As homeowners, we expect to see signs of wear and degradation as our homes age. However, floor tiles that buckle after years of being trouble free can indicate damage to the structural integrity of the home. Floods, earthquakes, drought and extreme changes in temperature can cause the soil around the home's foundation to shift or settle. Damage may be substantial and easily noticed at the time of the event, or it can be subtle damage that isn't apparent for years.
Standing water does not damage ceramic tile, but it damages the grout or adhesive under the tiles, and this can loosen tiles. Water-saturated plywood or particle board can expand and buckle. After you have cleaned up the water, the floor tiles may appear fine. Damage may not be evident for several months or years. If the grout is eroded or cracked, though, foot traffic can cause tiles to pop loose. Moving heavy pieces of furniture or putting excessive weight on the tiles can cause them to shift or break.
Some earthquakes are so small they are hardly noticed. Nevertheless, they can cause damage to the substructure or cause the house to settle or shift on its foundation. Ceramic tiles do not expand or contract. The tile buckling problem is most always caused by structural damage to the subfloor or foundation.
After a period of prolonged drought, the soil under the foundation of the home can dry out, and this can cause the house to settle, causing structural damage. Floor tile that buckles years after installation can be a sign of drought damage. As the subfloor shifts, grout loosens and tile may pop loose, causing "tenting" in the tile floor. Drought damage is especially apparent on tile floors installed over a concrete slab.
Extreme Temperature Changes
Extreme temperature changes can cause grout to crack and tiles to shift. In areas of temperature extremes, it is wise to install periodic soft joints. Soft joints are sanded latex or silicone caulking used in place of cement grout. Most building supply stores carry sanded latex in colors to match your grout. The installation of occasional soft joints can alleviate the problem. Soft joints accommodate some of the movement from foundation settling or subfloor shrinkage or expansion.