When it comes to floor care of buildings of all kinds, custodial staffs have an important job — they must take steps to prevent accidents and associated liability issues. They are also responsible for protecting a facility’s image and reputation. That’s especially true of colleges, where competition for new students can be intense.

On campuses all over the country, thousands of students walk the floors of their respective schools each day, so floor-care responsibilities can be daunting. So says Ray Francis, custodial services manager for the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. Campuses usually comprise a number of buildings with thousands of square feet of floors. Each building may have a variety of floor surfaces and traffic may vary from floor to floor. “At Eau Claire, 11 buildings encompass 1.2 million square feet, so our staff of 47 employees is kept very busy,” Francis says.

Custodians must scrub, clean and polish to enhance a building’s appearance. If they don’t do an adequate job, dirty floors can negatively affect a facility’s overall reputation. Image can make or break a prospective student’s decision to enroll in the school, Francis explains.

Right Tool For the Job
Mike Smith, associate director of facility management for Drexel University in Philadelphia, believes a good cleaning program, using the right kinds of pads and brushes for floor machines, can help custodians meet floor care’s biggest challenges. Such a program can increase safety and lower costs by increasing the lifespan of a floor surface while ensuring that cleaning staffs follow proper procedures.

“When cleaning people are scrubbing or buffing floors or doing heavy-duty stripping, the choice of an appropriate floor pad or rotary brush for the appropriate job is important,” he says.

Cleaners should take care during the selection process, advises Smith. The wrong choice can waste time and money or even damage a floor. Obviously, that’s to be avoided.

“Although brushes and pads are utilized differently, outstanding floor care can result if they use and care for them properly,” he says.

Synthetic floor pads, usually constructed of nylon or polyester fibers, facilitate floor maintenance and are color-coded industry-wide. Some rules of thumb:

  • In the low-speed or wet-application areas, the lighter the color, the less aggressive the pad.

  • Light-colored pads are used for polishing, buffing and burnishing. Dark-colored pads are used for scrubbing and stripping. Black pads are for heavy-duty stripping.

  • White pads have little or no abrasive material in them and are good for polishing clean, dry floors. Tan pads, for dry buffing and light cleaning, remove light scuffmarks and dirt while polishing floors.

  • Red pads are a little more abrasive and have different synthetic resin combinations, which keep the fibers and resins together. They remove light scuff marks and dirt while producing a smooth, glossy finish.

  • Blue pads are used for wet scrubbing or heavy-duty spray cleaning. They aggressively remove heavy dirt and scuff marks. Green pads are utilized for heavy-duty wet scrubbing or light stripping. They remove dirt and scuff marks from heavily soiled floors.

  • Brown and black pads each have a stripping function. The former is designed for wet or dry stripping, the latter for heavy-duty wet stripping. They each aggressively remove wax, dirt and finish.

  • The more aggressive the pad, the more easily it can damage tile. If scrubbing cuts or cracks tile, it becomes a place for dirt to embed itself, which means floors need to be stripped more often than they would if the cut hadn’t happened in the first place.

The Choice Is Yours
For his floor machines, Smith uses white polishing pads and black, one-inch stripping pads. “We use red pads and blue pads for shower scrubbing, and for different flooring, like terrazzo, we’ll use natural pads,” he says.

“Our 70 full-time custodians are responsible for all academic areas here, which include about 2 million square feet of assorted floors, from vinyl composition tile (VCT) to marble to terrazzo. Some buildings here are interlocked, so you can walk right from a VCT floor to a terrazzo floor and back to VCT.”

Cost Conservation
In Kingston, R.I., Gary Hill, assistant director of custodial operations of the University of Rhode Island, says keeping the costs of floor care down should be a high priority for facility managers of every kind.

Hill’s department is responsible for approximately 2 million square feet of academic, administrative and athletic facilities. To maintain a safe, clean environment, he employs and trains about 75 full-time custodians and supervisors.

Hill, Smith and Francis each look for durability and good quality in the pads and brushes they purchase.

“A durable, quality pad won’t fall apart and will maintain its integrity,” says Hill. “It will not mark up the floor. By integrity, I mean the color of the pad should truly indicate what it can be used for consistently, throughout its cleaning life.”

Hill uses both synthetic and natural pads in his cleaning operation. “Which type we use depends on the type of floors we’re working on,” he says. For wood and terrazzo floor applications, Hill says he prefers a natural-fiber pad and will opt for the same when performing ultra high-speed burnishing on VCT floors. Synthetic pads are used on campus for stripping, scrubbing, light cleaning and low-speed burnishing.

Smith looks closely at labor savings when making decisions about pads and materials. He says they use nylogrit brushes when working on multiple types of floors. They put the brushes on automatic scrubbers for VCT floors and instead of changing to a black pad, will use the brushes to strip or scrub terrazzo floors.

“Nylogrit brushes are very aggressive and provide a nice, deep and clean scrubbing,” Smith finds. “Using them means we don’t have to change from a brush to a pad when we go from one surface to another. On a terrazzo floor, a pad has a tendency to slide, while a brush will dig in. Plus, if you have a grout line, a brush will get in there better than a pad.”

About 90 percent of the floors at Drexel are VCT and Smith says they typically use white pads most often, followed by black stripping pads. “For maintaining a VCT floor, we use a basic polishing white pad. Here, we’ve instituted floor-care programs where we use battery-powered machines and put white pads on the burnishers. After we dust mop the floor, we use the burnishers to clean, not polish. Then, with a restoring solution in the tank, we come back, and polish the floor.”

At UW-Eau Claire, Francis’s staff doesn’t burnish floors because of the expense and the time it takes. “We feel that a high-glossed floor is not necessary here,” he says. “A clean and shiny floor is what we’re after. We use synthetic pads. They work fine, but some custodial people tend not to clean and change them often enough. The challenge we face is training them to do that and providing better supervision to get them to do it.”

All aspects of training are important, Francis says, and end users have to be taught about maintenance of pads and brushes. “Changing and cleaning floor pads regularly is essential, as is proper storage of floor machines. Don’t leave pads and brushes on machines after they’ve been used. Bristles on brushes will bend and pads will get compressed.”

Hill also advocates removing pads and brushes from the machines. “Scrub them, clean them, maintain them. Remove old wax. Allow them to dry in their natural shape. That impacts budgets by increasing the life of the pads and brushes and enhancing the quality of floors. And be sure to use the right types of pads for the appropriate applications.”

Hill, Smith and Francis each emphasize that it’s important to be careful in selecting the right brush for the right application. Try not to use too aggressive of a brush, they advise, because you could strip off too much finish and you’ll have to re-coat, which can get pricey.

Brushes can be attached to the base of buffers for various uses. A stiff bristle can be used to scrub floors; a softer bristle for polishing hardwood floors.

They agree that grit brushes are a popular tool for stripping jobs and maintain that the brushes are good for tough jobs, but basically tend to get at large particles. They don’t really take care of the finer aspects of the floor, though. Stripping with a pad tends to put a much finer application on the surface. But when you get into larger applications, brushes can be good tools to use, they say. They’re expensive but they certainly hold up for a long time.

The big benefit of brushes versus pads, they say, is the fact that they don’t need to be rinsed because they don’t accumulate wax or chemical build-up. This is good for productivity, because the operator of the machine doesn’t have to stop to turn the brushes over.

Brushes can also get into grout lines, whereas pads skirt over grout, concrete or brick.

Brushes are also color-coded by manufacturers. A blue-colored brush is used for light to medium scrubbing of vinyl, sealed concrete, terrazzo, slate and marble floors. A rust-colored brush is designed for medium to mildly aggressive scrubbing of resilient floors, non-slip flooring, terrazzo, quarry tile and concrete.

Whether floors are found on college campuses, retail stores, hospitals, or office buildings, it’s vital to create a maintenance program that will improve the safety of those who walk upon them. It’s important to enhance a floor’s lifespan and appearance, and reduce labor and equipment costs.

Jordan Fox is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer.