It is interesting to look back through the history of impregnators/penetrating sealers and their importance in the marketplace. In the early days of tile and stone installation, sealing tile, grout or natural stone was not an accepted practice. Sealing was looked upon as a nuisance more than an aid. Every possible excuse you can think of was used: "I don't want the liability of sealing," "I have had problems using sealers in the past," "I have to charge extra to use a sealer," "I don't want to come back for the extra day it takes to seal," etc.

Due to numerous technological advances in the tile and stone industry, better education and many protection product developments, the attitude has changed dramatically over the past 20 years. Now sealing is not only accepted, but it is specified in many cases.

Customers have gained first-hand knowledge of the value added any time an impregnator/penetrating sealer is used:

  • The limestone importer benefits by increasing their limestone sales because they can specify limestone for surface applications that would not have been possible without the application of an impregnator/penetrating sealer to eliminate potential staining.
  • The contractor doesn't charge the customer for using an impregnator/penetrating sealer as a grout release because it saves 45% in the labor associated with grout removal. Also, it is less costly to use a grout release than to come back the next day for an acid wash.
  • The janitorial staff spends 40% less time in the bathroom, shower and kitchen areas because they clean up much easier after surfaces have been sealed with an impregnator/penetrating sealer.

The unfortunate side of the increased popularity in impregnator/penetrating sealers is the appearance of many "overnight experts" -- both large and small. Whereas once there were a half dozen impregnator/penetrating sealer companies to choose from, now there are dozens. And unfortunately, a great deal of inaccurate information has been passed on. In particular, many misleading statements associated with product performance and VOC compliance are being made.

How do you know what is true? How can you separate the true experts from the "overnight" experts? How do you get helpful information and separate the fact from fiction? This article will try and address those questions, among others.

What is the difference between solvent-based and water-based impregnators/penetrating sealers?

The only way to protect the substrate is to penetrate it with something that will carry the protection into it. The protection can be silicone, silanes, siloxanes, fluoropolymer, etc. But it has to be carried into the substrate, and typically it will be one of two vehicles: solvent or water. Solvents will allow varied and typically deeper penetration into the substrate than water. The curing process, which is a result of evaporation in most cases, can be adjusted by using different solvents. Solvent-based products can be cross-linked, allowing for a wider temperature window for application and better durability Also, they are typically unaffected by exposure to cold during storage and transport.

Water is hydroscopic and will hold out on the surface. The protection cannot penetrate any deeper than water will. For many dense substrates like porcelain or polished granite, water will not penetrate very deeply -- leaving the protection on or at the surface, hence the poorer durability to wear and tear over the long term. Any polymer can be emulsified, but unlike solvent-based products, they cannot be cross-linked (cured) to give their best performance.

What can an impregnator/penetrating sealer do?

An impregnator/penetrating sealer will resist water, oils, grease, mold, mildew, algae, efflorescence, graffiti, grout dyes, mortar haze, acid rain, atmospheric dirt, lime deposits, soap scum and other penetrating items. In addition, an impregnator/penetrating sealer will make the surface less slippery, harder, allow water vapor transmission, and it will not change the natural look of the surface. The theory is to make the surface easier to keep clean and pristine by using an impregnator/penetrating sealer.

Are solvents being eliminated? Are water-based products safer than solvent-based products?

There is a great deal of misinformation, confusion and deceit in the field regarding solvent and the potential elimination of solvent, as we currently know them. Let's begin by stating clearly: "Solvents are not in danger of being eliminated any time soon." Contrary to some information being spread in the field, even non-VOC exempt solvents are not in danger of being eliminated any time soon. In California, where the regulations are by far the toughest, CARB is looking at the "Landmark" Global Warming Law to reduce emissions by 25% by 2020. That is a far cry from solvent elimination. And we must remind everyone that the rest of the nation is far behind California with such issues.

For point of reference, the solvents that Miracle Sealants Corp. (MSC) uses to blend products like 511 Impregnator, 511 Porous Plus, 511 Seal & Enhance, 511 CST and Grout Sealer are all on the U.S. Green Solvent listings. In addition, these products are rated a 1 on a 0-to-4 toxicity (with 4 being the most hazardous) -- similar to laundry detergent. They are not flammable and can even be shipped by air.

All too often, solvents are viewed as "toxic and hazardous," but if you inspect the HMIS ratings -- which every product has on the Material Safety Data Sheet -- you would see many water-based products actually have a higher hazardous/toxic rating than the solvent-based products. The point is that just because a product contains solvents, that does not make it more toxic or hazardous to the human being during use, or after the product has fully cured. One thing has nothing to do with the other, but there are many misconceptions in this area.

Are water-based products less or more toxic than solvent-based products?

Some water-based products contain PFOS or PFOA, which is absorbed into the human being and harbored in organs and various systems within the body. (This is a matter of public record). These components can be inhaled or absorbed through the skin. As a result, there is a mass-industry push to eliminate these chemical by-products as quickly as possible, but certainly not before 2010.

It is important to remember to consider all information when evaluating the potential danger of using a particular product, whether they are solvent-based or water-based. The ingredients do make a difference on toxicity and hazardous nature of any product.

What is a VOC?

VOC is the initials for Volatile Organic Compounds. VOCs are solvents that are photo-chemically reactive, which means they reduce the ozone layer around the earth (in layperson's terms). This means that solvents -- including Trichlorethane 111, odorless minerals spirits, alcohol, etc. -- are being used less and less in any number of products.

What are the classes/categories for VOC Compliance?

The rules pertain to "Architectural Coatings" as defined by Rule 1113. Suffice is to say that impregnators, penetrating sealers and coatings are all governed by this definition. The requirements vary from region to region or state to state. There is also a consumer commodity requirement, which MSC products do not fall under for VOC requirements.

What products are affected?

Typically, anything that is a coating, enhances color, seals or protects can be classified as an architectural coating, sealer or finish. This is the class where most impregnators/penetrating sealers are being lumped into, but there are sub-classes within categories, and each manufacturer can choose which one their products fall under -- based on given criteria. Ultimately, the governing bodies will place the product into the "strictest" category when a product fits into multiple categories.

What are manufacturers doing to deal with the VOC guidelines?

Again, for point of reference, MSC has developed a good working relationship with the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD). We stay in constant touch to keep abreast of all things going on.

MSC has also hired a Regulatory Specialist to continue to monitor all guidelines in all states that might have an effect on any MSC product. This will help us identify and help create solutions to all regulatory issues that may arise each day.

MSC has also completed a state-of-the-art manufacturing plant to insure proper quality control with complicated blends, and all MSC products are VOC compliant.