Ceramic and porcelain tile have long been used as a covering for both floorings and walls. Tile is tough and durable, capable of lasting for many decades with only minimal grout maintenance before a full replacement is necessary. The tile market is huge, varied, and often confusing. One familiar point of confusion is the differences, if any, between floor tile and wall tile. Are some tiles designated purely as floor tiles and others as wall tiles? Or is there simply one type of tile that is used interchangeably for both areas? Though overlapping to some degree, a few basic differences do make one tile better for one application.
Wall Tile vs. Floor Tile: Major Differences
The distinction between wall tiles and floor tiles boils down to its ratings for slipperiness and hardness.
- Coefficient of Friction (COF) rating: COF ratings are one thing that helps define which type of tile goes on walls or flooring. Every ceramic or porcelain tile has a certain COF rating. Floor tiles must have a minimum level of friction for them to be safe to walk on. This is called the Coefficient of Friction or COF, with higher numbers representing greater friction. Wall tile can be honed and as slick as glass, and often it literally is glass because friction is not an issue where traction is not a concern.
- PEI (Porcelain Enamel Institute) rating: PEI ratings are the second factor that define hardness and durability. The Porcelain Enamel Institute (PEI) issues five classes of PEI ratings that tile companies can use if they wish. Ratings range from Class 1, for areas with no foot traffic, to Class 5, for areas with heavy-duty foot traffic, as found in commercial settings. PEI ratings are usually buried within each tile's specifications and are a good determiner of where a tile can be used.
When shopping for wall or floor tiles, it pays to be an information junkie. Tile manufacturer and retailer sites often provide a wealth of information to help any data-conscious shopper drill into the nature of tiles they are considering purchasing. Most sites will part out COF and PEI ratings in the specifications section.
But some companies go one step further and use the COF and PEI ratings to classify the tiles for the shopper. Some companies break down these categories even more. For example, Bedrosian's, an online and brick-and-mortar tile retailer, not only has wall and flooring tile categories but other classifications for pools, shower walls, shower floors, and countertops.
Watch Now: Things to Consider When Choosing Porcelain or Ceramic
A ceramic or porcelain wall tile can have any COF (coefficient of friction) or PEI (Porcelain Enamel Institute) rating. Manufacturers often label these simply as "wall tiles."
As long as the tile has a COF rating of 0.50 or greater, the tile can be used on interior floors. The exterior paver tile goes even higher, reaching a COF rating of 0.60. The PEI rating should be 3 to 5 in order for the tile to qualify as a floor tile. These tiles often are labeled as being appropriate to both uses: "Wall and Floor Tile."
|Floor Tile||Wall Tile|
|COF (Friction Rating)||0.50 or greater||Any rating|
|PEI (Hardness) Rating||3 to 5||Any rating|
|Recommended Use||Floors, walls, countertops||Walls only|
|Size||Often quite large||Tend to be smaller|
There is no appreciable difference in the appearance of ceramic and porcelain wall tile vs floor tile, but stylistically, it is general practice for wall tiles to be relatively small in comparison to floor tiles. Because of its visible nature and the difficulty of installing wall tile on a vertical surface, wall tile tends to be smaller and more lightweight. As an example of these sizing guidelines, an 18-inch square floor tile usually will not work on walls, as it would look garish and overpowering.
Consumer-level floor tile can range up to 18 x 18-inch square sizes. With the popularity of super-large format tile, large sizes are common. The one exception is when floors are tiles with mosaic sheets—small tiles that are bonded to sheets of mesh backing. Classic 1-inch hexagonal mosaics have long been installed on bathroom floors
Best for Appearance: Tie
With hundreds of options for both wall tile and floor tile, there is no clear category winner. Both floor and wall tiles have largely the same appearance, though thinner wall tiles may come in a greater variety of colors and designs.
Water and Heat Resistance
Ceramic and porcelain wall tiles have the same good resistance to water as do floor tiles. However, in countertop applications, wall tiles are slightly thinner and therefore may be a little less resistant to the heat of hot skillets and pans.
Floor tiles are typically thicker than wall tiles, and hence may have better resistance to heat when installed for countertop applications. This is not relevant for wall and floor installations, however.
Best for Water and Heat Resistance: Floor Tile
Floor tiles hold a slight edge over wall tiles for heat resistance for installations where that quality is relevant—such as in kitchen countertops. There is virtually no difference in water resistance between wall tiles and floor tiles.
Durability and Maintenance
Both wall and floor tiles have the same maintenance profile. The tiles can be cleaned with simple soap and water. Grout between tiles should be kept clean and may need to be replaced every few years if it cracks or becomes discolored.
Wall tiles are thinner than floor tiles, and therefore should not be used on floors, lest they crack due to foot traffic. However, they are perfectly durable and easy to maintain for wall installations.
Floor tiles are thicker and stronger than wall tiles, and are therefore suitable for either wall or floor installations.
Best for Durability and Maintenance: Floor Tiles
Floor tiles are thicker, stronger, and more durable, though this is an advantage only in floor installations. For wall installations, both types of tiles have equal durability.
Both floor tiles and wall tiles are installed using similar processes. First, an underlayment of cement backer board is installed against the subfloor or wall studs. The tiles are adhered to the backer board using thin-set adhesives applied with a notched trowel. Once dry, the joints between tiles are filled with a paste-like, mortar-based grout, which is sealed once it dries and hardens.
Wall tiles, since they are thinner, tend to be easier to cut with simple score-and-snap cutters.
As thicker tiles, floor tiles are slightly more difficult to cut than wall tiles. The use of a power wet-saw is a good idea with these heavier tiles.
Best for Installation: Wall Tiles
The thinner, lighter nature of wall tiles makes them easier to cut and install. These are the best choice for wall installations, even though floor tiles can also be installed vertically on walls. But for floors, use only tiles rated for that use.
Costs for ceramic and porcelain wall tiles are generally fairly comparable to the costs for floor tiles.
Costs for basic tile start at less than $1 per square foot, it's also easy to spend as much as $50 per square foot for professional installation of imported designer tiles. Wall tiles are thinner than floor tiles, so plain colors may be slightly less costly than similar floor tiles. But because there are more designs and more accent tiles for walls, costs tend to even out
Simple floor tiles can also be purchased for at little as $1 per square foot. While floor tiles tend to be thicker and heavier, there are fewer decorative edge treatments and accent tiles used on floors; on a square foot basis, costs are roughly the same for floor tiles and wall tiles
Best for Cost: Tied
Floor tiles and wall tiles cost roughly the same on a per-square-foot-basis.
A well-installed and well-maintained tile job can last 75 years or more. You are more likely to replace tile because you are tired of the look than because the material wears out. However, if wall tile is mistakenly installed in a floor application, it may crack relatively quickly.
Floor tiles, as heavier, stronger materials, will theoretically last longer than wall tiles. In practice, however, both materials are likely to last a lifetime.
Best for Lifespan: Floor Tile
When used for their recommended purposes, wall tile and floor tile are equally durable materials. In floor or countertop applications, however, floor tile has a clear advantage.
The only important advice is to make sure that tiles installed on a floor have a hardness (PEI) rating and COF friction rating that are appropriate to that use. Any type of tile can be applied to a wall, but it is important that floor tile is rated for that purpose.
- Daltile offers many great tile products in both standard ceramics and stone-look porcelains.
- Marazzi Tile is a premium foreign tile manufacturer, but one that has very broad U.S. distribution—even in big-box home improvement centers.
- Acme Brick Tile & Stone, formerly known as American Tile, offers a wide, affordable selection of all types of tile.
Inspecting Slip-Resistant Flooring in Commercial Buildings. International Association of Certified Home Inspectors.