Tile and Grout Maintenance

March 18, 2011

Most houses in my part of the county use a lot of ceramic tile products in the bathroom and kitchens. This is a very durable product and can easily last a lifetime, assuming it is applied correctly.  Though the winter months it is very normal to find drying out type cracks throughout the house. This is the perfect time to perform interior caulking and sealing.  See Caulking and Sealing for general purpose maintenance.  At first glance, it might be alarming to find grout chipping or breaking up in the bathroom or kitchen. However, this can be common, specifically at 90 degree edges. Look at where the horizontal and vertical surfaces connect, this chipped grout is due to opposing movement of these two surfaces.   This type dry out will continue to happen year to year. Even though you may find some of this with a slab foundation, most of these issues will show up with crawl space or basement type foundation. Granted tile movement with slab foundations can be common, but are usually related to foundation issues.

The house I live in has the orignal tile and grout applied some 60 years ago. For the most part it has survived without causality. Fortunately, it was not pink or some color that is totally out of favor today.  One of the most noticeable items I have recognized over the years with tile application (old and new) is that seams, edges corners or transitions become the weak link. In other words, the location that the wall tile meets the floor tile tends to have issues. This is typically associated with the fact that the sub structure (floor & walls) are moving differently. For this reason the grout at these edges usually gives way.  Additionally, during the winter we tend to see these areas gap due to low humidity.

One of the easiest ways to deal with this condition is to remove the grout and replace it with caulk. Using caulk will fill the void, and add flexibility to the joint.   As an added benefit, you may also find the surfaces creak or squeak less when walking on them.

Steps to Caulking:  Good preparation is important. If done correctly, this caulking method will create a nice finished surface requiring little to no maintenance for several years.

  1. Clean the surface to the best of your ability. There are tile cleaners at the home centers that will work better than what’s found at the grocery store. Try not to over-saturate the surfaces with liquids as you do not want to fill the cracks with fluids, then fill them with caulk as this could potentially set up a mold condition. 
  2. Let the surfaces dry overnight. If needed, you can use a hair dryer to pull the remaining moisture out of the cracks.
  3. Remove as much of the loose grout as possible. This can be done with a Dremel tool or a grout saw. Remove as much as possible, or score the grout enough so you have a void large enough to accept caulk. NOTE: This grout replacement method is all based on the fact that the corner surface is cracked and the grout is flaking out. If the grout is solid and in tack… leave it alone.
  4. Use a hand-held vacuum cleaner to suck out the loose grout.

Caulking: Make sure and read the “Caulking and Sealing” post mentioned in the first paragraph. It’s important to understand how to caulk correctly. At the end of the task, the finished caulk should have a smooth seamless appearance. The goal here is for the caulked surface to resemble the grout. 

  1. Use a good acrylic  latex caulk. If the grout is anything other than white, you may have difficulty finding a suitable caulk material. It is important for the new caulk material to match the grout as close as possible. For custom colors consider the Red Devil Color Caulk System. This will bring your project up to a professional level.
  2. Using a caulk gun, push the caulk gun away from you as you apply it  into the crack. This will cause the material to get deeper into the crack.
  3. Wipe clean any excess caulk as described in the caulking post.

Final Step: Re-seal the grout. When the tile and grout were originally installed, the surfaces should have been sealed. Sealing the surface will keep the grout clean. Plan to re-seal the grout on a yearly basis. Grout sealer is available at the Orange Box Store.

Besides the bathroom floors there are other places throughout the house that will have the condition mentioned above. Here is a short list.  

  • Kitchen counter tops (at the edge between the surface and the back splash
  • Tub and wall surfaces, this could be tiled or marbled surfaces
  • Tub and floor surfaces
  • Bathroom wall and floor surfaces
  • Bathroom wash basins and tiled surfaces.

Besides looking better, this maintenance project will reduce drafts, insect infestation and the potential for water to migrate into the floor substructure underneath the tile.

Good Luck,


Caulking and Sealing

January 11, 2010

 The colder months make it easy to find problems associated with door and window seals. I spent the day caulking window casings and sills today (inside the house). With the temperature hovering around 25F, it was easy to find the bad spots. Lucky for me, my house is in pretty good shape. I haven’t done any window maintenance in about 4 years.

It’s  not uncommon to see shrinkage (not the George Costanza type) in building materials such as caulk, grout, wood trim and spackling (all water based products).  This is usually the time of the year you will see more cracks around your shower, bathtub, kitchen as well as windows and doors. This is a great time to do interior caulking  in all of these places. If you own a new house that is less than 5 years old, you will probably notice significant amounts of cracks related to this type of contraction. It’s is important to understand; caulking is not a one time event. The material will continue to move and you may have to continue to re-caulk over the years.

PURPOSE OF CAULK: Caulk or sealant is used to bridge the gap between two material. Typically corners, seams and edges, especially where two dis-similar material meet. Caulk is used to create a barrier for air, water, grunge and 4 legged creatures from entering the house as well as keeping  untreated materials from being exposed to those elements. Universally, caulk is used as an exterior and interior sealant to protect both you and your home. 


Window Caulking: Assuming you have functional windows, the caulking should be limited to the where the two opposing surfaces contact each other. (i.e. window frame and wall). If there are gaps and cracks, clean them and fill with a thin coat of water based acrylic latex caulk. Painting after you finish may be required, but that is your call. My trim is off white and it blends well enough to be left as is. If you find no cracks or gaps leave it alone, no need to add layers of caulk just because. I took these before and after pictures of one of my windows. Hopefully you can see this is a very thin seasonal dryout crack that I filled with caulk.

Tub and Shower Caulking: Similar to windows. Look where the tile or wall surface touches the tub it self. This is where most of the problems are. Keeping a good water tight seal at this location is critical  in keeping water from getting behind the tub; and same goes with the shower. These surfaces will require more regular inspection and recaulkng to keep them up to snuff. If you live in an older home you may find lots of caulk gunked up here. If you continue to see mold in this location even after caulking, it would be a good idea to spend the time and remove all the old caulk, let it dry and replace all the caulk. This is a very laborious job but once its done right you will not have to caulk near as often.  Inspect for recaulking every 6 months.

Caulking “Part Art Part Function“: Caulking appears to be an easy task, however it’s also very easy to make a mess of it. One of the reasons I use a latex based product as often as possible is because its very easy to start over if you mess up.  TIP: After applying the bead of caulk, moisten your finger and smooth the caulk into the corner, if you have too much caulk it will spread outside your finger, wipe it off and keep going. Use a wet rag to carefully clean it up. If needed, use your finger again. Continue to work it until you like the way it looks.  Even though most instructions will not include this tip, I learned this from a wise old painter and  it really makes a difference.

It’s estimated that up to 11 percent of the air leaks in a building are around the doors.

Door and Window Trim: This is related to the trim or molding around the windows and doors. Typically this is done prior to painting. Look for small dryout cracks at the joints and edges.  Try to force the caulk in the crack it self and wipe clean the surface. Look at these before and after pictures of this interior door trim.

Door Seals: All exterior doors should have some form of seal. It could be rubber, plastic, foam or even metal strips (usually copper).  This seal creates a barrier to keep the outside temperatures outside, and the inside temperatures inside. Inspecting this on a windy day can reveal leaks. Look at the seal(s), ensure they are in tack, and form a complete seal around the door frame. Look at the door threshold in the same way. In some cases there may be a wiper (thin rubber strip on the bottom of the door) to make contact with the threshold when the door closes. If you find problems, you may be able to fix them but most likely the complete seal may have to be replaced.  The local hardware store usually has many styles to choose from. When replacing a door seal, it is important to find the right one. Using one that is too think will make the door difficult to open and close.  Look at this site on weather-stripping for a detailed description of the various styles.

Attic Entrance: Either a hatch or attic stairs. If it’s a hatch seal it the same way as a crawl space hatch. If you have a hinged stairway you can seal the door much like the crawl space, however adding insulation over the hatch will provide additional value. Here are some examples of tents and hoods that will work. If you have room, you can make one out of insulated fiber board.

Crawl Space Entrance: If you have a basement or the house is built on a slab, this will not apply to you. Many houses with a crawl space will have a hatch in the floor. Use a small strip of  foam based weather-stripping attached to the contact surface between the hatch and floor, this will help keep the winter drafts down. TIP: It doesn’t hurt to have a patch of fiberglass insulation to fill the void in the hatch hole, it would be removed  when you need access.

For more detailed methods of caulking and sealing see the attached DOE article covers the subject of caulking, sealing weather-stripping.  Weatherizing your Home.

Seasonal Dryout Around the House

January 9, 2010

If you normally live in a humid area of the country you may experience seasonal dry-out during the winter months.  Because our heating systems dry out the air they tends to dry-out wood products, sheet rock and other building materials. Recently I have had neighbors commenting that they hear popping at night throughout the house especially in the attic. It never hurts to take a flashlight and make a pass through the attic looking for broken timbers, but more likely than not, it is nothing more than dry-out or the expansion and contraction of various building materials. Even though you would think a 50-year-old building would have already experienced all the dry-out possible, timbers continue to move and will also absorb moisture during the more humid parts of the year. In many cases the sound you hear is the movement of the timbers and temperature changes will cause them to pop (forever).

Besides the popping look for these dryout signs as well:

  1. You see hair-line cracks in your sheet rock
  2. Cracks around trim, baseboards, door molding
  3. Cracks around interior and exterior windows and doors
  4. Cracks around the tub,  shower and throughout the kitchen
  5. Nails popping out of the sheetrock

This is a great time to do some interior caulking as its fairly easy to recognize where the leaks are. Look for my next article on caulking and sealing.