Swimming Pool and Spa has tile falling off


Swimming Pool and Spa has tile falling off - I have a swimming pool and spa that has tile on its surface. It was only installed a year ago and we have tiles falling off. What could be causing this and what can we do to repair it?


ANSWER - Tiles whether ceramic tiles or natural stone or glass tiles they should not fall off.  There are all-tiled pools that go back over 100 years and they are still performing well today.  Tile when installed correctly is a great pool or spa tile that not only looks great and prestigious, but should last the life of the pool.

Chances are when the tile was installed it was not installed per industry standards and it has several compounding defects.  Generally speaking when there is a problem it is not due to one single factor, but due to compounding defects.  Keep in mind that most installers do not learn their trade from a college or trade school, but rather learn on the job, so quite often they are not familiar with industry standards or the complexity of high risk applications such as swimming pools and spas that needs to be properly waterproofed.  When there are failures we commonly find the installers do not properly prepare their substrates.  The pool has to be treated like a shower pan for waterproofing.  We generally find the membrane isn't properly installed.  We find that the installers don't back butter their tiles with the thin-set to ensure they get 95% to 100% attachment or/and that they don't properly key the thin-set into the back of the tile to ensure an adequate attachment.  Often there are not adequate expansion joints (movement joints) installed in the building and they may not be properly designed or installed correctly.  There are other factors too.

The only way to determine the extent of the problem and how to remediate it is to perform an intrusive inspection (destructive).  It is important to determine if the problem is an anomally or is it wide spread.

To avoid these problems a specific and detailed installation specification should be prepared that should include a quality control plan that should be in place to make sure the swimming pool and spa are properly installed.   All high risk applications such as exterior decks, exterior veneers, showers, swimming pools, fountains, spas, and other exterior or wet applications should have a much higher standard-of-care for the installation and for quality control to ensure there isn't a failure that could result in thousands of dollars of damages.  Ceramic Tile and Stone installations are ideal for exterior and wet applications, but they need to be installed correctly.  For more details on CTaSC forensic investigations and quality control services visit our website at www.CTaSC.com.

18 thoughts on “Swimming Pool and Spa has tile falling off

  1. Melissa Jones says:

    Hi Donato, we are having serious problems in our tile that was installed in our pool. The pool is seven years old. They started to fall three or four years ago I believe. A few would start then the amount keeps increasing. They keep coming back to grout and put them on. I read that someone was having the same issue. A mason came out to see his pool and said they did not did not use expansion joint they just used grout. This year we have had 46 tiles fall. I am heartbroken and do not know what we can do? I really hope you will respond.

    • Donato Pompo says:

      To determine how fix the problem of tiles debonding and falling off the pool you need to determine what has caused the problem and fix it, rather than just treating the symptom of the problem.

      I assume your tile is installed inside the pool at the waterline or throughout the entire pool. Although industry standards require movement joints, which are resilient sealant/caulking joints using an ASTM C920 sealant, some people believe that if the tile is submerged in the water that it is stable as the temperate isn’t likely to fluctuate extremely.

      I doubt that your problem is due primarily to the lack of movement joints. You should see how the tile comes loose. Did the back of the tile adhesively debond from the thin-set mortar adhesive? If so did they use the correct thin-set mortar for the type of tile used and the application? Or was it very hot and/or windy when the tile was installed and the thin-set adhesive skimmed over and lost its tackiness?

      Did the thin-set stay bonded to the back of the tile but adhesively debonded from the substrate to which it was attached? If so was the substrate properly prepared with the proper materials?

      Did the thin-set mortar or tile or substrate cohesively fail suggesting that one of those layers were deficient?

      So it isn’t an easy determination on what caused the tile to fall and then determine how to remediate it. It takes expert eyes and knowledge as CTaSC.com to figure those things out.

      Bottom line, is the tiles should never have fallen off, and if they are then something wasn’t done right.

  2. John findlay says:

    Hi Donato,
    Our community pool is around 15 years old and has been shedding tiles from around three years old. We have had tiles replaced several times at considerable cost but the continue to drop. The installation appears to be concrete. Any advice please?

    • Donato Pompo says:

      Too often when there is a problem the tendency is to fix the symptom of the problem rather than figuring out what caused the problem. If you don’t know what caused the problem of tiles debonding, then you aren’t equipped to determine how to remediate the problem.

      If the same tiles that are being replaced are continuing to fall off then either they are using the wrong type of adhesive to bond them or they are not allowing the adhesive to adequately cure before subjecting them to water submersion or there is an underlying hydrostatic condition that is causing stress/pressure to the tile that it can’t adequately resist.

      The only way to determine why the tiles continue to debond is to forensically evaluate the conditions and look for evidence to determine the cause. This requires someone with extensive experience and knowledge to be able to evaluate and interpret the findings. CTaSC has those attributes but it isn’t always practical to hire a company like ours to figure it out.

      There are epoxy adhesives what can be used underwater that you can experiment to see if you get any better results.

  3. phil Durinick says:

    I have glass tiles around my pool waterline newly installed two years ago. The top row started falling off. and then more . It happened over the winter after inspection of the coping we noticed areas of holes on the other side of the coping , my guess is water got through and froze over the winter. and ideas

    • Donato Pompo says:

      If you have freeze-thaw weather cycles that can cause moisture to freeze and expand that can cause tiles to debond. It is also possible that the tile wasn’t bonded as well as it should have been. Glass tile is one of the most difficult tiles to bond to because it is so impervious. Although if the tile substrate was properly prepared, and they used the right thin-set adhesive and installed the tiles correctly it should perform well.

      Only way to know for sure is to do a forensic inspection, but it likely would not be practical to do. Might be less expensive to just replace it, but make sure it is done correctly the 2nd time.

  4. Christopher Chisholm says:

    I had glass tiles installed in my new pool and after a month the tiles on my spa spillway are coming up. Individual tiles are not comingbup but it’s like the entire sheet of tiles is lifting. My installer says he’ll fix it but he says it’s because the sun warms the tiles and the water cools them off…none of the tiles are cracked which I know is a common problem . His explanation doesn’t make sense to me…was this an installation issue ? Do I need to choose something other than glass tiles for the spillway? I’m in ramona ca and would be interested in an on-site eval…

    • Donato Pompo says:

      Glass tile is the most difficult tile to adhere to due to how dense it is and its relatively smooth surface. I had the same problem in my pool spill way. Even using high strength adhesives over time some tiles would pop off. Part of the problem is there wasn’t a waterproof membrane under the tile, which is not uncommon for pools that are not fully tiled. Part of the problem is that the short temperature cycles from hot to cold that causes expansion in the tile.

      If the tile came off in a sheet it maybe the installer didn’t grind the surface and adequately clean it first to get a good attachment. They may not have used a glass tile thin-set adhesive that has higher bond strength. They may not have movement joints at the perimeter of the tiled area. They may not have let the tile installation cure long enough before it was submerged in water.

      To fully understand the problem would require a forensic investigation that would cost $3,000 or more to properly investigate the situation.

      Because spillways are so problematic, I would install a full piece of stone or porcelain tile on it rather than the glass tile as I did in my pool. It actually eliminates the problem and works better as a spill way to get a uniform sheet of water to flow off of the edge if it is installed sloped and within a uniform plane.

  5. JRC says:

    Hello. We live in California and had our pool and spa built in October 2003. About 2 years after being built tiles in our spa starting to fall off. We have had 3 different pool companies and 2 pool repair people come out assuring us that they can fix this problem and they still keep falling off. We have had the expansion joint replaced, new tiles then “special” glue and still they fall off. We believe the hardscape company didn’t do something correctly with maybe the coping or when cement was poured. Our deck is pavers that surround our pool and spa. Just to note-the tiles only fall off in the Spa… we are exhausted spending money and getting no answers as to why this is happening. Any input or advice on what step to take next would be greatly appreciated.

    • Donato Pompo says:

      There could be a few things that can contribute to tiles not staying bonded in a spa. The spill edge can be problematic because it is being to subjected to kind of a hydrostatic condition as the water rushes over it. It is best to replace that will one solid piece of stone or porcelain tile if is a problem.

      If the tiles on the waterline are coming off after several attempts it could be that they didn’t let the adhesive cure long enough before fill it up with water again. So it never reached its full bond strength. They may not have properly prepared the tile substrate by grinding everything off and make sure it is porous before bonding the tile. They may not have used a high strength thin-set mortar adhesive. For glass tile and other impervious tiles they should use a thin-set that meets ANSI A118.15. The spa probably wasn’t fully waterproof. So you could waterproof the area where the tile goes with a liquid applied waterproof membrane. It needs to cure for at least 14 days before filling back up with water.

      As in all failures you have to do the forensics to see what was not done correctly. Normally there isn’t one single deficiency, but rather multiple compounding deficiencies.

  6. SteveO says:

    Hi there. Great read thanks!
    I’m curious about deficient pool tile adhesive due to poor service…. Ph levels begin off and other changes to the chemistry, that sorta situation.
    Our pool is glass tile, neglected pool service over its 12 years of service.
    Tile at the bottom (40-50 1×1 tiles) and a few along the infinity. Black has taken up residence in the voids. The glass that have come away are relatively clean.
    Located in sub tropics. Temp range 23-35*C.
    Any input is appreciated

    • Donato Pompo says:

      If a cementitious thinset mortar for swimming pools was used it already has a high pH as all concrete has. Having voids under the glass tile can develop microbial growth particularly if the tile had a glued on webbing on the back of the tile.

      Glass tile is very hard to bond to. You need to use the ANSI A118.15 thinset mortars to help ensure a good bond. It the glass tile is installed correctly it should perform well.

      Glass tile does expand and contract as the temperature varies. That is why it is recommended to install resilient movement joints in the tile pools to mitigate the expected movements.

      All you can do it re-install the tiles if you can preserve them after they have come loose. There are epoxy adhesives that can be used underwater if you want to try to avoid draining the pool. Although you do need remove any residual mortar on the substrate before installing the tile to make sure it fits correctly.

  7. Alana Andrews says:

    Hi, our pool has small glass mosaic tiles which began falling off five months after the install. It’s been ten months now and more than 60 tiles have fallen off with a third being above the waterline. The pool company who constructed the concrete shell and tiled the pool prior to it being craned into position has denied any responsibility. They are claiming the cause of the tiles falling iff is a result of the calcium being significantly low when it was tested at the five month point. We live in Melbourne, Australia, there are no dramatic temperature changes and it never freezes here. I have had multiple people assess the pool and no one believes it a low calcium issue, however there is nothing in the literature which specifically mentions timeframes (only concentration of calcium is mentioned). My question is, in your opinion how long does it take for extremely low calcium levels to effect the tiling adhesion and grouting products enough to make the tiles fall off?

    • Donato Pompo says:

      Generally speaking, when there is a tile failure of any type it is never due to one single deficiency, but rather due to multiple compounding deficiencies.

      The challenge is to to find the evidence of what caused the failure and to assign weighted values to what may be a primary factor or a contributing factor to some degree.

      Glass tile is one of the more difficult materials to bond to because it is so impervious and lacks the porosity for a mechanical attachment with the adhesive. There are special thinset mortar adhesives that must be used with glass tile with higher bond strengths.

      How the tile is installed and with what products over what substrate and depending on the condition of that substrate are to be considered.

      First of all tiles should not be falling off of the pool walls if the tile was properly installed. 5 months, if ever, of low calcium in the pool water chemistry is not long enough to cause any substantial damage to the tile or the underlying thinset mortar.

      If practical, it can be determined whether low calcium is a factor and to determine what has caused the tiles to debond by performing a forensic intrusive investigation which would require some destructive testing and would include retaining samples for laboratory testing. Not only should you be concerned about what caused the tiles to fall off, but you need to know if this is a systemic problem with the remaining tiles or is it limited and can be repaired. This process allows the expert to determine how best to remediate the problems and determine if it can be repaired or if it needs a full replacement. Plus you want to understand the cause of the failure so that it doesn’t reoccur with the repairs or replacement.

      • Alana Andrews says:

        Thanks Donato, since my post I has uncovered that a grout product not recommended for swimming pools was used on our pool. I suspect they did not have a qualified pool tiler do the work. As you have suggested, I am looking at where to get some lab tests done. Are there any specific tests you would recommend which may uncover any other mistakes made by the pool company? I have a list of all of the products they have said were used but am unsure if application was correct.

        • Donato Pompo says:

          It is not that simple. You need someone with a science background and an expertise with tile installations to know how to search and identify the problem. It is an investigated process so you can’t predict exactly how you go about it and predict what tests to perform.

          It is unlikely that a grout product is going to cause tiles to debond. You want to focus on where it has failed and the material condition at that interface.

          Normally we do a visual inspection with qualitative testing to determine where to perform an intrusive inspection to look for evidence. Then depending on our findings we determine what kind of test to perform. For swimming pools we will test the water on the day we take the sample at a pool supply location who has the equipment. We do this because the chloride will dissipate quickly so by the time it gets to the testing lab the chemistry has changed.

  8. kusum Mangalick says:

    Hello Donato,
    The glass tiles of side of the pool and the jacuzzi wall in the middle of the water started falling off right after the pool was remodeled. Basically every thing new except the coping are was left intact. It’s a large and expansive Pool company near San Francisco Ca, told me that the beyond the coping area about 3 feet on one side is not done right by the concrete contractor and that’s why the tiles are falling off. But why from the jacuzzi top wall? they couldn’t answer. I called different pool companies but they all had different ideas. What would you say that I do? Please help

    • Donato Pompo says:

      The glass tiles should not be falling off if the tiles were installed correctly per industry standards and per the manufacturer directions of the installation materials used.

      There are many reasons why tiles might fall off. Generally speaking when there is a failure it is never due to a single deficiency, but rather due to multiple compounding deficiencies. The only way to determine the cause is by having an expert evaluate it in a forensic evaluation.

      If the tile debonded cleaning from the back of the glass tile, but the thinset adhesive stayed bonded to the concrete substrate, then you would focus on the various reasons why that could occur. Or if the thinset adhesive stayed bonded to the back of the tile and came off cleanly off of the concrete substrate then the focus should be on whether there is a bond breaker contaminate on the concrete among other possibilities.

      Whoever installed the tile should have verified that the substrate was suitable for bonding to and should have prepared it as necessary for adhering to it. The installer is also responsible for making sure the tiles are being bonded properly to the properly prepared substrate per industry standards.

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