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How to Choose the Right Ceiling Tiles


Ceiling tiles play a crucial role in reducing noise, preventing fire from spreading across rooms and floors and finishing the look of your facility. Ceiling tiles are often built from a mix of mineral fibers that possess fireproof and antimicrobial properties. Selecting the right ceiling tile depends on the specific characteristics you need for your ceilings, the design and purpose of your facility, your budget and the shape and size of your rooms.

Why Install Ceiling Tiles?

Ceiling tiles are used to cover unfinished ceilings, which are typically made from exposed wood beams, concrete or metal. Ceiling tiles also play a role in reducing noise pollution. Hard surfaces such as concrete can bounce sound around an office or open facility, increasing ambient noise. Noisy environments can lead to hearing damage, lower productivity and health problems over time. Ceiling tiles are designed to absorb sound so that it cannot reflect back into a room and increase the overall noise level. 

Ceiling tiles come in a variety of edge types, sizes and textures, and are available in a range of ratings for their ability to prevent or resist fire, absorb noise (NRC or Noise Reduction Coefficient) or block sound (CAC or Ceiling Attenuation Class). Ceiling tiles also are rated for light reflectance, which refers to the percentage of light reflected by the tile. A standard light reflectance will reflect 82% or less of light and a high light reflectance will reflect 83% or more. A higher light reflectance can create brighter spaces and even reduce energy costs. You can also choose ceiling tiles based on how much recycled content they contain.

What are Fire Ratings for Ceiling Tiles?

It's important to know your local fire rating requirements, which can vary by location and will also differ from building to building, depending on the type of facility. Most commercial facilities are required to meet certain fire ratings for all of the materials used in construction, including ceiling tiles. Be sure to consult with your local fire marshal or building inspector before choosing ceiling tiles so you are confident you're purchasing a tile system that meets all local fire rating requirements.

There are two distinctions for fire resistance in ceiling tiles. The first is UL 723 Flammability, which determines the surface burning characteristics of building materials. A good rating in this test is a Class A, which means the material is almost entirely nonflammable. The second is The ASTM test E119, which evaluates how long a ceiling can resist and prevent the spread of fire, retain its structural integrity or both. These will be ratings in time increments, for example a rating of 2 hours means the entire ceiling tile assembly (the tiles themselves and the suspension system) will be able to resist the spread of fire for 2 hours.

The ceiling tile you choose for your facility will depend on a combination of these many features and how you will want to prioritize certain features over others. For example, if you're looking to purchase a ceiling tile and suspension system for a healthcare facility, you will need a system that meets local fire rating regulations, but you'll also want one with a sealing feature that can prevent contaminants from spreading to other areas of the facility. Once you make these initial determinations, you'll be able to narrow down your choices and eliminate those with less-important features.

What is the Difference Between NRC and CAC?

NRC stands for Noise Reduction Coefficient and measures the ratio of the amount of sound a tile absorbs to the amount of sound it reflects. For example, a tile with an NRC of 0.6 absorbed 60% of the sound and reflected the other 40%. The range is between 0.1 and 1, with higher numbers representing tiles that absorb more sound. These are a better fit for louder rooms 

CAC is an acronym for Ceiling Attenuation Class. It also expresses a tile's ability to reduce sound, but instead of looking at absorption, CAC measures how well a tile can block sound between two spaces that share a same open space above the tiles. Offices commonly have this setup. The range of CAC is from 0-200 and again, higher numbers represent more sound blocking.

Different Types of Ceiling Tiles

Choosing the wrong ceiling tile for the job can lead to early replacement or repair, making it important to choose the tile that best meets your needs rather than the least expensive option. While budget is an important consideration, if your ceiling doesn't pass inspection, it will need to be replaced. The list below highlights the more common types of ceiling tiles by their most significant features and benefits. The right choice will depend on the primary application.

  • General purpose tiles are used to cover unfinished ceilings and reduce ambient noise within a space. These tiles come in a variety of sizes and textures and are widely used in commercial facilities. 
  • High sound absorption tiles are designed with materials that can reduce more noise within a space and can also block more noise from traveling to adjacent rooms, offering an added level of privacy. These tiles are often used in higher-traffic areas in offices, healthcare facilities and schools.
  • Sag and mold-resistant Tiles are treated with a special coating that helps prevent moisture from penetrating the surface, which in turn prevents the growth of mold and mildew. These tiles are constructed from durable, rigid material that stays flat and helps prevent sagging.
  • ISO-rated tiles for cleanrooms These tiles work together with a cleanroom-rated suspension system to help control airflow from contaminant-prone environments. These tiles are Class A ISO-rated for their ability to prevent fire from spreading from room to room. 
  • Sealed system tiles for isolation rooms are designed to create an air seal that prevents contaminated air from escaping to adjacent rooms. This feature makes them ideal for medical or laboratory environments.
  • Tamper-resistant tiles for restricted access are made of steel and are designed for use with specially designed mounting hardware. The purpose of these tiles is to prevent access to the open area (plenum) above the tiles. Tamper-resistant tiles are used most often in correctional and behavioral health facilities and containment areas.

Hanging Hardware for Ceiling Tiles

Installing ceiling tiles requires framing, hangers and fasteners designed to work together for stability, durability and aesthetics.

Suspension framing for ceiling tiles goes between your tiles and attaches to the ceiling, supporting the tiles in an even grid. Suspension framing systems include main beams, cross tees and wall molding.  Suspension framing can be custom designed to fit unique patterns or layouts. Hanging wire is used to attach the suspension framing to the ceiling, and clips and fasteners are used to hold tiles securely in place.  

Grainger.com has a handy filtering feature for ceiling tiles here that allows you to choose from the many ceiling tile properties you need, making it easier to narrow down your choices. 

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The information contained in this article is intended for general information purposes only and is based on information available as of the initial date of publication. No representation is made that the information or references are complete or remain current. This article is not a substitute for review of current applicable government regulations, industry standards, or other standards specific to your business and/or activities and should not be construed as legal advice or opinion. Readers with specific questions should refer to the applicable standards or consult with an attorney.