Are there any VOCs emitted when tiling with a ceramic tile and sand and cement? Is there a type of cement that has no VOCs?

Asked by Emily Dempster
East Jewett, NY

We want to use a porcelain tile in the living and bedrooms, and lay it with sand and cement (no adhesives). Will the porcelain tile 'stick' to the sand/cement even though no adhesives are used? Or should we use a terracotta tile, even though it is not as strong? What kind of cement should we use, is there a cement that has no VOCs compared to low VOCs - Blue Circle Builders Cement is what our tiler generally uses. Thankyou.


Molly McCabe, AKBD, CGP, CAPS

Answered by Molly McCabe, AKBD, CGP, CAPS

Bainbridge Island, WA

A Kitchen That Works LLC

January 13, 2012

Dear Emily,

To answer your first question “are there any VOCs emitted when tiling with ceramic tile and sand and cement” – the answer is … it depends.

  • Porcelain tile is a wonderful floor material, as it is highly durable and requires minimal maintenance, unlike terracotta tiles which typically need to be sealed and resealed (and then we fall down the rabbit hole of sourcing a durable no/low VOC tile sealant).
  • Typically a porcelain tile will be inert with respect VOCs – what you need to be careful of is the dust when cutting any tile.

As for terracotta tile, you need to be a bit more careful, due to potentially lax manufacturing rules in the country of origin and the fact that they are porous by nature, making them potentially more prone to off-gassing.

The “sand and cement”, which I interpret as thin set, is very likely to emit VOCs as might the backer board if you are using backer board.

  • Today’s multi-purpose thin sets have acrylic additives which raises the VOC levels.
  • However, the acrylic additives also increase your installation options from concrete only sub floors to wood sub floors while also increasing the durability of the installation and theoretically the life of the floor.

The one thing you did not mention is what type of sub floor or underlayment you will be laying the tile on. So if you do not have options as to what you are applying the thin set to, i.e. concrete, backer board or wood, success of your installation may be dictated by your substrate. We all have different sustainablity criteria for our projects and we each need to weigh a product’s attributes based on our own criteria.

In addition to Blue Circle Builders Cement, you could also consider:

  • Custom Building Products Porcelain Tile Fortified Thin set Mortar Adhesive which can contribute to LEED points under the Adhesive and Sealants section IEQc4.1, or
  • LATICRETE® 272 Premium Floor N' Wall Thin-Set Mortar – which is GreenGuard certified for Indoor Air Quality standards for VOCs.

Good luck!

Tagged In: home air quality

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