Patio Tiles 101

Photo: Ged Carroll/Flickr

Making the switch from a plain concrete patio to one that is set with ceramic, porcelain, mosaic, stone, or other types of tile can be a good way to not only give your outdoor patio a new look that matches your home’s aesthetic, but it can ensure that you and your loved ones will enjoy a durable and attractive patio for years to come. Of course, as with any home improvement project, there are some key factors to carefully research and compare as part of a plan for your new patio:

Material: There are many materials both man-made and natural that make great outdoor tiles. For an outdoor patio, it is essential to choose tiles that are both durable and do not have a high porosity or absorbency rate, as more porous tiles can be easily worn down or damaged by water, weather patterns, and other factors. Popular materials for outdoor tiles include porcelain, which is sturdy and has a low absorbency rate (it can come unglazed or glazed). Another popular choice is glazed or unglazed mosaic; unglazed has a low absorbency rate, while glazed can be decorated in hundreds of ways and is very customizable. Terra cotta tiles usually have a lovely sienna shade and are extremely durable in non-freezing climates. Slate tiles are a good choice for freezing weather, but are also made of a material that is very porous and need regular upkeep as a result. Natural stone tiles are also popular, especially among eco-conscious homeowners, but despite their natural hardness and beauty, they can scratch easily and may become extremely slippery during rainy or snowy weather.

Slippage: For many homeowners -- particularly those who plan to, or already do, use their outdoor patios year-round, this is a huge concern and deserves to be taken into serious consideration when planning a full patio renovation. Mindfully making grout part of your tiled layout is one very effective way to combat slippage; grout is the mixture (usually some sort of cement or concrete blend) that both sets and seals tile joints on a patio, in addition to giving it more strength overall. Simply put, it’s the grimy-looking matte stuff between square tiles. Since grout is not slippery -- unlike some types of tile that get slick or slippery when wet -- it provides traction for feet, and can go a long way in preventing slips, falls, and other injuries.

Overall durability, weather sensitivity, and water absorption: As noted above, some types of tile material are too soft, porous, or at risk of cracking or crumbling to be used in certain climates for outdoor patio tiles. The “why” of durability and weather hardiness -- and liquid absorption -- is going to depend a lot on where your home is located and what your area’s seasonal weather patterns are like.

For example, if you live in an area in the Midwest that brings extreme cold during the snow season(s), an outdoor patio made up of terra cotta tiles will probably not be a sound investment, since terra cotta is subject to weakening, cracking or breaking in freezing temperatures; any snow or rainwater that gets into your terra cotta tiles can freeze and unfreeze, thereby loosening the strength of the terra cotta even in warmer seasons. This isn’t just limited to cold areas, however; imagine installing dark stone tiles on your patio in a geographical location that gets extremely hot in the summer…and then discovering that your beautiful new patio can burn your or your guests’ bare feet!

Tile style and/or personal aesthetic: This factor is often very dependent on geographical location and weather sensitivity concerns, but it is also important. If you’ve always dreamt of an artsy, custom-designed set of terra cotta tiles that fit together to reveal a beautiful pattern that resides on your outdoor patio but you live in an area where glazed terra cotta is simply too impractical for your area’s weather, this will most likely limit you in terms of what sort of patio you can have. Many tile companies offer unique or custom designs for patio tiles made from a variety of materials, but the overall design is still an aspect that you need to carefully consider if you don’t want to spend a lot of money on a patio that has a design or aesthetic that you dislike.

Anna Hill writes for

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