Floor maintenance is both an art and a science. The same can be said for buying floor maintenance machinery. The many nuances include: choosing a a low speed buffer or high-speed burnisher; knowing which machine will do what; and determining compatibility, size, power and price.

The two principal types of floor machines are the “traditional” low-speed buffer, and the high-speed burnisher. Each type of machine has it pros and cons, which are very important considerations.

The traditional buffer
The traditional buffer has been used for decades for both commercial and residential cleaning. This machine rotates at about 175 RPM; there also are dual-speed machines that can rotate at either 175 or 300 RPMs.

When purchasing a buffer, look for machines with a heavy-duty metal frame and a base that is 17 to 20 inches in size. The 17-inch base is the standard for the industry, though you can find larger and smaller machines. The larger the machine, the more area it will cover and the faster it will complete your work. However, too large a machine may make it difficult to work in smaller areas; too small a machine will add to your workload in a larger area. (If this is your first machine, purchase a standard 17-inch unit.)

The buffer should have rubber bumpers around the base to protect clients’ walls and furniture, a safety lock-out switch so the machine can stop immediately and a 50-foot power cord.

Also, consider purchasing a tank and shampoo brush with your buffer, suggests Bruce Horne of Earl Horne Inc., a large janitorial supplier in Jacksonville, Fla. With these attachments, low speed buffers also can be used for carpet shampooing, bonnet carpet cleaning, and even sanding and grinding.

Buffers should be seen as an investment, not an expense. They can last for years and have good resale value. Three to four companies make the motors that drive most buffers and, according to Horne, all are considered good and dependable.

A new buffer will cost $800 to $1000. Used machines usually sell for about half that price, depending on age and upkeep. Definitely consider a well-maintained, used machine, if you are looking to save equipment costs.

Floor burnishers
High-speed machines, also known as burnishers, rotate at more than 10 times the speed of a conventional buffer, usually between 1,500 and 3,000 RPMs.

Burnishers rotate faster than buffers, but they also are much heavier, which helps provide a “wet-look” shine and maintain floors quite well. They also are much more complicated, requiring more maintenance and upkeep than a traditional buffer.

When deciding what type of burnisher to buy, consider the power source. Some burnishers are electric-cord powered; others are battery powered; and others run on propane.

Electric-cord burnishers: The electric cord burnisher is the least expensive, the lightest and the easiest to maintain. Because it is lighter, it is best used for smaller spaces such as individual offices and small office buildings.

By changing a pulley on some corded models, the machine can be adjusted to about 350 RPMs. At this lower speed — and with a splashguard attached — the burnisher can be used for stripping a floor as well.

When used for burnishing or polishing, it’s a good idea to purchase a dust catch — the high speed of these machines can make dust a real problem.

Electric cord burnishers usually come with a 50-foot, 14-gauge power cord. To add an extension cord, Earl Horne, also of Earl Horne Inc., suggests using a 12-gauge extension cord. (The lower the gauge number, the more current a cord can handle.)

Battery-powered burnishers: Battery-powered burnishers do an “acceptable job” according to Earl, who has more than 40 years in the janitorial supply business. Hospitals and medical centers often prefer the battery-powered units because they enable one worker to cover a larger area more quickly, he says. Both the electric and battery operated machines have a standard base size of 20 to 24 inches.

These units also should have a dust control attachment to capture as much dust as possible.

Propane burnishers: The propane burnisher is the “big daddy” of the floor machines. If your client list includes large retail stores, you will have little choice but to use a propane burnisher to maintain these massive locations.

Propane burnishers today often are walk-behind units with a 20- to 27-inch rotating base. They can reach speeds up to 3000 RPMs. Their heavy weight — 285 to 320 pounds — helps produce the best floor shine possible.

While buffers have just a few parts, propane burnishers have a larger variety as well as much more complex engines. They are more like a small car and need to be maintained as such. The oil itself should be checked and changed on a regular basis. They also have catalytic converters that need maintenance and attention from time to time as well.

Should the unit run low on oil, most machines have an automatic “cut off” to protect the engine.

Repairs for a propane burnisher can get expensive, especially if the machines have not been maintained well or have been abused. They have an average life expectancy of 700 to 800 hours, but that can extend with proper maintenance.

Purchasing a burnisher is a much more costly proposition than a traditional buffer. These machines can cost from $2,000 to more than $5,000, but many supply houses will arrange bank financing or lease-to-own arrangements.

Compatibility issues
Buffers and burnishers essentially are incompatible. The waxes, pads and materials used for a low-speed buffer are inappropriate for a high-speed burnisher. This is because the burnisher rotates at such a fast rate, it literally would burn-up the pads and the finish used for a low speed buffer. And a buffer rotates too slowly to work with the waxes and pads made for a burnisher. Essentially, both types of machines have their own pads, polishes, waxes and accessories, making both a complete, but separate, floor maintenance care system.

Riding a new machine
The first time you use a buffer is like the first time riding a wild steer; it can get a bit crazy. They seem to have a life and direction all their own, going just about every-which-way. But after a few times out, you will learn how to control one. Lifting the handle slightly up or down will move the machine to the right or the left. Be very careful to stay clear of any electric cords for, in a quick second, the cord will be wrapped around the machine.

Robert Kravitz has more than 30 years of expertise in the janitorial industry. He now works for the International Sanitary Supply Association, Lincolnwood, Ill.

Floor-machine attachments
Brushes: These can be attached to the base of buffers for various uses. Purchase brush pads that are the correct size for your machine. A stiff bristle can be used to scrub floors. A softer bristle is excellent for polishing hardwood floors.

To install a brush pad, first turn off the buffer and tip the machine back. Most buffers have a "handle-gun" type control to turn the machine on and off. For your safety, it is a good idea to actually unplug the buffer when installing a brush or a pad. It’s possible the "gun" control could trigger the machine into operating while you are installing the brush.

Install the brush by placing it over the drive mechanism and turning it to the left, counterclockwise. It will lock into place. To later remove the brush, simply reverse this procedure.

Since the brush is like the bristles of a broom, the heavy weight of the buffer will ruin the bristles and your pad if you leave the buffer standing or sitting on them too long. If you must stop using the machine for an extended period, lean the machine back and unplug it for safety.

Floor Pads: Synthetic floor pads, developed in the past 25 years, make floor maintenance much easier. The pads come in different colors, The lighter the color is, the softer the pad. Light-colored pads are used for buffing and polishing. Dark colored pads are used for scrubbing and stripping. Black pads are used for heavy-duty stripping.

Both high- and low-speed machines will have a drive-pad. This drive-pad looks similar to a brush, except it is much more bristled. Its purpose is to grab and hold the floor pad.

Simply place the pad you wish to use on the floor, tip the machine on to the pad, center it and it will adhere. The actual weight of the machine and the bristled drive-pad assure the connection.

As it is used, the pad will become dirty. When this happens, it will not perform as well for polishing, scrubbing or stripping. Once you notice this happening, turn the pad over and use the other side. As both sides get soiled and worn, you will need to replace the pad and start with a fresh one.

Pads are expensive. You should rinse them after each use and hang them out to dry. There also are services that will clean them for you and return them to you in almost new condition. To save money, take whatever steps you can to extend the life of the pads.

There are other types of floor pads available. Some contractors work with steel wool pads for heavy duty scrubbing. Be sure you are very familiar with working with a steel wool pad before using them. Though most pads, synthetic or steel wool, are very safe when used as instructed, too strong a pad could harm your clients’ floor and too soft a pad could create a lot more work than necessary.