Floor Care in a Winter Wonderland

Winter in Chicago would not be complete without below-zero wind chills, cloudy skies and heavy snows, not to mention rain and sleet. With the prospect of facing these conditions for more than three months, it is no wonder that Chicago natives are constantly looking for ways to entertain themselves in the great indoors-whether it's catching a movie or heading to a local museum.

Regardless of their destination, these individuals are bound to track snow, rain, sleet and the ever-present wintertime salt onto the city's many finished floors. To keep their facility's floors looking great until the spring thaw, building service contractors and internal maintenance staff members need to keep two things in mind: planning and prevention.

Few institutions in the Chicago area have the floor care challenges that the Adler Planetarium & Astronomy Museum faces every day during the winter months. The planetarium, which sits on a peninsula jutting into Lake Michigan, is subject to the "lake effect" when it comes to passing winter weather systems. Bill Wilhelm, director of operations for the Adler Planetarium, said when downtown Chicago gets 2 inches of snow, it's not unusual for his area by the lake to get six or seven.

The iconic museum was the first planetarium built in the western hemisphere during the 1930s. Besides its more than 500,000 visitors per year, the facility hosts a number of special events like weddings and corporate parties. With all their traffic and all the snow that piles up and gets tracked in during the winter months, caring for the facility's more than 100,000 square feet of flooring can be a challenge.

That's where George Lewis, crew leader with United Building Maintenance, comes in. During his 33 years of caring for the planetarium's floors, he's seen it all. Wilhelm describes Lewis as a floor artist, and for good reason: he fights the harsh Chicago winters and enters the spring with a great-looking floor finish that has a high gloss akin to a work of art.

For Wilhelm and Lewis the art of floor care starts with a plan to keep the planetarium's floors looking great. Stripping and refinishing floors during the winter months is both logistically impractical and a waste of time and money for the vast majority of facilities. Because the planetarium is open 363 days a year, the problem is particularly acute because stripping and refinishing requires shutting down sections of the museum and preventing patrons from visiting certain exhibits.

The planetarium's choice of floor finish is an important part of their planning. Wilhelm and Lewis use a floor finish that provides outstanding shine that lasts without frequent recoating or refinishing and resists soiling and wear with exceptional black heel mark resistance.

"I put down several layers of a very durable finish," Lewis said. "That way, my finish will last well over a year. After events that leave scratches on the floor, all I have to do is burnish it to bring the shine back, and I still have plenty of layers to get me through the rest of the year."

The Adler Planetarium is committed to leaving a great first impression on guests and being a place where groups want to host events. As such, their floor needs a high gloss throughout the winter. Accomplishing this takes many layers of finish. Institutions interested in maintaining a high gloss should always consider building up the depth of finish because they must burnish their floors more frequently. Since burnishing slowly eliminates layers of finish, planning in advance and adding depth can delay intrusive measures like stripping and refinishing.

While choosing the right finish and adequately applying it are essential for getting floors through the winter looking great, no winter floor care program would be complete without a heavy focus on prevention. After all, soils that don't linger on a finished floor for an extended period of time can't cause much damage.

Minimizing intrusive soils starts at the door. "We add extra mats during the winter and focus our efforts on the planetarium's entryways to prevent soils from getting in and to protect the safety of our guests," Wilhelm said.

Mats are the first line of defense for floor finishes. A successful matting system will stop the water and dirt through a variety of inside and outside mats. But having mats in the right locations is only one part of the equation. It's important to have a plan to clean and replace the mats as they become soiled and saturated. Wilhelm says the planetarium sends its mats out for cleaning every two weeks to encourage optimal soil prevention.

Also, maintenance staff members should vacuum mats and carpets near entrances several times each day, especially after periods with the busiest in-flow of foot traffic. This will help stop the dirt, salt, grime and sand from transferring onto the finished floor.

Unfortunately matting can't stop all soils from reaching the floor. For that reason it's important to dust mop several times a day to remove grit, loose soil and sand that heavy boots and shoes transfer onto the flooring. Maintenance staff members should also choose floor cleaners that are powerful enough to remove the tracked-in particulate soil that can abrade, dull and darken finish to extend the life of the floor finish. These cleaners should be low-sudsing and versatile enough for use on virtually all finished floors.

"The floor cleaner we use is great," Lewis said. "I actually think it gets the floors cleaner because it prevents us from just spreading dirt around through dirty mop water."

And finally, the right daily cleaner will work together with the finish, maximizing the life of the shine and minimizing the frequency of buffing and burnishing and recoating and refinishing.

Chicago residents are used to rough winter weather, but BSCs and in-house maintenance workers don't have to get used to dull and abraded floor finishes. Lewis says all it takes to have a great looking floor is a strong understanding of the facility's flooring challenges so you can plan accordingly and using effective products with proper procedures to prevent unnecessary damage to the finish. This type of maintenance helps keep even the most-high-traffic floor finishes intact until spring.

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