May 24, 2015

Qualified Labor – May 2015

1_CTI_20x20Ricky Cox
Memphis Tile and Marble Co., Inc.
Memphis, Tenn.

By Terryn Rutford, Social Structure Marketing


Memphis Tile and Marble Co. Inc., specializes in high-end, high-quality residential and light commercial work, offering expert craftsmanship in a range of tile installation, including Mexican, porcelain and brick pavers, as well as bathroom vanities, cultured marble tops and natural stone products. It provides skilled installation of whirlpool tubs and radiant floor systems for the Memphis and Midsouth areas, as well as full-scale kitchen and bathroom remodels. Founded in 1968 by Thomas Cox, the company now employs 12 full-time employees and in addition to installing tile, fabricates counter tops.

ricky_coxFive years ago, Thomas’s son Ricky Cox took the CTI certification at BPI in Memphis in order to separate himself from the competition. “The written test was not difficult for me,” Cox said. “The hands-on test was a different story. I took the test with four of my employees and needless to say, I was the last one done. The most challenging part of the hands-on work was the layout.”

Having been involved with NTCA before the certification, Cox was well schooled in the proper methods to install tile. He pointed out, “This certification is not for the do-it-yourself homeowner or the novice installer. It is a challenge.” But Cox encourages installers to take the certification. “It will definitely set you apart from your competition.”

Obtaining CTI certification is also one step towards becoming a NTCA Five Star Contractor, a mark of installation excellence that Memphis Tile and Marble Co. boasts.

Memphis Tile and Marble Co. posts the CTI logo in its office, on letterhead, and on their website. Having the CTI certification, “reassures our customers that we know what we are doing.” Going through the written and hands-on tests can raise awareness not only of installation skills, but also of all-around job operations, as it did for Memphis Tile and Marble Co. After numerous employees took the CTI certification, Cox said, “We started taking safety more seriously.”

CTI and ACT certification is good for the tile industry. Cox said, “I also took the test with some of my competitors. I would rather bid a job against those guys than someone that is not certified because I know that [the certified competitors] are not cutting corners.”

Business Tip – May 2015


The Affordable Care Act at the five-year mark

By Patrick C. O’Connor, Kent & O’Connor, Washington, DC

The Affordable Care Act (ACA, or Obamacare, as it is referred to by both friend and foe alike) just celebrated its fifth anniversary. It survived an embattled beginning, an embarrassingly inept launch and so many House votes to repeal that we have lost count. Still, it survives. Nearly 10 million people have signed up for insurance on a state or federal exchange. And some analysts even say the ACA has created the possibility of real competition in the individual insurance market for the first time.

Yet, while Obamacare seems to have found its footing, the health law remains in peril. The latest threat is a second Supreme Court decision – with the ruling due in June. King v. Burwell presents a deceptively simple case of statutory construction, centering on language in the ACA that allows subsidies for those enrolled in an exchange established by the State. Challengers say that, under the clear words of the statute, the subsidies only apply in states that have established their own exchange. Therefore, the plaintiffs contend, the law does not authorize subsidies for individuals who live in states that did not set up an exchange (and who, as a result, participate in a federally facilitated exchange). Since there are 36 states without their own exchange, the outcome of this case has potentially huge consequences.

A ruling against the government would not repeal Obamacare, but the law would quickly unravel. The ACA has sometimes been compared to a three-legged stool:

1) Individual mandates/penalties to encourage broad participation, particularly among younger, healthier people, in the marketplace;

2) Subsidies on a sliding scale for low- and lower-middle income individuals who purchase policies on the exchange so health insurance is affordable, with penalties on companies who don’t offer affordable coverage and who have one or more employees receiving a subsidy;

3) Insurance companies must provide health coverage to everyone, regardless of pre-existing conditions or poor health, and cannot charge higher premiums based on health status.

All three legs are necessary or the stool begins to tip over. If the government loses in King v. Burwell, one leg of the Obamacare stool is removed and the others are weakened.

Be careful what you wish for

Many employers in the 36 states without an exchange are rooting for the challengers. Who could blame them? It is, after all, the subsidies that trigger employer penalties – if no employee can receive a subsidy in the 36 states, there can be no penalty on the employer for not providing coverage.

Beyond this clear advantage, however, there are other consequences to consider:

The insurance markets in those 36 states will be in turmoil. The health insurance companies will still be required to offer coverage to everyone, no matter the state of their health, and will continue to be limited in how much more they can charge an unhealthy person. Yet, with the healthiest participants likely to drop their coverage when it is unaffordable (absent the subsidy), a classic “death spiral” is likely to occur: with the deteriorating health status of their customer base, premiums increase across the board, more healthy people leave, premiums increase and so on until the market is unsustainable.

It is estimated that 8 million people will lose health insurance because they can no longer afford the policy without a subsidy. Others are likely to see steep increases in the cost of their health insurance as the pool of exchange participants in these 36 states shrinks, when the healthiest drop their coverage.

The health insurance systems in these states – the hospitals and doctors – will experience similar disruptions as the number of insured patients abruptly declines.

Politically, even Republicans in Congress who detest the law may be chagrined at the prospect of an estimated 8 million people becoming uninsured virtually overnight (in mostly Red states) while chaos roils the health insurance and provider markets – not the kind of headlines you want in an election year.

(Editor note: It’s also been widely reported that Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell announced that in 2014 hospitals saved $7.4 billion in uncompensated care costs due to patient enrollment through ACA health insurance exchanges and Medicaid. In 2013, before ACA, hospitals provided more than $50 billion in uncompensated care.)

Of course, Congress could always take action to fix the problem or devise an alternative approach – but either would involve some degree of bipartisan cooperation and compromise, both of which are in short supply on Capitol Hill these days.

And so, we watch and wait for the Supreme Court to rule.

What’s next for employers?

Even if the Supreme Court sides with the challengers in King v. Burwell, important new reporting requirements will soon apply to all employers (with 50 or more employees), whether or not the company is located in one of the 36 states impacted by the court decision.

The reporting is meant to provide the IRS with information on who is providing coverage, what kind, to whom and at what cost. Fines and penalties apply for non-reporting. The reports must be filed whether or not the company offers health insurance coverage.

The statement of coverage for 2015 must be provided to each employee by January 31, 2016 on a Form 1095-C and sent to the IRS by February 28, 2016. The information includes:

Certification as to whether the company offered full-time employees (and dependents) the opportunity to enroll in Minimum Essential Coverage by calendar month;

The months during which coverage was available;

Each employee’s share of the lowest cost monthly premium for an individual policy (regardless of whether the employee opted for a higher cost plan or declined coverage), by calendar month;

Number of full-time employees for each month during the calendar year;

Name, address, SSN of each full-time employee during the calendar year and the months, if any, during which the employee was covered.

The take-away for employers: even if the Supreme strikes a blow to the health law in June, that’s not the end of Obamacare.

States without a state-based Health Exchange:

Pat O’Connor is a principal in Kent & O’Connor, Incorporated, a Washington, D.C.-based government affairs firm. A veteran of Capitol Hill with particular expertise in health, transportation and the environment, O’Connor works with trade associations and companies to find workable solutions to the most pressing regulatory and legislative issues. For more information, visit or call 202-223-6222.



Ask the Experts – May 2015


My husband and I are at a loss. I was hoping you might be able to recommend a local recognized tile consultant (in Houston, Texas). We moved into a brand new home approximately 15 months ago. We have had a number of stone/tile issues that we have been trying to get resolved.

The one at hand at the moment is that we have an exterior archway that leads to our front door. It stands approximately 15’-18’ tall. It is covered with stacked stone. Individual pieces have been falling off for at least the past 10 months.

We have discussed this issue with the builder and he is insistent that this is normal. We have a 5- and 8-year old at home who are constantly running through these archways to get to the yard/basketball hoop on the driveway. I am fearful that they will get hurt one of these days. “It’s completely normal” is not an excuse I am willing to accept and anyone that offers that as an excuse makes me uncomfortable with being able to remediate such an issue. I would appreciate any professional advice you may be able to offer.


Of course this is not “completely normal.” If even one piece falls off it is considered a failure.

Unfortunately, much manufactured veneer is incorrectly installed. Exterior installations generally require the most care and planning, as well as following the industry standards, since they require the highest performance due to extreme conditions.

Prompt action is advised, as you are correct about danger of possible injury. Since you are already aware of this problem, your liability is increased. Perhaps retaining an attorney to send a letter to your general contractor could help as a first step, since he is being unreasonable. It is entirely possible that in your GC’s experience this IS a normal occurrence, but this would be due to using the same mason or tile setter that repeatedly uses a faulty installation method. This project needs to be repaired, which should probably include tapping each piece firmly with a rubber mallet to ensure it is bonded.

If you receive no satisfaction through a lawyer, it would be time to contact a forensic consultant, but be warned, their fees are usually quite high. Then you go to court. It would be much preferable to get the GC to pony up and fix an obvious failure in your home.

Michael K. Whistler,
NTCA presenter/technical consultant

As a follow-up to this inquiry, the NTCA webmaster responded to the homeowner, connecting her to a local NTCA Recognized Industry Consultant who is working with her on a resolution with her builder. In addition, advice was offered to look into the possibility of a warranty on her home or a “waiting period” where grievances can be filed after the purchase of a home.

For information and technical advice, email

President’s Letter – May 2015

JWoelfel_headshotSince the second day of Coverings I have been planning what I wanted to share in this month’s President’s Letter – the questions from the contractor forum, the discussions on large thin tile, the innovations I witnessed at manufacturers’ booths and the installation challenges being shared among installers. But those many thoughts and ideas became insignificant as I began outlining my message on April 24, 2015.

It was then that a phone call informed me that my sister-in-law, Debby Woelfel, had suddenly passed. Justin’s wife was only 44 years-old. She left behind three beautiful children; Lyndsay 9, Trevor 7, and Jake, who just turned 4, as well as my brother who must face the realities of losing the most important person in his life. My heart just sank as I began to offer prayers for all of them, as well as Debby’s parents and family.

Justin and Debby met through the tile business when he worked for the NTCA and she worked for Custom Building Products. As they grew their family, their plans included continued work in the industry and a full life together. The abrupt and tragic loss of Debby was not what anyone had planned.

No one is really prepared for this kind of loss. For most of us, we’re caught up in the day-to-day ups and downs of business and our tile world. As president of the NTCA, I’m always looking to the future – making decisions while considering what’s best for our association, and our industry, “down the road.” Each day we work hard to support our families, which allows us to plan for future life events at home. Yet now, I’m more aware than ever of the uncertainty of tomorrow and the fact that there are no guarantees to any of our plans. This is why I find myself holding those dear to me closer than ever. Each day I am stopping to prioritize what is truly important to me – not just for the future – but for the day I’ve been given before me.

It’s now Mother’s Day and as I write this letter, I acknowledge I’m fortunate to have my wife, Chris, and my mother, Mary, nearby. Chris is my best friend. She is strong and caring and has always been there for me and Preston. My mom raised our family and instilled the principles that made us kids who we are today.

I pray that Justin and his children will find strength in Debby’s memory and each other as they work to heal. The rest of us are here for them to provide love and support. Our extended family – the people of this industry who support each other in good times and challenging times – have also been there, and I thank each and every one of you for that.

Throughout our lives we are continually making plans – and we must – for our business, for our families and for “the future.” We do it not knowing what the future really holds. Yet I hope you too, will take inventory of what’s important and take the time every single day to let them know. For me, that’s the one plan that is for certain.


James Woelfel
NTCA President


Editor’s Letter – May 2015

Lesley psf head shotSome of the articles in this issue come roaring out of the Coverings show: honors presented at the NTCA Awards Night, the uber-useful Lippage & Grout Tool introduced by NTCA member Davis Leichsenring, and a spate of shiny new products. There was so much that took place at Coverings, that these stories are just a taste of further awards, events and impressions from the show to come in June.

One of the key pieces of information shared at Coverings came during the TCNA press conference on Wednesday morning, where executive director Eric Astrachan shared state-of-the-industry numbers with the assembled group of journalists. Here are the findings in a nutshell:

  • 2014 U.S. ceramic tile consumption was up 2.49 billion sq. ft., with a 0.5% increase over 2013’s 2.48 billion sq. ft. – the fifth consecutive year-over-year increase in U.S. ceramic tile consumption.
  • The value of U.S. ceramic tile consumption in 2014 was $2.97 billion, up 6.1% from 2013.
  • 2014 showed a 0.7% decrease in imports over 2013, down to 1.71 billion sq. ft. over 1.72 billion sq. ft. Imports in 2014 comprised 68.7% of U.S. tile consumption in volume, down from 69.6% in 2013.
  • Mexico regained its status in 2014 as top exporter to the U.S. with a 29.5% share of imports, slightly edging out China’s 29.4% of exports; in 2013, China held the top title. In 2014, Italy was the second top importer, with 18.4% of volume exports to the U.S.
  • In terms of value, Italy was the top 2014 exporter to the U.S., comprising 34.8% of import value. China came next in terms of value, with 25.7%, followed by Mexico at 16.5%. The dollar value per square foot of tile imports (including freight, insurance and duty)rose from $1.00 in 2013 to $1.06 in 2014.
  • Looking at domestic shipments, there was a 3.3% increase from 2013 in terms of volume, up to 779.1 million sq. ft. In dollar value, U.S. F.O.B. factory sales for 2014 were $1.15 billion, up 6.8% over 2013, and the dollar value/square foot of domestically-produced tile rose from $1.43 in 2013 to $1.48 in 2014.
  • 2014 U.S. exports were up 7.7% from 2013, to 42.5 million sq. ft., with most exports going to Canada (66.5%) and Mexico (15.3%).

Not everything in this issue centers on Coverings, however. Pat O’Connor gives us an update about the Affordable Care Act and what it means to you and your business. And our NTCA Benefits Box story demonstrates ways NTCA and its members are reaching out to inform middle- and high-school aged students about tile apprenticeship programs and career paths. Among some of our regular features, we also spotlight Tom and Lane Meehan’s business at Cape Cod Tileworks, review the value the Certified Tile Installer program has for Ricky Cox of Memphis Tile and Marble Co., and take an in-depth look into the TCNA Handbook and what new language about crack-isolation membrane installation can mean for contractors, from NTCA Five Star Contractor Kevin Fox’s perspective.

Happy reading! God bless,


The Tile Shop: “Inspiring Spaces” nationwide for 30 years

1-tileshop-0415By Lesley Goddin

[Las Vegas, Nevada; Albuquerque, N.M.] – When Bob Rucker started The Tile Shop 30 years ago in Rochester, Minn., his intent was to parlay some of the legacies of his former employer Color Tile, the well-known retail brand of tile – along with his own vision – into an exclusive, custom-developed selection of tile, stone and setting materials that would wow customers and support installer “pros.”

Just several of the nearly 50 stunning vignettes that display product and design possibilities in each store.

Just several of the nearly 50 stunning vignettes that display product and design possibilities in each store.

Today, with 109 stores across the nation, plus its ecommerce store (, it’s clear that Rucker met his goal.

The Tile Shop took 27 years to thoughtfully amass 50 locations across the country, each occupying from 14,000-21,000 square feet, chock full of nearly 50 vignettes to inspire homeowners, designers and contractors. Then in the last three years, the company exploded, adding more than 50 locations to its stable of customer-centric shops. Today The Tile Shop has 1,300 employees nationwide.

I sat down with some members of the corporate team during Surfaces 2015 in Las Vegas, to get the low-down about the scope of the business: Kevin McDaniel, director of product development and design services; Cabell “Cabby” Lolmaugh, pro network leader; Kirsty Froelich, design director; and Erik Carlson, purchasing associate. Then, once back home here in Albuquerque, I visited The Tile Shop location here, managed by Cindy Haley, to see the marvel that is The Tile Shop for myself.

Getting started

Rucker started small and refined his model from one store, going overseas to develop a proprietary selection of designs and selections from a dazzling array of sources: Spain, Italy, China, Portugal, Turkey, Peru, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, India and Africa. What resulted is the collection of Rush River stone, Fired Earth ceramics and glass tile and Superior products for tools, as well as finishing pieces like pencils, chair rails, profiles and bullnose and accessories like corner shelves, sinks, vanity items, towel bars and more.


In addition to the mind-boggling selection for homeowners and DIYers (Albuquerque store manager Cindy Haley says that what you see on the floor is just a fraction of the 5-8K SKUs actually available at the store), The Tile Shop has invested in the professionals who install or specify the products, developing a Pro Network that offers benefits to installers, homebuilders, designers, architects and general contractors, Lolmaugh said.

That includes service benefits like no restocking fees, six-month return policy, tiered discounts, online order reference, and retail selection sheets. Selection benefits include the complimentary design center, product exclusives and convenient store hours seven days a week. Additional support includes jobsite delivery assistance, warehouse support, financing options and a referral program to retail customers.

“We offer true customer service,” Lolmaugh said, “doing work the way the pro wants it done.”

Part of the advantages offered by The Tile Shop stems from the company’s self-distribution from centers in Ridgeway, Va., Ottawa Lakes, Mich., Spring Valley, Minn., and Durant, Okla. “It puts us in control of our inventory,” McDaniel said, making delivery fast and convenient.

The Tile Shop is open and sells to all customers – from homeowner to designer to contractor – and works closely with clients whether its “a tube of caulk or a whole house full of tile,” Haley said.


Taking control

Desiring total quality control, The Tile Shop has developed not only products and tools, but also manufactures its own setting materials, Lolmaugh said. “We make our own thinset and grout. And we back our thinset with a 25-year warranty.” The Pro line is developed with nine different adhesive products that cover every imaginable material and substrate as well as Pro Excel Grout, which offers a mold-, mildew-, crack-resistant formula that resists stains and shrinkage, never needs sealing and replaces both sanded and unsanded grout. The line includes grout and stone sealers, stone enhancers and a full selection of tools.

Investing in education


And supporting it all is a dedication to knowledge, with store personnel able to explain a process from start to finish. In fact, each Saturday morning, each store offers a free class dedicated to popular projects: backsplashes, walls, floors and countertops, taught by a different staff member, which helps to boost staff knowledge in the process of imparting information to customers.

The Tile Shop recently joined HOUZZ, and is a member of many associations – ASID, NKBA, HBA and RMC. Since Surfaces, the company joined NTCA to take advantage of networking opportunities that come with NTCA membership and to support education by hosting upcoming trade pro workshops in Detroit, Lincoln Park, Minneapolis and Phoenix.


Tile Shop: up close and personal in Albuquerque

Since seeing is believing, I stopped by The Tile Shop’s Albuquerque location on February 21. In addition to commemorating the 30th anniversary of the company nationwide, this date happened to also be the one-year anniversary of the store.

There I met store manager Cindy Haley, who welcomed me and let me prowl through the striking vignettes that lined the perimeter of the space, and the neat racks of travertine, marble, slate, faux wood, floor tile, wall tile, ceramic, stone and glass decors, mosaics and metals gracing the showroom’s center. After about 20 minutes, I was ready to totally redesign my own home! It was clear that Froelich is a master of design, creating gorgeous settings to inspire and educate. Also, because this IS Albuquerque – well-known for the award-winning Breaking Bad series – Froelich chose to name several of the vignettes for the series characters – Hank, Jesse and Skylar.


In addition to the finishing products, I was impressed by the neat presentation of the setting materials and accessories that are on display in the main showroom, not tucked out of sight in a back room. The positioning of these tools integrated the artisan installer right into the heart of each project from the get-go. The intent is to signal to the Pro Network that “this is YOUR tile shop,” Haley explained. Contractors account for about 40% of The Tile Shop’s Albuquerque business, though that varies by region, Haley explained. “There are a lot of DIYers here,” she said. “In Virginia [where Haley was a Tile Shop assistant manager], 60-70% was contractor business.”


The Tile Shop carries a referral list of Albuquerque-based licensed and insured contractors, who are also researched based on quality of past work. “They are the face of The Tile Shop in the customer’s home.” To simplify things for both contractor and customer, selection sheets/sketches labeled with products are sent to every job. “If there is a question about where a particular product goes, contractors are advised to call The Tile Shop, NOT ask the customer,” Haley said.”It eliminates stress for the customer and contractor so it makes the job so much smoother.”

Last September, The Tile Shop held an educational event for about 30 local contractors, which brought Lolmaugh in to support Haley in presenting information about the properties of the company’s setting materials line, such as Pro Bed, which allows installers to both level the floor and lay tile at the same time, and Pro Bond non-sag mortar, as well as other lines like electric radiant heat the store supplies.

9-tileshop-0415Albuquerque’s Tile Shop cultivates sensitivity to the needs of their customers, many of whom have relocated to The Land of Enchantment from other parts of the country, prompting a need to blend New Mexico rustic with other influences. “Other vendors don’t always realize that and lean heavily on the cultural flavor of the region, versus integrating preferences of those who bring a style with them,” Haley said.

The Albuquerque location – right off I-25 – is The Tile Shop’s only New Mexico store, chosen because Albuquerque is a “destination location,” Haley said, with people coming from as far as Alamosa, or Durango, Colo. to buy furniture or building supplies. As in the other locales, customer service is key – to make people feel welcomed. “It’s not just about selling, but putting it all together to create a beautiful space,” Haley concluded.


Stone – April 2015

mapei_sponsorTo fill or not to fill, that is the question

The pros and cons of using natural
travertine on floors and walls

By Lesley Goddin

Our stone story originates from a dilemma from a homeowner who purchased high-end, travertine stone flooring with a “very natural, pitted surface.” The vendor provided a list of suggested installers, one of which the homeowner selected. The installer set the travertine tile and grouted the pits in the travertine floor as well as the joints between tiles, filling in all the natural holes with grout.

The homeowner was livid. “I spent the extra money to buy the natural pitted stone and this installer has altered the product, making a unilateral decision to grout the entire surface, doing away with the pitting effect,” he said. “I understand that it is simpler to grout the entire surface than to only grout the seams. But, this was not my expectation at all. Can you help me understand if there is a way to remove the grouted pits without damaging the original character of the stone floor? Or, do you have any other suggestions or opinions about these unexpected actions?”

This question came through the NTCA technical department, and the answer was not what the homeowner expected.

1-STONE-0415Michael Whistler, NTCA presenter and trainer responded that he had encountered this situation many times during his years as a tile contractor. And though he agreed the tile contractor should have consulted with the homeowner before grouting the entire floor, he took the contractor’s part in the wise decision to fill the holes with grout.

He explained, “My company was asked many times to leave the faces of unfilled travertine ungrouted, and in all but one case we were able to convince the client that this was a very unwise decision.

“Most travertine comes filled (with a cementitious or epoxy filler) from the factory for a good reason,” he added. “Except in very unusual situations, tile receives traffic or use of some sort that requires cleaning. When trying to clean unfilled travertine, all those voids become contaminated and eventually filled with dirt or other unsanitary (and unsavory) stuff.

“In the case of our very insistent client, we bagged the joints masonry style and left the faces unfilled,” Whistler continued. “This project was very high-end and included over 4,000 sq. ft. of unfilled travertine flooring. Within three months of owner occupation, we received a call that there was a problem. Cleaning of the floors had begun with standard mopping practices, and then been stepped up to mopping followed by a wet-vacuum. The pits in the travertine were unable to be cleaned, and were quickly filling up with soap residue, which unfortunately attracted the dirt more quickly. Since we were at this point unable to grout over the contaminated stone (because grout won’t bond to soap or dirt), we had to move all the furnishings, protect all the other finishes (walls, baseboard, etc.) and steam clean and wet-vacuum all the floors before re-grouting.

2-stone-0415“As you can probably imagine, going back and properly cleaning and filling the faces of the tiles with grout matching that in the joints added up to quite a sum,” he said. “I think you actually got lucky that your installer was smart, and couldn’t imagine that you would want your tile any other way.”

To further investigate this situation, TileLetter requested the expert opinion of Rod Sigmon, CTC, CCTS business development manager, Technical Installation and Care Systems for Custom Building Products.

He explained that most clients are looking for easy-care floors, and a travertine floor that is left unfilled “is not a great choice for most customers, as maintaining it is very impractical,” he said, echoing Whistler’s perspective. “Dirt and other common contaminants will fill the voids once placed into use and will become unsightly and virtually impossible to clean short of a pressure washer and truck mounted system that large cleaning and maintenance companies use.”

Sigmon suggested using care to fill the pits in travertine. “In essence the grout ties in the joints with the fill and it looks more consistent,” he said. “I have literally seen pinkish/red fill used on cream-colored travertine many times for whatever reason.” Because of this, he said, “unfilled travertine sometimes is installed to avoid this type of potential issue.”

3-stone-0415There is another option to unfilled travertine, and that is having the pits filled with a clear epoxy or resin material, then sealing the stone. But Whistler reiterates, “In my experience, all filled travertine tiles I’ve seen were filled with a colored material, mostly well-matched to the stone, others quite poorly. The only times I have encountered travertine filled with a clear epoxy was in 2cm or 3cm slabs. This was only occasional though, as most of the travertine slabs we bought were filled using the same material as tiles. On one project, we actually special-ordered the slabs and tiles cut from the same blocks and specified that the same batch of filler be used on all material since the client was VERY picky.”

In the case of walls, Whistler said, “Walls do not receive the extensive traffic that floors are subject to, but walls do become soiled and require cleaning.”

One thing is clear from this discussion – talk to the client about the maintenance and installation particulars of unfilled travertine, ideally before purchase, but certainly before installation. Communicating with your client will eliminate shocking surprises and lead to exceeded expectations.

NTCA Reference Manual: exploring underlayments (April 2015)

NTCA_RMThe NTCA Reference Manual, an essential industry document, explores the subject of underlayments in Chapter 3. This publication is free as part of NTCA membership or can be obtained through the NTCA website at

The NTCA Reference Manual gives an overview of the types of underlayments one is likely to need or encounter on a tile or stone setting project, as follows:

Factory-prepared powdered underlayments usually fall into one of three categories:

1. Gypsum based
2. Cement-based latex underlayments
3. Cement-based self-leveling underlayments

1-underlayment_article1. Gypsum-based underlayments are predominantly composed of various grades of gypsum, chemicals to control set time, and may be sanded or unsanded. They may be mixed with water or a latex admixture, but are to be used only in dry areas, since gypsum-based materials are highly sensitive to moisture. These materials are normally used by the resilient flooring mechanic for patching small holes, cracks or for correction of thickness variations of adjacent flooring materials. However, larger areas may be leveled with products that require 3/4” minimum thickness over wood and 1/2” over concrete substrates. Gypsum-based underlayments are not recommended for use under ceramic tile or stone.

2. Cement-based latex underlayments are composed of cement, aggregate and are mixed with a latex additive. Most instructions recommend the application of a slurry coat to the substrate made from the powder and the latex additive. This slurry is only allowed to dry to a tacky condition before application of the normal mix. It normally requires sanding after curing to remove trowel marks and for further leveling.

3. Self-leveling underlayments are composed of cement, aggregate and chemical modifiers that increase flowability and strength. Substrates are normally primed with a latex material that serves as a bonding agent and a sealer. Most self-leveling materials may be mixed with water or with latex admixtures.

The NTCA Reference Manual also presents a table of Problem- Cause-Cure parameters for some common problems that arise when using underlayments. Following are the categories of underlayment woes and the problems that contribute to the difficulty.

unapproved_latexesLoss of Underlayment
Bond To Substrate

  • Improper preparation of substrate. Applications of material over dust, dirt, curing compounds, old adhesives, spalled or soft concrete, etc.
  • Deflection of substrate.
  • Failure to prime the substrate according to directions on the product.
  • Diluting latex additives with water.


  • Mixing product with too much water or latex.
  • Bridging expansion joints, control joints, or slab cracks.
  • Application of material exceeding thickness restrictions.
  • Over-troweling/overworking surface.
  • Exposure to excessive wind or direct sunlight during initial curing stage.

powdery_underlaymentSoft or Powdery

  • Mixing underlayments with too much water or latex.
  • Mixing with high-speed drill.
  • Diluting latex additives with water.
  • Using gypsum-based materials in areas subject to moisture.
  • Using cememt-based underlayment over gypsum underlayment.
  • Mixing with foreign products or substituting one product for another
  • Moisture penetration followed by freeze/thaw cycles

Poured gypsum underlayments

Also included in the NTCA Reference Manual exploration of underlayments is a section on poured gypsum underlayments. They have distinctive properties, characteristics, and capabilities that are presented as follows:

poured_underlaymentPoured gypsum underlayments can provide a satisfactory surface to receive ceramic tile installation systems. These floors are available in compressive strengths of 1,000 to over 8,000 PSI. It is recommended that the tile installer verify that the poured floors meet a minimum compressive strength of 2,000 PSI and a minimum density of 115 lbs. per cu. ft. when tested in accordance with ASTM

C472. Poured gypsum underlayments are suitable for interior substrates only, above grade, and in areas not subject to constant water exposure or immersion.

There are currently four approved methods the TCNA Handbook uses for poured gypsum underlayments in tile installations.

F200 – Poured Gypsum over Concrete

F180 – Poured Gypsum Underlayment over Plywood

RH111 – Poured Gypsum over Concrete with Hydronic Heat

RH122 – Poured Gypsum over Wood with Hydronic Heat

Drying of the gypsum underlayment

Poured gypsum floors are made with a job site mixture of powder and water and require time to dry before they can be primed/sealed and tiled. Verification that the gypsum underlayment is dry can be determined in accordance with ASTM D4263: Plastic Sheet Method. This test process shall be performed by the gypsum installer, prior to the application of any primers/sealers. Do not proceed with the tile installation until the poured gypsum is deemed dry and has been primed/sealed.

As a general guideline, the following drying times should be observed prior to testing the surface for dryness.

Thickness of poured gypsum and dry time before testing:

1/4”      48 hours

1/2”      72 hours

3/4”      5 days

1”      7 days

2”      2 weeks

Preparation of the poured gypsum surface

In general, ceramic tile is not bonded directly to gypsum underlayments. While each manufacturer of these materials has their own specific requirements, the use of a primer/sealer or a primer and membrane is required. Any exceptions to this recommendation are proprietary in nature and suitability rests solely with the gypsum manufacturer.


Some gypsum manufacturers recommend the use of a primer/sealer over the surface of the dry gypsum before installing any membrane or setting material directly. Also referred to by some as a “sealer” or “overspray,” the use of these primers is intended to prevent the gypsum from absorbing water from the setting material, which can result in poor adhesion. Please note that while you may not have installed the poured gypsum, you must verify that the primer/sealer was applied in accordance with the manufacturer’s recommendations, after the gypsum floor was deemed dry.


The Tile Council of North America and some gypsum manufacturers recommend the use of membranes in addition to the primer prior to installing the tile over their poured underlayments. For the purposes of these applications, membrane is as defined by ANSI A118.12 for crack isolation or ANSI A118.10. Check with the manufacturer for their individual requirements.

NOTE: The tile contractor shall obtain written documentation verifying that the poured gypsum floors have met or exceeded the minimum compressive strength of 2,000 psi and minimum density requirements of 115 lbs. per cu. ft. per ASTM C472, has been tested per ASTM D4263 and deemed to be dry, and has been primed/sealed in accordance with the manufacturer’s recommendation. This information shall be provided to the tile contractor by the general contractor, owner, builder or certified poured gypsum installer.

NOTE: The requirements of this document exclude patching compounds.

Member Spotlight – Mourelatos Tile Pro LLC – April 2015

custom-sponsorMourelatos Tile Pro LLC

Tucson, AZ

NTCA_logo_100pixelsMourelatos Tile Pro, LLC is owned by John Mourelatos, a first-generation tile setter. “I started my company in 2004 after working for several installation companies here in Tucson and learning the trade,” Mourelatos said.

The company primarily provides tile installation services for residential remodeling. “We work with a few select designers and contractors who value the effort and craftsmanship we put into every project,” Mourelatos added. “I am the owner/installer and employ one full-time installer with whom I have worked for almost 15 years. We enjoy working with homeowners and contractors/designers to assist in the development and implementation of their installations, whether they be a small kitchen backsplash or an entire house of tiled flooring and showers.”

john_mourelatosSince his business’s inception, Mourelatos has been an avid attendee at industry events — aiming to attend at least one event a year to fuel his passion for providing “excellence and technically sound installations,” he said. What he’s learned at these events paid off, as his company was able to successfully weather the recession of 2008.

10-year NTCA member

Mourelatos Tile Pro jumped on the NTCA bandwagon early on. “I attended my first trade show – Coverings in Orlando – within the first year of starting my business and it was there that I was introduced to the NTCA,” said Mourelatos, who in addition to being a NTCA member is a NTCA State Director. “I would say that the technical education I have received from everyone I met in the NTCA as well as the industry trade shows that I have attended is what enables us to provide excellence in our installations, building confidence within our clients.“

A member for 10 years, Mourelatos said that “after starting my business in 2004, and getting overwhelmed by all the associations available to a small business, I found the NTCA to be most beneficial for what I was looking for. Educational opportunities were plentiful once I looked outside of our community, and it was refreshing to find other installers nationwide that shared the same passion and drive to succeed in an industry that lacked formal education.

2-mourelatos 1-mourelatos“The educational aspect of what the NTCA does is what gained my interest in membership, and I would say over the years that is still what I value the most out of being a member,” he continued. “I have spent a lot of time attending industry events locally, as well as nationally, and I always leave with a renewed energy and passion that I bring back to my community. I have the NTCA and its inspiring members to thank for that.”

Mourelatos highly values the industry-recognized certification afforded by the CTEF Certified Tile Installer (CTI) program and the Advanced Certifications for Installers (ACT) programs. Obtaining certification for himself and his staff installer is on the agenda for Mourelatos as he awaits a local opportunity to take the hands-on CTI test.

NTCA membership continues to be an integral part of Mourelatos Tile Pro’s ongoing success. “Sometimes it’s the details, the small things, that can make our tile installations shine, and equally important are the detailed technical aspects of the installation that our client may not ‘see’ but appreciates in knowing they have an installation that will stand the test of time,” he explained.

“We are looking forward to growing our company this year to better serve our clients,” he added. “I have spoken with many members of the NTCA and I value their guidance and experience as we continue with this expansion.”

Tech Talk – April 2015

TEC-sponsorMoisture matters: how substrate moisture affects tile installations

By Tom Plaskota, Technical Support Manager, H.B. Fuller Construction Products

tom_plaskota_webSubsurface moisture has always been a potential plague of floor-covering installations. However, for a variety of reasons, the consequences of subsurface moisture problems have only recently spread to tile installations. Learn about the effects of subsurface moisture on tile installations and how you can address it in the following article.

What happens

1-techtalk-0415In the past, tile installations were relatively safe from the effects of excessive moisture vapor emission rates (MVER). Moisture vapor emission occurs when water migrates from an area of high vapor pressure – such as damp concrete or wet soil – to an area of low vapor pressure – like a dry building interior. Once the moisture reaches an impermeable material, like vinyl, coatings and certain tile types, it may collect and condense, causing potential moisture damage. Excessive MVER can even discolor natural stone or tile and reduce the functionality of adhesives, grouts and membranes. It may also lead to unsightly efflorescence.

Why now

Today’s tile and installation practices have many benefits – including increased durability and efficiency. However, a combination of factors have made tiles more vulnerable to damage from excessive MVER.

2-techtalk-0415Historically, tile installations involved tile that was more porous, and in many cases the installer used unbonded cleavage membranes in conjunction with wire-reinforced mortar beds. These factors buffered the tile installations from moisture.

Tiles are now often bonded directly to concrete, which has been covered with a waterproof and anti-fracture membrane, making installations more convenient and successful, but less breathable.

Finally, and even more common in today’s fast-paced construction industry, schedules are more ambitious than ever, which means installations may take place before concrete moisture levels are completely stabilized.

3-techtalk-0415When to worry

Fortunately, with proper testing procedures, you can identify whether or not your installation will be affected by excessive MVER. The following are common tests that are used to check moisture content:

Test: ASTM F1869 – Calcium Chloride Test (Moisture Vapor Emission Rate)

Reading: Gives reading in pounds/1000 square feet/24 hours.

Test: ASTM F2170 – Relative Humidity Test

Reading: Gives reading in percentage of relative humidity (%RH) of the concrete slab.

4-techtalk-0415Interpreting test results and selecting products

With readings of < 3 pounds/1000 square feet/24 hours or < 75% RH, use any TEC® adhesives or mortars appropriate for your tile.

With readings of < 10 pounds/1000 square feet/24 hours or < 88% RH, use a TEC® latex-modified thin set to install tile.

With readings of up to 12 pounds/1000 square feet or 90% RH, use TEC® HydraFlex™ as a waterproofing or anti-fracture membrane or TEC® Roll-On Crack Isolation Membrane prior to installing tile and stone.

With readings up to 25 pounds/1000 square feet or < 100% RH use TEC® The LiquiDAM™ to reduce the floor to acceptable levels of < 3 pounds/1000 square feet. Then, prime with TEC® Multipurpose Primer and install with a TEC® latex-modified thin set.

Note that the moisture test results indicate the moisture condition of the slab only at the time of the test. Although concrete often absorbs water from the ground, it can also absorb water vapor from the air in humid conditions. Moreover, concrete releases more vapor when the air humidity is low. These fluctuations in environmental conditions can affect relative humidity levels, and tests should be repeated over time.

Another moisture problem is hydrostatic pressure. Hydrostatic pressure occurs from liquid water from a source – such as a high water table, broken pipe or sprinklers – that may create a negative hydrostatic pressure issue. This condition should be addressed prior to installing tile or any other flooring.

Both efficiency and frugality are valued during stonework and tile installations. Although addressing moisture – from a variety of sources – requires an initial expenditure of time and money, doing so can ultimately save you and your client from frustrating and costly callbacks.

For more information about TEC® visit

The TEC® brand is offered by H.B. Fuller Construction Products Inc. – a leading provider of technologically advanced construction materials and solutions to the commercial, industrial and residential construction industry. Headquartered in Aurora, Illinois, the company’s recognized and trusted brands – TEC®, CHAPCO®, Grout Boost®, Foster® and others – are available through an extensive network of distributors and dealers, as well as home improvement retailers. For more information, visit

TEC®, Hydraflex™ and The LiquiDAM® are trademarks of H.B. Fuller Construction Products Inc.