Why is my ceramic tile making a Crackling Noise when I step on it?

QUESTION

My house was built in 1956. I have owned it since 2012. There is ceramic tile on the floor in the second floor bath. It is the original tile with no signs of repair or cracks in the tile or grout. There is an area about 15x15 inches that makes a crackling noise when you step on it. It is not near the tub or the sink and not a place where it get wet (at least not from the top). It only makes the noise when it is stepped on.

Since this has only occurred in the last 4 weeks, something has changed. I have never had ceramic tile before so I have no idea. I can live with the noise but don't want to ignore it if it will become a larger problem. Could it be water leaking underneath the tile? Any suggestions/ideas will be GREATLY appreciated.
Thank you!

ANSWER

ANSWER - I assume that the crackling noise that you are hearing can also be considered a squeaking sound that some say they hear on tile floors over wood sub-floors.

Because you say that the tile floor in question is on the second floor, I am going to assume that the tile is installed over a wood sub-floor.  There may be a cement backer board or a mortar bed between the tile and the wood sub-floor or it could be that the tile is bonded directly to the plywood sub-floor or over a wood underlayment.

Since the crackling or squeaky sound you are hearing when you step on those tiles is over a relatively small area, and that it recently started making the sound, there are a couple of reasons of what is causing that condition.

One reason the tiles could be making noise when you step on them is that the tile might have debonded in that spot, so when you walk on those tiles they move and make that sound.  The reason it may have debonded might be because you don't have movement joints at the perimeter of tile installation where it transitions to the walls or in other locations where there should be a movement joint.

Movement joints are grout joints filled with a resilient sealant that is normally a silicone sealant.  Tiles can expand as they are subjected to moisture in the form of humidity or water, or if they are subjected to temperature changes or if the tile floor has excessive deflection.  So that is why you have movement joints to mitigate the anticipated movements that the tile floor can be subjected to.  If the tiles expand and are constrained, then the tiles can be subjected to stress that is greater than what they can resist, which then can cause the tiles to debond.

Another reason why tiles could be making noise when you step on them, is if they are installed over a wood substrate.  If the underlying plywood is degrading either from moisture or excessive deflection, then the layers of the plywood can come loose causing the noise.  Or if the plywood was installed without 1/8" gaps between sheets, then if the plywood is subjected to moisture it can expand and buckle up that can cause the tile to debond.

The only way to determine what has caused the tiles to make noise when you step on them, is to remove the tiles and evaluate the underlying conditions.  Since there is no visual damage, I would just keep an eye on it and see if you notice any moisture or cracking later on, and then if necessary do some exploratory inspections.

13 thoughts on “Why is my ceramic tile making a Crackling Noise when I step on it?

  1. Gary Taylor says:

    I am having a similar problem in a downstairs 1000 square foot area of my house. We have Super Salltillo , Pillow edged tiles , present when we purchased the home 23 years ago. Within the past 8 months are so there are 3 to 4 small areas with one or two tiles that are making the crunching sound when stepped on. I also notice the grout is wearing away from the edges of seveal of the tiles. My question to you , is would it be risky to attempt to remove/lift those tiles and then return them to the same spot with the proper cement? We have a concrete slab floor and I have no idea about the installation since we purchased the house in its existing state.

  2. Donato Pompo says:

    Since the Super Saltillo tiles are installed over a concrete slab there is no plywood that could be making the noise. It could be the tile is loose or internally the tile has some weak spots.
    Some Saltillo tiles are known for having what we call lime-pops. This is where the lime they add to the clay during the manufacturing process isn’t mixed well enough and it leaves little spots of lime near the surface of the tile. When the lime gets wet it expands and causes spalling or deterioration of that spot on the tile.

    If the tile is well bonded to the concrete slab it won’t come up in one piece. You can remove the damaged tile to determine what has caused the problem and then get a new tile to match to install. That is not a problem for a experienced tile installer.

    You can replace the grout, but at first it will look different from the original grout because the color will be different to some degree and it will be new grout next to dirty grout. Eventually the grout color will blend in as typically people will allow the grout to get dirty and appear darker.

  3. Michael Millner says:

    Use a grout removal saw and scrape the grout out from around the tile. Regrout the tile or tiles that are making the noise and regrout. If that doesn’t work, then you have to lift the tile or tiles and replace the tile in the areas. If that doesn’t work, then there’s a problem with the underlayment. Hope this helps!

  4. Anna Rumsey says:

    We have an older house, we remodeled the kitchen and had ceramic wood-look plank tiles put down for the floor. They replaced the subfloor and used cement board. In front of the refrigerator– we have cracked tile now and some movement. Also very imperceptible movement/give in hallway. Also, some of the tiles seem to be uneven, sticking up more than others– they all started out flat. Contractor mentioned we might need a “drop seal” for the foundation. Any thoughts? I cannot afford to replace this floor again and am still waiting to do my living room in the same tile that flows into the kitchen to make house look bigger with one type of flooring. We previously had linoleum in kitchen, have carpet in living room.

    • Donato Pompo says:

      Tile should not crack or move if the floor substrate was properly prepared and the tile was properly installed.

      Wood plank tiles are normally impervious porcelain tiles. So if they are sticking up then either they have come loose or when it was installed the installer might have excessive lippage where one edge of two adjacent tiles is higher or lower than the adjacent tile.

      For tile to crack could be caused by a number conditions. There could be voids underneath. The wood subfloor might have too much deflection and or it was installed incorrectly. The only way to figure out what is wrong so you can determine how to fix it is to remove tile and look for the evidence. This normally requires a tile expert such as http://www.CTaSC.com although it isn’t always practical to hire someone with our level of expertise.

      The tile installer should be responsible for repairing the situation. I don’t know what he means by a “drop seal” unless he is suggesting it is a vapor barrier that goes on the ground under the floor. But a porcelain tile being subjected to moisture vapor shouldn’t have caused the problem you are experiencing. Unfortunately there is no easy solution other than having an expert perform a forensic inspection to determine the problem and the solution.

  5. Nermin Massoud says:

    I just had a remodeling job in my house that included my upstairs bathroom.
    We installed porcelain floor 24×24
    The tiles along my bathtub are all making crackling/ squeezing noises.
    Now I’m very concerned about my brand new bathroom
    What should I do?

    • Donato Pompo says:

      Sometimes the wood sub-floor will make squeaking sounds if it wasn’t screwed down tightly or it had unstable spots. If there was a membrane installed under the tile it could be making the noise if it has some voids. It might not cause damages to the tile. To fix it you might need to remove the tiles and re-install tiles in those spots. If there are excessive voids, I have seen were a product called Fix-a-Floor can be used to try to fill the voids, but it isn’t a guarantee that it will solve the problem.

  6. Josh says:

    Our house was built in 2000 single story slab foundation. The tile is making crackling and popping sounds when stepped on in several areas. The tile was laid on a slip sheet (building paper I believe). The tile is in great shape and would prefer not to rip it up. is there a way to remedy this problem without removing tile?

    • Donato Pompo says:

      Installing tile over building paper is not considered an industry approved installation method. For awhile back around 2000 home builders were installing over building paper that they called a slip sheet or cleavage membrane to act as a crack isolation membrane. There were a number of different types of failures due to this installation method and we don’t see it being done any more.

      The cracking and popping sounds could be due to the tile being installed over the building paper that allows the tile to slightly move due to voids under the paper. It could be due to voids in the adhesive. I could be due to not having movement joints at the perimeters at restraining surfaces and the tile being a more absorbing tile that will have a propensity to expand when subject to heat or moisture, or more likely it is a combination of one or more of those conditions. If you have voids under the tile, I have seen were a product called Fix-a-Floor can be used to try to fill the voids, but it isn’t a guarantee that it will solve the problem.

  7. Laura Jelinske says:

    We just bought a condo built in 2005. We have been noticing snapping sounds when walking over certain tiles. How do you fix this and can it get worse?

  8. Donato Pompo says:

    The cracking and popping sounds could be due to the tile being installed over the building paper that allows the tile to slightly move due to voids under the paper. It could be due to voids in the adhesive. I could be due to not having movement joints at the perimeters at restraining surfaces and the tile being a more absorbing tile that will have a propensity to expand when subject to heat or moisture, or more likely it is a combination of one or more of those conditions. If you have voids under the tile, I have seen were a product called Fix-a-Floor can be used to try to fill the voids, but it isn’t a guarantee that it will solve the problem.

    No way of knowing for sure if it will get worst, but more likely it will. Only way to determine what the problem is and how to fix it is by having an expert remove a few tiles under variation conditions and evaluating the conditions.

  9. CHris says:

    Hey there,

    I installed a 24”x48” format tile in my kitchen. The same tile runs in my foyer where the stairs are . I put underlay down over the old subfloor which was in okay condition then I had put down ditra . Afterwords I installed the tile, about 2 months went by and I had my stairs carpeted and I started putting up baseboard Afterwords. While installing baseboard I had noticed the tile bordering the stairs had slight lippage against the one next to it, so when installing the baseboard I ran it at the height of the tile slightly higher then the two. I then caulked the 1/32” gap between the tile and baseboard that is closest to the stairs . When doing so I did push down hard on the baseboard to get the gap as minimal as possible on the one tile . About a week later I noticed a individual ticking sound when I step on the tile , it comes and goes . I used the best thinset on the market I made sure it was the proper kind to lay the ditra and tile down , and I’m stumped as to why there is a ticking sound when I step on it , I had one other tile do the same thing where I hadn’t to caulk under the baseboard .

    • Donato Pompo says:

      The ticking sound is likely the tile moving slightly. It could be because the wood subfloor has a weak spot. It could be because there is a slight gap between the wood subfloor and the wood underlayment. It could because the Ditra isn’t bonded completely in that spot. The only way to fix it is to remove the tile and Ditra and then verify if the substrate still clicks. If not the apply more Ditra and make sure it is bonded fully and then make sure the tile is fully bonded to the Ditra.

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