Hard-Floor Problems Go Below the Surface

January 11, 2005
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Understanding how the system works helps you understand how to maintain it.
In a world of litigation and legal disputes, there is always the finger-pointing game of assigning fault to someone when something goes wrong. This happens in all walks of life: performing surgery, shopping at the grocery store or driving a car. The same holds true in the flooring industry.

It has always been my contention that the best way to avoid a problem is by being in a position to see it long before it becomes one. Solutions are easier to come by if you have time to contemplate the problem; when you don't, you find yourself in an action/reaction mode, which can often lead to undesirable results.

So, how do we avoid the unavoidable? When you know that hard surface floor problems will occur and you will have to decide what to do under fire, how do you prepare? These are questions that should be answered long before you set foot in any facility.

Identifying the Problems
There are times when the floor technician is held responsible for a problem simply because of his servicing the floor last. There are times when the problem may not be a cleaning problem at all; the problem may be buried deep in the flooring system and have nothing to do with cleaning. Many times, the problems are directly related to incorrect maintenance of the flooring.

As hard-floor maintenance professionals you should possess the ability to determine when a cleaning problem exist and correct it and the ability to identify common hard surface floor problems that are directly related to the components below the surface.

What Is a Floor?
A floor is defined as "The inside bottom surface of any room." We generally accept this and categorize everything beneath our feet as a floor. Unfortunately this definition, although complete, does not really explain what a flooring system is.

The flooring system is the entire system that supports the floor. Things that happen deep within the floor system will ultimately be telegraphed to the surface and become visible. Many times these signs are interpreted as cleaning issues when in reality they are not. Conversely, there are many issues that start at the surface and work their way down.

The flooring system is easier to understand if you divide it into its individual components.

The Foundation
The foundation is the portion of a structure below the first floor construction or below grade, including the footings. This is the portion of the floor that supports the loads for the entire structure and is exposed to all of the elements that include soil and drainage.

Most of the issues related to the foundation show up as natural events, settling and moisture caused by external stresses on the building. The problems they cause can be extreme, especially when it comes to moisture migration. Although these problems begin at the foundation, they are telegraphed to the subfloor/substrate and continue upward toward the surface.

Settling
Settling issues occur when the foundation shifts, buckles, bends or is modified by natural external pressures. Some results of settling are large cracks, high and low areas, separation and unevenness. All of these problems ultimately end up on the surface.

Moisture
Moisture issues are huge and impact the floor maintenance of a facility immensely. Moisture issues are usually cited when dealing with non-adhesion of flooring materials, efflorescence, adhesive not curing, mold and mildew. Warping and buckling of the wood subfloor/substrate materials is directly attributed to the effects of moisture.

Subfloor/Substrate
The subfloor/substrate is a structural support for the underlayment, which can also include the structural support for the building in general.

Wood Subfloor/substrate
If the subfloor/substrate is wood or a wood byproduct, there are several issues that can impact the surface. Unprotected wood has an inherent sensitivity to moisture, and can absorb moisture right out of the air. This may not seem like much, but in certain climates this could cause a floor to warp. Warping, buckling and cracking are results of moisture conditions.

Concrete Placement
Concrete slabs are not always level with adjoining concrete slabs; this may cause misalignment that has the potential of damage or deformation of the flooring put on top of them. Although softer, more pliable flooring may flex over these irregularities, hard-surface flooring that is not malleable will crack or break under the stress.

Sometimes concrete slabs will dip to the middle of the slab. When this occurs, even though the floor joints may be even, the center is lower, causing higher areas on the joints. Again, the softer, more pliable flooring will bend over them, but the hard-surface flooring may break.

It is important to point out that in both of these examples, the higher edges or ridges caused by an uneven subfloor can become darkened and, in some cases, even burned during the process of regular hard-floor maintenance burnishing. This is particularly true of softer resilient flooring.

Underlayment
The underlayment is an interim layer between the subfloor/substrate and the floor covering. The purpose of the combination of the subfloor/substrate and underlayment is to provide a level, even, horizontal plane that is suitable for installation of general, specialty and decorative finish flooring.

There are many types of underlayment designed for different uses, in some situations the use of the wrong underlayment will cause the floor to fail.

Subfloor/substrate sheathing materials include structural panels; plywood and wood panels; OSB (oriented strand board); Lauan; CBU (cementitious backer unit); fiber-cement board; composites (medium density fiber board, particleboard), and cork. If the wrong wood panels are used or they are not placed correctly, they may push or pull against each other causing irregularities on the surface. The end result may be buckling, cupping, uneven joints, gapping and weak spots. All of these issues will be telegraphed to the surface and impact cleaning.

Sources For Problems
Hard-surface flooring problems come from two very distinct groups: natural events and man-made events. Natural events like weather and seismic occurrences are unpredictable and cause cleaning issues we have to react to. These are not problems that you can prepare for; you can't stop them from happening; you can only clean up after the event has passed.

Natural settling will shift the structure causing stress on the floor that will cause deformations. Moisture migration throughout a facility can cause serious problems that exceed maintenance considerations. Extreme temperatures and humidity are most often related to the geographical location and can be prepared for, but the impact on cleaning will still be prevalent.

While it's true that we can only react to most natural problems, the hard-floor maintenance professional should also focus on problems that can be prepared for or prevent. Most of these problems are man-made.

Hard-surface floors do not change once they are manufactured; they remain the same and they stay where they are placed. They will react to the natural influences they are subjected to, but they are what they are, so how can hard surface floors have problems?

The answer is simple: They don't. We do. Most problems that occur with hard surface flooring are caused by people. Floors are manufactured, sold, installed, maintained and removed by human beings and, odds are, it is human error in one form or another that is usually the culprit creating flooring problems.

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