Flooring for Today, Tomorrow

To identify the best floor product, facility executives must look to past experience and current facility conditions to evaluate future performance

By James Piper  

The seemingly endless range of flooring choices is a double-edged sword for facility executives. Having many options allows facility executives to select the flooring system that best meets the needs of their facility. But the large number of choices makes the selection process more complex.

Flooring choices must extend beyond color and style to materials and substance. Simply selecting a particular system on the basis of lowest first cost, what has been installed in the past or appearance without consideration of the needs of the application can turn a potential asset into a liability. Over the life of the flooring system, first costs are frequently small in comparison to the total cost of ownership.

Even if facility executives have been fairly successful in selecting flooring systems for similar projects, it is important that they consider all of their options. Flooring technology is constantly advancing. New systems are being introduced on a rapid basis, and old ones are being enhanced. As a result, the best option of even five years ago may no longer be the best one today. Only by constantly re-evaluating their options can facility executives safely feel that they selected the optimum system for their application.

When examining flooring options, there are a number of factors that must be examined in addition to first costs.

Churn and Other Changes

The effect that space and function changes have on the flooring system is frequently overlooked when evaluating different systems. The assumption made is that once in place, flooring becomes a static component of the building.

But buildings are not static places. People move. Operations change. Telecommunications and power requirements change. And many of these changes require flooring system modifications.

For example, whenever changes are made to typical office spaces that include moving personnel or adding new equipment, repairs will have to be made to some of the flooring system components. In some cases, as with the use of carpet tile, those changes can be made easily by rearranging the existing tile. Similarly, tiles that are damaged can be replaced easily as long as an inventory of replacement tile is maintained. With some other flooring systems, those changes might require that all or large portions of the flooring system be replaced.

Study the history of the facility’s operation. How static is the facility? When changes are made, what was the impact on the flooring system? How frequently must flooring systems be modified or replaced as a result of changes in the space? How widespread are those changes? Are they confined to small areas or do they extend through a large portion of the facility? By considering the level of change that exists and how it affects the performance of the flooring system, facility executives can select systems with the required level of flexibility.

Cleaning Costs

Although facility executives are aware that all flooring systems have cleaning costs associated with maintenance, few realize the impact that cleaning has on the cost of ownership of the flooring. In many cases, over the service life of a floor, cleaning costs can exceed the initial installation cost.

Cleaning costs vary widely with the type of flooring installed, the location of the flooring, weather conditions and the level of traffic it is exposed to. In some applications, such as hard-surface flooring in building entrances, it is necessary to clean the flooring several times a day during wet weather. In other cases, weekly cleaning might be all that is required.

To determine what the different cleaning costs will be for different types of flooring, it is necessary to look at the facility’s past floor cleaning costs. Look for applications similar in nature and exposure to the one being considered. How often did those areas need cleaning? How long did it take? What were the special skills and equipment requirements? How do those requirements for that flooring compare to other types of flooring?

Facility executives should also consider what cleaning process will be required for the new flooring. Is that process already in use within the facility? If not, there will be additional equipment and training requirements.

More Than Good Looks

Aesthetics is one area that is not overlooked when considering flooring options. Even then, aesthetics is not fully considered. For example, attention is focused on color, patterns and texture, but something as obvious as the number and visibility of seams in the floor is frequently overlooked. Another item of aesthetics that is overlooked is how the floor will appear when it is no longer new. Flooring products are evaluated based on their appearance when new. Little or no consideration is given to how they will appear throughout their service lives. Staining and physical damage all take their toll over time. How much the appearance of the flooring changes will depend on the type of flooring selected.

How well a floor holds its appearance is only one aspect of performance facility executives need to consider. For example, if the floor is going to be subjected to wet conditions, it must have outstanding slip-resistance characteristics.

Another performance factor is resistance to gouging. If heavy objects or objects with sharp edges are going to be moved across the floor on a regular basis, and the potential exists for those objects to contact the flooring, damage will occur unless the flooring material has outstanding gouge resistance.

Many type of flooring materials suffer indentations when furniture and other heavy objects remain in one place for any length of time. While indentations might not be a concern if furniture and other objects stay in one location, they can be a problem if spaces are regularly reconfigured.

Resistance to staining is an important performance factor in applications such as food service where floors are regularly exposed to spills. Stain resistance is particularly important in selecting backing materials for carpet. If the backing material is not impervious to moisture, stains will penetrate and be absorbed by the material. Over time, the substance that was spilled will wick out of the backing and become visible in the carpet fibers.

Some applications expose flooring materials to rolling loads, such as medical equipment or portable workstations. Depending on the type of flooring installed, these rolling loads can permanently damage the flooring or even cause it to shift. Before selecting a flooring system, identify the exposure to rolling loads.

Acoustical performance should also be considered when evaluating different flooring types. Soft-surface flooring, such as carpet, will have a greater sound-absorbing quality than hard-surface flooring. Which is a better choice for an application will depend on the application and the need to control sound.

The widespread use of computers and other sensitive electronic equipment has resulted in the need to consider the ability of the flooring material to dissipate static electricity. The shock that one can receive when touching a metal object after walking across a carpeted floor, particularly when the relative humidity is low, might not only be uncomfortable to people, but it can be deadly to electronic equipment. Some flooring materials are specifically designed to prevent buildup of static electricity.

Expected Service Life

The service life of a flooring product is an important factor in determining the total cost of ownership. Rated service lives vary widely with the type and quality of the flooring product. For example, most hardwood flooring products have a rated service life of 25 to 30 years. High-quality vinyl tile has a rated service life of 15 years. And high-quality carpet has a rated service life of approximately 10 years.

But rated service lives are not an indication of how long a particular flooring system will last in a given facility. Rated service lives are averages. Depending on the application, a particular floor might exceed or fall short of its rated service life. For example, flooring in areas with heavy foot traffic or areas that are regularly subjected to wet conditions will not reach the rated service life even with outstanding maintenance.

How long a particular flooring system will last in a given application is also influenced by the appearance standards set by the facility. If a particular section of flooring has deteriorated below the appearance standards, it will be replaced regardless of how long it has been in service.

Look at past performance of flooring systems in the facility. While rated service lives will give an estimate of what can be expected from a new installation, it is far more accurate to project service life based on experience under actual conditions. Using inaccurate projected service lives will prevent making good estimates of life-cycle costs of different flooring materials.

Installation Issues

There are a number of installation issues that must be examined for both new and renovation flooring projects. For renovation projects, start by identifying demolition and removal requirements for the existing floor. Some new floors can be installed directly over the existing floor. Others require that the existing floor be partially or fully removed first, an expense that will have an impact on first costs. If the installed flooring contains asbestos, the special requirements for removing floor materials can significantly increase costs.

Consider the type of material that the floor is being attached to. Is the new floor compatible with the substrate, or will additional materials have to be added? How much moisture is present in the substrate? Does it exceed the limitations for the new flooring materials? Can a moisture barrier be added?

Another installation issue involves the type of adhesive used to attach the flooring. Volatile organic compounds found in many adhesives give off vapors while they are curing, resulting in the need to temporarily move building occupants. Many of these compounds continue to off-gas well after installation and are contributors to poor indoor air quality. New water-based adhesives are being introduced that eliminate much of the initial vapor release and off-gassing. Some new flooring systems have eliminated the need for adhesives completely.

Environmental Issues

The off-gassing of vapors from flooring adhesives is one of the environmental concerns that should be considered before a particular type of flooring is selected for installation. Another concern is removal and disposal of the flooring when it has reached the end of its service life. Environmental regulations will dictate how the flooring must be disposed of. For those striving for a green building, great progress is being made with recycling of flooring materials. Check with the manufacturer to determine how much of the material used in making the flooring are recycled. In addition, see if the manufacturer will accept the flooring being installed for recycling when it has reached the end of its service life.

Life-cycle Costing

Even when all of the above factors have been considered, facility executives might still have several options. To determine which one is best suited for the application, each product’s life-cycle cost must be determined. Life-cycle costs include all costs associated with owning a particular type of flooring over the life of the product. It can be a simple or complex calculation, depending on the needs of the organization. By following this process, facility executives can increase the chances that they are selecting the most appropriate flooring system for their facility.

James Piper is a writer and consultant who has more than 25 years of experience in facilities management. He is a contributing editor to Building Operating Management.

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  posted on 12/1/2003   Article Use Policy

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