So the idea of installing ceramic tile as you would laminate or vinyl flooring—that is, joining from tile to tile, not down to the substrate—is a highly tantalizing idea.
While a great idea, how does it work in the real world?
What is a Floating Tile Floor?
In general, a floating floor composed of 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 due to how 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.
Tiling For the DIYer: No Easy Task
Tile pros have no problem handling tile mortar—it's something they do every day. A homeowner who has never touched the stuff, though, 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 backer board or another 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 they can "eyeball it," which is unwise considering their lack of experience. Space tiles too close and you'll have no place for the tile grout to go; space tiles too far apart and the grout will crack.
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.
Finally, as noted by Van Conners President of Kwik-Tile, "lippage" is another problem for DIY tilers. This refers to the vertical alignment of the adjoining tiles. On a soft base of mortar, it's easy to lay one tile higher than the next tile. The result is not just an unattractive floor, but a safety hazard for anyone walking on the floor.
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.
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.
Since 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, and because this grout is acrylic-based, it does not need to be sealed.
Floating tile flooring is very seductive to the new tiler. After all, what could be easier than snapping tiles together?
- There's zero mortaring.
- There are no spacing problems.
- The plastic tray provides a base for each tile to rest on.
- There's no waiting for mortar to dry.
There have been 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. Other concerns include:
- There's no mortar, but you still have to grout the tile.
- There have been numerous complaints about cracking floating tile floors because of the spaces within the plastic base tray. Most of the complaints about floating tile floors' cracking seem to involve very heavy objects, such as refrigerators. Some tilers, however, report cracking even from walking across the material.
- You cannot cut thin strips of floating tile. Strips less than about 3 inches are not stable.
- Limited colors and styles.
- High cost drives away most consumers. Expect to pay $17 per square foot for a mediocre-looking tile that otherwise would cost $3.00 were it not a "floating tile."
There are two major manufacturers of floating tile: Kwik-Tile and Snapstone. Kwik-Tile is based in Dalton, Georgia, and Snapstone in Omaha, Nebraska. Kwik-Tile and SnapStone both provide tile pre-bonded to the trays.
Is Floating Tile Recommended?
Simply put, no. This is one product that shows great promise, but no manufacturer has been able to make it work yet.
If you have a very small space to tile—such as a laundry room—and you really cannot stand the idea of working with mortar and grout, you may find floating tile beneficial.