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Floating Tile Floors

Are Floating Tiles a Viable Option to Mortared Tile Flooring?

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Floating Tile Floor

Floating Tile Floor from SnapStone

Copyright SnapStone
Mortaring, spacing, and grouting porcelain or ceramic tile are the biggest hurdles for the do-it-yourself homeowner and would-be tiler. So, when I first heard of floating tile floors, it piqued my interest because some of these hurdles are removed.

Tiling For the DIYer: No Easy Task

Tile pros have no problem handling tile mortar--it's something they do every day. But a homeowner who has never touched the stuff may find it difficult to work with.

Unless you buy pre-mixed tile mortar, it can be hard to mix to the right consistency. Applying the tile mortar to the cement backerboard or other subfloor can itself be tricky. Notched trowels are supposed to regulate the flow of mortar to the backer; but with an inexperienced hand, the mortar can go on too thin or too thick.

So, is the solution to go very slowly? Not always. You don't have all day for this: wait too long and the tile mortar stiffens. In addition, there is the problem of properly spacing the tiles. The greenhorn tiler can use plastic spacers (which slow down the tiling process) or can "eyeball it" with inexperienced eyeballs. Space tiles too close and you have no place for the tile grout to go; space tiles too far apart and the grout will crack.

Finally, as noted by Van Conners President of Kwik-Tile, "lipage" is another problem for DIY tilers. This refers to the vertical alignment of adjoining tiles. On a soft base of mortar, it's easy to lay one tile higher than the next tile. The result: not just an unattractive floor, but it's a safety hazard for anyone walking on the floor.

These are all reasons why homeowners nervous about the process often rightly turn to the professionals. But floating tile floors promise to do away with many of these problems.

What Is a Floating Tile Floor?

In general, a floating floor--any material, whether wood, laminate, or ceramic--is one that is not attached to the subfloor; individual pieces are attached laterally to themselves.

Does this mean a floor that is less structurally stable? Not at all. Floating floors have been installed in millions of homes, and they work perfectly well. The only difference is that, up until recently, they have been confined mainly to laminate flooring.

The reason is because ceramic and porcelain tiles have no easy way to link the sides. It's one thing to build laminate floorboards with a click-and-lock feature on the sides; but ceramic and porcelain will not click and lock.

More Akin To Laminate Flooring

Van Conners of Kwik-Tile rightly describes floating tile as a product you "see...being installed by the 'Laminate Flooring Installers' professionally."

When you think of it in these terms, it gives floating tile flooring a new focus. Even though this is real tile, it's more a job for the laminate flooring guys than the tilers. For instance, floating tile works only for flooring and no other applications. Tub surrounds, shower pans, walls: those are all still jobs for conventionally-installed, mortared tile.

And this should provide some comfort to any tile installers who feel their livelihood threatened by floating tile. As a corollary, ask if laminate flooring killed nail-down hardwood flooring. No,it did not.

Secret Behind the Construction of Floating Tile Floors: The Base Tray

Floating tile links together via plastic base trays. Every manufacturer has a slightly different method, but generally it is the same in that the plastic tray is securely attached to the tile and snaps into the adjoining tile's base tray.

Because the trays automatically space the tiles, there is no need for eyeballing or using plastic spacers. Floating tile floors are perfectly aligned.

After installation, grout is applied between the tiles. Because this grout is acrylic-based, it does not need to be sealed.

Benefits and Disadvantages

Benefits:

Floating tile flooring is very seductive to the new tiler. After all, what could be easier than snapping tiles together?

  • Zero mortaring.
  • No spacing problems.
  • Plastic tray provides a base for tile to rest on.
  • No waiting for mortar to dry.
Disadvantages:

Complaints about tile cracking. Tile mortar provides a solid, continuous base for the tile. But base trays have hollow spaces that allow the tile to crack when weight is exerted on the tile.

  • No mortar, but you still have to grout the tile.
  • Numerous complaints about cracking of floating tile floors because of the spaces within the plastic base tray. Most of the complaints about floating tile floors' cracking seems to involve very heavy objects, such as refrigerators. But some tilers report cracking even from walking across the material.
  • Cannot cut thin strips of floating tile. Strips less than about 3" are not stable.
  • Limited colors and styles.

Comments From Floating Tile Manufacturers

Currently, there are two major manufacturers of floating tile: Kwik-Tile and Snapstone (see links below). Kwik-Tile is based in Dalton, Georgia, and Snapstone in Omaha, Nebraska.
  1. Kwik-Tile: Read thoughts about floating tile and Kwik-Tile in particular, by Van Conners, President of Kwik-Tile.
  2. SnapStone: In a press release, SnapStone notes several features of its floating tile floor, highlighting the fact that it "can even be installed over most hard surface flooring including vinyl, wood, concrete and ceramic."
Kwik-Tile and SnapStone both provide tile pre-bonded to the trays. One additional product is called Cerama-Lock, by Unika. Cerama-Lock provides the tray only. The Cerama-Lock tray can be fitted with any style of ceramic tile, as long as it is 12" x 12" and a minimum of 1/4" thick.

Would I Recommend Floating Tile?

It depends on your level of skill. Even a moderately-experienced DIY remodeler, with enough care, can learn how to properly apply tile mortar and space the tiles. I cannot say "yes" or "no" to floating tile flooring--not due to problems with the product but simply because it's not something I have personally installed.

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