Hard Floor Maintenance

Maintaining Wood Floor Coverings

September 14, 2004
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Unprotected wood floor coverings have an inherent sensitivity to moisture. All wood floors have a component know as cellulose, which acts like a sponge and absorbs moisture. A raw wood floor without any protection can absorb moisture right out of the air.

In certain climates, this could cause a floor to warp. If standing water is left on a wood floor, the grain will swell and become discolored. Warping, buckling and cracking can all occur in severe conditions.

Because of this, all wood floors will have a chemical coating applied to them. There are generally two types of coatings that will be applied to wood floor coverings: penetrating seals and surface finishes. Each requires about the same care, but methods vary when it comes to removing stains or restoring the finish in heavy-traffic areas.

Penetrating seals and paste wax are the traditional method of maintenance for wood floor coverings. Penetrating seals, as the name implies, penetrate into the wood and seal the pores to protect against soiling. Sometimes these sealers contain stain to change or enhance the color of the natural wood. A benefit of penetrating seals is that wear and traffic areas can be repaired without ridges, lap lines or other signs of repair. In most cases, solvent waxes (liquid or paste) are used in conjunction with penetrating seals. Aqueous polymeric floor finishes should not be used on wood floor coverings that have penetrating seals on them.

Surface finishes such as polyurethane, acid-curing urethane, moisture-cure urethane and water-based urethanes are blends of synthetic resins, plasticizers and other film-forming ingredients which remain on and protect the surface of the wood. These finishes are extremely durable and will require very little maintenance to keep them looking good. Most manufacturers of these types of finishes do not recommend the use of floor finishes or waxes on their products.

Solid or engineered wood may have a coating applied as part of the manufacturing process or on-site. These types of floors can have any of the aforementioned seals applied to them or an acrylic impregnated (irradiated polymer) coating. Developing a hard-floor maintenance program for these coverings is relatively easy because in many cases the floor covering is installed with the coating already on it.

Because wood floors are softer than most other floor coverings, it is necessary to have a very aggressive walk-off mat program. In many situations, chair glides and furniture cups will be required to prevent indentation. Mats may be used in areas where water may be tracked on to the floor. Keeping grit and moisture under control will help with your program immensely.

A few words of caution when dealing with wood floors. Try to find out the type of seal or chemical system being used on the floor and follow the manufacturer's recommendations. Only apply water to a wood floor when it absolutely necessary and, when you do, use the smallest amount of moisture possible. Most importantly, keep dirt and debris off of the floor; the more erosive factors that are eliminated, the longer your wood floor will last.

Initial Maintenance
Initial maintenance falls into two categories: flooring with a factory seal and flooring that requires sanding and refinishing. Initial maintenance for factory-finish wood floor coverings may be as simple as wet mopping or light scrubbing to remove any construction or installation soil. When using water on any wood floor it is best to use the bare minimum required to accomplish the procedure. Also, remove any standing water and dry the floor covering as dry as possible.

Solid wood floors may require sanding and refinishing. The procedure incorporates a drum sander in conjunction with varying grits of sand paper. After the floor is sanded, cleaned and tacked, the selected chemical coating can be applied. There may be a single or multiple applications to bring the floor to the condition desired. When using chemicals, read the instructions carefully and do not deviate.

Daily/Routine Maintenance
Wood floor coverings require dust mopping on a daily/routine basis. In some situations multiple repetitions of the dry service procedure will be necessary. Keeping the dry particulates under control is very important because of the floor's water sensitivity. Dust mopping or vacuuming are the most important aspect of maintaining a wood floor.

Wipe up all spills immediately to avoid penetration into the finish, seal or wood. Rinse the area with a damp cloth if necessary and towel dry. Damp mopping with a neutral cleaner is an accepted practice on most surface finishes, but not recommended for penetrating seals or paste wax.

There are some basic rules to remember when you have to mop a wood floor. Never saturate a wood floor with water, as even a protected floor can absorb moisture through small fibers that extend through the coating. As a general rule of thumb, you should use as little water as possible to maintain wood floors. Wet mopping is not recommended for most wood floor coverings; it is better to spray-mist a cloth and wipe the soiled area (follow this with a dry towel to remove all moisture). The environment and traffic conditions will dictate the frequency of damp mopping; in light traffic areas you may be able to go months without damp mopping.

Periodic Maintenance
Periodic maintenance for wood floor coverings will vary depending on the classification of covering and the chemical coating on the floor. If the manufacturer of the chemical coating or the floor covering is known it helps to determine which maintenance methodology to follow. Frequency for performing the services will also vary depending on environment and traffic conditions.

Generally, surface finishes (factory or custom on-site) are extremely durable and are effectively maintained using daily or routine maintenance. These floors will last for years before they start to show wear. It is very difficult to blend any damaged or repaired areas with the rest of the floor, so periodic maintenance does not really exist for this classification.

Acrylic impregnated engineered wood is used a great deal in commercial application. Most of these programs have support restoration or treatment programs. These applications are applied using spray-buff technique or by applying a cream with a pad and polishing after it dries. This service procedure can be performed weekly, monthly or even quarterly, depending on traffic.

Penetrating seals used without finishes or waxes will begin to show wear patterns as time passes. These traffic patterns will occasionally require a surface sanding with a fine-grit sanding disk, followed by an application of another coat of sealant. Sometimes a finish or wax will be applied over the seal.

In some situations the manufacturer of the coating chemical or floor covering may recommend the use of steel wool with their finish product. Some finishes are applied using a steel wool pad, allowed to dry and buffed with another steel wool pad to remove the excess. Others may recommend a similar process except, instead of using steel wool, synthetic pads may be required. A final dry polish with a white polishing pad is generally required. These services are performed semi-annually and in some cases annually.

Penetrating seals are traditionally found in happy coexistence with paste wax. Paste wax is a combination of natural or synthetic wax mixed in a solvent or aqueous solution. The paste waxing procedure cleans and reapplies wax to the floor surface. The product can be applied by using a small amount of paste wax in a fine steel wool pad. The steel wool will work the new paste into the old, pulling out the dirt and grit. A thin film is left on the floor to dry, which is polished out with a dry steel wool pad followed by a white polishing pad. It is important to leave as little paste as possible on the floor to reduce build up. The frequency of this procedure will be dictated by environment and traffic conditions, but is generally done quarterly or semi-annually.

If paste wax is used frequently and allowed to build up, it can be a difficult to remove. Buffing with dry steel wool for a period of time can reduce excess paste. However, in some situations mineral spirits may have to be used. It is very important to have maximum ventilation and do small areas at a time in these instances.

It is generally accepted that water-based polymer floor finishes should not be used on wood floors. There are, however, manufacturers of aqueous polymer floor seals and finishes for resilient floor coverings that imply that their products are safe to use on wood floors. Although this may be true and good results may exist, the floor seal or finish will have to be removed at some point. The stripping procedures for these types of coatings require copious amounts of water. Wood and water are not friends, especially large quantities; it is best not to apply these types of floor finishes to begin with.

Salvage/Restorative Maintenance
The objective here is to remove all pre-existing coats of floor coatings, seals or finishes, and re-apply fresh applications. This is accomplished with drum sanders, edge sanders and the 175-rpm rotary floor machine. The sanders are used in conjunction with sandpaper of varying grit sizes. The procedure begins with coarse grit abrasives and works through fine grit abrasive. The rotary floor machine does the finish work with sanding screens. After the floor has been sanded and detailed, coatings, seals or finishes can be applied.

The salvage/restorative maintenance operation for wood floor coverings is very exacting. There is no room for errors, especially when servicing a floor that has been sanded in the past. Hire or subcontract a professional expert in the field of wood floor coverings to accomplish this task.

There is another type of floor covering that should be mentioned here, even though its classification is generally treated under the category of resilient floors. Cork tiles are made from compressed cork oak bark that is heat-treated in a resinous binder. They are generally laid in 1-foot squares, but you can find other sizes. They are brown in color, though there may be some shading variance. These floors are the softest of the wood floors and are very quiet.

Raw cork tiles should be treated the same as any wood floor, and they can be sealed in the same manner using any of the wood seals. There is some confusion when it comes to cork tiles because some manufacturers recommend resilient products while some require wood flooring products. Check with the manufacturer of the cork tile to determine which method of maintenance to use.

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