ICS Magazine

Tile and Grout: Finding the Key to Clean

July 12, 2005

I get many calls from managers and technicians with tile and grout issues, usually involving a restorative procedure to bring their tile and grout back to an acceptable condition. The truth is, once the floor reaches a certain condition, there is no easy way out: it is time to call in the professionals.

But how did the floor get in the condition to begin with, and what could be done to prevent it? The answer is quite simple, and it resides in the maintenance program.

The Challenge
When you consider that the floor itself is part of the challenge, you can begin to understand why a good floor maintenance plan is necessary. The tiles usually sit higher than the grout, so there is a natural tendency for the cleaning solutions to seek the path of least resistance and settle in the lower areas. The cleaning solution carries the suspended soil to these areas and deposits it. Because grout is very porous and irregular, the soil gets caught in the pores at the lowest points of the grout, which makes it extremely difficult to remove.

Additionally, floors that have grout are subjected to different soiling than most other floors. Clay-component tiles (ceramic, porcelain, quarry and brick) are used in environments that are exposed to tough soils and harsh traffic conditions, e.g. restrooms, kitchens and heavy-traffic environments. So the real solution is to remove the soil before it has a chance to do its dirty work.

Initial Maintenance
Initial maintenance is very important and, in most cases, out of your hands. During the process of installation, the installer will usually wipe down the surface of the tiles to remove any excess grout residue and clean the tiles surface. Unfortunately, if the installer does not get the residue off before it dries, it will take more time and effort to get the floor ready.

The installer generally seals the grout shortly after installation to prevent discoloration by soils. In most cases he or she will use a penetrating seal or impregnator that can be either solvent or water-based. This is highly important to the floor maintenance program. If the floor is not treated initially, soil will easily get trapped and be very difficult to remove. If the initial maintenance is done correctly, the floor will be clean and sealed making it much easier to keep up.

Daily/Routine Maintenance
There are two issues to consider when discussing daily/routine maintenance: cleaning procedures and frequency. Cleaning a floor surface is not just about mixing cleaning chemicals and applying them to the floor. It is about using the right cleaning chemicals and procedures together to accomplish the objective and that objective is to remove soil.

Dry Soil Removal
Removal of dry soil is the first step in the process and, because the floor surface will be irregular, you need to consider how to best approach it. Although dust mopping is a common form of dry-soil removal, it has a tendency to leave soil particles in the grout lines. This is because a dust mop is flat; sweeping may be a better alternative to get the soil out of the grout line. Vacuuming with a tank vacuum or a backpack vacuum will ensure all soil is removed from the grout. Vacuums are becoming more popular with hard-floor maintenance technicians because of their effectiveness of removing soil.

Wet Mopping
Next incorporate a daily/routine wet mopping program to remove soils that are adhered to the surface. The type of mopping - spot, damp, wet or aggressive with a clean-water rinse - will be predicated by the type and amount of soil to be removed. Technically the wet-mopping service procedures may differ slightly in the area of cleaning or sanitizing chemicals used, depending on the environment. Clay-component floor coverings in kitchen areas may require a good degreaser and a clean-water rinse. Restrooms may be mopped with neutral cleaner or disinfectants, while health care facilities may require a good sanitizing chemical.

One of the most common mistakes is leaving too much solution on the floor. This will carry the suspended soil to the bottom of the grout line and deposit it in the pores. One way to reduce this is by damp mopping the floor after cleaning to remove as much solution as possible.

Damp mopping is accomplished by wringing the mop out thoroughly. Here's a quick hint: First, wring the mop out by heavily depressing the wringer. Next, while the mop head is in the wringer, twist the mop to the right as far as it will go and heavily depress the wringer again, this will remove additional solution. Now twist the mop all the way to the left as far as you can and depress the wringer again. Finally, untwist the mop so it is sitting in the wringer in a neutral state and give it a final wring. Now the mop will be damp and have the ability to absorb more solution. Remember, the objective is to remove soil before it settles.

Detailing is a part of every service procedure, and the mopping service procedure is no different. Many times the floor-maintenance program fails because of a lack of attention to detailing. Taking a small amount of time to attend to detailing can save many labor hours and costs by extending the restorative procedure.

Generally speaking, detailing addresses the edges, corners and baseboards of the floor. In the case of tile and grout floors it also includes taking care of any idiosyncrasies in the grout. It is much easier to get a small amount of soil dislodged from a grout line than it is to wait for the entire floor to become embedded with soil and then address it in the restorative process. Removal of superficial soil can be done with a stiff bristle brush; once soil is deeply entrenched in the grout, you may have to use a grout saw (very lightly, of course).

Frequency is the key to all floor-maintenance programs. More often than not, floors are maintained less frequently than they should be. Keeping soil off the floor is the only real way to extend the time between periodic and restorative maintenance. Frequency is determined by the volume of traffic any area is exposed to. Set up your program to meet the needs of the traffic conditions that your floor is exposed to and you will be well ahead of the soil.

Clay-component floor maintenance need not be an arduous task; it can be as simple as daily/routine maintenance.