Frederick M. Hueston, PhD

I was having one of “those” mornings and was dying for a good cup of joe and some of Flo’s famous pancakes, but unfortunately my favorite greasy spoon was closed. They did offer curb service take-out, but it’s not the same as sitting in the diner and flirting with Flo, and hearing the same ole stories from the regulars (even if I complained about their predictable stories). It’s funny how you miss some of the everyday things you take for granted. I guess I’ll pull out the Pioneer pancake mix and the Maxwell House coffee and attempt breakfast, myself. Who knows– I may end up liking it… but I’m prepared for a “burned again” level of quality.

Like just about everywhere, things have been slow the last couple of months for the inspection business. I was about to pull my hair out with boredom. But this morning, before I started yanking on my hair, I decided to check my email – and lo,and behold – I had an interesting email from an attorney to break the monotony. 

The email read as follows:  

Dear Mr. Stone Detective, 

My name is Bill Cheatem (name changed to protect the probably guilty) with the law firm Dewey, Cheatem & Howe. I got your name from another attorney, and I need a tile and stone expert.  I have a case with a large fountain in a mall where the mosaic tiles are missing. I represent the installer and he is being sued for a faulty installation. I would like to discuss this case with you. Can you please give me a call?  

Well, this sounded like it was right up my alley, so I choked down my somewhat-acceptable pancakes and called Mr. Cheatem.

Long story short: I set up a time that very day to go inspect the fountain. I grabbed my trench coat, keys to the old Woody, and my N95 facemask, gloves and sanitizer, and I was off.  Perhaps I’ll stop on the way back to see if I can score some toilet paper. After all, I only have 75 rolls left (LOL)! 

I arrived at the mall and Squire Cheatem was waiting for me at the entrance. He told me that the attorney from the other side was going to meet us as well, and observe me doing the inspection. Well, this is going to be fun, I thought. Cheatem filled me in on the particulars, and we were off to inspect the fountain, visible in the distance from the entrance.

As I approached the fountain, the first thing I noticed was the entire fountain was clad in small glass mosaic tiles. I also noted that there were hundreds of tiles missing. Fortunately, the fountain was empty, so I climbed in to take a closer look.  I took out my pocketknife and noted that the tiles popped loose with hardly any effort, and then I noticed that none of the tiles had been grouted  – or perhaps the grout was missing. The strange thing was that the tile going up the sides of the fountain, where they would not be submerged, had grout. 

So I went over to the side and tried to remove some of the grout with my pocketknife. The grout appeared normal;  it was not soft and was bonded well.  Just as I was about to take some samples I looked up at the attorneys, who were standing right next to me like a couple of hungry vultures, watching my every move, and asked them if I could look at the filtration system.  Of course, the attorneys had to have a mini-conference, and finally agreed it would be OK to take me to the filtration room.  

As I entered the room I noticed a yellow pad lying on top of a small table. I put on my gloves and started thumbing through it, and noticed there were numerous pH readings alongside some dates. I observed that most of the readings were below 7. I was about to turn the page when the attorney from the mall snatched it out of my hands, and said he would have copies made and distribute them. Yeah, right. I’ve dealt with enough shysters to know something was hinky.

Well, I had my answer, anyway. It was obvious that the water chemistry was off, and it was not only deteriorating the grout but the setting bed as well. My gut was they either may have tried cleaning the fountain with acid or someone was not monitoring the water chemistry properly – in other words, from the evidence I’d seen, it was not a faulty installation.  

OK – let’s fast forward a few weeks. I contacted Mr. Cheatem and asked if he ever got a copy of that yellow pad with the data on it. He told me he tried but the other side claimed it was lost. That’s convenient, I thought. That yellow pad had the written evidence we needed to prove that the pH was too low and it effected the grout and the setting bed. 

However, all I had to do was point out that if there was a bonding or grout issue, the wall that wasn’t submerged would have exhibited similar failure… and reminded both lawyers I was an experienced, certified expert witness on tile and stone. Not surprisingly, the mall lawyer caved and offered to settle the case out of court, so that’s another case solved. 

Now, I really wish the restaurants were open. I could use a good, unburnt lunch to celebrate.


The Stone Detective is a fictional character created by Dr. Frederick M. Hueston, PhD, written to entertain and educate. Dr. Fred has written over 33 books on stone and tile installations, fabrication and restoration and also serves as an expert for many legal cases across the world. Fred has also been writing for the
Slippery Rock for over 20 years. Send your comments to .