When most folks discuss tile, they are generally referring to one of the members of the clay-component family, in particular they are usually referring to ceramic tiles, glazed or unglazed.
One of the most frequently asked questions is whether floor seal and/or finish should be applied to these types of hard surface floors. It is a subject of much debate with arguments on either side of the fence.
The clay-component flooring category consists of ceramic, porcelain, quarry, brick and terra cotta. They are floors that are either dust pressed or extruded and fired at high temperatures, with the exception of terra cotta, which is sun-dried or fired at low temperatures. Clay flooring can be found in a number of places including lobbies where heavy traffic is evident, in food service where slip resistance is required, and restrooms where an impervious tile surface is a must. It is in the restroom environment that we experience application of floor finish on the ceramic tile flooring the most.
Clay-component tiles are generally surrounded by sanded grout. Sometimes there will be a latex additive grout or a non-sanded grout or, in some situations, an epoxy or furan grout, but for the most part it will be placed in sanded grout. The juxtaposition of impervious tile set in sanded grout creates a difficult combination for the floor maintenance technician to maintain. The reasons are simple: on one hand you have the impervious tile that repels almost anything, on the other the very porous grout that collects everything. The fact that the grout is usually set lower than the tile adds to the rapid soiling of the grout lines.
Initially, penetrating sealer or impregnator is applied to the floor surface after the grout has dried, but before the floor is exposed to traffic. The sealer or impregnator will penetrate into the grout and the excess left on the tile will be wiped away by the technician. This provides a certain amount of protection to the grout and prevents the seal from remaining on the surface of the tile. After the seal has cured there is very little visual difference, and the floor looks natural. Although the grout is sealed and is for the most part protected, it is still porous and below the floor surface. Over a period of time soil will collect and it will become unsightly. The floor is cleaned and, at this point, the decision of whether to put floor finish on the floor or not is explored.
The reason for putting floor finish on a ceramic tile restroom often centers on appearance rather than functionality. The finish applied to the surface gives the floor a higher level of gloss. You are also putting a protective film over the surface that provides some additional protection. Directly after the application, the floor looks great and everyone is happy.
If the floor is maintained correctly on a regular basis, the floor finish on a ceramic tile can be maintained a very long time and look great. If the floor is not well maintained, it can be very frustrating to deal with. Sometimes the floor maintenance slips a little here and there. Scrubbing and recoating becomes a part of the maintenance cycle, and the soil that is not removed is encapsulated in the finish. Even worse, the floor finish that is applied will take the path of least resistance and end up in the grout lines along with the soil. The only solution is stripping and refinishing the floor.
When stripping and refinishing a ceramic tile floor, you come face to face with build-up of encapsulated soil in the grout lines. Through the process of many stripping cycles, it is even possible for the soil and the finish to be carried deep into the grout lines to a level that is almost unreachable. This is where the problem lies. Once the soil and the finish are deep into the grout, it is almost impossible to get it out without causing superficial or even severe damage to the grout. When the soiling is this bad, the surface of the grout is usually scraped away using razor scrappers, grout saws or just about any sharp object that will scrape away the afflicted area.
Once the floor is clean, more floor finish is applied, the process begins again and the cycle continues.
Over many years, the technician may find that there is not enough grout left to scrape; they may even scrape down to the spacers that separate the tiles. This is not good; the integrity of the floor is in jeopardy and at this point it may be necessary to replace the grout or the tile or both. Sometimes the floor can be saved by companies specializing in this area. Indeed, being able to correctly perform tile and grout replacement is a valuable skill, one that is readily available to technicians looking to get into that market.
The question still remains: should ceramic tile floors have finish applied to them or not? The answer to this question actually does not matter; there are those that support floor finish on ceramic tiles and those that do not. I assure you, you will be faced with this very scenario at some time in your career; the good thing is, there is a great market for those that can rectify the situation.