You’ve heard the hype, but what’s the truth & problems with porcelain paving? Lee Bestall gives you his personal opinion after trialing at his own home

Paving Choices

In addition to porcelain, there’s quite a few choices ranging from sandstone, granite, marble, limestone and concrete paving, decking, setts and gravel.  All have different levels of durability and aftercare requirements, but could porcelain be the perfect answer to all of your concerns?

Many people are keen to share their experience of York and Indian/imported sandstone that can discolour quickly, absorb moisture, turn green and in turn become very slippery, but before you discount them as options for you, read our article on ‘which paving is best for me?’

Once you’ve decided that porcelain is the paving choice for you, what’s the truth & problems with porcelain paving and how easy is it to look after?

I’ve had a light ivory coloured porcelain patio for around 4 years now (it flows from inside the house like in this picture) and last year I installed an area of dark grey tiles in a different part of the garden so here are my thoughts on both.

Like any external surface, there’s always aftercare to be done.  I like to refer to it as outdoor housework, it seems to set the expectation that way.  You wouldn’t expect your car to stay clean for long if you left it out on the driveway, and you’d probably clean the floors inside your house at least once per week.  External floor space is much the same.  In fact, for a ‘chic hotel look’ you’ll need to sweep it every day to remove leaves & dust, blossom and general debris that blows around.

Using porcelain is definitely a great design choice, but its not right for every property due to the clean contemporary aesthetic, however if you’re after the ‘I’m on holiday’ look, it’s perfect.  I think it works really well in small modern courtyards, large terraces, around swimming pools and on roof gardens (using specially designed self adjustable plastic risers).

With the exception of surface debris such as leaves, porcelain tiles definitely stay cleaner for longer and because it’s not absorbent, it doesn’t tend to green as quickly as sandstone, in fact, I generally only power wash the porcelain twice per year, once in March after the winter and once again in autumn once the leaves have fallen. During the lockdown year I’ll admit that I power washed every 3 months as we were using the garden more frequently.

Problems with porcelain paving

The above photograph illustrates how, even when my cream tiles are really dirty, they are very easy to clean with a pressure washer.

My porcelain tiles do still get dirty, in particular the lighter coloured ones.  Personally I wouldn’t recommend light cream ones for the UK … mine are constantly discoloured by tannins from leaves, stained by berries and even petals. Even when I’ve cleaned the cream tiles, they are dirty again a week later.  I’ve tried all kinds of cleaners and none of them remove the stains completely (I’d love to be challenged by a manufacturer on this though!).  I would however highly recommend dark grey because (with the exception of bird poo), they need much less aftercare.

Some of the problems with porcelain tiles I’ve read about include tiles lifting or becoming loose, but this is generally because they were not laid on a full bed of mortar and/or slurry primed with a proprietary primer such as UltraScape ProPrime Slurry or a home made mixture of SBR and cement (extreme care should be taken not to get this on the face of the tile during application).  When applied to the rear of the tile prior to laying, this provides much better adhesion to the mortar bed, so make sure you fully research an experienced installer and get advice from the seller when you buy the tiles, as incorrect laying will probably affect any guarantee the tile suppliers offer.

Porcelain tiles shouldn’t crack if they are laid on a full bed of mortar.  I’ve had them laid for 4 years now and they’ve taken temperatures down to -6C and been under snow and ice for long periods, showing no signs of movement.

On another note, I pointed my tiles with Mappi external tile grout, but there others on the market reported to be as good.

Will my porcelain paving be slippery when wet?

In my experience, I’ve honestly never noticed.  Honestly, thats the truth.  I’ve walked on ours daily, through extreme frosts, snow and rain and not once have I felt unsafe, but I wonder if theres some psychology going on here.  Maybe because I expect them to be more slippery than the normal paving I’m more mindful when walking on them.

If you read the manufacturers brochure, it will give you details about the slip rating (the higher the slip rating, the less likely you are to slip).  When using porcelain outside, check the slip rating is at least R11 and always use 20mm thick (10mm matching tiles for indoor areas are often available but are not suitable for external use).

Should I select a smooth or textured surface?

I’d definitely avoid a textured surface if you’re a neat freak like me.  Tiny bits of dirt and dust get trapped in the ‘pits’ and the tile can look very dirty very quickly (see picture above).  The grey ones I installed have a smoother finish and I use a traditional mop & bucket approach to clean them (its less noisy than the power washer and much less hassle).  I’ve started to mop the grey tiles in the courtyard weekly, because (due to the easing of lockdown restrictions when I wrote this article) we’re use the space a lot, and that’s the look I’m after (we have an outdoor rug and bioethanol fire pit in this area so I will often sit on a cushion on the floor).

What colour grout should I choose?

Basically there are two options, go the same as the paving eg. grey/black for darker tiles or light as a contrast.  Personally I’d go dark grey for grey or black tiles and either cream for lighter tiles (this will make the patio look larger) or a grey which will show more of the pattern.  You’d think that cream grout would get filthy outside, and as you can see from the picture it does, but it cleans up pretty well. Given a choice though, I’d go dark paving and dark (but slightly lighter or darker than the paving) external grout.

What laying pattern should I choose?

Often you’ll find the most cost effective option is to select 600mm x 600mm tiles (they are generally cheaper than large format tiles as they dry quicker during the manufacturing process) and I like to specify a half bond pattern.  The half bond pattern is more forgiving if the tiles are not absolutely the same size (it happens!).

If budget allows, select larger format tiles and even planks that can also be laid half bond (sometimes called brick bond), or 1/3 (ie divide the length of the tile between 3 and stagger the joints this way) or why not try herringbone, but be warned this this is much harder to lay and there will be increased cuts and wastage.

Generally 4mm spacers are used between the tiles externally, but if you’re trying to do the ‘inside outside’ thing and align the tiles with those inside the house, be sure to use 4mm spacers internally too.

Can I use ceramic tiles outside?

I wound’t recommend it, not in the UK. Stick to 20mm thick porcelain tiles.

So that’s it, the truth about porcelain paving …. well, my personal experience of the truth anyway.