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Terrazzo vs tile for abuse & heavy loads: The Rest of the Story

Some dozen years ago, one of our member contractors had a conversation with the owners of a convention center about their flooring. They wanted to install 24×48-inch tile in a 7,500-square-foot open area. He tried to convince them that terrazzo was a better choice. The floor was going to cost about $200,000; terrazzo would have been about 10 percent more, but the contractor offered to do it for the same price. The architect preferred the look of the large format tiles, though, so that’s what was installed.

Recently the contractor, Bob Michielutti of Michielutti Brothers Tile, Terrazzo, & Marble in Eastpointe, MI, had another conversation with the convention center owners about that floor. They had warehoused a substantial back stock of the tiles, but so much of it has broken that now the stock is exhausted. They tried to get their hands on more of it, but that tile is no longer produced.

“Upon installation, the tile was tested somewhat for ‘impact’ with a rubber-wheeled fork truck with heavy load, and it passed the tests,” Mr. Michielutti added, “but in real life, the tile has been damaged by the way they are using it.”

Large vending machines, lighting equipment, and forklifts all get moved around on the floor, some of the load being “dropped” on to the tile. The owners told Mr. Michielutti that at the time they made their choice, that they believed that a terrazzo floor would be damaged by such use and that they wouldn’t be able to fix it.

“That idea came from mis-education,” Mr. Michielutti said. “Tile can withstand foot traffic, but in this environment with abuse and impact, you can’t beat terrazzo.”

Like Glass vs. Plastic

Gary French, National Terrazzo and Mosaic Association’s Technical Director, explained why epoxy terrazzo has much better resistance to falling objects and heavy loads than tile. The tiles may be breaking more because of brittleness than a lack of compressive or tensile strength, he said.

“Basically, the tile is like glass as compared to an epoxy that is a plastic,” said Mr. French, a 40-year veteran of the flooring industry.

“Tile has its place, and you can do a lot with it,” Mr. Michielutti noted. “But it depends on how the floor is used. Regardless of how well tile is installed, terrazzo is absolutely much better with handling stress and impacts.”

Continuous Bond

Epoxy terrazzo provides a continuous bond to the concrete, Mr. French continued. Because epoxy terrazzo is a liquid poured on the construction site, every square inch of it is bonded to the substrate.

The adhesion of tile, on the other hand, is dependent on the adhesive being spread over the entire area and then the tile being placed so that every inch of the backside is covered with adhesive. Without complete coverage, you can get a hollow spot, which can lead to breakage from impact or load transfer. The original installation was installed per Tile Council of North America best practices by back-buttering every piece of tile and thin-set “combed” in one direction prior to placing the large tiles. Most of the repairs in this project have been concentrated to mostly the replacement pieces that the owner is changing in house. 

Match and Patch

Trends in tile move quickly, and increasingly over the last 10 years, he explained. A tile is produced for a couple of years and then discontinued. Trends in sizes change quickly, too; the age of tile can be traced by its size.

“Even if you increase your back stock to 50 percent, even 100 percent, you’ll reach a limit with replacing tiles,” said Mr. Michielutti. Terrazzo, on the other hand, can be easily repaired and patched, with a vast capacity to match colors, wherever and whenever it’s called for.

We asked Mr. Michielutti what he’ll do if he encounters another such situation in dealing with a client. “I’ll strongly advise them, as both a tile setter and terrazzo contractor, and share this experience,” he replied. “I’ll take the opportunity to inform and educate them.”