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When New Floors Go Bad

When New Floors Go Bad:
An expensive lesson in the importance of proper maintenance and inspection
By Claudia Lezell, IICRC Standards Hard Surface Division Vice Chair; IICRC Outreach Committee Vice-Chair

I recently received a call from a homeowner complaining of flaking, cracking and pitting on the surface of their travertine dimension stone tile floor covering. (Travertine is a porous calcium carbonate rock that is commonly used as a building material.) The townhouse had recently been built and was purchased directly from the builder, with all of the finishes, including the travertine tile floor covering installed contiguously on grade (ground) on the first floor, in the kitchen and attached living room.

Prior to moving into the house and during the walk-through, there was a noticeable amount of surface haze on the stone.  In an attempt to remove the haze, the builder used an unknown cleaning technique and chemistry. Upon taking occupation of the house, the new homeowner noticed a mild amount of haze on the stone surface, so they used a spray mop designed for wood floor covering and an over-the-counter all-purpose cleaner--pH unknown. In addition, the homeowner eventually sealed the stone with a stone sealer, but wasn't sure if it was a penetrating or topical sealer.  

Within a few weeks of occupancy, the travertine started to flake, slightly crack and began to pit, randomly and mainly in the traffic paths. As a result, the homeowner contacted a self-proclaimed stone restoration contractor whose solution was to restore and polish the stone through a process known as crystallization. This process has also been referred to as vitrification or recrystallization. The recrystallization process typically consists of spraying a fluid onto the stone floor and buffing it with steel wool using a standard buffing machine. This creates a new compound on the surface because the steel wool generates heat through abrasion and the chemical reacts with the stone.

Over the years, this process has been met with much controversial discussion amongst the experts. Supporters of this process claim that the new compound protects the surface of the stone, adds shine and might even harden the stone to increase wear. Critics claim that it impacts the stone's surface permeability and breathability, trapping moisture and possibly causing the stone to decay.  However, in the end, no matter what process is determined, existing conditions MUST be considered. And as with any restoration process, expertise and strict supervision is paramount.  

Almost immediately after this treatment, the conditions considerably worsened instead of improved. The homeowner then contacted a different restoration contractor. This contractor came out with some type of moisture meter and informed him that there were elevated moisture levels, more than likely from the concrete slab. Still being somewhat unsure, the restoration contractor was very smart not to be the "dimension stone hero" and suggested the homeowner have the stone inspected in order get to the root cause of the condition. At this juncture, my company was referred to the homeowner by an architectural engineer.

Site Visit Findings
Once on site, the travertine tile was confirmed to be installed contiguously on the first floor, over an on-grade (ground) concrete slab in the kitchen and adjoining living room. We saw noticeable pitting, fracturing and some flaking of the stone surface, also known as spalling, in the main traffic paths. Oftentimes, spalling can be detected by the presence of small chips on the surface of the stone and is usually caused by the crystallization of salts at or near the surface of the stone. This occurs because the water acts as a vehicle to carry the salts in solution to the surface and then evaporates leaving the salt to crystallize. The expansion of the salt causes pressure with the stone, which forces the stone apart. The crystallization of alkaline salts from floor strippers and heavy duty cleaners is also possible.   

Upon removal of a piece of affected stone, it was discovered that the stone thickness was found to be 1/2", not 3/8" as advised. We also noticed that there was an abundance of yellowish discoloration, mostly found near the tile joints.  It appeared to only affect the surface under the polished portion of the stone, down approximately 1/4". Once this was discovered, the owner requested we suspend further destructive testing and analysis.

From the minimum amount of investigation and testing conducted, and from the pattern of the discoloration, it was deduced that the distress of the polished stone surface was the result of continued exposure to a contaminated liquid, more than likely seeping into the grout joint and dissipating into the stone pores. As a result of these various occurrences, the homeowner was now faced with the potential of having to remove this 1/2" very heavy slab of stone tile. Because we were able to comfortably detect that the ingress of moisture was topical and not from the concrete and/or setting bed, the homeowner elected to not remove the floor and to attempt to repair.  

What lessons were learned? Besides realizing that "all purpose and neutral" cleaners – which are not always what they claim – are definitely not a one-size-fits-all solution. One of the most important lessons to be taken from this [not so unusual] scenario is that expertise, certification and training is a must. When I investigated this scenario, I purposely took along a seasoned stone restoration contractor that carried various certifications, including the IICRC hard surface inspection and maintenance certifications.  We work together on a regular basis, as he is one of the very few in my area that truly is an expert at their trade.  

Once the haze was detected, the homeowner could have potentially avoided this situation from happening by bringing in an independent third-party floor covering inspection service. Then perhaps after evaluation, the condition could have been addressed by a trained and certified professional stone restoration contractor.  The homeowner could have then been provided with a proper cleaning and maintenance plan, with healthy chemicals and cleaners designed specifically for stone.  In addition, the restoration contractor could also have scheduled additional professional restoration of the stone, with specified cleaning and polishing techniques.

Since the spalling appeared to be from the top down, it was determined to grind the stone, allow to dry, hone and then repolish. The homeowner was made very aware after this costly repair was quoted by the restoration contractor, that there still existed a possibility that the spalling may return unless the exact source of the moisture and salts were determined.  Even though the homeowner was very dismayed at the money and time he basically wasted on the misdiagnosis and repair, he was satisfied with the findings and hasn’t needed further repairs since.

Claudia has been involved in the floor covering industry for more than 30 years. Since 1995, she has owned and operated Inspections Too, Inc., a full-time floor covering inspection and consulting service. Claudia has also spearheaded and led the IICRC Hard Surface Certification Floor Covering Inspector Program since 1996, served as the IICRC Hard Surface Division chair and has actively lectured at national and regional conferences and floor covering trade shows and conducted numerous technical seminars designed to educate professionals in the industry (

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