Grinding a garage floor versus acid etching is a topic of much discussion when it comes to preparing concrete for epoxy or other garage floor coatings. Also known as profiling, concrete surface prep sometimes comes as a surprise to people when they find out that you just can’t paint or coat over the concrete and expect it to adhere properly.
Typical questions asked are “Why do I need to grind or etch my concrete?”, “Which method is better?” or “Why do I have to etch new concrete?” With these questions in mind, let’s look at why concrete has to be prepared properly for a coating and which method may be best for you to achieve the results that you need.
Why Do I Need to Etch or Grind my Concrete?
Unlike applying paint, garage floor coatings need to penetrate and bond mechanically to concrete in order to adhere properly.
The problem, however, is that concrete for a garage is almost always finished to provide a smooth and even surface. This finishing process reduces the porosity of the concrete. As a result, the thick and viscous nature of coatings cannot penetrate and soak into the surface very well.
Profiling the concrete exposes the pores so that the epoxy coating can penetrate into the surface much better in order to get the best bond. It also creates a rougher surface for the coating to mechanically adhere to. This is typically done by either grinding the surface or by acid etching in order to expose these pores. Poor profiling/concrete surface prep, or lack thereof, is the number one reason why floor coatings fail and peel up.
Contrary to what some DIY installers assume, newly poured concrete or concrete from a new home still needs the proper concrete surface prep. Though it is fresh and clean without any stains, the surface needs to be roughed up and the pores exposed in order for the epoxy to penetrate and bond to it.
Which is best, grinding or acid etching?
When it comes to preparing concrete for a garage floor coating, the best method is to grind the garage floor.
The reason for this is that the profile of the surface can be controlled to provide the desired outcome. It provides a rougher and more porous surface that is considered ideal. It will also remove excess laitance that acid etching doesn’t always remove.
Concrete laitance is a very thin and weak layer of concrete at the surface which can be a result of the finishing process.
If a garage floor coating attaches to this weak layer, it can easily chip from impacts or eventually peel up, exposing a fine layer of concrete on the underside of the coating.
In addition, if you have any garage floor repairs that need to be made first, grinding will smooth out those repairs so that they don’t telegraph through the coating.
Professional garage floor coating contractors who warranty their work will always grind the concrete knowing that their floors will not fail due to insufficient concrete prep.
The problem with grinding your garage floor, however, is that it’s not always feasible for the average person to do so. There is the question of where to rent the equipment, how to control the dust, gouging of the surface due to inexperience, and finally cost. Sometimes it’s just not in the budget.
This is why acid etching is still a popular practice. If done properly, acid etching can provide a satisfactory surface for an epoxy coating to adhere to. It is fairly easy to do as long as you are safe.
It provides a better alternative to grinding for many and can be downright cheap in terms of cost.
The problem with etching is that the uniformity cannot be controlled like it can be with grinding. Because the density and finishing process of a concrete surface can vary, so can the effectiveness of the etching. This is why it is important to test multiple areas of the surface for porosity and texture once you have etched.
A simple method for testing is the water drop test. If the concrete immediately turns dark and absorbs the water, then that area is good. If it doesn’t, then you will need to etch those areas again. If you don’t test the concrete after etching, you run the risk of having areas of your coating that can fail.
The before and after images below are a great example of the differences between acid etching and grinding. This was an excellent demonstration that Epoxy Floor Co out of Australia did to show their customers.
The difference between the two prep methods is obvious. While the acid etched surface lightened the concrete slightly to expose the pores, the grinding removed the top layer of concrete, exposing the lighter color underneath and providing a rougher surface.
Note: If you have a sealer or coating on the concrete, acid etching will not work. You will have to grind the floor to remove it.
If you are going to hire a floor coating contractor to install an epoxy coating in your garage, make sure that they grind the concrete. Any contractor that wants to acid etch is just cutting corners to reduce costs and should be suspect of providing a good quality floor.
If this is a DIY installation and you are fairly confident with your abilities, you can rent or purchase the proper grinding equipment necessary for the job. In most cases you should be able to grind a two or three car garage in less than a day. There is also the option of hiring someone to do it for you.
If grinding is not in the budget or you are not comfortable with doing it, then acid etching is your answer. If you are uncomfortable with using muriatic acid, there are a few commercially available products other than muriatic acid that can etch your floor safely as well.
Remember, acid etching will not remove dirt and oil from your concrete floor. It still needs to be cleaned first. Etching works by reacting with the free lime in concrete. If the concrete is coated in oil or grime, the acid will not be very effective.
Whether grinding or acid etching, if not done properly, your coating is destined for failure. It is the most important part of applying a garage floor coating and crucial that you do it correctly.
There is nothing worse than spending the time to apply a beautiful epoxy floor coating only to have it fail due to the improper profiling of your concrete. If you take the time to do it correctly, you will be rewarded with a coating that will adhere like it should.
Note: Shot blasting is another form of mechanically profiling your concrete that is widely acceptable to grinding and is used by some professional installers. Due to the cost of renting these machines and the experience required to shot blast effectively, we did not discuss this option here.