Does Tile Prevent Water Damage to the Surface?

Tile can be a highly attractive and sturdy material for use as both a flooring and a wall covering. Frequently used in bathrooms and kitchens across America, this material is often popularly believed to be impervious to water damage by homeowners throughout the country. However, while the tile itself may be very resistant to water damage, does tile prevent water damage to the surface?

The answer to this question depends on several factors, such as:

The Imperviousness of the Tile
Not all tile is created equally. Specifically, tile is separated into four categories of water resistance:

Non-vitreous- Tiles in this category are the least resistant to water, absorbing up to 7% or more of their weight in water. Because of this high absorbency, such tiles are intended only for indoor use, and only for areas that are not expected to have heavy water exposure. One common use for these tiles is as a backsplash or other vertical surface.
Semi-vitreous- Slightly more resistant to water absorption, tiles are given this designation if they absorb between 3% and 7% of their weight in water. Like the non-vitreous tiles, they are only rated for indoor use.
Vitreous- These tiles are denser than the semi- and non-vitreous varieties. As a result, they absorb less than 3% of their weight in water. Tiles rated as being vitreous are suitable for both indoor and outdoor uses because of their relatively high water resistance.
Impervious- As the name suggests, these tiles are nearly immune to water penetration. They only absorb between 0.001% and 0.5% of their weight in water because of their incredibly high density. One example of impervious tiles would be porcelain. Such tiles are often considered ideal for both outdoor and indoor applications because of their ability to repel water rather than absorb it.
If the tile that is being used to protect your flooring is not at least rated as being vitreous, then the tile will offer little moisture protection for your floors. Non- and Semi-vitreous tiles can let water soak straight through them to affect the surfaces below them.

The Grout
Between each and every piece of tile, you have grout sealing the gap separating one piece from the next. Even if your tiles are perfectly impervious, unsealed or poorly installed grout can leave the surfaces beneath the tiles exposed to damage.

Unsealed grout absorbs water, and can allow it to bypass your glossy, impervious tiles entirely.

To prevent water damage, it is important to seal your grout, and to regularly inspect it for signs of discoloration or peeling, as these are early indications that water or even mold may have penetrated your grout.

The Angle of the Surface
Vertical surfaces, such as walls or kitchen backsplashes, are less prone to prolonged water exposure than horizontal surfaces are. Water will flow along the path of least resistance, so when it hits a wall, it tends to run down the wall, and it then collects on the ground, forming a standing puddle.

Standing water provides a rich environment for bacteria and mold to breed in if left alone over a long period of time. Because of this, it is important to clean up any spills as soon as possible, even on tile surfaces.

The Type of “Water” Exposure and its Duration
For most daily spills, the amount of water a tile is exposed to will not be enough to pose a significant threat on its own. A cup of water accidentally spilled on vitreous tile with sealed grout should not pose a significant threat to the tile or the surfaces underneath the tile.

Gallons of waste water back-flowing from a toilet, on the other hand, can ruin the tile, the grout, and the subfloor beneath the tile. Such “dirty” water spills carry not only the standard problems of being soaked up by the tile and grout, but are pre-loaded with contaminants and bacteria that can speed up the damage. Also, dirty water can discolor the tile and grout itself, reducing the visual appeal.

A natural disaster, such as a flood, can render tile powerless to protect the subsurface from damage. When several feet of water are pushed through your home, there is very little that a surface covering of tile can do to prevent water from causing damage when there is water soaking through the spaces between the walls.

Moisture exposure does not have to be immediate and massive in order to damage the flooring under tile, however. A long-term, slow, steady leak can allow mold to grow and break down even the most well-sealed grout over time. Once the grout has been penetrated, moisture and mold can begin to work on the adhesive and the subsurface, causing damage.

Also, leaks that occur in pipes running between the walls can allow moisture to bypass your protective tile backsplash and eat away at the drywall directly.

Answering the Question
So, what is the answer to the question, “does tile prevent water damage to the surface?” The answer is “sometimes.”

For normal, everyday moisture exposure, properly maintained, well-installed tiles that are appropriate for the environment they are being used in will be more than enough to protect the subsurface from the occasional spill or background humidity.

Check your tile and grout regularly for signs of discoloration, cracking, swelling, or other abnormalities, as these can warn you of possible problems occurring underneath the tile.

With some preventative maintenance, tile flooring can be a beautiful and functional addition to your bathroom, kitchen, or any other room. Just be aware that while tile can be highly resistant to water, no surface covering is 100% proof against all forms of harm.

If you have more questions about how to maintain or repair your tile flooring, contact us today for more information.