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Solutions for Grungy Grout

Nothing's worse than moldy or funky grout in the kitchen or bath.

Tile is a durable, versatile surfacing material that brightens any area with a sparkling purity. That is why tile is so ubiquitous in kitchens, baths and sunrooms. The colors and patterns or just plain neutral tones are adaptable for any theme. So where's the beef? It has to be cemented together. The wonderful grout between tiles gets dirty, especially on floor tiles. It's hard to clean. It gets stained and discolored. You're not entirely powerless to fight grungy grout but keeping it clean in the first place is much easier.

Unfortunately, tile makers have leaned toward the aesthetics of grout rather than the practicalities. Earlier floor tile was bonded with a bland, easy-to-clean gray grout. Then tile makers started mixing and matching grout colors with tile colors, and the result was lighter shades of grout that easily lose their luster with mold, dirt and stains. Mold can be cured with bleach but forget about removing stains that permeate grout with dingy blotches. You can't get rid of them without replacing the grout or sanding it. 

The solution offered by tile makers is sealant. Applied when the grout is cleaned or newly installed, sealant makes it impermeable to water and dirt.  What's the catch? It has to be reapplied annually. Stick that on your to-do list, somewhere between changing the batteries in your smoke alarms.  Unfortunately, the most obvious reminder to reapply the sealer is when the tile starts getting dirty. By that time, it's too late. Another method of damage control is to keep the grout lines as narrow as possible during installation. The width of the joint should be no wider than 1/8 inch. The wider the joint, the bigger the target for dirt. And the smaller the tile, the more lines to be cleaned. Think twice about using light colored grout on those tiny, designer mosaic tiles, especially on the floor.

Naturally, prevention is not an option if you're already looking at dingy grout. Can it be cleaned? Manufacturers would say yes, and offer several products available at your local home improvement center, tile shop or plumbing supply house. Barring that, your next option is to paint it. Grout paints and stains can cover a world of gunk. A semi-transparent stain will also act as a sealer. Of course, the most practical color will be dark. If you can't stand the idea of covering up the grunge and want to remove it, you can try sanding or chiseling the upper layer of grout off. That requires a round, cold chisel or sandpaper. Apply sealant or stain to prevent further problems.

The most draconian solution, of course, will be to remove the offending grout entirely and replace it with fresh material. Remember that there's no turning back--all the grout has to be removed. You can't just put a new layer on top of the old. Be sure to press as much grout as possible into the joint. The grout will fail unless thoroughly compacted. 

Sources used to create this article include Peter C. Hotton and the Boston Globe.