Of all the rooms in a school, the room with the most wear and tear is typically the gym. Once a place for kids and teens to play basketball for a couple of hours a day, the gym has essentially transformed into a multi-purpose room, playing host to all types of sports, pep rallies and even drama productions.

“They are used for many functions other than physical activity,” says David Shauers, marketing director, Essential Industries Inc., Merton, Wis. “It’s much harder on the floor. Plus, the schools are being used 15 to 16 hours a day, and in the old days, the gyms were used for just a few hours a day and that’s it. There’s a big difference.”

With this change in purpose, special attention to — and care of — gym floors is important. While the schools have some poured composite gym floors, the most common type is wood flooring.

Replacing a wood gym floor is expensive and time-exhausting, but manufacturers say that if proper care is taken of these floors at the outset, maintenance is relatively simple and effective.

“Although your gym floor requires a great deal of preparation — and attention to detail during that preparation — if you put it down properly and take care of the floor, it requires very little daily maintenance to retain its gloss and integrity,” says Becky Kaufold, chemist at Spartan, Maumee, Ohio. “In some aspects, it’s actually easier, provided that the first step is done properly.”

Types Of Damage
To know how to prevent damage to a floor, facility managers need to know what causes the damage in the first place. The wide variety of events that are held in a gym will eventually wear out finishes, but there are some areas that are more prone to damage.

“The biggest damage factor on the gym floor is the concentrated traffic on specific areas, say on the volleyball court by the net, or in the key areas for basketball, says Mick Carlin, central region regional manager, Rochester Midland, Rochester, N.Y. “Here, there is extreme traffic and sliding, starting, stopping and jumping.”

Indeed, any regularly used pattern on a gym floor will likely cause damage. However, Frank Leadem, Educational and Technical training specialist, Misco, Reading, Pa., says, “Aside from catastrophic damage, like dragging furniture, moving gym equipment or dragging a pallet across the floor, the most damage comes from good old regular use and a lack of regular dry soil removal.”

In essence, the activities that have become associated with the gym, are the ones that are contributing to floor damage. Perhaps the bar is set a bit too high in some facilities, says Bill Price, sport division sales manager, BonaKemi USA Inc., Aurora, Colo.

“High schools and elementary schools want to compare their floors to an NBA or Division I NCAA floor,” he says. “There’s no way that they can really live up to that because no one is allowed on the NBA and Division I floors except for the players.”

That does not mean, however, that a floor’s life — and looks — can’t be extended. One of the most important things that can be done for a gym floor is to have it properly sealed and coated.

Choosing A Coating
Manufacturers say the choice for a gym floor coating boils down to two product choices — a water-based coating or an oil-modified coating.

At the beginning of a floor’s life — in the years following installation — it is important to keep water from touching the wood, says Kevin Dowell, owner of KC Coatings, Grand Rapids Mich., the company that developed the wood floor coating program that Daley has had for years, and now manufactures under the KC Coatings name.

In those first few years, Dowell recommends using solvent-based oil modified urethanes because it is more flexible. “Wood floors are living, breathing things that move, expand, contract, stretch and swell, so when you have a new installation, you want a product that is a little softer, so that it will move with that floor a little better.”

Generally, facilities should have a program that features an oil-modified urethane for at least two or three years to make sure the product fills into grooves and moves with the floor.

“Then you can make your decision on what kind of coating you want based on what maintenance procedures you can do, what equipment you have and what type of traffic the floor experiences,” says Dowell.

Once a floor has been established, it is up to a facility to determine what will be best for them.

“Oil-modified systems have always been considered the best gym floor finish,” Kaufold says. “That is changing a little bit. Water-based finishes are getting much better, and volatile organic compound (VOC) restrictions are causing oil modified to become less user friendly, less applicator friendly and they aren’t quite as durable as they once were, so water technology is catching up with the oil technology.”

Robert Allen, vice president of operations for Amano Pioneer Eclipse, Sparta, N.C., says that the reduced levels of VOCs in water-based finishes are a huge consideration for facilities nowadays.

“The importance of the water-based acrylic polymer is since it does not have large amounts of VOCs, you can do a gym floor recoat with our product and use the gym the next day,” Allen explains. “If you use traditional type products, like a modified polyurethane wood floor coating, you would have to wait about a week before you could get back in there because of the slow drying and the VOCs that you encounter with those types of products.”

Oil-based coatings will also take a lot more time to dry, a consideration that sometimes needs to be taken into account.

“We’ve done some dance floors in country clubs and the people will call on a Monday saying they have this big bash on Saturday and want to recoat the floor,” says Allen. “Well, I told them right then that they’re not going to put down a traditional oil-based coating because it wouldn’t be ready by then.”

Carlin says end users clean a gym floor with the same kinds of chemicals that you would use on a regular gym floor, but suggests keeping stripping solutions off these floors and not to use a regular floor finish on the floor, even if it is temporary.

“Regular floor finishes will wear out sooner than a water based or oil varnish,” Carlin explains. “It can also get a little ‘fast’ on them, so the basketball players and volleyball players have a tendency to slide around a little which can be dangerous.”

Making A Floor Last
Maintenance of a gym floor originates at the entrances. “Obviously, the most important thing is to have good walk-off matting at the entrances,” says Shauers.

Blake Roth, product manager for Hillyard, St. Joseph, Mo., agrees that walk-off matting is a component of a proper gym floor maintenance routine.

“You need to take off dirt and sand from your shoes,” says Roth. “Then, make sure that if any entrances are near parking lots, or any area that is sandy or extremely dirty, that there is matting because the more dirt and sand that is on the floor, the more it acts like sandpaper and begins to dull the appearance of the floor.”

Once the majority of dirt and sand are stopped at the door, not much more needs to be done with a floor. One important and simple step custodians can take is to dust mop.

“Probably the most important item that you need for daily maintenance is a well-treated dust mop,” says Roth. “You should dust mop often. For high-use facilities, maybe four or five times a day.”

He says that a properly treated dust mop can help extend the life of a floor and keep it looking good. In his experience, he has become wary of dust mop rental programs because the way in which they treat the dust mops may not be preferable for a gym floor.

Carlin agrees that properly treating dust mops is the essential factor. “If you take a dust mop and spray it with a dust mop treatment and then turn right around and use it, you’re leaving the oil on the floor, so it gets ‘fast’ and slippery,” he says. “The key is to take a new dust mop, wash it, spray all sides of the mop, roll it into a ball and put it in a plastic bag for about 24 hours. The oil will permeate the whole mop and then when you go to use the mop, you’re not leaving any oil on the floor and it will work correctly for a long period of time.”

Other than dust mopping, spot cleaning may be necessary upon occasion. During events, there are times when body soils and spilled refreshments or food will need to be cleaned up.

“As far as putting a solution or liquid on the floor, it’s not necessary that often unless they’re having activities on that floor where there might be spills or residue left behind,” says Price. “If they are using the floor for functions, then they may want to clean the floor once a month at most with a solution. It all depends on the facility.”

After a year of wear and tear, a typical gym floor will need a recoat. Once every 10 years or so, the floor should be sanded down to bare wood, lines are re-painted, it is re-sealed and re-coated.

You really want to avoid the sanding because a maple floor can only go through so many sandings,” says Kaufold. “I believe Maple Floor Manufacturers Association (MFMA) says no more than 10 sandings before the floor itself has to be replaced. If you are doing maintenance properly, your maple floor should last you a minimum of 100 years.”

Since sanding is a very delicate process, it should only be done by professionals or someone with years of experience in sanding and re-coating floors.

“Sanding is normally done with a drawn sander and a drawn sander can actually ruin a floor in one second because it is so abrasive,” says Allen. “If you don’t do it properly, you will get gouges in the floors, you will grind away wood where there’s dips in the floor and so forth.”

Working It All Out
Many distributors are looking to schools as a market they would like to get into. While most school buildings are relatively simple with one or two main considerations (price and “green” products), gym floors can throw the unknowledgeable distributor into confusion.

“The best time for a distributor to work with facilities that have gyms is after they have a complete understanding of the system they are going to promote,” says Leadem.

Carlin suggests distributors get experience and see what their people are dealing with by getting involved with refinishing a gym floor at least once or twice. “It’s somewhat of a laborious process,” Carlin says. “At least get in there and know how to put down that floor finish. The best way to gain experience is by getting involved.”

After becoming acquainted with the products and processes involved in gym floor maintenance, Price says you should set up job-site training.

“Show them what you can and cannot do because most of these people in the facilities have never had any type of guidance on what to do with a gym floor, which is usually the showpiece of the whole facility,” says Price. “So many times they kill themselves overdoing it, when all they really have to do is keep the dirt off of it by sweeping and dust mopping.”

Shauers says you want to start calling on customers before late spring, when schools begin working on their floors. To get a foot in the door, there are several questions a distributor can ask.

Dowell is a proponent of spurring thought on the issue. “The number one thing, when distributors get out there, they should ask their customer why they use what they use,” Dowell offers. “Ninety percent of them will say, it’s what we’ve always used and that’s because they’re not educated.”

Other questions, according to Allen and Leadem, can focus on the condition of the floor, how often the floor is used, determining what kind of coating they have and if they are happy with it, and the type of maintenance program the facility utilizes.

Distributors who become acquainted with the specifics of gym floor maintenance are not only building an even stronger knowledge base for themselves, they also become a very important partner for buyers in the lucrative school market.