Travertine is a sedimentary stone formed in and around fresh water hot springs. It occurs when calcite (calcium carbonate) is deposited by water, then compressed over time to a solidified structure. Travertine almost always has holes and channels where water and hot gasses escaped during formation. In most instances, these holes are “filled” during fabrication with cementuous (like grout) or resin (like epoxy) products to form an even, flat surface.
Travertine is one of the softer flooring materials, registering 2.5 – 3.5 on Mohs’s 1-to-10 Hardness Scale. Because of its softness, it is easily scratched and abraded by materials that are harder in composition such as dirt and debris tracked in from outside, unprotected furniture legs and posts, metal, and hard plastics. Like its very close cousins – limestone and marble, it is also highly reactive to all acids, even mild ones such as orange juice.
Items Affecting the Appearance and Serviceability of Travertine
The following items will impact the look and lifespan of your travertine:
- The quality of the stone itself
- Improper routine maintenance
- Exposure to chemicals
- Exposure to excess water
- Exposure to abrasives
Travertine quality varies as widely as the places it is found. In general, higher quality stones will have a tighter (compacted) structure, fewer “fill” areas (especially wide, shallow areas where the “fill” has very little to bond to), will be filled on both sides (to prevent “punch through” from high heels, furniture legs, etc.), and will exhibit a quality fabrication finish (no saw marks, blemishes, or unfinished areas).
Unfortunately, poor quality travertine will make itself known very quickly once it is installed. Rapid fill loss, “punch throughs”, pitting, and discoloration will occur at an accelerated rate. However, the maintenance tips we’ll explore later in this document will help keep the misbehavior to a minimum.
Improper Routine Maintenance
Improper routine maintenance is the single greatest cause of travertine degradation. More travertine is damaged by improper care and maintenance than any other influencing factor, including stone quality. These maintenance oversights include:
Wet Mopping – Wet mopping is the single largest cause of “fill” loss, spalling (physical deterioration and pitting of the stone caused by water), and microbial growth (dark discoloration in pits, crevasses, and grout lines). Travertine floors should NEVER be wet mopped with a string mop (or any other type, for that matter) – they should be swept thoroughly and damp-mopped with a sponge or microfiber mop, only.
Failure to Keep Surfaces Properly Impregnated (Sealed) – Failure to keep travertine properly impregnated (sealed) is the second-leading cause of travertine deterioration, and plays even more heavily if the surfaces are wet-mopped. Proper impregnation keeps water, oil, and other contaminates out of the stone and helps stop fill loss, spalling, microbial growth, and staining.
Every time moisture penetrates the surface of your travertine, it has both a physical and chemical affect on the stone – both are negative. Wet stone expands, drying stone contracts. Multiple cycles of expansion and contraction weaken both stone and fill areas, resulting in pitting and fill loss. Do you remember when your teacher called water the “universal solvent”? Enough said.
Use of Improper Cleaning Chemicals – I never cease to be amazed at the varied number and types of cleaning chemicals people (and their professional cleaning personnel) use on their travertine floors. I’ve seen everything from vinegar and water (“that’s what my grandmother used”), to heavy-duty stone cleaners (“guy at the tile store said this was the strongest stuff they had”), and just about everything else in between.
Rather than providing you a list of things you shouldn’t use on your travertine (it’s a very large list), for the sake of brevity I give you the one solution you should use to routinely clean your travertine: a pH-neutral (-7), non-chelated cleaner specifically designed for natural stone. Nothing else. Ever. Period. (Yes, “nothing else” includes Swifters and Windex!) For those of you not familiar with chelates (pronounced kee’-lates), they are chemicals added to detergents and cleaners (including many routine stone cleaners) to “soften” the water by sequestering “hard water” minerals (such as calcium) from the detergent so it can clean more effectively. Sounds good, right? Wrong! Remember what your travertine is primarily composed of – calcium! Floors cleaned with chelated products look dull, drab, and lifeless.
Failure to Keep Floors Properly Swept or Vacuumed – Earlier in the document we touched on Mohs’s Scale of Hardness and determined that travertine fell between 2.5 and 3.5, on a 10 point ranking. Unfortunately, the grit and fine gravel tracked onto your floors from outside register 6 to 7 on Mohs’s Scale – they are twice as hard as your travertine. If they are not routinely removed, they act just like sandpaper on your floor. Every time someone walks on them, they are abrading and scratching the surface.
Failure to Replace Missing Fill – When your travertine loses fill, the area immediately around the hole no longer has physical support and becomes much more susceptible to further damage. Additionally, the hole left by the missing fill will take on water, cleaning solution, dirt, or whatever else falls into it. This will eventually result in spalling, microbial growth, and internal damage to the stone.
Exposure to Chemicals – Your travertine should not be knowingly exposed to any chemical agents other than the neutral, non-chelated stone cleaner and impregnator mentioned earlier in this document. The use of high intensity alkaline cleaners is acceptable to deep clean surfaces prior to sealing (impregnation), but only in that instance, and certainly not on a routine basis.
However, life happens, and sooner or later something will get spilled. How you respond to the spill will depend on whether the spilled substance is water-based or oil-based, alkaline or acidic. If your surfaces are properly impregnated (sealed) you have nothing to worry about from both oil and non-acidic, water-based spills as long as you clean them up in a reasonable time period. If your surfaces are not properly impregnated, you will get a stain – especially if the spill is oil-based.
Acidic spills (orange juice, lemon juice, wine, vinegar, Margarita mix, certain cosmetics, “tile cleaners”, etc.) are a different animal entirely. They will etch the surface immediately – whether it is impregnated properly, or not. Etches appear on your travertine as spots or areas that are much duller than the surrounding stone, and they do not improve with normal cleaning techniques.
You should make every effort to ensure these items (and others like them) do not come into contact with your floor. If they do, remove them immediately from the surface by wiping them inward on themselves to avoid spreading to uncontaminated areas. The good news is that you can remove minor etches and water marks yourself without tools or special expertise. The bad news is serious etches must be removed by a professional. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
Compression Damage – Compression damage to travertine exhibits itself in two ways – “punch through” holes in areas where the “fill” or surface is weak, and by scratches that compact the stone (the technical term is “stun”) to the extent a visible mark remains, even after the scratch is physically removed.
Significant punch through holes (under conditions of normal use) are generally indicative of poor quality stone, fabrication, or both. If the stone or fill is breaking through frequently under normal use or foot traffic, it’s time to have a conversation with the folks that sold it to you. However, it is not unusual for even good quality travertine to get the odd occasional hole from a high heel or heavy object that focuses its weight in a small area (pointy table leg, sofa leg, etc). In either event, you should replace the missing fill as soon as possible to prevent further damage.
Stunning occurs when a heavy object is dropped or drug across the surface, resulting in a mark or scratch. Upon impact, the travertine compresses, leaving both a physical scratch or mark, and a scar. Even after the physical scratch has been removed, the scar will still be visible because the underlying stone is now much more dense than the uncompressed areas that surround it. There is no simple fix for this problem after it happens, so the best course of action is to place felt pads on all your heavy items (chair legs, table legs, etc.) to prevent compression scratching.