DEAR TIM: I’ll admit it. I’m not the best housekeeper and I’m frazzled. My tile shower floor is filthy with hard water stains. I don’t like using harsh chemicals for a number of reasons, and because the stains are so hard to clean, I’ve neglected the floor. Is there an easy way to clean hard water stains from tile? Or do I have to rip out the tile and start over? Is there a way to prevent the hard water stains once I get the tile clean again? – Tom Y., Tampa, Florida
DEAR TOM: Many people place a low priority on cleaning their homes for any number of reasons. Some are unable to do it, some are just too busy, and some may not even see the dirt. The good news is that with minimal effort and a bottle of something you likely already have in your kitchen pantry, you’ll have gleaming and clean tile in less than a day!
Before I tell you how to clean the hard water stains from your tile floor, allow me to explain how they form. Once you understand this, you’ll realize how easy it is to prevent them from happening in the future.
In many places, the water coming from wells and municipal water pipes has dissolved minerals in it. The most common elements in these minerals are calcium and magnesium. These can make the water “hard” as opposed to “soft.” Soft water feels slippery when you rub your hands together. You don’t have this sensation with hard water, thus the descriptor.
The hardness of water is measured in grains, with one grain equal to one seven-thousandth of a pound. (Apparently, it takes about 7,000 grains of wheat to equal a pound. But I digress.)
When hard water containing the calcium and magnesium evaporates, the water component goes into the air as a vapor, leaving an ultra-thin coating, often invisible, of the calcium and magnesium on the surface. You can test this easily if you have a dark countertop or piece of dark plastic. Allow a drop of water to dry and you may see a very faint white ring of the crystals marking the outline of the drop as it shrinks and evaporates.
If you don’t clean off these deposits on a regular basis in a shower floor, each time you get into the shower with dirty feet, you press tiny dirt particles into the fresh mineral crystals. When you get out of the shower and the water on the floor dries, another layer of new crystals locks in the last layer plus the new dirt. Can you see what happens if you do this for months on end? You end up with a layer cake of hard water deposits and dirt.
I’d like you to now recall some of your high school chemistry. The hard water deposits are alkaline in nature. This means they have a pH greater than 7. If you pour an acid which has a pH less than 7 onto the hard water deposits, they’ll soften and start to dissolve.
But as you indicated, you don’t want to use harsh chemicals, and many acids are harsh. Guess what? Common white vinegar that you use to cook with and put into your body is a mild acid. It’s safe and nontoxic.
Here’s all you need to do to remove the hard water stains from your shower tile floor. For real impact I only want you to do this on half the floor. Make sure the tile floor is dry. Put a double layer of dry paper towels on half the tile. Saturate the towels with pure white vinegar. Really soak the paper towels with the vinegar.
Allow the vinegar to sit on the tile for at least eight hours. At the end of the wait period, squeeze out the paper towels and throw them away. Take a shower and the action of your feet moving about on the tile where the vinegar worked should show a remarkable transformation. The tile might look like new – or at least there should be far fewer hard water deposits.
If there’s a great improvement but the tile doesn’t look like new, you just have to repeat the process to get the tile looking perfect. There’s no need to scrub the tile with a harsh abrasive cleaner that can scratch the fine, clear glaze on the tile.
Do NOT do this with any marble surface without carefully testing with a cotton swab. Marble is alkaline, and the vinegar might etch and remove some of the polish from marble. Carefully test using any acid on marble. Apply a drop of vinegar in a place not too noticeable and let it set for hours. Rinse and see if the finish of the marble has changed.
To keep your tile looking like new from now on is easy. Buy a high-quality squeegee with a good rubber blade. After each shower use the squeegee to remove all the water from the walls and floors. Get as much water as possible into the drain. If there’s no water to evaporate on the tile, there will be no hard water deposits.
I’d also just get in the habit of using the vinegar every two weeks to keep ahead of any minor deposits that may develop because you can’t get all the water off the tile. Let me know what happens. Actually, I already know that you’ll succeed, but I’d still like to read your joyful email!
Need an answer? All of Tim’s past columns are archived for free at www.AsktheBuilder.com. You can also watch hundreds of videos, download Quick Start Guides and more, all for free.
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