The Tile and the Grout: Three Levels of Restorative Cleaning for Ceramic Tile

July 8, 2009
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The world is finding more and more uses for clay flooring these days; porcelain tile lobbies, ceramic tile restrooms and quarry tile kitchens being the obvious examples. With this expansion come the inevitable problems associated with maintaining them.

There are two stories to tell when it comes to cleaning clay/ceramic tiles. One is the story of the impervious tile itself and the other is of its evil sibling, grout.

Floor coverings made from clay, such as ceramic, porcelain and quarry tiles, are usually dense and durable. Their surfaces stand up well to heavy traffic and soil intrusion but will, like all other flooring materials, ultimately succumb to the damaging effects of erosion.

They are also especially resistant to chemical and moisture penetration, one reason they are excellent for use in areas like kitchens and restrooms; they can withstand copious amounts of water and the use of alkaline and acidic cleaners.

Their resistance to chemicals makes them easier to clean and, if cleaning chemical residue is present, it can easily be removed by rinsing thoroughly with fresh clean water or buffing with a soft pad.

Initial maintenance for these floors is relatively easy, because all that is required is to clean the surface and apply a penetrating sealer or impregnator, if that has not already been done by the installer.

Daily/routine maintenance will require wet mopping, the frequency predicated by the soiling conditions. The cleaning chemicals may vary depending on the environment; neutral cleaners, all-purpose cleaners, degreasers and sanitizers are all part of the chemical arsenal.

In many cases a fresh water rinse followed by a good damp mopping to remove excess water may be in order.

Periodic maintenance will include machine scrubbing with a scrubbing pad or brush affixed to the drive block of a rotary floor machine or the use of a cylindrical brush machine. The frequency will be dictated by the environment and traffic conditions. The real problems associated with clay/ceramic flooring become apparent in the restorative process.

The first level of cleaning is applicable only when clay/ceramic flooring has seals and/or finishes applied to them. Although they do not require coatings or polishes, often times they are present and will need to be removed. This is accomplished by using a stripping procedure to remove all pre-existing coats of seals and/or finishes.

The removal of the old finish can be challenging on clay/ceramic tile because the soil will be deeply embedded in the grout and encapsulated in floor finish. Emulsification of the old seal/finish will generally require a very good stripper and aggressive brushes affixed to a rotary floor machine or cylindrical brush machine. Even so, it may take several passes to remove the finish only.

The second level of cleaning occurs after stripping the floor or when floor finishes are not used on the clay/ceramic flooring. It will incorporate the medium-scrubbing service procedure, followed by a freshwater rinse and damp mopping.

In heavily soiled environments it may be necessary to perform the heavy-scrubbing procedure to get deeply embedded soils or the old finish that was emulsified and carried deeper into the grout line.

For the best results, wet vacuums should be used to extract the contaminated solution; they help prevent the soil from resettling back into the grout line.

All-purpose cleaning chemicals or more aggressive degreasing chemicals may be required to remove the remaining soil. Remember, rinsing the floor thoroughly after using these chemicals will reduce the amount of soil that settles back into the grout line. In many cases it may be necessary to neutralize the floor when high alkaline or acid chemicals are used. Use alkaline products to neutralize acids and acidic products to neutralize alkaline. Excessive use of acid products, however, will intensify the breakdown of the grout and can cause long-term problems.

Once the floor seal/finish has been removed and/or deeply embedded soils have been dislodged it is time for level three of cleaning, the detailing. Detailing clay/ceramic tiles centers almost exclusively on removing the remaining soil embedded in the pores of the grout.

Detailing grout lines is time consuming and exhaustive. The amount of hand detail work can be extensive when conditions are like this, and the use of grout brushes and grout saws may be required to clean the grout lines.

Grout brushes are usually an angled stiff bristle brush that gets into the grout lines. A grout saw is a carbide tool that actually removes some of the grout and in many cases is the only way to get below the soiling conditions.

Once the grout lines are cleaned, the clay/ceramic floor will be ready to take on a new application of penetrating sealer or impregnator. These sealers will be required from time to time and the frequency will vary depending on the product used, but most of these products last for years.

Reapplication of the penetrating sealers or impregnators will protect the grout from liquid soils that may penetrate into them.

For clay/ceramic floors that have had water-based acrylic floor seals/finishes used on them, it may be decided to discontinue the practice or to continue with the program by applying multiple coats of seal/finish to the clean floor. Either way, the floor will now be clean and ready for use.

The three levels of cleaning work from the top down. First remove the finish. Then remove as much of the embedded soil as possible by scrubbing. And finally remove the embedded soil by detailing with a grout brush and/or grout saw.

Once these three levels of cleaning have been done the floor will be in good condition and will be ready to receive penetrating seal, impregnator or water-based acrylic floor finishes.

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