An Ounce of Prevention: Floor Care Concerns at Schools and Universities

February 16, 2004
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You enter a building through the lobby, and the first major surface that catches your eye is the floor. As you move about the building, from one level to another, floors are ever present. From carpeting to terrazzo, concrete to wood, the types of flooring used in buildings are constantly growing and changing. The multitude of flooring types presents a unique challenge to the facilities professionals who must maintain and clean them. Today's flooring incorporates decades of development in technologies that allow for various floor finishes to be used throughout a facility, providing an aesthetically appealing variety of surfaces that still fulfill their practical purpose.

Most of these floors are relatively easy to maintain, and will last many years if maintenance is performed in accordance with the instructions of both the manufacturer and the installer. A significant proportion of a building's budget is tied up in flooring, so it is imperative that cleaning personnel take every precaution during the cleaning process to extend the life of the floor surface. Failure to maintain flooring in a proper manner can decrease both the appearance and life of a floor, causing financial disaster for a facility.

What are some of the challenges facing facilities professionals as they seek to maintain flooring systems at an optimal level in schools and universities?

Budget restraints

Maintaining flooring at the optimal level of cleanliness can be expensive, and nearly every university and school system is being faced with budget restraints. This demands that the facilities manager utilize floor finishes and cleaning chemicals that are both effective and economical. In addition, since labor is the most costly element in maintaining floors, it is important that effective equipment be utilized to increase the productivity of the people cleaning them. Sometimes managers become "penny-wise and pound-foolish," saving 10 cents a gallon on a certain product while ignoring the fact that the piece of equipment that the operator is using is totally inadequate for the job. The operator then may double or triple the amount of time working to achieve the desired results, saving 10 cents a gallon on chemicals but expending hundreds of dollars on unnecessary labor.

Multiple flooring systems

There are numerous flooring systems being utilized in buildings today, and the people cleaning the floors must know what they are cleaning and how to clean it. For instance, the amount of moisture applied to a carpet that is made of synthetic fibers may not be as critical as when moisture is applied to a natural fiber, such as wool, that may be damaged by applying too much moisture. Likewise, a synthetic wood floor may be easier to clean than a natural wood floor. When a building is built or renovated and floor finishes are applied, the prudent facilities manager will have the installers of the finish provide maintenance instructions as published by the manufacturer. Some linoleum and vinyl products come with a high-gloss finish already built in, and it is counterproductive for custodians to apply floor finish to such surfaces.

Scheduling challenges

Traditionally, the vast amount of floor stripping, re-sealing and refinishing at schools and universities was conducted during the break periods in the schedule. However, facilities are increasingly being used not only year-round, but also 16 to 24 hours a day. This means that if floors are to be maintained at their optimal level, often cleaning must occur when the buildings are occupied. Thus, the development of a detailed floor care cleaning plan needs to be coordinated with building occupants. Some plans that I have seen break down the buildings into zones. The zones are then color-coded to indicate when the cleaning might happen, and the schedule is provided to building occupants. Sometimes, in order to get the entire floor finishing completed, extra shifts may need to be deployed to complete the work in a timely manner.

When carpet cleaning is performed in public high traffic areas such as lobbies and hallways, it is imperative to allow enough time for the carpet to dry before the occupants walk on it. If this is not done, the dirt that is on peoples' shoes will be attracted to the moisture in the carpet, and a dirty trail will appear on the floor, often called a "cow trail."

Training programs

In order to have an effective floor cleaning program that adequately addresses all the types of floor finishes that are in use and need to be cleaned, it is imperative that an aggressive and proactive training program be in place. This program should include the chemistry of cleaning; how to use chemicals; the various types of floor surfaces; how to maintain them; and hands-on training to demonstrate in action how to use the equipment with the right cleaning procedures. I have seen beautiful floor work accomplished, floors that shone like glass, only to have a claim made by the occupant for the damage caused when the floor crew splashed some floor finish on cabinets and statues. Likewise, carpets have been cleaned, smelled beautiful, looked beautiful and the customers were satisfied for a day or two until the carpet started to buckle because too much moisture had been applied to the glued-down carpet, which subsequently broke loose from the floor. The use and control of moisture in floor cleaning procedures is a critical element of any training program.

In order for floor surfaces to be maintained at their optimal level, several simple steps may be taken to enhance the probability that floor surfaces stay as clean as possible for as long as possible.

Stop the dirt at or before the door
Numerous studies have indicated that the vast majority of dirt that enters a building comes right through the front door. The simplest way to cut down on this is to place walk off mats at all entryways. Experts tell us that it takes about six paces for the majority of dirt to be removed from the soles of people's shoes, therefore entryway mats need to be of substantial length, ideally 18 to 20 feet. If space does not permit, smaller mats may be placed outside the entry door, in the vestibule and then in the lobby. Different types of mats could be used: an aggressive synthetic fiber outside to scrape off the dirt, a water absorbent one in the vestibule to catch most of the moisture, and a synthetic soft fiber mat in the lobby to polish the remaining dust particles off the soles of the shoes.

Once dirt enters the building, remove it as fast as possible
The dirt or dust particles that get walked into a building end up acting like pieces of glass, etching the floor surface each time someone walks on it. A regular dust-mop program and damp-mopping program should be in place, using state-of-the-art equipment to make the cleaning process effective and economical. If the floor is carpeted, the best preventive maintenance step is to vacuum the carpet on a regular basis. In addition, if something is spilled on the floor, have a program in place to remove the spill as soon as possible. This is especially true with carpeted surfaces. The faster a spill or stain is treated the greater the probability that the stain can be completely removed. The longer it sits on the floor, the harder it is to remove.

A routine floor care program should be developed for the regular removal of gum, stains, grease, etc., and a step-by-step program should be in place for the recoating or stripping of floors and heavy-duty cleaning of carpet (such as extraction, dry foam, bonnet cleaning or whatever cleaning method is appropriate for the type of carpet in your institution). Likewise, an on-going preventative maintenance program should be in place to maintain wood floors at their optimal level.

The old saying, "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure," is very appropriate when it comes to effectively cleaning and maintaining floors. Sometimes people will skip installing entry mats because it will save a few dollars, but studies have shown that it takes hundreds of dollars to remove just one pound of dirt from a building. Since it is estimated that over 80 percent of all dirt that enters a building comes through the front door, it would make much more practical sense to spend a few extra dollars to keep the dirt out, because once it enters, it is expensive to remove.

Likewise, when times are tight, organizations cut the budget of training programs, another situation resulting in false savings. One botched floor job, such as damaging a carpet or hard surface by using the wrong chemicals, could cost an organization thousands of dollars to rectify, when 15 minutes in a training session might have prevented the problem happening in the first place.

The choice is yours as to whether you will be "pound-wise" when maintaining floors at your institution.

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