Getting Educated About Tile and Stone Cleaning

January 12, 2006
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With ever-changing tile and stone offerings being accompanied by an array of care and maintenance products, it's easy to get confused about how to protect and clean these sometimes sensitive surfaces and to determine which products will work best and when.

Fortunately, tile and stone cleaning and maintenance can be relatively simple with a little knowledge and the right approach. In addition, advances in technology have helped simplify the task of selecting the right product for the job.

Consider the Surface
One of the first steps in cleaning tile and stone is to assess the type of surface being cleaned and the nature of the materials that need to be removed. These factors will help you select the proper cleaning products.

Tile and stone surfaces fall into two general categories: nonporous and porous. Nonporous simply means the surface naturally prevents materials from being absorbed. Examples of these surfaces include glazed ceramic and glazed porcelain tile. A porous surface, on the other hand, allows materials to be absorbed. These surfaces include natural stone, such as granite, limestone, marble and travertine. Other examples include unglazed ceramic tile, brick, terra cotta and concrete.

At this point, you might be thinking that it must be difficult to choose the right product to match the surface. Actually, the choice can be easy because some of the latest product innovations work across multiple surfaces.

What also makes things easy is to understand the two categories of material to be removed from a tile or stone surface, organic and inorganic. Organic means substances of a plant or animal origin, such as food and grease. Inorganic refers to substances with origins that are not plant or animal. Examples include rust, lime and hard water deposits. Knowing the origin of materials is important because each best responds to specific types of cleaners.

Routine Care and Cleaning
Another important element of tile and stone care has to do with identifying the extent of cleaning needed. There's a significant difference between routine cleaning and something that goes beyond the average job.

Routine cleaning has to do with removing everyday dirt. In addition to creating poor aesthetics, dirt particles can scratch the flooring surface. That's why routine tile and stone care starts with dusting or dry mopping regularly to remove dirt particles.

For routine cleaning, it's important to not only know what to use, but what to avoid. To this day, some cleaning professionals mistakenly believe that it's OK to use products like vinegar, bleach, ammonia and general-purpose cleaners or abrasive cleansers on tile and stone flooring. Those products should be avoided because they can erode stone, grout and some types of tile, and can strip sealers, leaving an unprotected surface susceptible to staining.

Instead of using general-purpose products for routine cleaning, it's important to use pH-neutral cleaners specifically formulated for tile or stone. Recommended for daily use, these products are chemically balanced to effectively remove a variety of material without damaging the tile or stone. Some are available as a wipe for easy cleaning of tile countertops and other relatively small areas. Regular use of these cleaners prevents a build-up of dirt, scum and other deposits that can compromise the floor's natural beauty. These products also require no rinsing.

For routine cleaning of porous natural stone and grout joints, an ideal product is one that cleans and seals in the same application. This advanced technology removes dirt and adds a water- and oil-repellent sealer that protects the surface from staining and makes it easier to keep clean. The light sealer also helps extend the protection achieved when the tile or stone is originally sealed.

When a cleaning project includes warm, damp and dark spaces, consider using products that provide mold and mildew resistance. Mold and mildew are plant-like organisms, collectively known as fungi, which can grow quickly with the right combination of moisture, warmth, darkness and a food source.

Cleaning products containing fungistatic agents carry an extra wallop. The cleaners remove the fungi while the fungistatic agents slow or stop growth of the organisms.

Restoration
Tile, stone and grout joints that are extremely dirty or stained require a heavy-duty cleaning to restore the original look. When it comes to restoration work, the key is to focus on the surface involved and the material to be removed. Organic materials dictate the need for an alkaline-based cleaner that may be used on both tile and stone. Inorganic materials are safely removed with acid-based cleaners when working with porcelain, ceramic, or natural stones like slate, flagstone, or granite. A word of caution: marble, limestone, and travertine stones should not come in contact with acids in general. Although granite is unaffected by common acids, the polished surface may be softened if exposed to stronger acids for prolonged periods of time.

Remember that while acid-based cleaners are effective in removing rust and mineral deposits from grout, they should be used with caution on grout that is installed with polished or honed stone. This is because the acid could damage the adjacent stone surface.

Naturally, every tough cleaning situation is different and it may be difficult to determine the nature of the material to be removed. As a general rule of thumb, use an alkaline cleaner first to remove grease, oil, soap scum and similar materials. On glazed tile surfaces only, follow up with an acid cleaner to remove ground-in dirt. It's a good practice to test all cleaners in an inconspicuous place before cleaning the entire floor to ensure that the products won't damage the surface.

Heavy-duty cleaners are available premixed or may require mixing of ingredients prior to each use. For ease of use, premixed cleaners are often the best choice. Tile and stone restoration can also include removing stains. Stains of an organic nature can be removed from tile and stone with alkaline-based stain-removal products. Inorganic stains can be removed with acid-based products, but consider the surface before using them.

Deep, stubborn oil stains in porous tile, stone or grout need even more attention. An effective method is to use a poultice, which is a paste (available premixed) that lifts out the stain. The product is typically applied to the stain, allowed to dry and then swept or vacuumed away.

Acidic stains, such as wine or lemon juice, can etch a stone surface. In those cases, the surface may need to be re-polished with a special stone restoration product. This job should be left to a stone installation expert.

Sealing
Adding protection from stains and dirt is another important aspect of tile and stone maintenance. Toward that end, porous natural stone and unglazed tile must be sealed after a heavy-duty cleaning or stain removal. Nonporous surfaces, such as glazed ceramic and porcelain tile, don't require sealers.

Sealers range from topical sealers that cover the surface with a film to penetrating sealers that are absorbed into the stone or tile. Topical sealers will effectively hide scratches, but require constant maintenance if used in areas with heavy foot traffic.

Some penetrating sealers contain fluorochemical compounds. This advanced impregnating technology protects the stone or tile by creating a chemical barrier within the pores of the tile or stone that repels water and oil without blocking the pores, so vapor transmission will naturally occur. These are invisible penetrating sealers that retain the natural look of the surface.

Until recently, it was important to understand the unique characteristics of different stone types to choose the right sealer because some sealers were formulated for porous stone and others for less porous stone. But innovations in fluorochemical technology make multi-surface sealers possible, which can be successfully used with stone or tile of varying levels of porosity.

Some penetrating sealers also go beyond just sealing. These sealers provide stain protection while enhancing the color of unpolished stone. They work particularly well on natural stone installations, such as marble, limestone, tumbled stone, slate, travertine and textured granite. Water-based stone enhancer sealers are recommended for very porous surfaces while solvent-based enhancer sealers should be used on less porous surfaces.

Because they will affect the stone color, it's a good idea to touch base with the facility owner about the final result before using these kinds of sealers. As with cleaning products, first test a stone enhancer sealer in an inconspicuous location, or on a sample piece of stone. When choosing a sealer for outdoor use, look for a multi-surface product that is ultraviolet (UV) stable, water resistant and able to withstand harsh chemicals, such as deicing compounds.

Sealers can usually be applied within three to four hours after a heavy-duty cleaning. Be sure to allow enough time for the surface to completely dry before installing the sealer. Most sealer applications will last three to five years, depending on the cleaning methods used and the amount of environmental exposure. For optimal performance, sealers should be reapplied every one to three years. One quick test is to see if water beads up on the surface. If not, it's time to reseal.

The long-lasting protection provided by sealers eliminates the need for high-maintenance waxes. Instead, the tile or stone floor's look and protection can be maintained with the routine use of a pH-balanced cleaner.

Getting Started
Some basic knowledge in tile and stone care will help you get started with this important service. To obtain this knowledge, you can attend training seminars offered by manufacturers of care and maintenance products or to seek out programs presented by trade associations. Getting an education in tile and stone care is also a good investment in your business and yourself. Your customers will appreciate your efforts to help them protect their investment and ensure long-lasting beauty.

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