During a trip to Wal-Mart last winter, distributor David Allmendinger noticed a big change underfoot — the dull concrete floors had been replaced with polished, integrated color concrete. When building service contractors started calling him asking for tools to clean polished concrete, Allmendinger realized this might be the start of an important trend.

“Here in Arkansas, Wal-Mart leads the way. When they started putting in these floors, that’s when we knew we were going to start seeing more of it,” says Allmendinger, president of Datek Inc., North Little Rock. “We said, ‘Wait a minute. We need a better education on these floors.’”

Allmendinger hired a contractor to polish a section of the concrete floor in Datek’s warehouse and give his staff a lesson in maintenance. Salespeople can now show customers the floor and speak with authority about the products needed to maintain it.

By identifying flooring trends early on, Allmendinger hopes Datek will be the “go-to” distributor in the area for products needed to clean new types of flooring. In the case of polished concrete, he anticipates an impending surge in sales of polishing discs and diamond tools.

“Training is important to us, or I wouldn’t have spent an entire day with our sales staff watching some guy polish our floors,” Allmendinger says. “We’re trying to be better educated than our competitors.”

Flooring trends inevitably affect the cleaning industry, influencing the products and methods used to clean them. Distributors must stay abreast of changes or risk becoming obsolete.

The New Style
Although vinyl composition tile (VCT) is still a common choice in commercial construction, times are changing. Other types of resilient flooring (sheet vinyl, rubber tile, natural linoleum and cork) are increasing in popularity, as are such hard-surface materials as stone, tile and wood.

Perhaps the biggest change in flooring is the newer focus on “high style, high performance.” Nearly every product category now features a variety of colors and visual effects. There are vinyl floors that look like wood or stone, and rubber floors that come in shades of orange and gold.

“We’re seeing more fashionable floors being used in institutional buildings,” says Steve Johnson, president of the National Association of Floor Covering Distributors. “One of my hottest lines right now is a porcelain that comes in multiple sizes and 38 colors.”

An Eye For Design
Recognizing the importance of aesthetics, flooring manufacturers are creating products that meet both beauty and budget demands. There are designer options at every price point, plus there is an emphasis on materials that reduce maintenance expenses, such as floors with no coatings or high-performance coatings that reduce or eliminate time-consuming stripping work.

“Everyone wants the best of both worlds — something that is relatively inexpensive to install and inexpensive to maintain,” says Bill Freeman, consultant to the Resilient Floor Covering Institute. “Of course, that doesn’t usually happen.”

Most building owners must choose between floors that are cheap to install but cost more to maintain or those that are more expensive initially but less pricey over their lifetime. Businesses in small towns or in struggling industries often choose the former.

“In this area, everyone is looking for cheap, cheap, cheap,” says Norman Schmidt, president of Hopkins Sales Co., Inc., Easton, Md. “They don’t want to know about the hot new thing; they want the status quo.”

Twelve-inch vinyl tiles and rolled vinyl are still the clear winners among Schmidt’s commercial buyers. Tried-and-true vinyl is inexpensive and offers many color options. He says there is very little wood or terrazzo in his area because of cost, but also because his clients aren’t interested in a maintenance learning curve.

“They don’t want to be thrown any curve balls or anything that is going to frighten them,” Schmidt says. “Anyone who is in the cleaning business knows how to clean vinyl tile. It’s easy to maintain and everyone knows how to do it.”

Focusing On The Future
More and more frequently, however, companies are opting for long-term savings. Case in point: Wal-Mart’s use of polished concrete. The surface is as much as $8 per square foot, but requires only auto-scrubber cleaning. The initial outlay of cash can easily be recovered over the life of the flooring through reduced maintenance costs.

“They are looking at the total cost,” Allmendinger says. “Yes, it will cost more to put in, but you don’t have to buy floor finish and sealers and high-speed buffers, just an autoscrubber, so they can recover a lot of that initial cost in the first year alone.”

Aesthetics and cost are clearly the top two concerns that affect flooring choices. A distant third, however, is the environment. Terms like VOCs, IAQ and sustainability are now bandied about quite frequently in certain parts of the country, particularly in urban centers and “green” states such as California.

Less than a decade ago, very few manufacturers produced “green” flooring. Today, nearly every mill has at least one line of environmentally preferable products. The change has much to do with the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED certification, which encourages green building practices. Demand is on the rise for flooring made from reclaimed or recycled materials and those that can be cleaned without harsh solvents.

“Living in Northern California, we are seeing requests for green products going up significantly,” Johnson says. “All of our manufacturers have at least one or two lines that incorporate green technology. Five years ago, I didn’t hear much about it at all.”

Maintenance Evolution
As flooring evolves to meet changing tastes and needs, so must the procedures and products used for maintenance. Although recent innovations, such as less-porous floors or longer-lasting coatings, have made floors easier to clean, they have also created technical changes that janitors must understand.

“For example, conventional floor finish and burnishing used with traditional VCT may not be necessary and can actually be harmful to certain types of hard-surface materials,” says Christopher Capobianco, chair of the Floor Covering Installation Contractors Association. “If the maintenance team is used to maintaining VCT, they may not be open to no-floor-finish maintenance or new semi-permanent urethane coatings.”

Changes are everywhere. Standard VCT requires several coats of sealer and maintenance with buffers while sheet vinyl can be quickly cleaned with a damp mop. New floor coatings are more durable and longer lasting, reducing the frequency of restorative maintenance. Some tile products need to be sealed and others don’t. Advances in machinery have consolidated two or three cleaning functions into one product.

“Equipment has changed considerably,” says Allmendinger. “For example, we pushed our customers in the direction of autoscrubbers instead of wet vacs.”

To keep current on maintenance requirements, distributors should work closely with flooring manufacturers. Check Web sites for up-to-date information on approved products and procedures or to print out information on best practices for your clients. Go one step further to stay informed by asking flooring companies for samples of new product introductions before they hit the market.

Test the products to make sure the chemicals and procedures you suggest to customers won’t damage the surface and are the most efficient, economical options for maintaining the floor.

Becky Mollenkamp is a Des Moines, Iowa-based freelance writer.

Flooring By Committee

The flooring life cycle has traditionally been that manufacturers produce it, architects or interior designers choose it, building owners purchase it, and maintenance personnel clean it. Each group functioned independently with very little communication among them.

“There is a disconnect between the architect and the maintenance people,” says Steve Johnson, president of the National Association of Floor Covering Distributors. “I don’t know if there is communication all the way down the channel, but there should be.”

While the relationship between manufacturer, architect and janitor is not always harmonious, it does seem to be improving. As budget slashing continues, architects are forced to do more with less. More often than not, flooring cannot be just a pretty surface — it must also be cost-effective to purchase and maintain. Architects must work with the janitorial staff to choose a product that meets both aesthetic desires and budget restrictions and manufacturers must be able to provide those options.

“The life-cycle story is gaining momentum,” Johnson says. “Before, the focus was doing things as cheaply as possible. But now we are seeing more emphasis from architects on total cost than in the past. Mills are putting out higher fashion products at price points that meet architects’ needs.”

Collaboration is most common during remodeling of an existing facility, when an architect can easily bring the maintenance staff into purchasing discussions, and at health care facilities where cleanliness is a high priority. During new construction, however, there may not be an existing maintenance staff so the architect must make flooring decisions alone. In this scenario, the maintenance staff must make an effort to understand maintenance requirements.

“The important thing is to have these groups work together to come up with a program and then implement it,” says Christopher Capobianco, chair of the Floor Covering Installation Contractors Association. “Sadly, this doesn’t always happen.”