How to Steam Clean Tile Grout

Cleaning Tile Grout With Steam
Steam-cleaning tile grout is safer and less harsh than using chemicals or abrasive methods. BanksPhotos/Getty Images

Once your tile grout is too moldy and embedded with gunk, often the only solution is to remove the grout and replace it. While this process is easier than one might expect, why go to all of that trouble when you can effectively clean it in the first place?

Steam cleaning your tile grout is a middle option between hand scrubbing and grout replacement. While a more involved process than just using brushes and cleansers, it is less complicated and costly than removal and replacement of the grout. Steam cleaners heat water to over 200 degrees F and have nozzles and brushes that direct blasts of steam onto grout. This do-it-yourself project involves renting or purchasing a small machine and directing high temperature jets of concentrated steam at the offending grout debris. Even so, you will need to attach nylon-bristle brushes to the steamer to help dislodge the gunk.

Steam cleaning grout is a green activity. No harsh chemicals are needed. Water plus high temperatures and rubbing are enough to eliminate much (but not all) grout debris.

If your tile grout needs major help, steam cleaning can be an accessory to manual cleaning that is both eco-friendly and gentle on your tile and grout.

Why Grout Attracts so Much Debris

Upon installation, tile grout is forced between the tiles to fill the gaps and help stabilize the tile. The surface of the tile itself is smooth and relatively easy to clean. By contrast, tile grout, being slightly lower than the tile and containing sand, attracts all sorts of debris. In tubs and showers, this gunk is hardened soap scum, mold, and mildew. On tile flooring, the debris mainly consists of embedded dirt, but it too can contain the built-up residue of detergents.

This gunk works into the pores of the grout. After years, it becomes progressively more difficult to remove by normal means. Even scrubbing vigorously with a stiff bristled brush and using powerful cleansers may produce no results. Now, the grout gunk is almost as strong as the grout itself. This creates a secondary problem. When you step up your game with stronger brushes, you risk chipping away grout and the fragile edges of the tile itself. Gentle power-washing of your tile grout is one way to intensify your tile cleaning efforts, but this too presents a risk of tile damage.

How a Steam Cleaner Works on Grout

Steam cleaning couples two powerful weapons in your war against tile gunk: extremely high heat and moisture. When steam first hits the tile, its temperature is 212 F. This high heat immediately loosens dirt, soap, mold, and other debris. Because steam's heat exceeds the melting point of soap (around 140 F), it can loosen hardened bath soap.

That temperature spike then rapidly plummets within seconds. That loosened gunk is now borne by the remaining water, which needs to be removed fairly rapidly or else it will settle into the grout again.

If your vision is to eliminate scrubbing altogether, cleaning your grout with a consumer-level steam cleaner is not a tile-cleaning panacea. It only assists with hand scrubbing. Hardened bath soap will only be loosened; it will not become liquified. Scrubbing is still required, as using a steam cleaner does not cause grout gunk to shed off by itself. Buy a steam cleaner only if you believe you can use it for other purposes in addition to cleaning the grout.

Tool and Materials

  • Cloth Rags
  • Sponges
  • Bucket
  • Steam Cleaner: On the consumer market, there are few tools specifically made for cleaning tile grout. A general purpose canister style steam cleaner like the McCulloch Heavy-Duty Steam Cleaner heats up water past boiling point in a few minutes and maintains steam for about 30 minutes. If you want to clean bathroom wall tile, make sure you buy a canister, multi-purpose steam cleaner. Some steamers are floor-only and will not work for shower or bathtub tile. Multi-purpose cleaners have attachments for different surfaces.

How to Steam Clean Tile Grout

  1. Before using any attachments, first blast the grout with the steam jet to remove the worst of the gunk. Do not use any brush attachments at this point or you will only further embed the debris.
  2. Start with nylon bristles, as they will not damage the grout, no matter how hard you rub.
  3. Use the wire bristle attachment with care. The wire brush is your ultimate weapon, but it can chip tile. If you have smooth, glossy tile, a wire brush will almost certainly scratch it!
  4. Work from the the top downward. Every few minutes, liberally douse the steamed area with fresh water to move the gunk down to the drain. If you let softened gunk remain on the surface, it will harden and your problems start all over again.
  5. After steaming an area, give the machine ample time to build up steam again.
  6. Clean up water and loosened debris with the rags and sponges.