Thousands of people trek around the University of California at Los Angeles campus daily. Underneath their feet is a mix of nearly every floor surface imaginable. In addition to carpet and tile, there are specialty surfaces: rubber in classrooms, cork in the law library, and marble in the administrative offices.

“You name it, we have it,” says Armando DeLeon, the university’s senior superintendent. “We have the full gamut of flooring here.”

The university’s housekeeping staff is responsible for maintaining more than 12 million square feet of flooring. DeLeon has many years of experience, including several years at medical facilities, but keeping the school’s wide range of floor types clean and safe is a unique challenge. DeLeon admits he could use a lesson or two in cleaning less common floor types.

“I don’t know how you are supposed to maintain a cork floor,” he says. Cork floors in the law library have nearly 100 layers of finish while the same floor type in another building has only one thin layer (the manufacturer told him to use no wax at all). His staff lightly scrubs the floors annually but never strips them.

Experts provide the following suggestions for cleaning and caring for specialty floors:

Follow instructions
The key to cleaning any floor, particularly less common floor surfaces, is to follow manufacturer recommendations. Every manufacturer wants their floor materials to be unique and those differences (big or small) can mean variations in cleaning methods.

“All you have to do is step outside the parameter of one thing and they will say you didn’t follow our recommendations, [which can void the warranty],” says John Namba, director of technical services for the Wood Floor Covering Association.

Head off problems
Preventative maintenance lengthens the intervals between major floor-care projects such as stripping, re-coating and finishing.

Start outside. Keep the parking lot and sidewalks dirt- and grease-free to prevent people from tracking debris onto floors.

“Preventative maintenance starts outside, goes to the entrance door, and then goes past it,” says Glen Franklin, owner of Franklin Floor Care in Snohomish, Wash., a contract floor maintenance company. “That’s true for all floors.”

You can’t prevent every dust particle from entering your building, so be sure to have adequate matting. Use 15 feet (or three strides’ worth) of dirt-trapping walk-off mats, both inside and outside of exterior doors. There are two types of mats — those designed to trap soil and those designed to absorb moisture — so use the appropriate mat for your building needs.

Keep mats clean with frequent vacuuming. Pressure-wash mats or use a carpet extractor to remove moisture as needed. Have extra mats available so you can change out soiled and wet mats.

“Most people don’t use enough matting and most people don’t maintain it properly,” says William R. Griffin, author of Hard, Resilient and Wood Floor Care and president of Cleaning Consultants Services Inc. “If you don’t take the soil out, [the mat] becomes like a sandbox rather than a rag to wipe your feet on.”

Keep floors clear of debris
Regular cleaning is critical to all floor types. Daily maintenance can be the difference between a floor that looks great for years and one that needs frequent restorative care.

The cleaning needs of specialty surfaces, from gym floors to rubber, are actually similar. The first, and perhaps most important, priority is dust mopping. All floors should be dust mopped or vacuumed at least once a day and, depending on traffic and weather, swept as often as needed.

“The biggest mistake people make is they underestimate the importance of dust mopping,” says Greg Serpas, Restoration Division Manager for the Sports Flooring Group. “If you don’t keep grit off the floor, it’s going to get scratched up, wear away and look bad.”

Other routine tasks include damp mopping and auto scrubbing. Most floors, including stone and rubber, need wet cleaning anywhere from once a day to a few times a month. Be careful with calcareous stones (marble, limestone, travertine and onyx), which can be dulled by acids or high-alkaline cleaners. Use only neutral-pH cleaners on these materials. Siliceous stone (granite, slate, sandstone and others) is more durable and can tolerate traditional floor cleaners.

Thanks to a protective coating on wood floors, damp mopping and auto scrubbing are not forbidden in gymnasiums, on cork (made from the bark of a tree), or on other types of wood floors. However, extra care must be taken.

“Manufacturers say to use no water at all on wood,” Franklin says, “but realistically, people do.”

Damp-mop wood floors using a neutral-pH cleaner no more than twice a month and avoid leaving standing water on the surface. When auto scrubbing cork, which typically has fewer layers of finish than other wood floors, it is important to use a machine with soft brushes, not a normal scrubbing pad.

“The trick to that is you use enough water to do the job and no more,” Serpas says. “If you have too much water coming out of the auto scrubber, it’s going to penetrate the floor before it gets squeegeed up and that’s not good. If you don’t wring out a mop well, you’ll damage the floors.”

Add protective coatings
Periodically, additional layers of finish need to be added to floors to restore their shine and luster. How frequently finish is needed depends on the type of floor and the traffic patterns; it can be as often as weekly or as infrequently as quarterly.

Adding protective coatings to wood floors is fairly straightforward (unless stripping or sanding is needed first) and can be done frequently. Dust-mop, then damp-mop or auto-scrub to remove all debris. Apply the finish and allow to completely dry. Cork floors should not receive excessive layers of finish, however, because it can damage this sensitive surface.

Some specialty floors do not need and, often, cannot tolerate topcoats. Floor finishes can cause rubber floors to lose their oil, turning the floors white and brittle.

If facility management insists on shiny rubber floors, machine-polish the floors with a soft polishing brush. If this isn’t enough, contact the manufacturer. There are some finishes specially formulated for rubber.

With all finishes, be sure to choose the right product for the surface. This may require some research and a phone call to the flooring manufacturer.

Many natural stone floors are protected with sealants. It is important to know which stone surface you have and whether or not it can be sealed. One stone that cannot be sealed is marble.

Natural stone floors are typically protected only with penetrating sealer, which does little to protect against abrasion and wear. Most stone floors, including marble, require periodic dry polishing with a brush and pad or spray buffing. Unless your staff is specifically trained in this task, it may be best to hire a professional.

“One thing that’s different about resilient floors like wood and rubber versus stone like marble and granite is the sacrificial top coating,” Griffin says. “As it wears and scratches, you replace it. We don’t put coatings on stone. Once you scratch stone, it’s not a matter of polishing or coating, you have to grind with diamonds or acid polish, and that takes time and skill. Prevention becomes even more important with stone.”

Plan on restorative care
Clearly, good preventative and routine maintenance is important for all flooring types. The more you do, the less often you’ll have to strip and recoat floors (or in the case of stone, grind and polish).

Expensive and time-consuming restorative care is typically needed about once a year. Depending on wear and care, however, it can be needed as often as quarterly.

Some in-house crews have the training needed to tackle wood floor refinishing. But experts agree that most restorative work is best left to professionals, especially marble grinding.

“I recommend that it be done by a professional because the equipment and manpower involved is normally beyond the expertise of the facility employees,” Serpas says.

Know your floors
There are exceptions to every rule, which is why it is so critical to know the floors in your building and what care the manufacturer recommends.

For example, running tracks are completely different than any other floor surface. They can’t be damp mopped effectively and shouldn’t be sealed. There are also dozens of additional specialty flooring surfaces not covered in this article, including leather, glass and metal, among others.

“There’s no limit to what people will put on a floor these days,” Griffin says. “They take down temples in China or barns and saw them up and make them into wood floors.”

Environmentally Friendly Floor Care

Environmentally conscious cleaning managers should consider such sustainable materials as cork, rubber and linoleum when specifying floor surfaces. These floor materials are made from natural resources and can be recycled without harming the environment.

To complement floor surfaces, establish a cleaning program that covers products and processes. Opt for microfiber tools and equipment, vacuums with HEPA filters, and low-pH or neutral cleaners. Make sure to dispose of cleaning solution according to local codes.

"With any floor surface, always try the least aggressive method first, a neutral cleaner or water, and then work your way up to something stronger in formulation or agitation," says Glen Franklin, owner of Franklin Floor Care, Snohomish, Wash.

Becky Mollenkamp is a free-lance writer based in Des Moines, Iowa.