To Seal or Not to Seal

The average person views tile and grout surfaces as a very durable flooring choice that will require minimal maintenance – you sweep, you mop, and once in a while you scrub with a floor machine.

Savvy facilities managers know better.

While light cleaning may be satisfactory for a private residence, the heavy traffic at a large facility means that maintenance routines are far more demanding and complex if surfaces are to look clean and attractive. On unsealed tile and grout flooring, the natural porosity of grout allows dirt and other contaminants to become embedded within the grout joints and penetrate below the surface where it can’t be extracted by simple mopping and scrubbing. However, sealing grout – after restoration or a new tile installation – can eliminate that problem and ease the labor of future maintenance.

So wouldn’t it be a wise choice to seal all tile and grout surfaces? Surprisingly, the answer is no. Why? Because not all commercial tile and grout surfaces are the same, and what works for one can be counter-productive to another – or even destructive to that particular surface.

Let’s take a look at what tile and grout surfaces are commercially available and which are – or are not – good candidates for sealing.

Types of Commercial Tile and Grout Surfaces

Ceramic tile remains a popular flooring choice thanks to its durability and longevity. If it is glazed, it doesn’t usually need to be sealed. If the tile is in an area that receives high foot traffic, though, you can put a finish over the tile surface to enhance durability. This definitely needs to be done for tile that is unglazed.

Sealing the grout joints, though, is the most important thing, whether the tile is glazed or unglazed. If the grout joints were initially sealed right after installation, the sealer should be refreshed every two years or so. If not, be sure to thoroughly clean and extract dirt and contaminants before sealing.

Porcelain is similar to ceramic tile in that the grout joints should definitely be sealed whether the tile is glazed or unglazed. Porcelain tile by definition is less than 0.5 percent and therefore typically does not require sealing.

Quarry tile, glazed or unglazed, is both good-looking and relatively easy to maintain. It is often used in food service or similar production areas. To seal unglazed quarry tile, an impregnator is needed. An impregnator halts the absorption of moisture and contaminants, keeping them on the tile surface where they can be cleaned more easily.

As far as sealing the grout joints, this should be done to both glazed and unglazed quarry surfaces. A finish is not recommended.

Terrazzo flooring is costly, but its durability means that it can be more cost-effective than some other types of resilient flooring. An impregnating sealer is recommended for both the grout joints and tile surface.

Saltillo is a type of hand-made Mexican tile. It is made from natural clay, is highly porous and has high alkalinity. An impregnating sealer is recommended for both the grout joints and tile surface.

Marble, though beautiful, is not the best choice for areas that get heavy traffic because it gets scratched and stained too easily. If you do choose marble for an area, you might want to apply a densifier or impregnator to the surface. The grout joints should definitely be sealed.

Granite is quite scratch- and stain-resistant, and is frequently used in class-A commercial buildings. Impregnators are typically used to protect polished granite, but sealing with finishes is not recommended. Sealing the grout joints is a good idea in most situations.

Slate is smooth and soft, but is somewhat stain resistant because it is only semi-porous. A penetrating sealer is not always required, but is recommended for areas where food or liquid might be spilled.

Whether you intend to restore an existing tile and grout surface or install a new one, learn as much as you can about the flooring type. Then, consult a tile and grout expert about the best methods for maintaining and protecting it. If the surface does need sealing, it’s wise to use a professional and trusted tile and grout restoration company. Many restoration companies use proprietary chemical products that act as both a sealer and finish, which can help reduce facility downtime and enhance the surface appearance, too.

A good company will probably also offer ongoing maintenance services as well as an initial restoration or installation service. This can be of great assistance for some facilities, especially those that must comply with specific mandates or are subject to inspections. Beware of companies advertising a “permanent fix” or “maintenance-free” solution. All tile and grout surfaces require some degree of maintenance to remain attractive, sanitary and durable.