Eco-Friendly Flooring Maintenance Requires Caution, Common Sense
Change is afoot — or, more literally, under foot. Flooring has evolved in recent years, and now includes a wide selection of green options that are showing up in commercial buildings across the country, particularly those seeking the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification.
“The beautiful thing about green is it is always evolving,” says Gary Walker, president of Magic Touch Cleaning in Lee’s Summit, Mo. “It used to only be in high-end buildings, but now you are seeing it everywhere.”
Eco-friendly floors are as attractive and durable as traditional surfaces but cause less harm to the environment. These qualities are attractive to consumers and building service contractors alike.
“I hope we see more of these products,” says Ken Sargent, support services administrator for Porter Industries Inc., in Loveland, Colo. “They have been as good, or better, for ongoing maintenance and it’s a terrific bonus that they are made from renewable resources.”
There are dozens of green flooring materials, including recycled metal and glass tiles, reclaimed wood planks, recycled rubber and linoleum. Most common in commercial environments, however, are bamboo, cork, ceramic or created tile, and recycled fibers for carpet.
While sustainable floors may be relatively new in commercial markets, maintaining them is surprisingly traditional. Most of the surfaces require only back-to-basics care, such as mopping with water or vacuuming.
However, BSCs should proceed with caution when cleaning a never-seen-before flooring material.
“The last thing you want to do as the janitorial company is make a huge mistake that causes the customer to have to replace a floor,” Walker says.
To avoid costly errors, BSCs should thoroughly investigate any new flooring before finalizing a service contract. The best bet is to contact flooring manufacturers directly to get their recommended maintenance procedures and products. Without this information, a BSC could do one thing wrong and unwittingly void a warranty.
“We’re supposed to be the experts in our industry so we don’t want to look stupid by asking questions,” Walker says. “But I’d rather ask the questions and do the right thing to protect my liability. I don’t want to do the wrong thing and lose the floor or the client or both. And I think the customer appreciates us asking to talk to the manufacturer because they know we are being cautious.”
Once the BSC fully understands the manufacturer-approved procedures, on-the-job training can be provided for staff.
Every eco-friendly floor needs a customized cleaning plan based on specific manufacturer recommendations. That said, however, here are a few general maintenance guidelines to help BSCs get familiar with these new flooring products.
Cork and bamboo
The most popular green alternatives to traditional wood floors are bamboo and cork. Made from rapidly renewable resources, these floors are aesthetically pleasing and incredibly durable (many manufacturers claim the floors will last 50 or more years).
Cork and bamboo are most popular in commercial spaces where appearances matter, such as banks and Class-A office buildings. The floors are typically used in high-visibility areas, such as entryways.
“We had a building owner put a cork floor in because it was more durable than vinyl composition tile and the look was what they wanted to present to their client,” Walker says. “It’s exciting to see floor coverings that weren’t really available five years ago.”
In general, cork and bamboo have similar maintenance requirements. The floors typically come as pre-finished planks that are installed on-site, though some are available as floating systems that can go over an existing floor.
Many manufacturers recommend that cork and bamboo floors be cleaned with only water for the first 30 days after installation. After that time, regular maintenance should include frequent vacuuming to remove debris before using a microfiber mop and pH-neutral cleaner.
“Bamboo and cork respond very well to standard, neutral floor cleaners,” Sargent says. “They look every bit as good as the day they went into the facilities.”
Cork is extremely porous, so BSCs must be cautious about how much moisture is put onto those floors.
Magic Touch Cleaning learned recently that cork presents a challenge in the winter. Salt was tracked into their customer’s building and then absorbed into the cork floor.
Walker’s crew had to use a soft-bristle vacuum to extract the salt after it had dried and then used a microfiber dust mop to remove the debris. They finished the process with a microfiber wet mop and neutral cleaner to very lightly dampen the floors. They also used a segregated bucket with dirty water in the back and clean water in the front, which helped reduced how much water was applied to the floor.
One thing Walker does not do to cork or bamboo floors is refinish them. His customers’ floors came with a factory finish and the manufacturers warn against refinishing, which will void the warranty.
Other manufacturers allow for refinishing, and some BSCs apply a new finish to cork and bamboo on a quarterly or annual basis. After lightly sanding the surface, the janitor uses a mop or scrubber to apply high-gloss or matte polyurethane (preferably a product from an eco-friendly chemical line).
“Customers are concerned about people spilling drinks or food on these floors because they stain more,” says Eric Milstein, vice president of Lewis & Taylor Building Service Contractors in San Francisco, Calif. “When you are working with bamboo and cork, the sealer makes the floor look brand new. It protects the floors and makes it easier to maintain because you can sweep more and mop less.”
Traditional vinyl tile is inexpensive to install, which has made it a common choice in commercial buildings for many years. Its popularity may decline, however, as concern for the environment and indoor air quality (IAQ) grows. That’s because vinyl and vinyl composition (VC) products are made from toxic pollutants that cause problems from manufacture to disposal. Plus, the tiles require adhesives and surface coatings, which emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs).
A more eco-friendly option for hard-surface flooring is ceramic tile made from recycled content, such as glass bottles and car windshields. Although these tiles cost more up front, their life expectancy is double or more that of vinyl.
“They may invest up front but they aren’t going to have to replace it in 10 years,” Walker says. “It’s long-term thinking. If you look at what it costs to strip and wax a VC floor over a 10-year period — and the environmental impact of that — it starts to make sense to invest in eco-friendly floors.”
Cleaning ceramic tile is straightforward. Remove debris with a vacuum or dust mop, and then clean with a microfiber mop and neutral cleaner. It is important to use the amount of cleaner recommended by the manufacturer to avoid leaving residue behind.
“There’s no reason for a floor finish, which reduces your chemical usage and increases your green quotient considerably,” Walker says. “With a lot of these eco-friendly floors, the ideal thing is to not use any chemicals on them.”
Although there is no need for a floor finish on ceramics, the grout lines must be sealed. With appropriate matting and frequent cleaning, this can be done as little as every six months (more often in restrooms). Walker uses a vertical brush and hydrogen-peroxide cleaner to scrub the grout lines before sealing them.
Applying finishes on ceramic tile creates a messy powdery or flaky residue.
“Putting product on the floor that doesn’t require the product is a waste of time and money,” Walker says.
Even soft-surface floors are going green. Natural carpets made from wool, grasses or cotton are less harmful than those made from petroleum-based products. They off-gas less and are biodegradable at the end of their life cycle. Another option is carpet made from recycled plastics, which keeps material out of the landfill.
Whether laid as wall-to-wall rolls or easy-to-replace squares, eco-friendly carpets generally require the same cleaning procedures as traditional carpets: regular vacuuming and deep cleanings as well as spot cleaning as needed.
Cleaning sustainable floors (carpet or hard surfaces) is no more difficult than maintaining traditional surfaces. The only difference is that customers who spend extra for green floors usually demand that they be cleaned with green products, which typically cost a bit more than regular chemicals.
Some BSCs, like Lewis & Taylor, charge a bit more for cleaning eco-friendly floors, which adds about 20 cents per square foot to cover the costs of the more expensive green products. Other companies, like Magic Touch, weigh the chemical costs against the labor savings from these easy-to-maintain surfaces.
“We price on a case-by-case basis, but we don’t want to discourage people from going green,” Walker says. “Once we get the routine into place, it doesn’t take too much more time. If you don’t have to buff, strip and wax, the labor issue balances itself out.”
Becky Mollenkamp is a freelance writer based in Des Moines. She is a frequent contributor to Contracting Profits.
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