Help me clean my old gross quarry tile
April 8, 2013 10:09 AM   Subscribe

I recently moved into an older apartment with many quirks and charms. The floor is not one of them. It's quarry tile, like you find in restaurant kitchens, and it is disgusting. At one point it had been sealed or varnished, and the sealant is now peeling off. The grey grout looks like someone mashed dirt into it even after it's been scrubbed with Comet. Help!

Here is a picture of the floor, freshly mopped. It is actually darker/grosser in real life. Besides the sealant, it also has some lovely tracked in concrete stains, broken tiles, etc. So far, I've used heavy-duty stripper from Home Depot which did a total of nothing. I've scrubbed with Bar Keeper's Friend, Comet, aforementioned stripper, regular old Mr. Clean - nothing can touch this nasty grout or the peeling sealant. Home Depot customer service recommended hydrochloric acid, which I am scared to use because um I spill things a lot and don't particularly want to handle extremely dangerous chemicals if I can avoid it. Is there any way to get this sealer off without using HCl? If I do use it, is this something a person with very few housekeeping skills can do safely? If nothing else, how can I get the grout white or at least not really dirty while it's actually clean?
posted by tatiana wishbone to Home & Garden (17 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
That's pretty nasty.

I've had good luck with Stanley Steamer. They get my carpet clean when nobody else can. They have a flooring service, and the might be able to help with it. Gall them up and see what they say.

I wouldn't fool with acid. Not at all.

Another option would be to grind out the surface grout with a Dremel tool, then regrout with a color you like, then seal it.

You can lay a new tile floor over an old tile floor. Tile is pretty cheap, and it's not a bad little project. If you're handy.

I tried Grout Bully on my basement bathroom grout. Meh. It kind of works, but it's really not that easy to do. My bathroom is 4' by 5' (yes, you do have to rest your chin on your knees when you use the john.) It took 2 hours and the results are decent. I covered most of it up with a rug. I don't think this will work for the kitchen.

Hang in there!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:20 AM on April 8, 2013

I know this sounds crazy, but have you tried a Magic Eraser? You can get knockoffs for super cheap. It essentially acts like super fine grain sandpaper. Maybe it will help?
posted by itsamermaid at 10:24 AM on April 8, 2013

Response by poster: Sorry, forgot to mention this is a rental. I can get the landlord to shell out probably max $100-$200 for this project and I do not want to put a ton of labor which I am almost certainly unskilled for into it. I have tried a magic eraser on the counters (which are inexplicably the same tile) and alas, nothing.
posted by tatiana wishbone at 10:27 AM on April 8, 2013

Grout is usually a little pourous and if not sealed properly it slowly turns the color of dirt/dust/crud that has spilled on it. So you may be looking at a total regrout job. I would take a hammer and chisel (small chisel) to grout in the corner of the room and get a small part out/take off the surface and see if it is clean underneath or if the grout is just grey/nasty. If so you will need to chip out the grout. The best way is to use a reciprocating saw and a special bit that goes in it for removing the grout (I said best, not easy), than regrout with new and better grout with a new high quality epoxy sealant.

As for getting the old sealant off if that is the problem, you will probably need some kind of mechanical method, maybe a rotary sander (i would try it on a corner first and see if it destroys the tile first rather than just clean it)?

In the past I have had great success with polishing porcelain tile with pneumatic polishers and polishing compound (same stuff they use in painting a car) but that equipment is crazy expensive for a one time use and I am not sure quarry tile will respond to polishing at all. However it likely won't be harmed by using a fine grit (say over 150) sandpaper since the surface is kind rough already and you will be resealing which will smooth out a (mildly) rough surface.

The cost of a basic reciprocating saw and the bit is going to be about 60 and the new grout and sealant will be pretty cheap (like 20). All of this or something close will be at the (local hardware superstore). The labor is the killer here, you could always try it on a small area and see how it goes. If the grout wasn't too good or installed properly it can be really easy to get out, and putting in new grout isn't very hard and sealing it is pretty much the same work as mopping the floor.

so maybe in exchange for the labor you can get the landlord to buy you a reciporcating saw and sander
posted by bartonlong at 10:37 AM on April 8, 2013

You could bleach the grout, using regular household bleach or a bleach pen.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 10:42 AM on April 8, 2013

Grout Stain might be a way to go here.

You can get one that's sort of an adobe color and then pretend that your kitchen is made of that Mexican Saultilo tile. (Even paint on some coyote prints?)

Once you stain the grout, you can decorate in kind of a Mexian Hacienda way, very colorful, with pretty handicrafted things.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:58 AM on April 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

In my experience, you can't achieve much attempting to "clean" it. Best results will be actually sanding off the top layer (as others describe above), and then sealing it or even re-grouting.

That would be too much for me, and it sounds like you wouldn't want to do it either given that it is a rental. There are, however, companies that specialize in grout cleaning (here's an example, but you can google "grout cleaning 'yourarea' for more). Maybe you could contact one to get more info on their services, and a ballpark of how much a job like that might cost given the square footage. Perhaps there's a case to be made to the landlord/owner that an investment in a professional would be worth it...
posted by msbubbaclees at 11:15 AM on April 8, 2013

I don't think the hydrochloric acid is really all that extreme an idea. Providing you have proper ventilation, the job would consist of spraying or mopping the acid on, letting it work for sufficient time, then mopping it off with rinse water. The HCl will dissolve the very top layer of portland cement in the grout (like a couple of sand grains thick). It shouldn't affect the tile except to uniformly dull them a bit. Might take a little longer where the grout sealant still has purchase.

The HCl home depot is selling you is diluted for the purpose. You should wear gloves and take other precautions, but this stuff will not melt a hole in your floor.
posted by werkzeuger at 11:31 AM on April 8, 2013

I bought grout paint for under $10 at Home Depot. I put it on with a toothbrush and wiped off the excess. In about 20 minutes, my floors looked way better. I had to paint them again every year (I have kids and it's a small, messy kitchen, but th bathroom was fine for a few years at a time). But it was well worth it and did wonders when none of the strippers and other things could help. In future, I would just use it right away.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 12:01 PM on April 8, 2013 [6 favorites]

I have had good luck using Tilex Mold and Mildew spray. Spray it on the grout, let it sit for 10 minutes. Get a grout brush and scrub every inch of grout. I have also had decent luck with toilet bowl cleaner -- the gel kind. Squeeze it on the grout and let it sit, scrub with grout brush.

I am assuming you scrubbed the grout with Comet and a toothbrush or brush. If you did this, and it's still not clean, maybe teh HCL acid isn't a bad idea. Regular mopping does nothing to clean grout.

I have had people come out and steam my grout. It worked okay. Nothing great and it just got dirty again. Try the Tilex.
posted by Fairchild at 12:04 PM on April 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

You could also just cover the whole mess with some vinyl flooring laid over the current tile without glue. When you're ready to move out, you can pull it up without damaging the original floor. Depending on the size of the area, you could save money by looking for a remnant.

We've done this with spare bedroom that we really didn't want to invest a lot of money or time into. The floor isn't going to win any design awards, but it does the job.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 2:52 PM on April 8, 2013

One thing to know is that grout isn't always white to begin with. When you go to the hardware store you'll find many colors/shades of grout to choose from to work well with the tiles you've chosen, so it's very possible that the color you're seeing is actually the original color of the stained grout, or near it, anyway. I'd personally experiment with possibly darkening the grout with a stain or a marker pen - they could help you at the hardware store find a workable method. The actual staining of the tiles themselves is another problem, but again they can probably help you decide what to do. I brought back some beautiful old quarry tiles once with carnauba wax and a lot of elbow grease, but the color variations in the tiles themselves remained, only they were deeper and richer looking. I really enjoyed that floor. Good luck to you and let us know what works for you.
posted by aryma at 3:20 PM on April 8, 2013

Yeah, floor grout should pretty much never be white unless it's a swimming pool. However, floor grout almost never starts out black like it ends up, either. That floor probably had dark grey sanded grout, maybe with a little reddish tint.

They make something called wax stripper. That's probably what you want to get the tiles themselves clean. You can probably get this at a restaurant supply store.

Then you need to clean the grout with full-on professional grout cleaner. I believe the good stuff is sulfuric acid in a nice gel form. You may not be able to get it at the home center, you might have to go to a more old-school hardware store. Suit up in gloves, eye protection and maybe even a nice tyvek suit, turn on a ventilation fan and go to town. Squirt a thick layer onto the grout, let it sit for a while. (Experiment with the time) Then scrub with a stiff brush- they make brushes specifically for this that are shaped correctly and have handles that are advantageous. I think the one I have is 3M/Scotch branded. You'll get a nice soupy mess. Sop it up with a rag like you are cleaning up spilled milk, and then rinse. Work small sections at a time.

This may take a couple of rounds to get all the gunk out. A wet/dry vacuum has been known to be helpful in these situations.

If the grout comes out looking OK, great. Put some kind of grout sealer on the grout and call it done. If it doesn't come out nice, try the other suggestions. (I like the Clorox splash-less brand of bleach because it is thicker) and possibly the toilet bowl cleaner. Bleach will probably lighten the grout, so watch out for that.

The reason restaurants use this kind of tile is because it is really durable and can take a beating. However, the good news and the bad news is that you sometimes have to scrub the life out of it to keep it clean. The good news is also that once you get it back into good shape, it really is easy to maintain.

In most situations, they actually look best when they have no sealer of any kind on them.

If you find that the grout is in bad shape after doing all that cleaning, you can try re-grouting. Remembering that you must use sanded grout (the kind with sand in it) and that this kind of tile likes almost no relief in the grout. Meaning, the surface of the grout should be very nearly even with the surface of the floor. Make sure you put some kind of modifier in the grout that makes it slightly flexible, unless the tile is directly on a concrete slab.
posted by gjc at 3:58 PM on April 8, 2013

Seconding Tilex Mold and Mildew spray. That stuff is like magic. The grout, caulking and tiles in my bathtub area were revolting dark grey and after a few applications on different days and some toothbrush work things are looking a heck of a lot better.
posted by windykites at 4:10 PM on April 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

I've re-grouted with a carbide tool and a fresh layer of grout and have to tell you that there are WAY better things to do with your time. I'll never bother again.

Personally, I'd strip the floor wax it like gjc suggests and then stain it darker, to get an even colour. A quick google mentions products that promise to stain and seal in one step.
posted by bonobothegreat at 4:59 PM on April 8, 2013

I'd also like to mention that what "dirt" remains on your floor after all the scrubbing you've already done isn't half as bad for your health as exposure to hydrochloric or sulfuric acid - or, for that matter, Tilex. If you use these chemicals, be absolutely certain to follow the recommendations for safety - use ventilation, a mask, gloves, and don't expose children or animals to the air or the surface until it's rinsed and dried thoroughly.
posted by aryma at 6:17 PM on April 8, 2013

So far, I've used heavy-duty stripper ... I've scrubbed with Bar Keeper's Friend, Comet, aforementioned stripper, regular old Mr. Clean ...
Does the landlord know what's on the tile? looks like a layer of polyurethane, or some kind of resin. Could it be a heavy layer of wax or acrylic?

You can try ammonia & water. It gets wax off like a charm, and usually works on acrylic, and it's cheap. Mop it on lavishly, let it sit for 10-15 mins, then see if it gets anything up. Read the label 1st. You can try some steel scrubbers, not steel wool, a more rugged scrubber. Wear gloves.

If you get the coating off, clean well and then clean the grout with bleach and detergent. Never, ever, mix bleach and ammonia.
posted by theora55 at 8:24 PM on April 8, 2013

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