Looking after stone surfaces

By Lisa Breakspear, Sales & Technical Director, Fila UK

There’s been a huge surge in the popularity of stone tiles over recent years.  For many, stone is the real deal; a material that offers longevity, creates a truly authentic look and provides a finish that won’t go out of fashion.   And, there’s so much choice for all styles of interior, from majestic flagstone floor tiles to intricate mosaics.  Stone surfaces help reconnect a space to the world around it – but how can you ensure that their fabulous characteristics are maintained?

Looking after stone isn’t difficult but it’s really important that products specified are suitable for the individual material, be it a limestone floor tile or a marble countertop.  A tile’s individual finish should also be considered, along with its intended use.

In terms of a material’s characteristics, stone falls into four categories.  Igneous rocks are formed from magma.  They are durable and resistant to most acids; granite is one of the hardest igneous rocks.  Metamorphic rocks are originally igneous or sedimentary but heat and pressure changes their composition. Crystalline marbles, like Carrara marble, are metamorphic and are formed from limestone.  They are generally more porous and can stain easily.  Sedimentary rocks are formed in layers from sediments deposited by water, ice and wind, and they often contain fossils.  They are durable but not as dense as metamorphic rock.  Limestone is one of the most popular sedimentary rocks.

Meanwhile, man-made products include terracotta, porcelain, ceramic, manufactured stone and agglomerates. Terracotta is made from pressed natural clay and is quite absorbent.  Porcelain and ceramic are made from a mixture of clays and minerals, and porcelain is the denser of the two.  Manufactured or engineered stone, and agglomerates can be resin- or cement-based and can contain various materials, including natural stone, glass, quartz, marble and stone dust.   Characteristics will vary depending on composition.

Product specification for each material type will differ but, in terms of the actual regime, it will follow a similar route: starting with cleaning.

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Cleaning
Whether it’s the initial clean of a newly laid surface, or on-going maintenance of an existing floor or wall, the importance of this procedure should never be underestimated.  An initial clean removes manufacturing debris and installation dirt, including grout and adhesive.  On-going maintenance tackles the problem of cleaning chemical residues/build-up, everyday dirt and grime, and atmospheric agents.  Some installations may also need a periodic deep clean.

An initial clean can be carried out with an acid, neutral or alkaline cleaner, depending on the substrate.  It’s a very important step.  If you try to apply a sealer onto a dirty surface, it won’t be properly absorbed.  This will affect the performance of the sealer, the tile’s aesthetic and on-going maintenance will be more difficult.  If you don’t need to apply a sealer, a poor initial clean will still cause problems; any existing dirt will act as a key and subsequent build-up will ruin the tile’s aesthetic and, once again, make on-going cleaning difficult.

To ensure that the correct cleaning product is used, you’ll need to determine the acid sensitivity of the material specified.  Certain materials, including polished marbles, limestones and travertines, won’t withstand an acid wash, and a pH neutral or alkaline product should always be used. Alkaline products are effective at removing organic dirt and polymers from grouts and adhesives; if the stone being treated has a highly textured finish, this can make the removal of the polymers from the grout particularly difficult, so specification of a high performance product will be imperative.  Bear in mind, however, that highly alkaline products aren’t suitable for polished surfaces.

pH neutral cleaners are the preferred eco choice and a quality concentrated product, that can be used at various dilutions, will cater for most cleaning needs.  If you have to use an acid detergent, look out for a ‘buffered’ acid as opposed to a muriatic acid-based substance.  Muriatic acid releases fumes that can be damaging to human health and to the environment.  Also, they can cause substantial damage to stainless steel and aluminium profiles, as the fumes erode the surface.

Once the tiles have been thoroughly cleaned, the surface is then ready to be sealed – if one is required – and here starts the big eco debate!

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Sealer application
Stone, marble, granite, agglomerates and polished porcelain are the surfaces that generally require application of a sealant.  Treatments come in many forms, both water-based and solvent-based.

Generally, a ‘sealer’ is a topical application that adds a coating to the surface of the tile. It protects against water, oil or other contaminants.  An ‘impregnator’ penetrates below the surface and acts like a repellent.  Some impregnators also enhance colour and a variety of finishing waxes are also available.

Water-based sealants
Water-based products offer a host of advantages and, in terms of their comparison with solvents, it is now generally not the case that one will out perform the other; quite the opposite in some cases.  Water-based treatments are more eco-friendly and, as mentioned earlier, they can generally be applied with residual moisture, which can cut project time-scales considerably!

They are also very versatile and can be used on unpolished, honed, flamed and brushed stone surfaces – and, as with our own FILAMP90 ECO PLUS, on polished porcelain too.  Some treatments, like this one, are certified ‘food safe’; something you will need to bear in mind when treating kitchen areas – and are LEED approved as well, so their specification can contribute to a building’s eco-rating.

Solvent sealants
Solvent treatments have a different molecular structure to water-based products.  Application methods are different and drying times are extended; a surface will have to be completely dry before a solvent is applied and, externally, they should only be applied in dry conditions.  Ventilation may be required to extract fumes and there are some locations where certain solvents may not be suitable, for example, catering and kitchen areas where food may come into contact with the stone surface.  In these locations, treatments must be certified for use on food contact surfaces.

In terms of eco choice, there’s only one option here. High performance water-based sealers and waxes are available – to protect tiles and grout joints from stains, to repel water, to ‘enhance’ surfaces and even block efflorescence.

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Ongoing maintenance
It is often after a project is handed-over that a regime goes off the rails.  This may be due to failure to refer to an OM manual, or down to poor education generally.  Price can sometimes steer choice of products too – but choosing a poor quality cleaner can often end up being a costly mistake.

Unsuitable maintenance products will undo everything achieved to this point.  They will affect the performance of the sealer and could also potentially damage the tile surface.  For example, if an acidic cleaning product is used on polished limestone, the acid will react with the calcareous properties and will etch the polished finish. An alkaline cleaning product used on a polished limestone will, over time, damage the factory polish and dull the surface.  Most ‘household’ cleaners are either too acidic or too alkaline.   So-called ‘natural’ treatments containing lemon and vinegar have a very low pH-level, so are acidic, while bleach-based products are at the alkaline end of the scale.

Inferior products often leave residues behind too, and a lot of flooring treatments will contain a ‘maintainer’, which will create a shine on the surface.  This will build up and become a key to dirt; in a very short period of time, the floor will become stained by organic foot traffic and in some cases, a slip hazard will be created.

If problems do occur, trouble-shooting products can address most issues – and there are plenty of safe and effective options out there.  They span from universal deep cleaners to specific stain removal treatments for the removal of rust, limescale, silicone, hair dye, red wine and many, many other residues.

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Lifecycle costs
Lifecycle costs play an important part in specification and there are a variety of ways that they can be reduced.

Choosing concentrated/long-lasting formulas will reduce the overall quantity of product required, as well as associated manpower and site disruption.  Most products carry coverage rates, for reference, along with information on periods between reapplication.  They will also provide other benefits, in terms of transportation, storage and reduced packaging.

Large-scale stone care
For larger projects, it is well worth partnering with a surface care specialist, to ensure that the right products are specified, that the regime is carried out correctly, and for peace of mind along the way.   For example, FILA PROJECT works alongside clients and cleaning specialists to identifying the best solutions for cleaning, protection and maintenance of any surface.   This type of support spans from feasibility studies, to analysis of materials through laboratory tests – and from on-site technical assistance, to management of ordinary and extraordinary maintenance.

Most issues associated with stone tiles aren’t the fault of the material.  They generally boil down to poor care.  Get this right and you can’t go wrong!
Fila offers a comprehensive range of surface care solutions and a turnkey service for site management via its FILA PROJECT division.

For more information, please contact Lisa Breakspear at Fila UK on tel. 01584 877286, email filauk@filasolutions.com or visit filasolutions.com.