January 20, 2010

The day my floor exploded

tile floor problemNice floor, huh?

I usually spend most of my computer time upstairs, just because that room gets a little better breeze and it is generally cooler up there. One night − I don't remember why − I happened to be at the breakfast room table downstairs and had the unexpected joy of watching my tile floor explode.

I was on the computer reading news stories when I heard a faint pop-pop-pop. Initially I thought it was Chloe (the Rottweiler) scratching and bumping into something on the terraza and didn't pay much attention, but then the pop-pop-pop got louder.

I walked over to the door and looked out the window. Nothing. Okay: I must be hearing things. I continued reading.

Then I heard bang-bang-bang. I rushed to the window, sure that I would catch some kind of animal doing something out there. But again, nothing. The chickens were asleep, roosting on the railing. If there had been an animal, they would have been squawking. If there had been an animal or person, the dogs would have been barking.

Again, I went back to reading, but the bang-bang-bang was replaced with a loud craaaa-ack! craaaa-ack! The chihuahuas started scattering, wide-eyed and seemed as confused as I was. I looked down and watched in horror as two rows of tile in the family room began raising themselves up about four inches from the floor along a grout line. Little chunks of grout were flying out of the floor as it slowly lifted up all the way across the room. Of course, those tiles which had furniture on top of them couldn't raise up, so they broke instead, adding to the excitement. The dogs were running around like crazy, probably thinking it was another earthquake.

Unless you are familiar with how tile is laid in Honduras, you won't have any idea what a disaster this is. The tile is put on with 2-3 inches of concrete (5-8 cm.), not the 1/4 inch layer (.6 cm.) of tile mortar as done in the US.

Not only do we have to replace the two rows of tiles shown in the photo, but 2-3 rows of tile on either side of these are now loose. The grout, however, is still solid, so we'll have to carefully cut the grout and carefully pry up the tiles so as not to chip them. (I use the term 'we' loosely − sawing grout will be El Jefe's job.)

We can't afford to chip any tiles at all because, naturally, we have since found that this tile is no longer sold anywhere in Honduras.

Originally we bought plenty of excess tile just because we assumed that availability could be a problem in the future. But, first, the installer put the wrong tile in the laundry room using much of our excess. Then a few years ago, we had to use more of the excess on our bedroom floor. Now we have only 5 extra tiles left.

What this 2-3 inches of concrete means is that in order to repair it properly, instead of removing the tiles and scraping away a thin layer of tile mortar, some of that concrete has to be chiseled away or the floor won't be level when we replace the tile. And what that chipping means is concrete dust in every inch of the house, in every nook and cranny, coating everything. This part of the house is open to the kitchen and hallway so there are no doors to shut to contain the dust. To make matters worse, the pounding that it will take to chip the concrete will probably result in the loosening of many more tiles.

How do I know this? Because this is the third room in which this has happened! Our bedroom floor lifted up in the same manner requiring the removal and replacement of the entire floor, the closets, and two hallways a few years ago. Our front hallway is in the process, with grout geysers sending up chunks and dust every now and then and loose tiles spreading toward the other rooms.

I happen to be experienced laying tile, believe it or not, taught by a professional, but my experience counted for nothing in Honduras. I begged, pleaded, cajoled, and demonstrated pictures from Tile How-To books to no avail. The answer was always, "This is how we do it in Honduras." I'm sure they were thinking, "What could a gringa possibly know about construction?"

Oh, how I wish I had been a complete ass and insisted on doing it my way!

By the way, I know of several houses where this has happened, including the terraza of an apartment we used to live in. It isn't that unusual.

tile floor problemWhile El Jefe wants to do the repair the right way (with the chiseling and dust-making), I was leaning toward just sticking the tiles back with tile glue and if we have to repair it again in a few years, so be it - just to avoid the horrible mess. We actually had been sort of arguing about this for months, trying to decide about what to do. We went a couple of weeks with the tile in place − a hill across our family room which we had to leap over in order not to step on and break the raised tiles. I can't find that photo. These photos show the floor after El Jefe removed the raised tiles.

We weren't able to find tile glue anywhere in La Ceiba. Well, we did find one old rusty can, but the glue looked dried up and it was too expensive to give it a try. It was lucky that we couldn't find it, because I have since done some research and found that tile glue is only for smaller tiles up to 8" (20 cm.). They say that the glue won't ever dry under larger tiles. (Public apology: You were right, El Jefe, and I was wrong!)

In researching this problem, I found several possible causes. The first and foremost, of course, is poor installation. Another likely cause is a lack of expansion joints or having the tile butted up to the walls with no expansion space along the edges of the rooms. I also read that the problem is more common in hot climates, especially on floors where the sun beats down on the tile, causing the tile to expand and contract at a different rate than the cement underneath it. Expansion joints and space around the edge of the room give the tile room to expand when it needs it. Without that, the only place to go is up!

The beating sun could have had an effect in the family room which gets the hot afternoon sun, but not so much in the bedroom which doesn't get much sun, and not at all in the hallway, which gets no direct sun.

I only pass this on to help those of you who will be building in Honduras. Break the trend! Insist on the gringo way! In this case, it is the better way.

See part II, here: Exploding floor, part II
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