Porcelain tile used to be a hard-wearing floor material that was fairly easy to clean, but in recent years professional cleaners around the world have started to have trouble cleaning newer porcelain products. With the use of presprays and high pH cleaners, these tiles can dry with a hard-to-remove stain pattern, which can lead to dissatisfied customers and an expensive restoration or replacement of the affected floor.

Industry experts Mike Pailliotet, founder of Mikey’s Board, and Mark Saiger, owner of Saiger’s Steam Clean, have seen the problem firsthand and are busy working to find a solution to how these popular floor coverings can be cleaned without damaging them.

Pailliotet first noticed the problem about three years ago when he was cleaning a newer floor with one of Saiger’s hard surface cleaners. After cleaning and then rinsing the floor with water, the tile dried in patches, but Pailliotet found that the pattern of the spots was completely random and did not correlate at all with his cleaning process or tools. This led him to believe it was either a problem with the cleaning solution or the floor. He was able to reproduce the problem with another high pH cleaner, leaving only one possible culprit: the soil itself.

Pailliotet posted a video of this original floor on YouTube, and comments came from cleaners around the world who have encountered the same phenomenon. Over the past six months, Pailliotet and Saiger have received an increasing number of calls, text messages and comments. Hardly a day goes by that they don’t hear about the problem.

Cleaning porcelain tiles - staining

Shown is the first case of the porcelain stain problem that Pailliotet experienced. Courtesy of Mark Saiger and Mike Pailliotet

tile inspection

On a mission to find out the cause of this problem when cleaning porcelain tiles, Pailliotet and Saiger began conducting their own tests. They went to flooring suppliers and big department stores and bought a wide range of sample porcelain tiles. When exposed to highly alkaline cleaning agents, whether liquid or powder, these tiles experience the same problem: a blotchy pattern that worsens with each cleaning and is more difficult to remove.

In their tests, the problem didn’t always occur on the first cleaning of a sample tile, but subsequent cleanings resulted in spotting. “You could have been successful the first time – you won’t be so successful the second time and you’ll end up in this patchy state,” reports Saiger. Pailliotet found that even after buffing, the stains reappear and get worse and harder to remove with each cleaning. Pailliotet and Saiger also tried lower pH detergents, but eventually found the same effects at anything above pH 10.

Saiger admits they still don’t know exactly what caused it, but “the suspect is wear and tear of the floor — homeowners cleaning it, environmental exposure [factors] like lights.” He explains that porcelain should be very durable, but it seems that newer porcelain products have a surface that degrades easily, leading to this problem. “I call it a zombie problem,” says Saiger. “We’re going to come in with a little more power, a little more pH, a little more heat and show what’s going on there.”

Pailliotet advises that they cannot be sure which cleaning products have been used or how they may affect the surface of the tiles. When a cleaning solution that used to be safe and effective for porcelain floors suddenly causes this staining problem, “We’re caught unawares as cleaners, so we are trying to get that word out‘ Saiger explains. “It’s a panic mode; it’s really. As a seasoned cleaner – even myself when I see this – I’m like, ‘Oh no.’”

Another unusual new product to watch out for is porous porcelain tiles, which are particularly problematic because they absorb the cleaning solution and cause more stains. Pailliotet had a client who was overpriced by the ease of maintenance of this type of floor, but found that it got dirty quickly and was almost impossible to keep clean. When he was called for a professional cleaning, the prespray soaked into the tiles and then stopped responding to attempts to clean. “I had to keep reapplying the cleaner, re-emulsifying it and running the turbo very slowly,” recalls Pailliotet.

Porous porcelain stoneware

This porous porcelain is becoming more and more common. Here we can see this almost pinprick nature of it. Courtesy of Mark Saiger and Mike Pailliotet

fix the problem

In both practice and testing, Pailliotet has had some success removing the porcelain stains by applying a neutral detergent or acidic water rinse and then thoroughly polishing the floor; however, he and Saiger warn that, in the worst-case scenario, it’s not always possible to fully reverse the damage. “You can maybe bring it up to satisfaction,” says Saiger. “It’s a bit intense; It’s not a normal, easy thing for a carpet cleaner to do, but we say it [cleaners with this problem], start polishing; Start with neutral detergent.”

To address more serious damage, MB Stone Care is developing an Italian porcelain restoration cream. Pailliotet explains that this is a thick cream that polishes (or refines) the surface of the tile, but technicians must be careful as over-working can completely remove the glaze and even begin to remove the photo underneath the glaze, which is what is what gives the tile its design. He suggests that those without the appropriate experience and training leave this process to stone and tile restoration professionals.

What cleaners can do

While Pailliotet and Saiger haven’t yet discovered the exact cause or a foolproof solution for porcelain tile stains, they do have some tips for cleaners who run into the problem on site:

Identify the type and age of the soil— Just as you need to be able to identify fibers to clean carpet, you need to be able to distinguish between porcelain, ceramic and stone to clean tile. In addition, you need to determine the age of the floor, since the problem of staining is a phenomenon of recent porcelain products. Pailliotet recommends asking your client when the floor was installed and if you are unsure of its age, assume it is newer and proceed with caution.

Communicate with the customer—Before you clean a floor that may be problematic, communicate clearly to the customer what the risks are and what your limitations are to mitigate those risks. Pailliotet has created a free disclosure form that cleaning technicians can use to discuss the risks with customers (downloadable at issa.com/porcelainform). Educating your clients about this issue encourages them to schedule regular cleanings before the floor becomes heavily soiled so that gentler chemicals can be used with good results and there is less risk of damaging tile coatings.

Work in smaller areasPailliotet notes that the problem is more likely to occur if a highly alkaline product dries on the floor before rinsing off. When cleaning porcelain floors, he recommends working in 100- to 200-square-foot sections and keeping the product damp until thoroughly rinsed.

Pay special attention to lanes and pivot points—Saiger has found many instances where the stains in these areas have been revealed, most likely due to foot traffic wearing away the factory coatings.

Use a neutral or lower pH—Many newer floors use high performance polymer or epoxy based grout, are stain resistant and do not require sealing. The benefit of these grouts is that highly alkaline detergents may not be required to clean them, allowing professionals to use a gentler cleaning solution that may be less prone to staining.

“These floors are very easy to clean; You can clean them these days with a modified carpet cleaning wand,” Pailliotet says. He recommends starting with a neutral cleaner and some dwell time to see if that can get the job done and working from there if necessary. This may take more time, but it’s worth it to avoid the unnecessary risk of ruining a client’s floor.

Saiger points out that there’s no guarantee that neutral or lower pH cleaners won’t ultimately cause the same problem, so be sure to follow her other recommendations for communicating with clients and working in small areas. Saiger says his team has used a solution with a pH of 9.5 and hasn’t had any problems yet (his tests are still ongoing), but he’s heard from cleaners in California who are having a spotting problem with a solution containing a saw a pH of 9.9. Since this is a new issue, Saiger notes that at this point there can be no promises about what will and won’t work.

Decline the job– In the end, Pailliotet says if you don’t rely on your porcelain floor cleaning skills or don’t have the necessary equipment, such as damaging floors.

Test cleaner on porcelain stoneware

Tests gave such results that drying an alkaline cleaner would cause dramatic stains. Courtesy of Mark Saiger and Mike Pailliotet

Final Thoughts

This is an emerging problem in the industry, and even if you haven’t personally experienced it, you likely will in the future, especially if you work in areas of newer construction. Saiger and Pailliotet are committed to researching and raising awareness of this issue, but they encourage professional cleaners to do some of their own homework as well. especially as hard-surface soils continue to grow in popularity.

“Spend time in tile shops and big department stores,” says Pailliotet. “See what they are selling and what will show up in the new developments in your area.”

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