Tile Shower: How to Maintain It

Tile shower advice and installation help at the John Bridge Tile Forums

• Ceramic Tile Showers

– John P. Bridge

“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, many 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. Also, for the past couple decades larger floor tiles have been used. 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 tile 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 tile 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.

You need a good alkaline cleaner/stripper to remove built-up soap scum and mineral deposits. Use this cleaner only when heavy build-up is present. It is not to be used as a day-to-day cleaner. For routine maintenance use a pH neutral cleaner. Both products are available at tile supply stores.

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. 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 recommend Impregnator 511 from Miracle Sealants. 511 is available at Home Depot in the tile aisle and also at tile supply stores across the land.

Sealing a shower is easy. Make sure the shower is completely dry. It usually takes about five days for the moisture to evaporate from behind the tiles. The five 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 have problems that can’t be fixed with sealer. Shower floors can take weeks or months to dry out after having been in use for a period of time. You might want to forgo sealing the floor in that case. In new showers, the floor can be sealed along with the walls, but never use an old fashioned sealer on a shower floor. The floor needs to “breathe.”. Schluter Kerdi shower dry very quickly, a day or two.

If your shower is tiled with large floor tiles which are dense to the point that they won’t accept sealer, you should use a small piece of sponge to apply sealer to the joints only. Wipe the edges of the tiles with a damp cloth. Be advised that all floor tiles are not super dense. Some of them will accept the sealer. Do a little test. Dap sealer on a tile and notice whether the tile absorbs any of it. It it does, seal the tiles and grout. If no sealer is absorbed by the tile, seal the joints only.

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 a damp rag 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.

It is imperative that you remove all sealer from tile surfaces before it has a chance to dry. Some of the water-base sealers are not “strippable” after they’ve dried. Pay attention.

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. If you have questions about sealers or anything having to do with tile and stone, you can ask them at the John Bridge Forums.

See also: Kerdi Shower

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