PART OF being a homeowner is staying alert for signs of slippage, for evidence that the castle is crumbling.
Until recently, I thought that when I was in the shower, singing and soaping, I was off duty. Not so, say the books and Web sites aimed at the worried homesteader. The experts advise that when you are in the shower, you should keep your eyes peeled, looking for signs of decay.
The deterioration to take note of is not what the dripping bather sees when he looks in the bathroom mirror. Rather it is the general decline of the sealants in the tub and shower.
"Always note the condition of your grout, and caulk while you shower," advised the basic maintenance tips section of one Web site (save-now.com) that I read recently. Other advice to the showering set included doing monthly checks of so-called bathroom "trouble areas."
Between your shampoo and conditioner cycles, a dutiful soaper should, I surmised, be inspecting the rim of the tub, the spigots, the spigot covers, the soap dishes and the shower door, for any missing caulk or cracked grout.
Reading this advice from home repair experts made me feel guilty. Instead of spending carefree moments soaking in the tub or singing in the shower, I should have been on patrol, looking for sealant failures.
And sure enough, when I cast a critical eye on the joint between the ceramic wall tiles and the rim of the bathtub-shower combination, I spotted some gaps.
In addition to looking tacky, such gaps allow water to seep behind the tiles, causing damage to the walls, flooring and ultimately your wallet.
So on a recent dreary afternoon, I began to plug these unsightly gaps by putting fresh sealant around the rim of the tub.
My initial sealant of choice was caulk. It was habit. For most of my life, I have been an unquestioning caulker. Moreover, I wanted to use up the partially filled tube of "bathroom caulk" that was sitting on my workbench.
I had used some several months earlier, then shoved a nail in the tip of the tube to keep air out and preserve the leftovers. While this caulk had some age on it, I was convinced that there was life in the old tube yet.
To loosen it up, I began to massage it. This tube was the type that had soft plastic sides. Caulk also comes in stiff-sided tubes that fit in a caulking gun, but I prefer using the soft-side container for small jobs.
Caulk is cheap. A new tube would cost around $5. But I am cheaper. I wanted to use up the old before buying any new stuff.
And so I massaged the caulk, pumping the sides of the tube. I tried some shiatsu. I tried some deep-muscle rubs. I even tried some Rolfing moves, a massage technique that, as I recall from a harrowing session I endured some years ago, consists primarily of putting elbows in places and producing deep pain.
Caulk is supposed to flow from the tube in a beautiful, seemingly effortless stream. Despite the massaging, this old tube yielded only caulk lumps, no streams.
Miffed, I abandoned caulk and turned to grout. This was a major shift in sealants. Grout, which contains cement and sometimes sand, is for the serious sealer. Caulk, a putty-like material, is more flexible and more often the choice of the weekend plugger.
To grout correctly, you must use special tools: the grout saw to remove old grout and the grout float, a hard rubber device, to apply the new material. Usually grout goes between wall and floor tiles. You also wear gloves. I had none of the cool grouting tools, but I did have some gloves and a container of already mixed grout.
Another factor that turned me toward grout was a desire to imitate the work of the sealers who had gone before me, the pros who installed the tub and tile several years ago. In addition to putting grout between the wall and floor tiles, they also put it in the gap between the top of the tub and the shower walls.
Another attraction of grouting was that it was OK to be a little sloppy, to overstuff the cracks, then come back minutes later with a sponge and clean up the excess.
That is how I spent a recent winter afternoon, filling voids, plugging openings, eliminating "trouble areas."
A grouting job does not, I learned, generate many shouts of gratitude from fellow bathroom users. But it can deliver quiet pleasure of a job well done. For several days after I finished my job, I would find myself staring at the tub and beaming.
My mood darkened a few days later, however, when I read more advice from home-repair experts and learned that I had grouted where I should have caulked.
Grout is less flexible than caulk, the experts said. They pointed out that the weight of the water in the tub, plus the weight of the bather, can cause the tub to sink. Caulk, they said, is more pliable than grout and easily adjusts to this give and take. Not only had this expert advice questioned my choice of sealants, it also made snide remarks about my weight.
So as winter dishes up more cold weather, I will cope by soaking in a hot bath. But this time, I will keep my eyes on the gap between the tub and wall, looking for signs of shrinkage, for signs that I might have to do this job once again.