21 April 2016

Physical Evidence: Ceramic Tiles Pop Up in the Bathroom, Revealing Old Vinyl Flooring

Slowly, over the last month, the grouted joints between the ceramic tiles in our main bathroom have begun to crack. This has occurred to a minor degree ever since we moved into the house nearly two years ago, but only recently began to become a real issue. The joint cracking was also more significant at the area right against the tub. I had already previously noticed that the perimeter of the ceramic tile floor (against the walls and against the tub) were hard grouted joints, rather than flexible sealant joints, leaving the flooring nowhere to expand and contract without cracking. I had been hoping that the problem was merely because of that sole issue.

Well, it wasn't. Finally, this week, two of the tiles against the tub came fully unbonded from the subfloor beneath. Once I was able to fully lift up these two tiles, the improper installation of this ceramic became evident:

Not good.
What you see here is old flooring, and at a small portion of this area you see wood subflooring, which is now wet on the top side (the underside has been and continues to appear sound from the basement). What you do NOT see is any type of backerboard or underlayment matting. In case you were wondering, that is NOT the way to install new ceramic tile over existing vinyl floor. Sigh. This relatively new ceramic tile is now useless-- it all needs to come out. I have already begun making calls to tile contractors to have them come out for estimates.

Well, Let's at Least Learn More History About This House

We might as well take a closer look then and understand the two layers of previous flooring I see here. I had to do this carefully, however. The reason that I'm not even considering replacing this tile myself, and providing another layer of concern, is that the dark-colored flooring you see has a very good chance of containing asbestos. Aside from removing the ceramic tiles for inspection, I have tried to not mess around with this and to keep it more or less as-is, due to the potential hazard.

First off, what do I know about the history of this bathroom? I know that this is the only bathroom of the two that is original to the 1920's house. The only other bathroom was converted from a kitchen in the 1960's. This original bathroom was part of the second living unit, used by family members of the Cantlins after the house was modified into a duplex. There used to be an exterior window at the tub area. After it was re-instated back to a single-family house by my house's previous owners after 2001, the window was infilled, the bathroom was remodelled, and a fiberglass shower surround was installed. The exact timeframe of the remodel is unknown. Judging by the floor tile installation, I'd guess that this was performed in preparation of placing the home on the market.

Anyway, the dark-colored tiles measure 9" x 9"-- a common dimension for vinyl-asbestos tiles produced prior to the 1970's. I'd guess that what I see here was originally installed in the 1950's or so, perhaps as the Cantlins began to convert the house to a duplex. It may even be older since there does not appear to be much of a pattern to it-- perhaps even the 1940's, when the Cantlins were building an addition onto the back of the house.

As for the lighter, beige-colored flooring, this appears to be from the 1970's or early 1980's. It has a decorative pattern and appears to have largely been removed with the exception of a few remnants at the tub.

Based on the small section and the partial fragments I am seeing, it could either have been a sheet or 12" x 12" tile. This could be more of a linoleum sheet product, but even in the 1970's-80's one cannot rule out vinyl-asbestos without having it lab-tested.

Next Steps

Asbestos-containing materials (ACM's) do not need to be a cause of panic by any means, if they are in good physical shape and are of the less friable varieties. In the case of vinyl-asbestos floor tiles, the percentage of asbestos in the tile's composition could be as little as below 5%. That said, these materials ABSOLUTELY must be treated with care, and consultation by professionals licensed to inspect for asbestos is always a good idea. In my case, you can see that at least one of the 9"x9" has broken once, meaning that at least a small, yet hopefully still safe, level of asbestos fibers may have been released.

My plan of attack is first to have a few professional TILE installers in to provide a consultation and recommendations. I want a company specializing in tile installation, not just a handyman that has the ability to throw down a few tiles. If the tile contractor I decide to hire is able to leave the old flooring in place to encapsulate it under a proper and professional installation, then all the better. If a proper substrate can not be provided over the old vinyl and it must come out, then I probably at least need to have the tiles tested and may need to have a licensed asbestos professional in sooner rather than later. Even if the tile setter is able to keep the old tile in place, at the very least I plan to have the air tested.

Even though this is an unwelcome monetary expense to deal with, it is always interesting to me to uncover old building materials. After all, I still consider these layers to be part of the history of the home.


  1. This just happened in our house only 2 tiles have popped, will the whole tiles in the room will pop?

  2. Not only your contents but also the way you present the issue is awesome. How amazingly you noticed the micro changes and wrote them in broader way. Particularly this one is articulating the sense of the discussion. Your blog simply picturizes everything about bathroom ceramic tiles. Good work!!

    Jimmy Wales
    Tile Pro Depot

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