Sealers, repellents, impregnators, protectants — whatever word is used to describe them — can provide fantastic long-term benefits for tile and stone installations to help meet the needs of challenging environments, applications and customer expectations. For the purpose of this article, all of these materials will be referred to as sealers.
Sealers come in many forms and types, but by their nature, most fall into one of two categories: penetrating/impregnating or surface/topical. This is determined by whether or not they leave a coating on the surface of the material being sealed. The various sealers may or may not change the appearance of the tile or stone and can be water- or solvent-based. Some, such as many solvent-based sealers, may have odors and fumes that can require special precautions and steps for safe usage.
While sealers have been used for decades with great success, much confusion and misunderstanding still exists about their purpose and function. Providing and managing realistic expectations is essential to ensuring their proper use and ultimate success. Let’s look at the five primary benefits of sealers and discuss their corresponding myths and misunderstandings to provide a clearer picture of what sealers really do and don’t do.
1. Stain resistance (not stain-proof)
Stain resistance is undoubtedly the most important attribute, and the biggest misunderstanding, when it comes to sealers and protecting a particular surface. Almost every consumer of carpet understands that if they spill wine, coffee or any contaminant on their carpet (despite it being treated with some form of protectant), that they need to blot up the spill as soon as possible to prevent potential surface staining. However, this is not necessarily the case with many consumers of tile and stone. Many believe that if they “seal” their tile, stone and/or grout that this will make it stain-proof. In other words, no matter what the contaminant, nor how long it dwells on the surface, staining should not occur.
Sealing products, much like their carpet counterparts, offer a degree of stain “resistance” and reaction time to wipe or blot the spill to prevent potential staining. But, no sealer can make tile, stone or grout stain-proof.
2. Makes the installation, especially grouting of certain tile and stone, faster and easier
Understandably, installers of tile and stone are always on the search for ways to save time and money, while making the process quicker and easier without compromising quality. By using sealers to pre-treat certain tile and stone prior to grouting, these expectations can be easily achieved.
Factors to consider are the porosity and absorption of the material, the surface texture, whether a contrasting grout color will be used and the type of grout to be used. Preventing all-too-common problems such as grout pigment staining and grout haze can be avoided. Other benefits include eliminating the need to over-wash and over-scrub the tile or stone to remove the grout and prevent haze during installation. If not pre-sealed, this can lead to “bleached” joints that are much lighter in color as well as low grout joints.
While some may see the step of pre-sealing tile and stone prior to grouting as added time and expense, it has actually been proven to provide the opposite. Those that don’t employ this important step can find themselves being called back out to the job. They face purchasing special problem solving products to remove the haze or staining and paying for the labor to perform the work. This added time is also extremely costly and often overlooked in the overall process. And having an unhappy customer who may question the installers’ skill and expertise is never good.
3. Not all sealers perform the same on all materials
As noted, there are many types of sealers and they offer a variety of benefits. Depending on the materials, location, exposure and aesthetics, options include economical or premium, natural look or enhancers and topical or penetrating/impregnator sealers. Understanding and qualifying not only the need/benefit to using a sealer, but the expected usage, desired look and performance needed is a must. Fortunately, it has never been easier to do some quick research and find answers online or through the use of manufacturer technical service departments.
Some sealers are designed for certain surfaces only such as granite, marble, concrete, etc. While they may work well on these surfaces, their use on non-recommended materials will produce poor results. Other sealers are designed to provide equal protection and performance on a wide array of materials. Always read and follow manufacturer’s recommendations to ensure you are using the appropriate product and applying and resealing correctly.
As most styles of sealers come in both economical and premium formulations, product testing and consulting with the manufacturer will help identify the right product. While the phrase “price dictates performance” is a good rule of thumb, it is not always the case. For example, when comparing a premium water-based sealer to a premium solvent-based sealer, the solvent-based sealer will typically be more expensive. This is due to the solvent carrier, which is more expensive as a raw material than the water-based counterpart. Again, product testing is always your best bet to determine desired results.
4. Lowers maintenance (not maintenance-free)
While tile and stone are inherently low-maintenance surfaces, reducing the absorption of those tiles, stones and grouts that may benefit from the use of a sealer will further reduce the maintenance requirements.
One often misunderstood attribute is that sealers to not make the tile, stone or grout maintenance-free. The purpose of a sealer is to keep contaminants, including everyday dirt, “on” the surface and not let them get “in” the material. So while the floors and countertops will still get dirty and showers can still show hard water and possibly mold or mildew, it will make them all that much easier to clean with the right program and products. Most people accept and understand this with their carpet. Having it treated doesn’t mean they no longer have to vacuum.
5. A good maintenance program is key to performance and longevity
To keep sealers performing properly and to maximize their life, a proper maintenance program is critical. There are three key elements to a good maintenance program. First is the right maintenance equipment. This can be as simple as a good mop or may require an autoscrubber for other installations. Secondly, have the right procedures and program in place. This will be different for residential versus commercial, floors versus counters or walls, interior versus exterior applications, etc. Lastly, use the right products. We often see common grocery store or harsh commercial cleaners being used for the sake of convenience and cost. While many of these products do the job, they often do it at the cost of the sealer, and sometimes the tile, stone and grout. You would never think about adding some bleach to a bucket of water to wash your vehicle without considering the consequences to the finish. Sealers typically last for months or possibly a year when they can and should last for 5, 10 years or more if properly maintained in many applications.
Understanding and employing these tips will help you and your customer save time, money and produce the desired results that will ensure the decades of satisfaction that only tile and stone can bring.