So you were just at the hardware store, and you saw different types of tile. When you walked out of there, you stopped for a moment and you suddenly realized that you in fact don’t know what the difference is between ceramic tile and porcelain.
That’s fine – you’re not the only one!
You probably did notice that there seems to be a significant difference in price, though.
Beware! Buying porcelain is not as straight forward as you might think, and there’s a reason for it that you need to know about. Keep reading to find out what it is. A lot of homeowner buy what they believe it is porcelain just to find out it isn’t. While it can be hard to find out if it actually is the real thing or not, there are things you can do to improve the chances of you going home with the real thing.
So which is a better tile for you to go with? That depends. Read on to find out why so you can make your own decision.
When you’re ready, we also want to help you actually get in contact with tile installers, since the installation process is one that should ideally be done by a pro to make sure that it’s done properly and the final project ends up looking exactly the way you want it to.
Why Should You Care?
Tile is a popular material from everything from walls to floors or backsplashes. It’s also installed in basically any room in your home, although the most common times it’s used is during kitchen and bathroom remodeling projects. You obviously want the material that works for both your budget and that has the durable properties that make it a good decision to go with.
While the materials are very similar in a lot of ways, they have subtle differences that mean that you might use one material in one place but not necessarily another.
What is the Primary Difference Between Porcelain and Ceramic Tile?
The money question. Why you made it to this specific page. There’s one clear distinction between the two materials that determines if you’re dealing with one or the other. That clear distinction is what gives it a lot of its advantages. Is porcelain porous? Yes, it is, but less so than ceramic tile, and it’s also denser.
Why does it matter? Being less porous will make a significant difference in where the tile can be used. Being denser and less porous gives the material more durability, and that means you can likely also use it outside too, although you should always consult with a pro to get their recommendation on your specific case.
Being denser, porcelain can handle more serious wear than ceramics can, and since you might either be walking on it, if you’re installing it residentially, or be using machinery if it’s installed commercially, the difference can be substantial. Being denser also means that scratching and chipping is less of an issue.
In fact, if you’re dealing with either ceramic tile or porcelain comes down to the water absorption rate of the two materials. The material composition of the two materials is very similar, but if it has more than a 0.5% water absorption rate, it’s not porcelain. Why 0.5%? That is generally the level that is acknowledged by the different standard groups that are trying to make it easier for consumers to realize if they’re buying one type of material or the other.
How is it Measured?
The water absorption rate is found by submerging the tile in water and seeing how much additional weight the tile gained from the process. Fundamentally, that’s the process that determines if the absorption rate is too high for it to classify as porcelain.
What you do need to know is that it is not a protected title, and any tile manufacturer can therefore claim that they’re selling one type or the other, which undoubtedly creates certain problems for the consumer. Yes, the certification is voluntary, but that means that you ought to consider going for tiling manufacturers that carry the certification to make sure that the tile will be the quality you need it to be. When a manufacturer has gone through the process it takes to get certified, you’re also sure that you’re getting what is stated.
A lot of the tile that is used in the United States is actually imported, and when tests were done on this tile, a lot of the claimed porcelain was found to have much higher water absorption rates than the standards dictate, and when that’s the case and you install it outside, you can be pretty sure that it takes about one freeze/thaw cycle to realize that it actually wasn’t porcelain you installed because the water in the tile expands and causes the tile to crack. You don’t want to buy what is already relatively pricey material simply to find out that it absolutely does not have the durability that you thought it would have.
While you’re still reading, we want to make sure you also read our very extensive articles on ceramic floor tiles and that on porcelain floor tile.
What is Porcelain Tile and What are its Pros and Cons?
Porcelain is simply a specific type of ceramic with a significantly lower water absorption rate. It’s entirely vitrified and does not need glazing to provide it with a protective coating to be impermeable.
In comparison, here are the pros for the materials.
- Low water absorption rate – while glazing the material with liquid glass can be done, it’s not necessary to keep this material protected against water or liquid spills. With a water absorption rates below 0.5%, there’s little need to worry about spills, although they should obviously still be removed to lower the risk of falls.
- Stain-resistance – its density makes sure that chances of an ugly stain staying on your beautiful floor is kept very, very low. Other more porous materials are more at risk with spills, and that includes everything from unglazed ceramics to stone tile.
- Durability – traditionally, increased density also leads to increased durability, and that is very much also the case with regards to porcelain.
- Fire-retardant – since these tiles won’t catch fire, they can also help delay it in your home, unlike an untreated hardwood floor.
- Lifespan – you don’t want to have to replace your floor any time soon, and you can sleep quietly at night knowing that it won’t be an issue when you install porcelain. In fact, you likely won’t have to replace it while you live there. That is not to say that you can’t accidentally crack a tile that then needs replacement.
- Practically no maintenance – some floors, especially more porous ones, will have significantly more maintenance, which can include applying a sealant every couple of years, the benefit of porcelain is that you’re getting a floor with almost no maintenance. Sure, you should remove spills but that is about the only thing you should do. A normal mop is all you need in addition to sweeping when there’s dust on it.
- Damaged tile is not too hard to replace – the advantage of tile is that they’re individually laid and can be individually replaced too. It is important to make sure you have extra or you could have a hard time color matching at a later point when a tile needs to be replaced.
- Same color all the way through – while unglazed tile also has the same color all the way through, at least before it’s sealed, chips in porcelain will be much less noticeable since it basically can’t be seen with the consistent color.
The same attributes that are positive traits for the material can cause other consequences that are less desirable.
- Installation is not too easy – the material is very difficult and the more custom the design you’re having made, the more alterations will need to be made to the tile and that only helps increase the cost of the project. If your budget is tight, a solution like vinyl flooring is definitely more budget-friendly. Normal ceramic tile is also usually cheaper to have installed if you’re not going for a big and crazy custom installation.
- Its weight – the weight of the material will increase the time it takes to install it, and a contractor will also need to make sure there’s enough structural support to be able to handle the additional weight too.
- More option to customize using ceramics – the color possibilities are more diverse if you opt for an option like glazed ceramic tile instead. Additionally, the better ability to cut the tiles to your liking gives better possibility to create different patterns too.
- Uncomfortable to stand on for extended periods of time – given how hard they are, they’re not the preferable material for people that need to stand on top of it barefoot for long stretches of time. For that purpose, a soft flooring option is much more preferred.
By now you should be understanding a lot of the differences between the two materials from reading the above section and better understanding the properties of porcelain. Needless to say, while porcelain is superior in terms of its durability, it’s not always the right choice, and ceramic tile is also often the bathroom tile of choice. That includes everything from wall decorations to shower installations.
While ceramic tile is more porous, that is often not a problem since it comes in two different types – glazed and unglazed. With the liquid glass added on top of it and fused with the body of the tile during the baking, a water-resistant surface is created. Unglazed tile, on the other hand will need to be sealed to keep it from being prone to getting stained if exposed to liquids and other colorants.
The glazing can cause certain problems that you can read about in the section with the different disadvantages of this tile.
- Unglazed tile may be what you want – unglazed tile has a matte look if it hasn’t been polished, and that is an attribute that some homeowners, and even building managers like for the purpose they’re using the floor for. It needs staining if you want to make sure that the coffee you dropped on top of it doesn’t leave a nasty looking stain.
- The various design options – ceramic tile has so many different design options, both when it comes to patterns and colors. These can even be printed with your specific design, although this will be a more expensive project than if you go for more standard material. Different types and colors can also be mixed to create the pattern you want, and they come available looking like other types of material, although not having the disadvantages that that specific material would have. For example, they can be made to imitate wood, which you wouldn’t install in a bathroom since it doesn’t interact very well with the high levels of moisture. Doing so, you can stand in the shower and enjoy the perception of standing on a wooden floor.
- Durable – while porcelain is more durable, ceramic tile is definitely still a very durable option, and we just want to make sure you didn’t get the impression that wasn’t the impression from reading this article.
- Very little maintenance – an advantage that porcelain and glazed tile share is that they both require very little maintenance. Spills, dirt and stains are easily removed and there isn’t a lot of daily maintenance associated with these materials. On the other hand, if you get unglazed tile, you should know that it means you will have to stain it also.
- A good material for people suffering from allergy – allergy is a nasty thing, and if you get ceramic tile, it’s a lot better than having carpets installed, when you suffer from allergies. Dust, pollen and other allergens don’t easily accumulate and all it takes is for you to simply use a vacuum and mop, and they won’t be spoiling your room’s air quality.
- It can chip – while it is a durable type of material, chipping is not impossible and once it does, it changes color since all of the col0r is in the glazing. When you get underneath the glazing, the beautiful exterior is no longer there, and it can easily seem very inconsistent and ruined once chips occur. With unglazed tile you won’t have those issues, but they on the other hand come with significantly more maintenance too since they need to be sealed periodically.
- It can get scratched – yes, the glass surface can get scratched and while these scratches may not be incredibly visible usually, when you look carefully, they won’t look great. It means that you need to be careful when you’re transporting different things such as furniture to not drag it across the floor but actually look out for your floor instead.
- How much it weighs – while porcelain weighs more, it’s not like ceramic tile is a light option either, and the flooring contractor will still need to make sure that there’s enough support to make it safe to install. If the floor joists need to be strengthened, that will naturally also add to the associated cost.
The Weakest Link
No matter if you choose to install one type of tile or another, it’s important to know that it is often not even the tile that causes problems but rather the grout installed in between tiles. Grout has a disadvantage that porcelain doesn’t – it’s porous, and therefore vulnerable, and the consequence ends up being a material that needs sealing even if the porcelain itself doesn’t, or you might start seeing water damage as a consequence. If not sealed, it can change color and mold might start growing on it. Not cool!
What Will They Be Used For?
Certain instances require one material over another. Here’s a quick run-through of those different situations where you might want to clearly choose porcelain.
Porcelain is to be used here. Period. Make sure that any tile that is to be used is clearly marked as being appropriate for outdoor use. Especially if you’re not using tile that has been clearly certified as being genuine porcelain.
Heavy-Use or Commercial Areas
While you can get ceramic flooring that is ready for commercial use, porcelain is simply the usual recommendation in these scenarios because it is better when it comes to the abrasive wear expected in those areas.
It shouldn’t matter too much if you use glazed tile or porcelain there. The only thing you want to make sure is that ceramic tile is either glazed or sealed for protection. If not, they’re just too vulnerable!
Using the PEI Rating to Find The Right Choice
The hardness of different tiles will allow them to be installed for different purposes, and the PEI rating is one that you should be looking out for as it indicates the use that the tile has been intended for.
- PEI 5 – this is the strongest rating it can get making it the perfect choice for serious traffic, including heavy commercial use.
- PEI 4 – appropriate for some commercial use and heavy traffic, although slightly less durable than a 5-rating.
- PEI 3 – domestic floors can make use of this type of flooring since it allows moderate traffic.
- PEI 2 – intended mainly for bedrooms and bathrooms with light wear.
- PEI 1 – these rooms should be used infrequently as this is starting to otherwise become too vulnerable.
- PEI 0 – ceramic wall tiles have their purpose, they just shouldn’t be used on floors.
So, is the Best Tile For Your Bathroom Floor Ceramic or Porcelain? Some Final Thoughts
The best tile depends on what you want to use it for, and how you want it to look. Ceramic tile is simply easier to create custom solutions with, but if you’re thinking about installing it outside, there’s one option to go with – porcelain. Again, you should choose the material that best matches your style, your daily habits and your budget. In a lot of instances, both options are great choices. In some cases, you really need porcelain. Getting the recommendation of a pro is always the surest way to make the best decision.