Cleaning something a quarter-inch wide and hundreds of feet long sounds almost impossible, yet building service contractors do it every day around the country. What is the focus of this cleaning marathon? Grout. There are several ways to get grout dirty, and almost as many ways to get grout clean. Understanding how, why and when to clean grout — as well as some preventative measures that can be taken — can go a long way to shortening this tedious job.

Grout cleaning with
machines Almost every cleaning job has its own specific tools, and grout-cleaning is no different. In the United States, the popular method is to use machines to clean grout. The machines include an array of general rotary cleaners, general brush cleaners and hand-held machines. Some companies broaden the available product options by using on-site modifications or even a combination of two techniques in order to improve these machines’ efficiency.

Machines, however, can be problematic tools to use when cleaning grout because many floors are not entirely level.

“Using a machine on an uneven surface tends to leave soil on either the high or low points of the floor, including grout, which tends to be recessed,” says Ian Greig, CEO of Daniels Associates Inc., a consulting group based in Phoenix. Greig found an answer to this problem by mounting a pad over the brush of a rotary machine.

“We have found if you mount your pad over a brush, [the brush] gives the pad more flexibility and allows the machine to more readily reach the uneven surfaces,” he says.

Dan Draper, president and CEO of Nationwide Janitorial in South Bend, Ind., uses machines for grout-cleaning as well, but his is a slightly different system.

“We use a special brush that is shaped like a cylinder that has better luck getting into and down to the grout,” he says.

Hand-tool method
Europe’s preferred grout-cleaning technique is a brush and good old-fashioned elbow grease. That proven system works well on the deep grout lines characteristic of many of that continent’s older facilities. Using hand tools is still common practice, but as labor costs grow, the process is becoming more expensive.

“Really, the tried-and-true method is to clean your grout by hand, with a brush and some sort of moisture to loosen the soil,” says Tom Montgomery, regional manager for FBG Service Corp., in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

As time has gone by, the hand tools that manufacturers have developed have helped make the hand-cleaning method a little less labor intensive.

“True innovations in tools, such as microfibers and ergonomics, have definitely helped,” says Chris Mowen, senior vice president at Daniels Associates. “Five years ago there were one or two companies offering microfiber mops and tools. Now there are 20 to 30 manufacturers offering multiple lines of microfiber products.”

The true test of a technique, however, is whether it gets the floor and grout clean. With this in mind, in many instances it is necessary to clean by hand. And often, BSCs can improve the end result by adding chemicals to the process.

Adding cleaners and sealers to the equation
In many cases BSCs are going to want to add chemical cleaners and grout sealer to their grout-cleaning arsenal to get the surface clean more easily.

There are multiple factors to be weighed when choosing a chemical cleaner. Important consideration should be given to the newer, more restrictive laws governing the environmental impact of cleaning products.

“Green-friendly products are the present and the wave of the future, and we have to adapt to this and incorporate them into our daily work,” says Mowen.

There are many types of chemicals with a variety of aspects that make them different. One may have a whitener, another a fragrance, and still another an acid neutralizer, and some incorporate many or all of these qualities. But, say the experts, choosing the right chemical for the job is really a matter of preference.

One of the areas that is hardest to clean and requires the strongest chemicals is the restroom. Uric acid (present in urine) is one of the toughest stains to get out, and even with proper cleaning, it can be problematic at best.

“Grout is like cement — very porous — so the urine actually penetrates the surface of the grout and becomes embedded in the grout,” says Montgomery.

Another important factor in cleaning grout is grout sealer. The only catch is that unless it is applied right away, the damage to the grout can be immediate and irreversible.

“There are some penetrating sealers out there that work well and don’t change the color of the grout,” says Greig. “But if they are not applied right away, especially in a restroom, the damage can be done in a couple of days.”

There are many types of sealers, some oil-based and some water-based, so it is best to first check with the floor and grout manufacturers to avoid any damage to the flooring system.

Cleaned, sealed, delivered — for years to come
Maintaining grout proactively, including cleaning and sealing, will save headaches down the line.

Cleaning staff should clean the floor daily with a mop and clean water or chemicals. When using and disposing of chemicals, adhere to all state and national guidelines.

Depending on the traffic area, clean grout with grout-specific tools and cleaner at least monthly — more often for high-traffic areas and restrooms, where grout should be sealed if possible.

As most BSCs know, every job is different, but following those simple recommendations will make grout cleaning more manageable for years to come.

Darren Maas is a freelance writer based in Laramie, Wyo.