Resilient Floor Maintenance: Maintaining Linoleum Floor Coverings

November 11, 2004
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They're back, bigger than ever, and they still have the same old cleaning issues. If you haven't noticed, linoleum floor coverings are having a revival.

To this day, many people refer to all rolled or sheet products as linoleum; this could not be further from the truth. Linoleum is manufactured from all natural ingredients and, because of this, requires special attention when it comes to selecting cleaning and coating chemicals for maintaining it.

Identification
The easiest way to identify a linoleum floor covering is to ask the customer. If they don't know, look at the back of the product. If it is pressed on to jute backing, chances are it is going to be linoleum. But the floor covering will usually already 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.

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.

Maintenance of Linoleum
The question is often asked whether there is any difference between maintaining vinyl-type products and linoleum. Although similar methods of maintenance are used, there is some concern and special care that should be taken when maintaining linoleum floor coverings.

Linoleum floors are more sensitive to chemicals and abrasives. Maintenance of linoleum should be strictly in accordance with the manufacturer's recommendations. The use of high-pH strippers and cleaners may damage any floor surface, but the effect of strong alkaline cleaners on linoleum is much more apparent. Frequent use of these types of chemicals without rinsing can cause cracking, shrinking and possible discoloration. Aggressive stripping chemicals can leave the surface rough to the touch and very porous because the chemical has etched into the binder of the linoleum.

Linoleum floors have a tendency to be susceptible to damage due to over-wetting. Water can attack the oils in unsealed linoleum, or seep into the backing, causing it to rot. If the floor is properly sealed, these problems will be minimal unless the floor is completely saturated and left to stand for long periods of time.

Initial Maintenance
When the linoleum floor is installed, you must first clean it and apply protection to the surface using appropriate seals and finishes. Check with the manufacturer to determine what would be the best product to use. The use of water-based polymeric-type floor finishes is recommended.

After installation, most manufacturers have a recommended time frame for allowing the adhesive to cure before any hard-floor maintenance is performed. Check the manufacturer's specification sheet to find the time frame; the general accepted curing time is about 72 hours, but that may vary from one manufacturing company to another. The initial maintenance process requires removal of all surface soil, debris, sand and grit. This is also a good time to remove any adhesive or labels that may be adhered to the floor.

After the superficial soil and material has been removed, a neutral cleaner solution is mixed, following the manufacturer's recommended dilution ratio, and lightly applied to the floor.

Scrub the surface using a 175-rpm rotary floor machine or automatic scrubber to remove any embedded soils or heavy soiling that occurred during installation.

Remember, this is the first time the floor will have coatings on it; it is imperative that the surface is clean before coatings are applied. Attach an abrasive pad(s) or brush(es) to the pad holder(s) for the rotary floor machine or automatic scrubber. Use the least-abrasive pad that will remove the soiling; generally, red, blue or green will accomplish the task.

You may be asked to only mop the floor and apply the coating. This may not create a problem, but before doing it be sure to get a signed waiver from the contractor ensuring you will not be held liable if the floor finish does not adhere to the floor covering. It is much better and produces better results when you machine-scrub the floor to ensure that the surface is free of soiling.

After machine-scrubbing, remove the solution using a wet vacuum. Rinse the floor thoroughly to remove any chemical residue. Detail any applicable areas. Perform a final damp-mop to remove excess water. Allow the floor to dry naturally, or expedite the drying time using an air mover.

Once the floor is dry, examine it for any soiling before application of floor seals or finishes. If there are any adjustments that need to be made, this is the time to make them. After all adjustments have been made, applications of floor coatings can be applied. If you have selected a hard-floor maintenance chemical coating system that requires a sealer, apply it first.

Apply a light-to-moderate even, consistent coat over the entire area using a designated clean-mop or applicator. Once the first coat has completely dried, apply another coat at a 90-degree angle to the first, cross-thatching for better coverage. Apply the desired number of seal coats, then switch to finish coats and apply the desired number of coats to achieve the preferred level of gloss.

If gloss is not important and all that is required is a matte- or satin-finish look, you may only need to apply two coats of seal/finish. If you are looking for a more brilliant shine, multiple coats of seal/finish may be required. Remember, you are applying your foundation; it may seem like a lot of work up front, but it will save time on routine and periodic maintenance in the future.

Sheet vinyl can be mistaken for linoleum; check carefully.
Daily/Routine Maintenance
Daily or routine maintenance for linoleum floor coverings consists of removing debris, soil, dirt and dust. This is generally accomplished using the sweeping or dust-mopping service procedures, but can also be accomplished by vacuuming.

Spot-mopping should take place as soon as possible after spills; take care not to leave spills sitting on the surface for long periods of time. Damp-mopping or one of the wet-mopping service procedures should be sufficient to remove organic soils that are not picked up in the dry-service procedures.

Periodic Maintenance
Periodic maintenance for linoleum floor coverings will incorporate light scrubbing for superficial soils in light-traffic conditions, medium scrubbing for average soiling condition in which soil has adhered or bonded to the floor finish, and heavy scrubbing, which should be done with the utmost caution due to the properties of the floor covering.

Salvage/Restorative Maintenance
The salvage/restorative maintenance for linoleum floors is the strip-and-re-finish service procedure. This is the most critical service procedure performed linoleum floor coverings, and it can damage the floor covering if not done correctly.

Thoroughly dust the floor with a dust mop to remove all dirt, dust and debris. Use a putty knife or razor scraper to remove gum, labels, tags or other items that may be stuck to the floor.

Before beginning the procedure, make sure that all chemicals are approved for use on linoleum floor coverings. Mix the approved linoleum stripping chemical and water in accordance with the manufacturer's recommended dilution ratios (adjust mixture proportionate to stripping required). Wear safety glasses or goggles when pouring stripper solution. Apply a liberal amount of stripping solution to a manageable floor area.

Allow the solution to dwell for 10 or more minutes, but do not allow solution to dry. Agitate the solution with a blue or green pad or the equivalent brush. In heavy build-up situations it may be necessary to use a more aggressive pad or brush. On the initial pass, a used brown or black pad will generally have enough abrasives to work, but use it only on initial pass. Do not use a new black, brown or high-productivity pad or brush on linoleum, as they could cause abrasive damage. Because of the restriction of chemicals and pads, it will most likely take several applications of stripper solution and passes over the floor to accomplish the objective.

Pull the solution from edges, corners and hard-to-get areas to a central area using the 12-inch window squeegee on a handle. Pick up stripper slurry with a wet vacuum. Detail the edges, corners and baseboards using an edging tool and the appropriate pads. When detailing these areas by hand, wear rubber gloves. Rinse the floor with a neutralizer/conditioner or fresh water, one moderate rinse followed by additional rinses until the floor is free of stripper residue. Use an air mover to dry the floor. Be sure the floor is completely dry, then inspect it; if finish is still present, strip the area again. If stripper residue is still present on the floor, rinse the floor again.

Once the floor has been properly prepared, apply the floor seal and/or finish. Application of floor finishes to linoleum floor coverings can be difficult. Linoleum is sold as an all-natural product and, as such, the natural look of the product is desirable.

The application of one or two coats delivers the matte or satin look; however it is difficult to achieve without streaking. Multiple coats of seal and/or finish will eliminate the streaks, but the floor may then have more gloss than the customer wants. Discuss these possibilities with the customer prior to performing the service.

After completing the application of floor seals and/or finishes, the floor may be buffed or burnished if high gloss is desired (it is not recommended to use a propane buffing machine on linoleum floor coverings). Always dust-mop the floor after burnishing to remove debris, dirt and dust that will be blown out from behind obstacles.

Learning to identify linoleum and its characteristics can help you to avoid potential liabilities for damaging the product when performing services on them. Always take heed of the manufacturer's recommended maintenance methods when providing service on linoleum.

Seek out information and training if you want to pursue maintenance of linoleum floor coverings. There are relatively few technicians who really know how to maintain this product, creating opportunities for those who are willing to learn.

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