The Importance of a Properly Installed Backerboards

by Roger

Cracked floor tile due to improper substrate preparationI know there are some people out there (not my regular readers like you!) that read what I write and think to themselves ‘okay, but I’m sure that won’t happen with my installation’. So periodically I’m gonna post things like this that show exactly what happens when things aren’t built correctly. And yes, it will happen to yours, too, if the proper steps aren’t taken. If you care to see more train wrecks you can check out my ‘flawed‘ page wherein I post photos of absolutely horrible tile installations which I’ve torn out and replaced.

See that crack in the tile right there? (The line down the center is not a grout line – it’s a crack. You can click on it for a larger version) That bathroom floor is less than eight months old. It was installed with hardibacker over the subfloor and thinset. At least that part is correct, but that was about it. There was no thinset beneath the hardi and the seams between the sheets were not taped and thinsetted. To a lesser extent the correct screws were not used in the hardi – they committed the cardinal sin of using drywall screws in the backerboard. Yeah. Wrong.

So, back to the crack. (Never thought I’d ever type that!) As soon as I walked in and saw it I knew exactly what was wrong and I knew why. The crack was in an absolutely straight line – a dead giveaway that the crack is likely over a seam in the backerboard which wasn’t taped. If you read my post about how to correctly install flooring backerboards you will see that there needs to be thinset below the boards, the seams need to be taped, and the proper screws need to be used. None of which was done.

And here’s what was beneath it: Improperly prepared substrate beneath cracked floor tile

If you click on that photo (I dare you!) you can see the crack follows the seam of the backerboard exactly. Without the tape on the seams the individual boards may move in different directions and, without the support beneath from thinset, they will move independently and eventually crack your tile or, more commonly, your grout lines first.

When you tape and thinset your backerboard seams it will lock the two separate sheets together and any movements in the substrate (seasonal micro-movements, completely normal) will all move as one and in the same direction. This won’t cause any stress on your tile.

I simply pulled up all those cracked pieces and chipped the old thinset out of there, installed proper screws along the seam, taped and mudded the seam (when I say ‘mudded’ the seams I mean thinset) and reset new tiles and grouted it up. Once that grout cures it will lighten and it will look brand new.

Repaired floor tileSo all these little things like ‘tape and mud your backerboard seams’ that I throw out there may seem like it’s just overkill or taking extra precautions which aren’t really necessary – well, they are necessary. And this is why. This will also happen on a shower wall if your seams are not taped and mudded. If the boards move differently it causes uneven stress on your tile – it needs to release somewhere. Ninety seconds worth of work to tape the seam to begin with would have prevented this – just do it! (damnit)

If preventing cracked tile isn’t enough motivation for you maybe this will: all of my regular readers know what happens if your tile or grout crack – your dog will burst into flames! So if you don’t do it for your tile, do it for your pooch. Not only are flaming dogs bad for, well, the dogs, but they tend to run around and catch other stuff on fire too! You don’t want that, do you?

TAPE YOUR SEAMS! :D

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Carolyn

How important is the 1/8″ spacing between boards in a tub surround?

Also, can you place one board directly over another horizontally i. e. two boards 3’0″ x 5’0″ makes up the entire surface to be tiled, or do you have to cut boards and stagger to allow for vertical movement?

Reply

Roger

Hi Carolyn,

It’s fairly important. What’s the issue?

Yes, you can place one directly over the other, that’s why they’re sized like that. You’re only required to stagger when a vertical seam is necessary.

Reply

Annie

Hi! My husband I moved into our new house in summer. We knew that grout of our bathroom floor was getting loose in parts. He finally got around to re-grout this week and discovered that whoever tiled the floor did it right over the subfloor. (He could see wood when he removed the old grout.) We were terrified and started searching the net frantically to see how bad our situation is and came across your page. So my question is, should we rip up the floor and start all over again? Or is there any other way?

Reply

Roger

Hi Annie,

Yes, you should rip it out and properly install a floor. You can regrout it, but you’ll end up having the same issue shortly down the road. Wood always expands and contracts A LOT. Without a proper substrate between the wood and tile you’ll always have issues.

Reply

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