While grout is simply used to fill in the space between tile joins, its appearance and durability play a large part in the life of a tile installation. Proper care and maintenance of grout not only keeps it looking its best, but also lengthens the life of the tile installation and ensures that the job stays done – without a need to be re-done – for a long time to come.
The most important part of grout selection and care is knowing what type of grout will work best for the needs of the project, especially if there’s grout already in place.
Types of Grout
Cementitious grout, or cement-based grout, needs a sealant while an epoxy or resin-based grout does not. Cementitious grout has a longer useful life, but requires regular upkeep and re-sealing to remain intact.
Epoxy-based grout is easier to care for and resilient in the short-term, but also has a shorter life-span: it needs to be re-applied regularly, whereas cementitious grout won’t.
For cementitious grout, choose an impregnating sealer free of silicone. While silicone provides short-term moisture repellant properties, it needs to be applied more often than silicone-free varieties. Silicone versus non-silicone formulas can vary in lifespan between one to three years. When to re-apply depends on the formula, the maintenance of the area, exposure to moisture, and whether or not the area gets heavy traffic. Even the most durable silicone-free grout sealers can wear away in as little as a year in a high-traffic, high-moisture environment. Consult with your client about their needs prior to choosing a grout sealant.
Grout sealant repels moisture and buildup from penetrating the grout itself, but this doesn’t mean that oils, grease, soap scum, mildew, algae, and wax won’t build up on the surface of the grout. The biggest problem posed by these substances is discoloration – a cosmetic issue, but one that affects the overall quality of the installation. Common household cleaners are strong enough to remove surface buildup from grout if used on a regular basis.
If the grout has been left to fend for itself for a long time, a higher quality professional tile and grout cleaner may be needed. Choose a formula low in VOC (volatile organic compounds) and free of toxic chemicals.
The last resort in grout keeping and care is grout stain. Grout stain is an epoxy resin product that penetrates the grout and seals the surface with a permanent pigment. These become necessary when grout is stained beyond the point where it can be returned to its natural color by cleaning or routine maintenance. Clean the grout to remove dirt and debris using a professional strength grout cleaner, then apply the grout stain. Since grout stain is an epoxy-based product, it is not necessary to re-seal the grout using an impregnating sealer – the stain does that for you.
Other Important Considerations
When grout begins to crumble as the result of moisture (or movement, as is the case with mobile and manufactured homes, or those not built on a permanent foundation), the only choice left is to take up the tile and replace the grout. This is a lengthy, costly, and time-consuming job, and you will encounter more problems than just crumbling grout.
While grout may be the most visible sign of a problem, moisture under the tiles can cause a buildup of mold, occasionally toxic, that may require professional remediation before proceeding. Because of the cost and time involved in replacing grout – and subsequently the tile and possibly the subfloor that may have been damaged as a result of moisture penetration – it is important to stress to your clients the necessity of cleaning and maintaining grout to head off problems before they can start.