When it comes to keeping hard floors clean and looking good, industry experts agree that the age-old saying, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” definitely applies.

Frequent dusting, mopping, and scrubbing of floors is less costly and time-consuming than allowing them to become dingy and dirty, and having to clean more aggressively. In addition, a system of prevention is easier on hard floor materials and finishes, which can extend their lives.

On the other hand, maintenance budgets usually feel the pinch when money is tight. To balance the often competing demands of properly maintaining a facility while working within a tight budget, productivity is key. Cleaning products need to work quickly and effectively, while floor finishes need to last as long as possible.

After all, keeping floors clean and looking good goes a long way in creating a favorable impression of a building. Often times, visitors make judgments regarding how well a facility is run based on the floors.

Focus on high traffic areas
Some hard floor sections, such as entrance areas through which tenants track mud and snow, will require cleaning several times a day. The first step may be a dust mopping to loosen the dust, followed by wet cleaning to remove dirt. This reduces the risk that soil particles will wear into the floors finish. It also may be necessary to change entry mats several times during the day as they become saturated.

While this may seem like a great deal of time to spend cleaning a small portion of the building, it will pay off. One industry expert comments that if departments concentrate on the first 50 or 100 feet of the building, they will spend less time and money chasing dirt throughout the rest of the building.

Similarly, maintenance engineers may need to contain the dirt generated in specific areas of a building. For instance, an office area may connect to a machine shop that is the source of much dust, dirt and grease. In that case, departments will need to isolate this area with mats, and establish a transition from that area to the clean area.

Along with a schedule of frequent cleaning, it’s becoming increasingly important for maintenance workers to use products and equipment that are designed to work together. This reduces the risk that a problem will arise because a cleaner was used with a scrubber for which it wasn’t designed, or vice versa. In addition, mixing various products and equipment makes it more difficult to determine the source of any problems that may come up.

The cleaning products best suited for different hard floors vary significantly. For instance, industry sources suggest that wood floors do best with a daily dust mop, while linoleum floors require a neutral daily cleaner. Stone floors need a coating over a penetrating sealer, while linoleum floors require a matte finish.

Maintenance mistakes
Given the range of hard floor types and finishes, and the number of products and different machines used to keep floors clean and maintained, it’s not difficult for mistakes to occur. One common mistake is the tendency of some maintenance workers to spend great amounts of time and energy stripping and preparing a floor, but skimping on the amount of finish they use. If this is done, simply walking some of the finish off will expose the substrate.

Another is the tendency, sometimes a result of actions by building owners or managers, to under-utilize equipment, such as automatic scrubbers. This may be a cheaper alternative, but it isn’t the most effective. Experts estimate that it pays to switch to an automatic scrubber once a maintenance engineer is spending more than about 3.5 hours per shift scrubbing floors, as his or her time will be spent more productively.

What’s more, today’s scrubbers come in various sizes, making them easier to use in different types of spaces. Some are just 14 inches wide, and can quickly navigate restrooms and hospital rooms.

Pros and cons of flooring types
No flooring type is entirely without shortcomings. Vinyl composition tile, for instance, requires a fair amount of maintenance, but tends to cost less initially. Other floors, such as terrazzo and stone, need less maintenance but cost more up front. For example, experts estimate that maintenance costs on vinyl composition tile might run about $1.50 per square foot per year, compared to $.70 for terrazzo.

Some types of flooring, such as tile, can be slippery. Given the risk of slip-and-fall injuries and lawsuits, manufacturers have been working to develop products that counter this tendency. For instance, some manufacturers are grinding different materials, such as natural rock, and mixing the grounds into the floor finish to make it rougher.

Choosing a floor finish also means taking evaluating trade-offs. For example, softer wax finishes offer more shine, but require more maintenance. Harder waxes last longer, but don’t offer the same shine. They often are used in facilities located in northern climates, given the amount of scrubbing required to clean the snow and slush that’s tracked in.

Flooring trends
One of the most prominent shifts in flooring today is the move to lower-maintenance materials and finishes. For instance, floors with satin finishes, rather than high-gloss, are becoming more popular, because they’re known to be easier to maintain.

Similarly, manufacturers see an increasing demand for finishes that allow maintenance engineers to extend the time between re-coats, which can have a big impact on the budget of a building. While these finishes may cost more initially, the labor savings outweigh the higher product costs.

A calculation from one industry source shows how a reduction in the number of times that 100,000 square feet of flooring is scrubbed and re-coated can reduce labor expenses. The calculation, which uses industry standard production rates, assumes a reduction in scrubbing and re-coating from five to eight times per year by using higher quality cleaners and more durable finishes. This cuts labor costs by about $5,800 annually. When reductions in supplies and chemicals are factored in, the total savings increases to about $17,700.

Fortunately, some building owners and managers appear to be taking both initial and ongoing maintenance costs into account when choosing flooring types. Companies tend to be moving towards using materials that will reduce the total amount of labor hours. These would be pre-finished wood, marble and natural stone.

Many facility owners are choosing stamped or colored concrete. Behind its growing popularity is the fact that it can last indefinitely. Once the floor is coated and sealed, maintenance typically consists of regular cleaning and buffing.

Cleaning trends
When it comes to products used to clean hard floors, a clear trend is towards environmentally friendly or green products. Along with a concern for the environment, maintenance and facility managers want to ensure that they’re not introducing chemicals that may harm the building’s occupants.

This corresponds to a broad move to green practices within the facilities management profession. In an online survey conducted in 2005 by the International Facility Management Association (IFMA), 70 percent of the 341 facility managers responding reported taking such environmentally friendly steps as making greater use of natural daylight and conserving water.

The current crop of green cleaning products generally works as well as more traditionally formulated cleaning solutions. However, it’s still unclear whether green floor finishes will last as long as their counterparts.

In addition to the growing number of green products, more products are formulated to clean different areas by varying the concentration used. For instance, by diluting a particular cleaner to different concentrations, it can be used to clean both floors and countertops.

Along the same lines, building owners and managers are increasingly interested in machines that do more than one cleaning task. One example is a machine that will dust, wash and polish the floor in one swoop. Manufacturers found that implementing products like this will reduce labor costs and allow workers more time to complete other cleaning tasks.

Experts predict growing interest in the certification of maintenance and janitorial workers. It is expected that within five to 10 years, workers wont be able to clean a building without certification. The reason? The risk that an untrained worker may make a costly mistake, such as choosing a cleaning solution that damages the floor, is simply too great.

Along the same lines, experts foresee the day when building owners will want scientific validation that a cleaning job has been properly done. For instance, they may stipulate a floor shine level of between 87 and 91, as measured by a glossometer. It is expected that the industry is on the verge of departments writing this into contracts.

Karen M. Kroll is a freelance writer based in Minneapolis, MN.