Don't Let a Bad I.D. Get You into Hot Water

November 1, 2010
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Identifying the surface being worked on is critical to the success of the floor maintenance program. Understanding what the product is made of and how it will react to water, chemicals and abrasion is the essence of floor maintenance.

Although floor maintenance professionals are proficient at identifying flooring material, their customers may not be, which is why it is important to go out and look at every job. Often times a customer will refer to a product by an incorrect name. This is especially true of linoleum. To this day many people refer to all sheet products as linoleum, which could not be further from the truth.

Linoleum was invented in 1860 and is manufactured today in much the same manner it was then. It consists of cork or wood powder, resins, pigments, limestone and linseed oil. The ingredients are mixed together, heated up and pressed on to natural jute backing. Linoleum manufactured today has a protective wear layer applied to the surface after the manufacturing process for ease of maintenance.

The first vinyl floor products came along in the early 1930s in the form of vinyl composition tile. Over time manufacturing of sheet vinyl came into being and consisted of a mixture of polyvinyl chloride resins (referred to as vinyl), plasticizers, pigments, stabilizers and a backing. These, too, had a protective wear layer applied to the surface after manufacturing for ease of maintenance.

Linoleum and vinyl are both fall into the resilient category of floor coverings. Both are manufactured in sheet or tile form and come in many different colors. After installation some vinyl products may look very similar to linoleum in appearance and texture, and they can be difficult to tell apart.

Although both have similar properties and characteristics and can be maintained using comparable methodologies, there is a big difference in the restorative maintenance process.

The daily/routine and some periodic maintenance for both of these floors are similar, dust mopping, wet mopping and light and medium scrubbing can be performed in the same manner as most floor coverings.

The restorative maintenance method for both flooring materials is the stripping and refinishing service procedure. This is where some technicians get into trouble, because they treat the linoleum in the same manner as sheet vinyl.

Vinyl flooring is made of polyvinyl chloride, which in essence is a plastic, and has a higher chemical tolerance than linoleum, especially to high-pH (11-13) strippers. Sheet vinyl flooring can be stripped using a traditional high alkaline stripping chemical, which will not damage the vinyl. The high-pH stripper solution may be allowed to dwell on the vinyl floor longer, which aids in the emulsification of the existing finish making it easier to remove.

Because of the durability of vinyl, traditional black stripping pads can be used depending on the amount of finish on the floor. I would never recommend high-productivity pads for sheet vinyl, even though they work well on VCT.

Traditional high-pH strippers are too harsh for linoleum and will dissolve some of the linseed oil if used on them in the stripping process. Using high-pH stripping chemicals on linoleum flooring will cause the surface of the floor to become real rough to the touch (kind of like sand paper, but not as abrasive), this is known as a burned floor. Once this happens, it is extremely difficult to get the floor back to a decent appearance. It may take many applications of floor finish to fill in all the damaged areas that have been etched to achieve a smooth and glossy appearance.

Stripping chemicals used on linoleum flooring should have a pH of 10.5 or lower. The low-pH stripper will emulsify the floor finish at a slower rate than that of its high pH counterpart and will not penetrate as deeply.

The other part of the equation is that linoleum floors are also abrasive sensitive, which means that most aggressive pads will damage the floor. Most manufactures recommend removing floor finish from linoleum floors using a low-pH stripper in conjunction with a scrubbing pad, not a stripping pad and never a high-productivity pad.

The problem is that the process has to be repeated sometimes several times before all the finish is removed, making it hard to calculate actual costs for removing commercial finishes.

The best way to avoid the situation of damaging a linoleum floor is to identify it correctly before you start. The easiest way to identify a linoleum floor covering is to ask the customer if they purchased the material, and, if they did, do they know what it is and who the manufacturer was. If this information is not available, look at the back of the product. If it is pressed on to jute backing, chances are it is going to be linoleum.

Generally the floor covering will be on the floor and the back will not be visible. When this is the case if you look closely at the surface you may be able to see the texture of the jute telegraphed to the surface of the floor covering.

When you can’t see the texture you have to rely on touch. The surface of the floor (even if it has a coating on it) will have a slight granular texture. That can be distinguished by feel. In vinyl imitations the surface is very smooth to the touch and the texture has an irregular pattern to it.

I cannot express enough the importance of the floor maintenance technician’s ability to identify a floor covering, especially when it comes to linoleum. You will often hear me say, If you can’t identify what you are working on, should you really take the risk?

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