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by John P. Bridge
Article is courtesy of John Bridge.com

"I wish I could have a tile shower without the grout joints. It's impossible to keep them clean."

I suppose tile showers arrived in this country along with inside plumbing over a hundred years ago. The tiles then were imported, mostly from Europe but from other areas also. Back then the joints between the tiles were filled with portland cement grout, which was hard to keep clean.   Nowadays, most tiles used in showers (Standard four-and-a-quarter inch wall tiles) are made in this country from the same materials used to make ceramic figurines. There are many colors and surface textures available, but one thing has not changed over the years: The joints between the tiles are still filled with portland cement grout, which is still hard to keep clean. It's not so much dirt as it is mold and mildew.   Throughout my three decades of building showers I've answered questions on how to keep tiles and grout clean hundreds of times. I've directed people to various products available at tile supply houses as well as at super markets and hardware stores. I can't really tell you which specific products are best. People have had varying levels of success using a wide variety of cleaners.   There is one thing, however, that is guaranteed to keep your shower looking new, and it is the only thing you can do to accomplish this. Each and every time the shower is used, it must be completely dried out. Some people use a window washer's "squeegee" to pull the water down from the walls and then use a towel to sponge it up from the bottom of the shower. At our house we simply use our worn out towels to do the job. When I shower I take two towels into the bathroom: one for me and one for the shower. I have seen showers built years before that still look brand new, having been maintained in this manner.   If you fail to wipe down your shower each time it's used, two things will occur: the grout between the tiles will breed mold and mildew, making an ugly mess that's hard to clean up; and minerals in your water will etch or pit the glaze on the surface of the tiles, making them impossible to clean as time goes on. Etching also occurs on your glass shower door (usually toward the bottom) if it is not dried each time the shower is used.   Now, what to do about a shower that has not been maintained in the above manner since it was new. Use cleaners that do not contain acids of any sort (This includes vinegar). Acids "clean" by removing desirable material, i.e., layers of grout from tile joints and elements of certain ceramic glazes from the surface of the tiles. Not good at all.   The best cleaner, as far as I'm concerned, is a stiff brush and regular soap. Dishwashing liquid will do. Elbow grease and "rub-a-dub." That's what we're talking about. Once you get the shower as clean as possible (It won't look like new), maintain it by drying it with each use and with periodic sessions of "rub-a-dub."   You should also seal the grout and tiles with a penetrating tile sealer both when the shower is new and periodically through the years. Grout and ceramic wall tiles are not waterproof and will absorb quantities of water as the shower is used. Water is the element necessary for breeding mold and mildew. Sealing the grout and tiles will exclude much of this water from the tile installation.   There are many brands of tile sealers, all of which fall into two general categories: mineral based and latex or acrylic based. Use the latex based products. They won't stink up your house like the mineral based ones will. If you buy your products (cleaners and sealers) at full line tile supply stores, you'll have the best chance of obtaining the very best products available. The people who work at these businesses are much more knowledgeable about tile products than, say, people who work at home centers. Home center employees simply have too many products to know about.   Sealers do not last forever. Many of them break down over a period of time when exposed to sunlight. A new breed of sealers are available that are purported to last up to fifteen years or so. Although I'm a little skeptical of that level of durability, I would certainly go for the product that will last the longest. In the past, sealers were only good for a year at most. I currently recommend the Custom brand of sealers available at many tile stores as well as at Home Depot.   Sealing a shower is easy. Make sure the shower is completely dry. It usually takes about four days for the moisture to evaporate from behind the tiles. The four days applies to all showers built with lath and mortar whether new or old. If your shower has only sheetrock behind the tile, the walls will usually dry in two days . . . unless the sheetrock is saturated, in which case you might have problems that can't be fixed with sealer.   Check the directions on the container. Generally, you wipe the product on with a sponge or rag, allow it to soak in for a minute or two, and wipe the excess from the surface with dry rags or paper towels. To make sure you've done a thorough job, repeat the process the following day. Allow the shower to dry overnight before you use it.   Do not seal the shower floor. It needs to breath, and the sealer will inhibit it from doing so.   So here's the recap: Clean it, seal it, and wipe it down each time it's used. Do this and most of your shower maintenance problems will be behind you.


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