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DON'T BE FLOORED // It's remained popular for centuries

CERAMIC TILE

Examples of glazed tile survive from as far back as the 6th century B.C., at the Ishtar Gate in Babylon. Tile has lost none of its popularity since then. It is a $1.31-billion-a-year business. Florida runs a close second to California, the No. 1 state in use of tile.

What accounts for its popularity? Certainly the look is a big part of it. Ceramic tile is a low-maintenance, long-lived material that is environmentally friendly and water-resistant. It offers virtually unlimited colors, sizes, textures and patterns. There are tiles for every pocketbook, from $1.50 a square foot up to $6 or $7 _ or beyond, for truly elaborate handcrafted tiles.

Tile's long life means consumers had better be prepared to live for a long time with whatever they choose because it is difficult and expensive to remove.

As a hard surface, it is unforgiving; a dish dropped on a tile floor likely will break. It's not resilient: Standing and walking on a tile surface all day can leave a person stiff and sore. And unsealed grout is subject to stains and mildew. Tile is embedded in mortar; then the spaces between the tiles are filled in with grout.

Tile carries a durability rating of 1 through 4+, said Mike Pipkin of Seahock Carpet One in St. Petersburg. "The higher the number, the harder the tile. You want a high number." Single-fired tile, he said, is more durable than double-fired, which is prone to chipping because the glaze is baked on in a separate layer.

"You get what you pay for," said Jason Klein, a manager at Ceramic Solutions in Tampa. Choose a higher-quality, more expensive tile for high-traffic, high-abrasion areas such as a kitchen or dining area, he said, where chairs will be dragged across a floor day after day. A less expensive tile can be appropriate for a bedroom, where abrasion is minimal.

What's popular now: ceramic tiles that resemble natural stone _ marble, granite, limestone. The lookalike tiles are popular "because they're less expensive than the real thing," said Melissa DeVolentine, a spokeswoman for the Tile Promotion Board. That look, and interest in colors such as yellow and green, are in line with a trend in the interior design world toward environmental, natural colors and themes. There are tiles that look like wood, she said, and decorative inserts that look like fossils.

Terra-cotta retains its longstanding popularity, Klein said. And many people prefer a neutral that will work now and later with whatever they do in the rest of the house.

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