Although many cleaning contractors, distributors, and facility managers may not realize it, a flooring material that dates back to the 1400s is currently making a big comeback. Terrazzo floors are increasingly being installed in both commercial and residential settings, and this material is often used for countertops, partitions, wall coverings, and even bathtubs as well.

During the 1400s, terrazzo—the name for which comes from the Italian word terrace—was discovered almost by accident when crushed marble, glass, clay, and other materials were mixed with goat milk, which acted as a sealer. Once dried, polished, and honed, the material proved to be surprisingly attractive, and people were soon using it for a variety of purposes, from flooring to anchoring statues and art objects.

In fact, terrazzo soon became a status symbol that was known as the flooring choice for kings and queens. This material was originally viewed as mainly a low-cost flooring option; however, as the manufacturing process was refined, tasks such as preparing, grinding, cleaning, and polishing began to take a considerable amount of time, adding to terrazzo’s overall cost. Today, terrazzo can sometimes be more expensive than many other flooring materials, including even marble and granite.

As to its popularity in the United States, terrazzo was the flooring of choice—for those who could afford it—until the early 1970s. However, as home décor styles evolved, fewer property owners, whether residential or commercial, were willing to foot the bill for the added cost of a terrazzo floor.

Another reason for terrazzo’s popularity over the centuries has been its durability. Intact terrazzo floors can be found in buildings that are hundreds of years old. In fact, some of the terrazzo floors installed in George Washington’s Mount Vernon home (built in the mid-1700s) are still in service today. However, while it is very durable, this material certainly is not impenetrable.

Terrazzo floors, particularly in commercial settings such as office buildings or schools, are susceptible to spills from soda, fruit juices, coffee, and other liquids, which can actually penetrate the surface of the flooring. These liquids can leave a stain, especially if the floor has not been sealed or finished.

As with many other flooring materials, other enemies of terrazzo include grit, dust, and sand. With foot traffic, grit can grind into the terrazzo, leaving what are essentially tiny potholes, cuts, and scratches that can prove very difficult to repair using traditional cleaning methods. When this happens, cleaning professionals frequently have to scrub the floor clean, apply a sealant or finish, and then buff or burnish the floor. While this may help cover up the problem, the situation could have been avoided in the first place by applying a sealant or finish before the damage was done.

Basic Terrazzo Care
Basic care of terrazzo floors starts with the installation of an effective matting system, especially if terrazzo has been installed at building entries. Mats can help trap sand and grit before these contaminants have a chance to impact terrazzo surfaces.

The floor should also be regularly swept, dust mopped, or vacuumed using a backpack vacuum cleaner. In fact, in some busier facilities, cleaning professionals perform these tasks throughout the day. Often using the latest generation of backpack vacuum cleaners is a good option.  These machines are more comfortable to use and the suction power helps pull grit and sand out from porous areas of the floor.  Further, all spills should be cleaned as quickly as possible so they do not have a chance to penetrate or stain the floor.

Cleaning professionals should mop terrazzo floors using a neutral floor cleaner, and change the mop head and cleaning solution frequently. Research shows that when traditional mops are used, both the cleaning solution and the mop become soiled and contaminated, and can then spread contamination on the floor, defeating the whole purpose of cleaning. Further, if the floor has been sealed or finished and a soiled mop and contaminated water are used, it can result in hazing or streaking, which can mar the appearance of the floor.

In many cases, it is helpful to use a bucket system that releases measured amounts of solution directly to the floor without the use of a mop. Using this method minimizes the spread of contamination.

Turning to Automatic Scrubbers
The cleaning and mopping process described earlier is most effective on smaller terrazzo floor areas or in congested areas that may need to be manually cleaned. However, as with many other types of floors, the fastest way to clean terrazzo floors is often using an automatic scrubber.

Automatic scrubbers vacuum, clean, and dry floors all in one pass. There are many auto scrubber models available, but cleaning professionals will have more flexibility and maneuverability—as well as fewer safety issues—using a battery-operated machine. Long cords stretched over floor areas can be a trip-and-fall accident waiting to happen.

Some battery-operated machines can now go several hours without a recharge, which improves worker productivity. Using the right size of machine also enhances productivity. If the machine is too small, it can take too long to clean the floor; too large, and it may not be able to clean in tight or congested areas, which means these areas may have to be cleaned manually, slowing down the entire cleaning process.

The Shine
While a sealant will not necessarily put a shine on terrazzo, it will protect the floor from damage. Finishes, on the other hand, add luster to terrazzo flooring. Managers and cleaning professionals must determine the appropriate level of gloss for their facility. For finishes designed for use with a high-speed burnisher, a high gloss, “wet look” shine is typically the result.

Terrazzo Today
Today’s terrazzo floors are obviously differently from those made and installed centuries ago. The actual flooring is thinner, and the material is poured into slabs and then installed. The process produces a lighter floor that is more impervious to cracks. Additionally, modern manufacturing methods also make it possible to offer terrazzo in a variety of colors.

Whether these terrazzo floors will last centuries, we do not know. What we do know is that terrazzo is back, and with know-how and care, it can be relatively easy to maintain.

Debby Davis is the product manager for Powr-Flite, a manufacturer of floor care equipment. Davis has extensive experience in the professional cleaning industry, especially in the area of floor care.