Will Ceramic Tile crack in cabins that are not heated during the winter months in cold climates?


Hi! We are considering having the tub surround tiled in our cabin bathroom, in Manitoba, Canada. We don't plan to visit very often in the winter, so the cabin will not be heated during that season, and temperatures can go quite low (-40C). If we use ceramic tile, how much of a chance would there be for cracking? The building will be insulated, but again, not heated.
Thank you for your time!


ANSWER - If the ceramic tile is installed correctly it can be used in cold environments without cracking as long as it isn't subjected to moisture during freeze thaw conditions.   Some tiles like porcelain ceramic tile are impervious, so they are not affected by moisture in freeze thaw environments.

It would be recommended to select a porcelain tile for the cabin and make sure it is installed correctly per industry standards.   You can have special tile electric floor warming wiring installed under the ceramic tile as you install the tile that will allow you to warm your floors with a thermostat.  You can adjust the thermostat to different levels of comfort and efficiencies, and put it on a vacation setting when you are gone for long periods.

34 thoughts on “Will Ceramic Tile crack in cabins that are not heated during the winter months in cold climates?

  1. Becky says:

    I’m not sure when this was posted, but I have a similar question. What grout/adhesive should be used in these situations?

  2. Donato Pompo says:

    For cold climates that have freezing weather, it is recommended that you use polymer modified or latex modified mortars, which are more dense and resistant to moisture. This includes mortar beds, thin-set adhesive mortars and grout mortars.

    Moisture that freezes when inside the tile or grout does the most damage. So if you have an impervious tile and low absorption mortars then they are more resistant to damage. Of course it is important that the tile is installed correctly with movement joints to help mitigate any stress they might be subjected to due to the temperature and moisture conditions.

    • Donato Pompo says:

      It depends on the type of tile they are. If they are impervious porcelain tiles then they should be ok. If they are absorbing tiles then that could be a problem. The moisture that is absorbed into the tiles will freeze in freezing weather. That will cause the moisture to expand and can cause the tile to spall or degrade. The joints should be grouted with an epoxy grout that will not absorb moisture for the same reason as above.

    • Donato Pompo says:

      You have to test the tile per ASTM C373 and if the absorption result is 0.5% or less then by definition it is impervious. If the tile doesn’t readily absorb a drop of water that you place on it and it stays there awhile then it is likely a vitreous or impervious tile.

    • Donato Pompo says:

      I would test both sides. For the tile to be considered impervious then the body of the tile needs to be impervious. If there is a glazed surface then it too should be impervious and not absorb water.

  3. bobby says:

    Hi , i have done my garden porcelain tile after snowing and low temperature when i walk today i think some tile become loose . i don’t know why , 2 weeks was very low temperature-3 or 4

    • Donato Pompo says:

      There are many factors to what might make a porcelain tile loose in freezing temperatures. Most manufacturers of tile adhesive do not allow their products to be used below 40 degrees F as it is too cold for it to bond. How you installed the tile can be another factor to why it came loose. The substrate itself can be another factor to why the tile didn’t adequately bond if there were some type of contaminant.

  4. Khwaja Ajib says:

    Hi I have Ceramic tiles I want to store in my Garage. I am concerned that it will break in the winter time. Do you think tgey will break? Thanks

    • Donato Pompo says:

      As long as the ceramic tiles are kept dry the cold weather shouldn’t affect them. If they get wet from high humidity or water and they are a porous tile, then the moisture can freeze and expand and could cause spalling in the tile.

  5. Desiree Stokes says:

    Hi donate I live in tyler tx where we had a hard freeze .( natural disaster) We lost power for a week and it was 20degrees inside . My travitine floor have now gotten running cracks going through them in my bathroom. is this due to them freezing ?

    • Donato Pompo says:

      Travertine stone is very dense with a low absorption so it is resistant to freeze-thaw conditions. Although depending on how it was installed and what are the underlying substrate conditions, then the extreme cold weather could have caused or contributed to cracking. The only way to be sure is to do an intrusive inspection of the travertine floor.

      In terms of insurance claims, the insurance company wants evidence that the damage to the stone was resultant damages from the weather incident, even if the tile wasn’t originally installed correctly, in order to provide coverage. If they can determine it is pre-existing damages then they will not provide coverage.

  6. Rob says:

    I am considering putting a niech on 2 seperate exterior walls in my bathroom. My concern is the inability to put any insulation behind the pre-fab units and or the fluctuations in temperature we have here in NY. I also have fears that the mortar and or grout will be compromised.

    So my question is, can I install a pre-fab neich and tile accordingly without worry that my bathroom will need re-tiled

    • Donato Pompo says:

      Niches are installed all the time in showers. There are prefab foam niches that provide a level of additional insulation. If you use the fiberglass insulation it is compressible. If you frame the niche properly and install sealant at the transitions of plane it should be structurally sound.

      If you are talking about installing a niche in a shower that is already tiled, then you have to be able to remove the existing tile and substrate between studs. You need to waterproof that transition to make sure water cannot get into the wall cavity. How successfully it can be done depends on how well you do the work and whether the existing installation is sound.

  7. Sue says:

    Hello Donato, thank you for your patience on this aspect of concern. I am creating mosaic sculptures that will be outside in the garden. I live in Australia so we do have frost here. Sometimes we have -6 celsius. The tesserae that is often used are the ceramic tile. I use good adhesive and grout both designed for our door wet areas, the the finished piece is sealed with tile sealer. So my question is;
    Will the ceramic tile crack or deteriorate ?


    • Donato Pompo says:

      If the ceramic tiles are freeze thaw stable (normally less than 3% absorption), if the installation materials are freeze thaw stable, if the tile substrate is stable without excessive deflection (not more than L/360) and the tiles are installed correctly per the installation manufacturer’s directions then the tile should perform well.

  8. Thomas says:

    To all, I just found this thread and it’s a treasure. Great questions and excellent answers! I do have a question: can I seal porous tiles? I plan to use them on the exterior of planter boxes i plan to make with a rubber moisture barrier on the inside? Thank you!

    • Donato Pompo says:

      It is recommended to seal all porous tiles. All tiles are porous to some degree. Impervious tiles still have 0.5% absorption or less. Vitreous has up to 3% absorption. Semi-vitreous tiles have up to 7% absorption, and non-vitreous tiles have over 7% and up to 20% absorption.

      Any tile over 3% absorption is not considered freeze thaw stable. So sealing will help, but sealers don’t last all that long. So in freezing weather you have to regularly re-seal the tiles whenever they are absorbing moisture.

      The planter box should have weep holes at the bottom and be set over gravel to allow for drainage otherwise it will hold water.

  9. CK says:

    Hi Donato,
    My entire tiles around the house make the crackling sound like when you walk on thin ice and this happens during the Texas February 2021 winter freeze. I have 3 days off no electricity and the house was like 37 degrees when the lowest temp dropped to 15. The insurance doesn’t think the water freeze cause the damage so is that correct? Please advise. Thank you.

    • Donato Pompo says:

      It is possible that the tile was affected by that weather and the temperature fluctuation if the tile was not installed properly. If there were no movement joints at the perimeter of the room or throughout the installation to mitigate the expansion and resultant stress and the tile wasn’t bonded as well as it should be that could cause the issue.

      Although the insurance companies normally will pay a claim even if the tile wasn’t installed correctly, as long as there is evidence that there is resultant damages from the event. If you don’t have debonded tiles or if there is evidence that the tiles were in that condition prior to the event then the insurance will not accept the claim.

  10. Allene says:

    Hi Donato,
    We are thinking about continuous tile floors throughout the house and covered porches. This is in the mountains in southern colorado so can get to -20 and also lots of sun, and really do not want slippery surfaces. What do you recommend?

    Thanks! Allene

    • Donato Pompo says:

      Porcelain Ceramic Tile is impervious so that is the best type of tile to use in a freeze thaw environment. It does come with different surface textures so some are more slip resistant than others. If it is too textured it can cause a maintenance issue in needing to be cleaned too frequently. There are some slip resistant glazed porcelain tiles that are marketed as being easier to maintain.

      It is also important that in a freeze thaw environment that you use polymer modified mortar beds and thinsets that are freeze thaw stable. Of course it is also important that the tile is installed correctly per industry standards and manufacturer’s directions.

    • Donato Pompo says:

      I would not use glass tile mosaics for a couple of reasons. First a 1×1 tile has a lot of grout joints that would tend to collect dirt and stain; even with an epoxy grout.

      The other is that glass tile is thermal shock sensitive to rapid changes in temperature. Better to go with a large glazed porcelain that will be much easier to clean and would not have a propensity to stain.

  11. Lorrie L Thomas says:

    Donato! You are definitly the tile man expert!
    I am wanting to install Saltillo Tile in Michigan – 900 square feet. Is this an impractical installation for Michigan? Thank you in advance.

    • Donato Pompo says:

      Saltillo Tile is a very porous unglazed clay tile from the Saltillo Mexico region. It will not do well in an exterior freeze thaw environment. It can work interior where you don’t have the moisture and low temperatures. You can seal the surface of the tile, but that is only temporary and you have to reseal it regularly if you want to maintain the look and the performance of being more stain resistant. It is a very irregular tile in sizing so you have to have wider grout joints that are often 3/4″ or wider.

  12. Lisa R says:

    You are so helpful. We had tile installed in 2 bathrooms without waterproofing/tape by a contractor. Now it’s cracking. We have to redo them. Can we put ceramic tile in an outdoor building’s bathroom that gets down to 40 degrees?

    • Donato Pompo says:

      First you need to determine why the tile is cracking so you don’t end up with the same problem again.

      If you use a porcelain tile bonded to a waterproof membrane with a polymer modified thinset mortar adhesive and you installed it correctly per industry standards then the tile assembly should perform well at 40 degrees F or lower.

  13. Pam says:

    Hello, my question is I am building a new home in Maine and due to the temperatures are now dropping we are at the stage of tiling bathroom floors over concrete. We will be using space heaters throughout the winter and I was wondering if I can still tile over concrete slab and if that is possible how long do I need to keep space heaters running because at some point they will be turned off and they will be no heat for a few months. Until the project starts up again in the spring

    • Donato Pompo says:

      Most thin-set mortars state that the surface of the substrate or tile can’t be below 40 degrees F or above 90 degrees F. In colder temperatures the thinset mortar will take longer to setup and cure. You have to be careful when using propane heaters as the fumes can cause problems with some materials such as epoxies. Once the tile has been installed and the thinset has cured, as long as you have proper movement joints at the perimeters and within the field of tile you don’t need prolong heating. After being cold for a long while don’t heat it up too fast, better to heat up slow so the tile and materials are not subjected to excessive thermo stresses.

  14. Brian Renne says:

    Hey there, Donato!
    My name is Brian Renne and I’m a tile contractor in the Pittsburgh Pennsylvania area. So I’m looking to renovate a really high end outdoor spa this coming spring, and we’re wanting to replace the plaster finish with glass mosaic sheets. (small format roughly 1/2″×1/2″ squares). We’re comfortable with demo of existing plaster and understand that substrate prep is critical. The spa was originally built well and everything appears to be structurally sound. Our concern is the climate in southwest pa., And the potential of many freeze/ thaw cycles during our winter months.
    Do you think that we are safe to use glass as a finish surface, knowing that it will be exposed to some potentially cold winter months?

    • Donato Pompo says:

      Glass tile is impervious so it will not absorb moisture that would then expand and does cause cracking in more porous tiles. Glass tiles are somewhat sensitive to extreme temperature fluctuations and can be subject to thermal shock. Although it is common to use glass tile in hot tubs. It just depends on the type of glass tile you use.

      You also have to be concerned about the substrate and thinset that should be freeze thaw stable. If you are floating the spa surface then use a polymer modified mortar like Laticrete 3701 fortified mortar. You should apply a liquid applied waterproof membrane over the mortar bed or the prepared substrate to prevent water from absorbing into the mortar bed. Use a polymer modified thinset mortar that is low absorbing. Be sure to install movement joints at the perimeters of the tile installation such as at the transition of the coping to the tile or at any change of planes. Follow TCNA EJ171 for properly installed movement joints. Use an ASTM C920 sealant that is recommended for submerged applications over a closed cell backer rod or over bond breaking tape. If all is done properly as described it should perform adequately in a cold environment.

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