Each year, the Ceramic Tile Distributors Association (CTDA), the National Tile Contractors Association (NTCA), the Tile Council of America (TCNA), and Tile Contractors’ Association of America (TCAA) organize Total Solutions Plus (TSP), an event that is designed to bring professionals within the ceramic tile industry together to network and learn from each other. The latest edition of TSP, which was held from October 25 to 28, 2014, was hosted at the Hyatt Regency Hill Country Resort and Spa in San Antonio, TX.

The show featured around a dozen free, educational sessions, which were hosted by various industry professionals that spoke on a range of different topics. One of the well-attended sessions, “Tile & Stone Maintenance Strategies,” presented by Rod Sigman, Business Development Manager of Technical Installation & Care Systems at Custom Building Products, discussed various opportunities for growth and profit, in regard to sealing and grouting tile and stone installations.

In this very detailed seminar, Sigman explained the many advantages and disadvantages to sealing tile and stone, the importance of sealing tile and stone projects, which products need to be sealed and which don’t, which cleaning products to use and which ones to avoid, among many other helpful facts related to the topic. “For every 100-plus bags of grout sold, only one gallon of sealer is sold,” said Sigman at the beginning of the presentation. “Here is your opportunity for growth. A lot of customers don’t have all that information — that the extra dollar for the sealer is worth it.”

Following up with Sigman after attending TSP, TILE learned a lot more about this broad topic, including how it affects tile products as well as stone products. “You’re going to follow the same guidelines whether it’s tile or stone,” Sigman explained. “Whether you’re talking about porcelain or terra-cotta tile — they’re all different in their make up to some degree in porosity — the purpose and method doesn’t change, but it depends on the porosity and type of method as to the type of sealer and how much to apply.”

During the seminar, Sigman also discussed opportunities for profit and how companies can make additional money while also helping the customer. “At most, about one in 10 jobs that should be sealed actually gets sealed,” he said, explaining how to recommend sealer to a customer to help provide stain resistance, make the product cleanable and stop it from getting dirty if it’s located outside. “If you don’t provide the right information, things will get messed up. Make sure you cover the basics, such as ‘a sealer will stop this from getting dirty,’ as this can be the customer's expectation if not clarified at the time of sale. Sell or recommend products designed to prolong their life and not damage your customer’s investment.”

When choosing a particular sealer to purchase, there are some important things to take into consideration, according to Sigman, which he has learned from his customers’ feedback over the last 25-plus years of being in the industry. “Price is always the number one thing,” he said, further elaborating on the subject. “Everyone has a budget, and no matter what you’re buying, price is always important. Then, there’s always the aesthetic. Within the sealer world, there are two general types of sealers that are most commonly used for stone. There are penetrating sealers, also known as impregnators, which are below-surface, non-coating sealers. The second type is enhanced sealers, which change the look [of the tile/stone], and is like using Armor All on tires; it’s meant to enhance and deepen the color. Aesthetically, depending on the type of stone, that is also an option.

“Performance wise, going back to price, kind of like anything you can buy, there’s a ‘good, better or best [option],’” Sigman went on to explain. “Price dictates performance. You can buy a car for $100,000 or $1 million. It’s the same thing for sealers. Let’s say if it’s in an entryway or an area where’s there’s not a lot of use — maybe you don’t need the highest end sealer — but if it’s a kitchen or bathroom, or an outdoor kitchen or hotel bathroom — anywhere that gets a lot of entertaining or high traffic — you may want a higher-end product. We have to know where the installation is and if it gets a lot of wear and tear.”

Sigman explained that high-end sealers, in addition to chemical resistance, also provide stain resistance and better longevity. “With the addition to price, the ‘good, better, best,’ you get what you pay for,” said Sigman. “If you want ‘better,’ it’s going to cost more than $25 per gallon for a sealer, which is the price of an average sealer. You can buy sealers for $200 to $300 per gallon. Generally, you get what you pay for. The lower end sealers can last six months to one year, while a higher-end sealer can last five years or longer.”

While it’s important to seal most tile and stone products, especially since the majority of people invest a considerable amount of money in these types of projects, Sigman said there are some exceptions to the rule. “It’s one of the things that comes up a lot just in general — from people in the industry or homeowners,” he said. “The thing that I touched on [at TSP] is that all stones are porous or absorbent to some nature. Every material/stone is porous to some degree, however, does that mean that all stones will stain or be affected in every application? The answer is ‘no.’ But there are some things you need to qualify when I say that. You need to qualify the applications. Is it a kitchen countertop, shower, residential or commercial? Also, how is it going to be maintained, and importantly, what is the customer’s expectation?

“A good example is, here in the U.S., when the average person goes to pick out stone. Most of the expectation is they want it to look a certain way,” Sigman went on to explain. “For instance, I have travertine everywhere in my house. It was installed properly everywhere, it’s only 6 1/2 years old, and my showers and floors look fantastic, virtually the same as when it was installed, and that’s my expectation. It’s how I want them to look. Now and then, I run across somebody who put Carrara marble on their countertop or on their floor, and they say, when we start talking about the installation, ‘I want it to look as antique and weathered,’ or ‘I want it to look like the trip we just took to Italy this summer; I want the patina, rustic/Old World feel.’ Then, in that case, you’d never want to seal it, because there’s essentially no point to seal it. It all comes down to expectation and how you want it to perform. For most people, I would venture to say it is important to seal. For certain people, it’s not.”

Usually, when deciding whether or not a stone requires sealing, it depends on the durability of the material, according to Sigman. Since all stones don’t necessarily need to be sealed, he listed a handful of stones that he has seen over his 26-year-long career in the industry, which have withstood all kinds of predicaments. “Blue Pearl, a Norwegian granite, which used to be extremely popular, more so than it is today, doesn’t need to be sealed,” said Sigman. “I haven’t seen a job where it stained, and I haven’t seen anyone with an issue with it staining. Also, Baltic Brown, a Finnish granite, has never stained either, in my experience. However, there are plenty of other marbles, sandstones and slates that will stain.”

To ensure you get the most out of your tile or stone product, Sigman recommends testing the product prior to installing it, especially if it’s an investment that can carry a hefty price tag like some of these installations do. “If you don’t know whether it will stain, or the person fabricating it or installing it isn’t sure, then you can do one of two things: test an uninstalled piece with some contaminants or seal it,” said Sigman. “The worst thing that will happen is you’ll put sealer on, wipe it off and it’ll do nothing — or you’ll put it on and it’ll do what it’s supposed to do. It’s better to seal it and not get a benefit than not seal it and get staining, which is not an uncommon call I’ve gotten in all the years I’ve been in the business. It’s better to do the opposite if you’re not sure.

“It’s all about maintenance,” Sigman went on to say. “And nobody gets excited about maintenance. It’s not an interesting subject to talk about. But in the years of doing what I do, one of the biggest reasons I’ve seen failure is because of maintenance; not knowing and understanding that what they’re using to clean with can make or break an installation with stone. Maintenance then becomes a bigger deal — when they find out that what they’ve been using [to clean] is damaging it. If you’re going to spend the money, time and energy into picking out the stone, you need to maintain it right. Maintenance is equally important as protecting your stone. The right maintenance products are not going to be found typically on your grocery shelf or in many janitorial supply stores.”

One of Sigman’s main points is that you can’t talk about sealers without talking about maintenance. “You’re never going to get years out of a sealer without the right maintenance products,” he explained. “If a sealer is only going to last five or six months, who wants that? The real answer is sealers shouldn’t only last that long. They should last years. And, we need to put the right system together [for that]. You don’t want to just use any ‘liquid sandpaper’ product from companies that don’t understand stone. They’re not making their cleaners based on the life and performance of stone. They’re not in our business. That’s why we try to preach that if you’re not using our products, buy ones that are made for tile and stone. We know that as consumers. Invest in quality products.”

Sigman added that there are currently no definitive standards to follow or reference, in regard to this topic, which he believes would be incredibly helpful and beneficial to those in the industry that work with these types of products on a daily basis. “The one challenge on our side of the business is there are no industry standards for tile maintenance products,” he said. “For installing tile and stone — there are ANSI standards for them, the TCNA Handbook the NTCA Reference manual, and all kinds of best practices and test methods and installation methods — but there is no such thing as standards for sealers, so it makes it a little challenging at times because there’s not a benchmark to see if this sealer meets this standard or if it passes some sort of industry benchmark or guideline because unfortunately, these don’t exist. So you have to be careful that you’re dealing with reputable companies and products, ones that know the business and aren’t just selling you something in a bottle.”

Although it’s been progressing, Sigman said the industry’s leading organizations, such as those that organize TSP, will continue to get a better handle on standards and procedures in the coming years. “It’s getting better, but we’re not there yet,” said Sigman. “We’re moving the ball forward, but it’s very slow. As it stands now, there is no checks and balance system, where a customer could say, ‘This product is $100 and this one is $100, are they the same?’ We really don’t know.