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Roger LeasureCUSTOM recently spoke with Roger Leasure, president of Northern California Tile & Stone (NCTS) in Sacramento, Calif.  NCTS is a Certified 5-Star Tile Contractor specializing in large commercial and industrial tile and stone installations.  The firm is focused on leading in the categories of best practices and client satisfaction.  Here, Leasure shares his recommendations for building and preserving a professional reputation as a tile contractor.

What is the biggest challenge you encounter in the field?

The biggest challenge we see on jobsites today is a result of the move away from an 8" x 8" or 12" x 12" tile, to 12" x 24" being the standard and tiles up to 48" being common.  When setting these large format tiles, it is the contractor’s responsibility to make sure the GC provides the appropriate floor flatness. It is also the tile contractor’s responsibility to backbutter large format or cupped porcelain even if it is not called out in the specifications.

A flat floor is especially important on a renovation project where old smaller tiles with large joints have been demolished and the substrate has been ground down.  Under these conditions, you will almost certainly need to level the floor to meet the tolerances for large format tile.  Based on the TCNA handbook, the maximum allowable substrate variation can be no more than 1/8" in 10' and 1/16" in 24".

How can the tile contractor help the architect?

As an installer, it is your job to understand the client’s needs and the public safety standards.  Dig into the specifications, and let the architect and the project owner know if you find any flaws. 

Self-leveling underlayment is one of things that often goes missing from the construction documents.  The critical role of polymer-modified, premium, flexible mortars can be overlooked or misunderstood.  In some cases, due to weather or the need to open the tile to foot traffic right away, rapid setting materials should be specified.  The majority of the time, advice from an experienced and reputable tile contractor is welcomed and incorporated. 

One neglected area is specifying the location and frequency of movement joints according to EJ171.  This is every 20-25 feet for interior tile, and every 8-12 feet for exterior tile, plus perimeter joints – not taking into account the other variables.  The tile contractor can point out errors or omissions in the spec, and on the plans, but it is the responsibility of the architect or structural engineer to detail joint placement.  They need to run the calculations based on thermal dynamics, point load, deflections, etc. and incorporate soft movement joints into the design accordingly.  This is an area where you can run into a lot of push back, but specifying joints is not within the tile contractor’s scope of work.

My advice is to walk away from any job that you cannot install according to the appropriate standards and that will not provide a long-lasting, fully warrantable tile assembly.

What can tile installers do to prevent failures?

When the specs are not properly written and executed according to industry standard installation techniques, failures are inevitable.  Some installers just trust in the 3 Gs – God, grout and gravity – to protect the tile.  We train and equip our personnel with the tools to measure membrane mil thickness, record surface temperatures, or even shut down the job if conditions could impact the integrity of the installation.  Sure this comes with a cost, but what about the cost of failure to the contractor and owner if corners are cut?

We’ve seen plenty of illustrations of this over the years, such as exterior tile falling several stories, where it could have killed someone, due to another tile contractor’s use of an inappropriate mortar and insufficient coverage. Another classic example is misuse of liquid waterproofing membranes. When the membrane is not applied to the correct thickness, moisture intrusion will happen; it’s just a matter of time.  Tile that is set by spot bonding will easily de-laminate or crack due to the hollow spots beneath the tile.

How important is education in this industry?

We just sent all of our installers through three days of Ceramic Tile Education Foundation (CTEF) training.  Our journeymen were all tested and became Certified Tile Installers. This is a significant investment – in the future of our employees and our company.  It gives our installers the tools they need to do a better job, on bigger projects and to respond appropriately to jobsite conditions.  The employees embraced these training opportunities; they know our goal is to do quality work with zero punch list items.

Do you have any other recommendations for tile contractors?

Stay in close touch with your material suppliers.  They are your trade partners, so call on them for their expertise, especially when it comes to new product technology, since it is constantly evolving.  We are proactive about engaging our CUSTOM reps for everything from job inspections to product knowledge (PK) sessions.  We regularly hold PKs at our shop to keep skill sets sharp and introduce new products, like CUSTOM’s Multi-Purpose Bonding Primer.  This product is making new things possible in the field, like tiling over burnished surfaces.

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