Cleaning and Sealing Tile and Grout
Tile is the simplest product to tackle first. Glazed tile is the ultimate in easy to clean surfaces! Being composed of clay and other minerals covered by a clear coating of glaze there are very few things which cannot be easily removed from a glazed tile. As there is little to no porosity in a glazed surface only the texture of the surface will provide a means for anything to attach itself. As there is no surface porosity sealing of glazed tile serves no purpose and can actually be detrimental to maintenance of the tile by leaving a difficult to remove sticky film on the surface.
Unglazed tile or many polished porcelains on the other hand can benefit from the sealing process. With unglazed surfaces the best time to seal is prior to grouting, exercising care to not seal the sides of the tile, thus inhibiting the bond and support of the grout. Some polished porcelain manufacturers apply a clear glaze to their products after the polishing process. Other polished porcelain tile manufactures recommend application of a penetrating sealer to fill the pores opened during the polishing process prior to grouting. This is a wise recommendation, in particular with contrasting colors. When cleaning tile, neutral pH cleaners are recommended. Soaps should be avoided as most have an oil component that will leave a film on the surface. The famous vinegar and water combination is commonly used but in the long term it may damage the tile surface. Vinegar is an acid and like all acids it etches the surface of the tile, glazed or unglazed. For that same reason, acid based cleaners should be avoided. When heavy duty cleaning is needed, an alkaline cleaner should be used but only on an as-needed basis.
Grout is unquestionably the number one complaint in tile work and has been for as many years as I have been in the business. I can’t and would not say it has forever been a problem because it hasn’t been. Before we enter into the cleaning and sealing aspect let’s look at how we created this seemingly unending problem.
Grout cleanability is influenced to some extent by the type of product used but to a much greater extent by proper installation. Grout complaints increased with the introduction of sponge-cleaning the joints. During my apprenticeship we rarely used sponges. Grout clean-up was done with either cheesecloth or burlap bags, and coarse sawdust. Once the grout had set firm in the joint, you commenced to rubbing the floor with burlap and sawdust to shape the joints and remove the excess grout. This was possible because either prebagged grout or field-mixed grout was basically a one-part cement, two parts sand mix with no latex to make things sticky. Latex came about to promote denser, more water resistant grout and add a degree of flexibility as direct bonding of tile rather than mortar beds became commonplace. With the addition of latex to sand and cement grouts, hazing became much more common making the grout sponge the cleanup tool of choice. With either sand and cement or latex-modified grouts, the key to ease of cleaning remains a dense joint (no excessive water in the mix) and a flush joint, not one that has been mixed soupy and the sponge used to remove the material below the edge of the bevel on the tile.
While numerous “old” formulations of standard latex-modified grouts remain popular, many of todays more popular premium grout products are highly engineered. Some don’t contain any of the tried-and-true Portland cement at all. Being highly engineered they require strict conformance to instructions. I’ve seen a few good “stain blocking” grouts taken off the market with rampant rumors about its “failure” to deliver. Virtually nobody followed the instructions, choosing instead to use their traditional methods, which didn’t work. This required the product to be re-engineered to what is known in the industry as idiot proofing - a product made so simple that any idiot can use. Harsh as it sounds, that’s the truth. To explain the evolving chemistry of premium cement grouts is complicated and requires the use of terms I barely understand myself. Let it be said as always, you get what you pay for.
Epoxy grouts have also gained a remarkable share of grout product usage today. Application and cleanup of these new generation products are in some cases even easier than cleaning traditional cement-based products. Often sold as stainproof, many end users interpret this term to mean cleaning not required. Epoxy grouts, and their distant cousin’s urethanes, are indeed very stain resistant. While that may seem the perfect choice for harsh environments, soiled and otherwise contaminated water will remain on the surface of the grout unless physically removed. This means the cleaning schedule may actually need to increase, and in some cases, proper equipment used to gain their full advantage.
Sealers are also an area where once again you get what you pay for. There are many types on the market both solvent and water based. From a manufacturing perspective, if you sell solvent base, your product is going to be better than water-based. If you sell water-based, then you may expect the reverse claim. What’s the truth? They both have merit. At this point, solvents tend to target very specific product performance areas. Water-based products continue to improve and may someday be as versatile. The other obvious consideration with sealers should be the installed environment. As always, if it sounds too good to be true, it likely is.
Last, but most importantly, assuming we have properly fulfilled all the requirements for tile and grout comes the actual cleaning process. As mentioned earlier, any type of acid product is always one of last resort. No matter how mild the acid or dilution of the acid, damage by acids including those in tile cleaning products cannot be undone. Acids eat things; they are not soil-loosening products, they are etching products. Neutral detergents are the preferred cleaning agent. A detergent loosens and holds the soil in suspension so it can be removed. Regular mopping removes very little of this suspended soil. How often you rinse the mop and the cleanliness of your mop water will determine how much goes in the bucket and how much is evenly redistributed on the area being cleaned. Tile should not be mopped cleaned if it does not require cleaning. Because build-up of soils is inevitable with mops, at some point a thorough cleaning with extraction may become necessary. This need can vary greatly depending on use and type of traffic. There is no rule - each individual installation will vary. Alkaline cleaners are perfect for intensive cleaning; however they are very aggressive and as such should not be used for normal maintenance. They typically require rinsing and a second extraction to be used effectively.
Cleaning chemistry and the needs of the material to be cleaned is a complex subject full of such terms as chelating agents, surfactants, sequestration, and precipitation. A few of us possess the knowledge to sort it all out. I strongly advise anyone who sells tile products or interested in cleaning tile floors to align with a tile-cleaning product manufacturer. Any of them will gladly assist you in selecting the right product for the conditions and environment you have to work with. From personal experience, I can tell you they are a great add-on sale if you retail tile products.