Floor coverings such as wood, porcelain tile, natural stone and even luxury vinyl are a beautiful upgrade to your home. Once you decide to make this investment, it can become overwhelming. Many customers become fixated on the look of the materials and the immediate price of flooring installation and neglect the three most important tips when hiring Houston flooring installers.
#1 Technical Knowledge and Skill of the Flooring Installer
Not all flooring installers are equal. There are many high-quality installers; sadly, there are far more who think they are better than they are, and even more sadly, more still who don’t know how bad they are. There are flooring installers who don’t know the basics of installing a tile, stone or wood floor.
This includes many retail flooring companies and most big box stores. These companies make their money on both materials and labor; however, they make the most by selling the materials. This is part of the business model for these companies and there is nothing necessarily wrong with that. It does, however, often lead to a less priority about quality of the floor installation. Most of the money was made with the sale.
Certainly, there are exceptions, but the technical expertise by the installer is often secondary to the ability of keeping pace with the packed schedule that the stores must keep. You can’t rush a flooring artist if you are expecting to have a high-quality result.
Our company is a Factory Certified DustRam® Company. We are one of 20 companies in the nation to own this equipment for Dust-Free Tile Removal. As such, we see so many mistakes made by companies who install the floors we are hired to demo with our dust containment system.
Some of the more common mistakes we find range from a lack of understanding regarding layout, widening and narrowing of grout lines, uneven tiles (Lippage) and a lack of understanding the basics of adhesion. More on this later.
Selecting a skilled installation company is one of the most important decisions you will make. It will determine the quality of your new floor covering, the long-term monetary value of both your investment and ultimately, your resale value.
#2 Flatness of the Sub-floor
Lippage is the professional term for floors; particularly tile and stone floors, which have edges which are not flat in relation to its neighboring tile. The closer tiles are laid together, and the longer they are, the more obvious it will be when the tiles are not flat. This creates a trip hazard, and an unsightly finished product.
One reason this happens is ignorance or lack of skill by the flooring installers when it comes to leveling a sub-floor. In the Houston area where we operate, most sub-floors are concrete slab; so, we will focus on this material. Concrete is never flat or level. There are always humps and depressed areas across the breadth of the slab, even though they may not be obvious. An experienced flooring professional will likely feel it as they walk across the area, but the best tool to reveal the low and high spots is a long screed, or aluminum straight edge. The longer the better.
Once you lay out a screed across the floor, the low spots will become obvious. A high-quality installation company will make certain to mark each low spot and compare the depth of the lowest low to the peak of the highest high. Most installers use a laser level and just measure the highs and lows to determine the difference. This method can be effective; however, it lacks the visual effect of seeing the voids under the straight edge. Either method can work. The goal of course is too fill in the low spots and only raise up to the high spots if the area cannot be ground down by mechanical means. For any tile with an edge longer than 15”, we must achieve flatness to within a tolerance of 1/8” over 10’, and no more than 1/16th” over 24”.
There are multiple reasons for this, but it is obvious that flatness of the sub-floor is necessary for the floor covering to be flat, within reason. The current trend is for Large Format and Long Plank style tiles (think wood look porcelain). The longer a tile is, the more low spots the tile must intersect with. An unskilled flooring installer or one with a comparatively lack of knowledge or training, may not account for this fundamental pillar of installation, and if they do may not know how to float properly to ensure a quality install. The result is often a devastating amount of lippage.
The presence of lippage on a ceramic or porcelain tile floor is not repairable. Removal is the only option other than living with the result of this lack of skill or concern by the installer. On a stone tile, such as marble or travertine, there is a grinding and refinishing solution. This process can be done well by professional stone restoration technicians. However, it is far less costly to choose an installer who will avoid installing a floor with lippage in the first place.
This problem with flatness applies to glued down engineered wood floor as well as “floating” laminate or luxury vinyl floors as well. Though wood floors won’t demonstrate as much lippage, there is often undue stresses created on the tongue and groove part of each piece due to the lack of properly leveling the sub-floor. In time this can cause the tongue to break out of the groove creating buckling of the floor.
Laminate and vinyl floors can demonstrate the undulations of the concrete slab if there is not adequate leveling techniques undertaken prior to their installation. In the case of laminate, these floors are tongue in groove as well, but they are not glued down to the slab. Without proper leveling, you often will feel the low spots in the floor as the laminate flexes under the stress caused by lack of support underneath. You will know when you walk over a high spot for sure, as you will feel the hump in the bridge of your foot.
Hiring a technically sound Houston flooring company with professional installers is a must to avoid these pitfalls.
#3 Bonding or Adhesion
No matter if you have the straightest, flattest floor, most beautiful floor installed by the best flooring installers you can find, or the company with the best warranty around, if the floor doesn’t bond to the concrete, nothing else matters. Bonding is the number one problem that we encounter in our Dust Free Tile Removal division of Cutting Edge Flooring Services. The really bad news is that most bonding issues do not present themselves until after your warranty on labor is expired. Even if you have a long warranty, who wants to go through the process of having to remove a floor from an occupied space where you are living with your family and pets?
Bonding to the slab seems like a simple concept. It is such a fundamental part of installing a new floor covering that there are standards created by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and the Tile Counsel of North America (TCNA) which stress the proper techniques to ensure that proper adhesion is taking place.
Unfortunately, especially in the residential flooring installation arena, these standards are not even known, let alone followed. The number of times that we have removed tile floors in which the tile comes up whole, leaving a ½” of thin-set or mortar is astounding. We have seen floors where the only reason they are laying in place is gravity and grout. This is not a good situation. The other scenario is the thin-set and tile are bonded, yet the thin-set doesn’t stick to the concrete. It is a real problem if your installer is not making sure that bonding is the number one priority.
So how do you ensure that these two common bonding issues are handled before you hire your installer?
Let’s discuss the two scenarios mentioned above one at a time:
First, lets discuss how to ensure that your thin-set bonds to the concrete slab. Mechanical scarification (diamond grinding) is the answer. Here is a snippet from the ANSI standard which addresses this issue: ANSI Standard A108 A-3.1.2 “…If the tile is to be bonded directly to concrete floor with one of the thin-set methods, the slab shall have a steel trowel AND a fine broom finish, wood float finish, or mechanical scarification.”
If your installation company is going to install your tile floor to a concrete slab with thin-set being the bonding agent then grinding the slab is mandatory unless the concrete has been finished by the builder with a fine broom finish, or wood float finish. Neither of these methods are used by builders much anymore. So, in short, grinding is necessary to ensure bonding with the slab.
In our industrial coatings division, we learned a long time ago that breaking out the large concrete grinders in order to prep concrete for any kind of coating, and provide a Concrete Surface Profile (CSP) 2 finish was far superior to acid etching a floor, which provides a CSP 1 finish if done well. The profile on the concrete at CSP 2 is far superior when bonding is the main concern.
We took this concept and applied it to our residential floor installation service by grinding the concrete on each installation we do. This is made easier for us because of the high quality concrete grinding shrouds we utilize in our DustRam® System Equipment. Sadly, most installers do not grind through existing thin-set and so the floor often remains without a profile.
Always ask your salesperson if the crew will utilize a concrete scarification method prior to installing your new floor. If the answer is yes, then ask how they will control the dust that is created during the grinding of concrete materials, especially thin-set. This is a hazardous dust and exposure should be limited according to OSHA’s Final Rule on Crystalline Silica Dust Mitigation. More on that here and here. Make certain that this promise to scarify is in writing, and then enforce this agreement on the installer at all costs. This is true if you’re installing tile, stone or glued down engineered wood.
If the salesperson is unsure, then concrete grinding is an unlikely part of the normal installation procedure for this company. It is best to move on to another company which is more technical in its approach to adhesion, as well as health and safely of its customers and crews.
Next, regarding making sure that your tile bonds to your thin-set, the answer is simple but often overlooked by novice and journeyman installers alike; back-butter the tile. Back-buttering is the act of applying thin-set to the back of the tile, as well as to the hopefully scarified concrete slab. This allows the two different coatings of wet cement-based material, which is intended to bond together, to dry together as one unit.
Additionally, the technical flooring installers will ensure that he or she achieves 80% thin-set coverage in relation to the back of the tile in dry areas, and 95% coverage in wet-areas. Coverage is essential not only to adhesion, but to ensure there are no voids between the tile and sub-floor, which often cause a “hollow” sound to a tile floor.
Adhesion matters more than any other part of the flooring system. Always remember, buying the materials at a store may save your money up front, but having their installers put in your new floor could end up costing more than you realize. Cutting Edge Flooring Services makes it a standard operating procedure to avoid these three pitfalls of new flooring installation. Whenever you allow price to dictate who you select as your installer, you will most likely receive a sub-par floor.
Doing it right has a higher material and labor cost. For the price to be low, you have to sacrifice either proper prep of the sub-floor, material or skilled labor. This could be the difference between a 30-year Houston flooring install and a five year flooring install. In the end, you get what you don’t pay for.