Virtually every day we receive questions about cleaning tile, carpet, upholstery, and rugs. This question comes up frequently:
Which is better? Tile and grout cleaning advice: steam or chemicals?
Firstly, this is a GREAT question, and one we hear often. Before delving into an answer we need to know a few things about the tile and grout because it makes a huge difference in selecting the proper cleaning method.
Is the tile?
- Man-made – like ceramic and porcelain
- Natural – like marble, granite, travertine, etc.
Is the grout?
We’ll also need to know what types of soils are present. Simply knowing which room the tile is in helps us identify the soil types. For purposes of this article I will make the assumption that we’re dealing with ceramic or porcelain tile and sanded grout floor and shower in a bathroom, since this combination of tile/grout is the most popular.
Ceramic and porcelain tile have a baked-on glaze, which make the tile itself chemical and water resistant. Sanded grout is basically mortar like you’d see between bricks on a wall. It is cementitious, porous, and reacts to acids. (it fizzes when acid is applied)
Let’s look at the soils
Hopefully you’ve already eaten because this is going to get a little gross 🙂
The soil found in a typical bathroom consists of:
- skin flakes
- body oils
- dried urine droplets
- fecal particulate
- dried saliva
General soil contaminants:
- tracked-in mud
- dead bugs
Yet another type of contaminant is also found:
minerals from the water
When one uses steam, meaning boiling water under pressure, the biological contaminants and general soil contaminants are removed quite thoroughly, often without the use of harsh chemicals.
However, steam does relatively nothing to remove the mineral contaminants from the grout and tile. This is where agitation and chemistry comes in.to play.
The case for acid
Calcium, lime, and rust deposits easily bind to grout, and, to a lesser degree, ceramic and porcelain tile. You may have heard the term “soap scum” used to describe buildup in a shower. That’s not actually soap. That’s calcium buildup. Agitating with a stiff brush can help break it up, but it can take a lot of elbow grease and oftentimes that’s not possible.
When the proper acids are applied to tile and grout, the bond between the minerals and the tile and grout breaks much easier. It may still require mechanical agitation with a brush, but the acids immediately start to break down the calcium, lime, and rust deposits. Sometimes a second or even third application of acid is required to fully break the mineral bond.
Is acid safe for tile and grout?
The proper acid (esp. muriatic, sulfamic, and acetic acid – aka vinegar) applied to sanded grout causes a “micro” layer of grout to release along with the minerals. This is called “etching” . When grout is etched, it is being chemically broken down – very slowly.
The last step is to rinse and neutralize the acid, otherwise the acid will continue to etch the grout causing it to become brittle over time and eventually failing.
Here is our tile and grout cleaning advice
Whew, ok – with all of that said, I’ll now answer the question: Which is better? Steam cleaning tile and grout, or using chemicals?
Hopefully by now the answer is self-evident – they’re both beneficial and neither one is right or wrong, unless your tile is stone in which case using an acid will etch the stone itself.
The MOST important step you can take after having the tile and grout cleaned is to have the grout sealed. We specifically recommend grout color sealing which adds a permanent physical barrier between the grout and contaminants. Color sealing (as opposed to clear sealing or color grout dyeing) changes the surface tension of the grout, making it difficult or even impossible for general, biological, and mineral contaminants to stick to the grout.
Best of all with color sealing, you’ll never have to scrub or use an acid again on the grout lines, unless the color sealer becomes compromised.
For more information about our tile and grout cleaning and grout color renew, please check out our Tile and Grout cleaning page.