Commercial Tile Installation: Looking at a stylish and stable marketplace
September 2nd, 2008

September-October 2008

By William & Patti Feldman

Because of the many advantages tile has over non-tile alternatives and because manufacturers respond with new products to meet customer interest and evolving trends, commercial tile installations, which represent one-third of the overall tile marketplace, are alive and well in the United States.

Indeed, the commercial market is sizeable, responsible for about 2.66 billion dollars worth of wholesale product (based on wholesale costs of $2 a square foot). While that cannot compensate for the slump in the residential market, (accounting for about 5.34 billion dollars annually wholesale) which has collapsed by about 20% during the current housing slump, the continued health of the commercial market has lessened that blow for dealers who sell in both markets.

In fact, says Paul Young, general manager, Mediterranea, a manufacturer of through-body porcelain and glazed porcelain tiles for the North American market, “Certain areas within the commercial market—restaurants, hotels, and supermarkets—are, in fact, flourishing.”

Though the commercial market for tile goes through cycles like any other marketplace, the peaks and valleys are much less extreme than those in the residential sector, suggests Jorge Torres, marketing and sales manager, Laufen International Inc., American operation for the Roca Tile Group. “It doesn’t boom as much in good times and doesn’t wane as much when the market retrenches.”

(However, Torres notes, because of the current economy, just about every commercial job is bid very competitively these days.)

The trends in today’s commercial tiles reflect growing end-user interest in finishes that replicate the look of natural materials such as wood and stone without the maintenance of those materials, as well as an interest in products that are “green” regardless of color or finish.

In step with demand, manufacturers are providing products that meet end-user expectations in a wide range of desirable textures and colors, as well as in a broad range of sizes and shapes.

Tile is a “green” product because it is primarily made from natural materials—clay and other minerals—a very good selling point these days given the continually growing percentage of environmentally aware customers. Furthermore, tile does not give off any VOCs, which are considered health risks.

Tile is an easy sell to specifiers and contractors looking for durability and low maintenance. According to a document published by The Tile Council of North America, Inc. comparing long term cost and durability of numerous flooring surfaces including natural hardwood, travertine, marble, laminate, mad-made hardwood, terrazzo, stained concrete, carpet, sheet vinyl, poured epoxy, and VCT, against quarry, glazed ceramic, mosaic, and glazed and unglazed porcelain, tile is the best option. With an expected life of 50 years, tile will last the longest, dramatically longer than carpet (six years) and vinyl (ten years), about twice as long as laminate, man-made hardwood, and stained concrete.

Maintenance does not require heavy-duty cleaners or aggressive sealing products, says Joy Klein, Director of National Accounts for Trans Ceramica, the state side operation of Italian manufacturer GranitiFiandre that is primarily focused on commercial tile.

Tile that replicates the look of other natural materials, such as wood or stone but has the benefit of longevity and less maintenance are increasingly popular, several manufacturers note.

Tile looks abound, enabling specifiers to select a precise finish look. For example, a through-body, porcelain, wood-look tile would be suitable for installation in a mall, restaurant or airport, says Young.

Tiles that look like concrete, or even stained concrete with bold colors and geometric designs, but carry a lower initial cost, lower life-cycle cost and about twice the expected life as the products they resemble, are also popular, providing durability without worry about wear and tear to the surface.

Also gaining market share are tiles with glass or metal incorporated in the surface. Other new contemporary finishes available in porcelain include suede look and leather look tiles.

For all types of commercial installations, rectangular tiles are back in vogue, with larger sizes such as 12″ by 24″ particularly popular. Larger format tiles require fewer grout joints, giving an installation the illusion of a bigger space, Klein points out. Mixing different sizes of the same tile continues to be an easy way to distinguish an application.

In terms of color, neutral shades of beige that rely on accents to add flair continues to capture fair market share. However, many of today’s tiles go far beyond the bland beiges, with manufacturers offering not only the “natural” tiles in organic colors but also more blues, greens, blacks, and warm-hued browns.

Many designers and architects currently favor the clean lines of sleek, monochromatic or tone-on-tone tiles, points out Klein. She also sees an upswing in tile that features patterns incorporating geometric designs and shapes in the material itself and in mosaics that accent the material or that incorporate glass or other elements to convey a warm or “green” feeling to a space.

Commercial Installation

“The qualities that make a good commercial tile depend upon the particulars of the installation—first of all whether the installation is for the wall or the floor and how busy the location or traffic will be,” notes Torres.

The most durable commercial tiles are through-body porcelain. Because they wear exceptionally well, they are suitable for most commercial floor installations, including airports, malls and other very high traffic areas.

Glazed tiles, with their top baked-on glass-wear layer, offer virtually unlimited choices in color and design. While they are very popular for walls in the 4 ¼” by 4 ¼” size (though there is increased use of larger sizes) and are just about stain-proof, they show wear and tear from foot traffic far more easily and, for floor use, are usually reserved for medium-low traffic applications such as hotels and restaurants.

That said, some manufacturers are offering glazed tiles that are manufactured using improved technology resulting in harder and more durable glazes than in the past, enabling selection of glazed tile for a wider swath of applications.

From a design standpoint, porcelain tile offers a wide range of selection, sizing and physical characteristics. And, unlike with stone where there are variations in strength and in shading from piece to piece, with porcelain tile there is controlled consistency, with each tile as strong as the next, points out Joy Klein.

Through-body porcelain tile has very low absorption, even lower than granite, and clean-up from spills is usually very quick and simple. In addition, it has the advantage of being flat.

Through-body unglazed porcelain tiles that undergo rectification—squaring the material to true square and micro-beveling the edge—enable a tight grout joint while also reducing the potential for chipping on the edges. This is an asset for installations where there will be heavy rolling over the tile. (Straight edges also make grouting an easier task.)

“If installed properly, through-body porcelain tiles will last indefinitely,” points out Young. “It’s not too often you see a commercial tile installation replaced because of worn tile. Usually, any replacement is in response to the desire for a different look.”

On commercial tile jobs with glazed or unglazed tile, correct selection of tile from a reliable source, proper floor preparation and use of proper setting materials are key factors in limiting tile failure.

On commercial projects, tile failure sometimes occurs when there are voids in the setting material, points out Joy Klein. The voids cause cracking when there is pressure on the tile from above. One way to help eliminate voids is to push down the tile sufficiently to avoid any air pockets and to achieve a solid bond with the substrate, Klein suggests. Another option, which is time-consuming, is to back butter the tile.

“It is important for installers to learn to install tile based on the type of tile used,” points out Trecy Bleich, Marketing Specialist, VitrA, USA, a leading manufacturer of professional and premium wall and floor tiles. “Knowing the technical specifications—the thickness, fragility resistance to certain temperature extremes and water exposure—can help ensure a proper installation.”

For example, some commercial installations of floor tile require high wear and tear resistance of the surface (measured by the PEI abrasion test and the Mohs rating of mineral hardness, which is a relative scale that addresses resistance to scratching) and, sometimes, high breaking strength of the tile. The PEI wear rating system evaluates tiles on a scale from 1, which is the lowest (suitable for interior walls), to 5, the highest (suitable for interior heavy traffic residential and commercial uses).

Mohs testing uses a harder mineral (one of ten different readily available minerals) to scratch a softer one. A diamond is the hardest to scratch and cannot be scratched by another mineral. It is rated with a 10 in hardness and is given an absolute hardness of 1500. The softest mineral used in testing is talc, rated 1 in hardness and also 1 in absolute hardness. The higher Mohs ratings correlate with better ability to withstand abuse or heavy wear.

And for wall installations, proper installation can rely on availability of trim shapes that enable the contractor to finish the job properly with all the parts and pieces needed, notes Torres.

While the Americans with Disabilities Act does not set a stated coefficient of friction for floor tile, the industry standard in a public area, including any accessible commercial area, is at least 0.60 COF or higher when wet, and 0.80 for ramps.

Despite these differences in installation requirements, commercial tile projects offer significant opportunities for dealers in today’s marketplace.


Jorge Torres

Marketing and sales manager

Laufen Int’l Inc.

American Operation for the Roca Tile Group


Paul Young



Joy Klein

Director of National Accounts

Trans Ceramica

A GranitiFiandre Company


Trecy Bleich

Marketing Specialist

VitrA Tiles


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