers in California were taught to save money and time by putting dollops of mortar on tiles or substrates (spot bonding) to achieve an installation that looks perfectly flat. Unfortunately spot bonding regularly results in tiles coming loose, as well as other tile failures. In showers, spot bonding allows water to penetrate through the grout joint and go under the tile. It gets trapped in there and becomes the perfect breeding ground for mold. With heated floors, heated cables are designed to be encapsulated in mortar. When there are air pockets caused by spot bonding, the heated cables overheat.

4. What will you do to address expansion and contraction?

Every tile installation requires room to move. The number one cause of tile failure in the United States is inadequate space for expansion and contraction.

Our Answer
We follow the TCNA Handbook and current ANSI Specifications regarding expansion for our installations. We will be happy to walk you through the details of how we will address the expansion and contraction of your installation, including: expansion joints, antifracture membranes, grout joints, and perimeter movement.

If a contractor wants to set tile against (rather than under) baseboards, drywall, cabinets, door jams, other flooring materials, or anything else that is permanently in place, then this contractor does not understand how to accommodate expansion.

5. How will you prevent leaks in my shower?

Of the many factors that contribute to the success of a shower installation, the most important ones revolve around how water is delivered, contained within the designated space, and carried away. Water can find its way into and under surface materials, even very dense (low porosity) natural stone or highly water-resistant materials like porcelain or glass. Thorough waterproofing is an absolute necessity.

Our Answer
We avoid costly mistakes by following manufacturer’s instructions and industry standards for traditional water in, water out systems and fully waterproofed systems (sealed systems). 

Executed properly, a traditional water in, water out shower system is perfectly acceptable and should last many years. We use vapor barrier on the walls and avoid these costly but common mistakes:

  • Embedding fiber cement backer-boards in the mud bed, which would allow water to wick up the walls. 
  • Using shower pan liners on curbless showers.
  • Penetrating the pan liner with screws or nails.

Regarding fully waterproofed systems, Adam Copher, owner of Copher Tile & Stone says, “Since the waterproofing extends all the way up the walls to the top of the tile assembly, this removes a lot of the opportunities for installers to install improperly, especially the outside corners in the shower pan. However, it is important that the installer is meticulous about following the manufacturer’s instructions to prevent problems.”

To learn more about showers, read our article, “Water in, Water out vs Sealed Shower Drainage Systems.”

When it comes to tile installation, artistry is essential, but it is not enough to ensure a successful installation. To create a tile installation that will stand the test of time, your tile installer needs to understand and adhere to industry standards. By posing the right questions and assessing contractor’s responses, you can empower yourself to make an informed decision about who to hire.

Contact us today!