Expert Advice

Selecting a tile installation system for cold weather

07 Jan

Posted by
Tom Plaskota
Technical Support Manager

Four-season regions bring warm summers, cool winters – and potentially challenging tile installations. As the ground freezes and thaws, moisture levels change. This causes subfloors and tile to expand, contract and even crack. The right installation materials, working as one system from subfloor to sealant, will help indoor and outdoor tile installations withstand this movement for longer lasting spaces. Here's how:

1.     Tile Selection: Before beginning an outdoor tile installation that will be subject to freeze and thaw conditions, verify that your tile is frost resistant. Denser, less porous materials – like porcelain – tend to have more frost resistance, while some  ceramic tiles will suffer outdoors. According to industry standards, tile with a porosity of greater than 5% should never be used in exterior applications. Porosity levels of 3% or less are preferred. (ASTM C1026 is the test standard for tile used in freeze thaw conditions.)

2.    Sub-Surface Preparation: The expansions and contractions caused by the freeze/thaw cycle put mechanical stress on the substrate – which can cause substrate cracking. Waterproofing and crack isolation membranes not only help isolate substrate cracks, but also prevent in-plane cracks in the subfloor from telegraphing to tile. Their waterproofing characteristics prevent moisture changes from affecting the tile installation.

3.    The Right Mortar – Mortars in freeze/thaw conditions have to perform, and you need to make sure the mortar you use is up to the challenge. Polymer-modified thin set mortars are often more equipped for freeze and thaw resistance. The best tile mortars for these conditions combine bond strength with flexibility to allow for shifts in the substrate caused by changing moisture levels. Admixtures may increase mortar performance in cold weather. It is critical to achieve 95-100% coverage of the bonding mortar between the tile and substrate in all exterior applications and especially in freeze/thaw environments.

Note: Leaving bags of tile mortar in cold temperatures will extend their cure times. If doing so is unavoidable, keep the cure time in mind during and after installation.

4.   Grouts and Sealants– Choose a polymer modified grout that has lower water absorption. Also, grout additives are often mixed with standard grouts, in place of water, to provide a grout that is stronger, denser and more resistant to freeze/thaw damage and water penetration. They can also increase grout flexibility, providing crack resistance. Sealants and caulks can prevent external moisture from penetrating your installation, further protecting it from external elements.


Your materials must work together, as a system, to combat the challenges freeze thaw conditions present. For more in-depth advice, read our Exterior Tile Installation Guide.

Plus, my Technical Support Team is here to help you develop the right system for your job – or answer any other questions you may have during or after any tile installation. So, don't be afraid to ask. Send us an email or call 1-800-832-9023, Mon-Fri 8 a.m.-5 p.m. CST.



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