Installation Update - June 2012
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By Brian Hamilton
The installation of floorcovering is widely recognized as one of the most critical links in the chain that runs from the initial floorcovering sale to the next one. Gaps between wood planks, uneven tiles or ripples in carpet can sour a customer on purchasing from the same vendor again or perhaps even move the consumer away from using that type of flooring, especially if the problems are not dealt with to the customer’s satisfaction. A few of the problems can be blamed on installers, but many of them have their roots elsewhere.
It’s also true that while many homeowners and business owners assume that their floorcovering will be installed correctly, they often have no idea if the people coming to do the job know what they’re doing or what their professional relationship is to the retailer or commercial contractor. Unlike for an electrician or plumber, there generally aren’t any licensing requirements and the barrier to entry is low. And it’s not necessarily easy to find a highly skilled installer, even if you go looking for one. For example, the National Wood Flooring Association had four certified installers listed for the entire state of Tennessee, but none in Chattanooga, where Floor Focus is located. The only certified laminate installer listed for the entire state of Tennessee on the North American Laminate Flooring Association website was in Nashville, a good two-hour drive from Chattanooga.
A big part of the problem is that the installation trade itself is so disjointed and scattered and it doesn’t speak with anything resembling a strong, unified voice. While there’s widespread acknowledgement of the need to train and certify installers more effectively, the efforts to do so are a hodgepodge at best. There are organizations like the Certified Floorcovering Installers, which has dedicated itself to training and certifying installers in all types of floorcovering, but it trains only a small percentage of installers. The mills and some associations, as well as the unions, also facilitate or provide training. But most training comes from on-the-job experience.
Training isn’t the only problem facing the industry.
For example, a pervasive problem is that many installers aren’t being paid much more than they were ten years ago. It’s a race to the bottom as far as pay goes, because installers often have to undercut each other just to get business, especially in today’s hyper-competitive conditions. This, among other things, means an installer might not have enough money or time to travel to a training class in order to stay up to date on techniques or products. It might also encourage installers to cut corners in order to cut costs. It’s true that a good, experienced installer working for the right company in the right area can still make a good living, but it’s not the general rule. This could change quickly if the construction market begins to take off and there aren’t enough installers available, which could push wages higher.
A growing problem for commercial flooring installers in new construction is the compression of the construction schedule—in other words, buildings today are being constructed much more quickly, and installers almost have to work on top of each other and much faster to meet deadlines imposed by general contractors.
“Every general contractor today is trying to complete jobs in fewer days,” says Mike Roberts of Bonitz Flooring Group in Knoxville, Tennessee and an executive board member of FCICA, the flooring contractors association.
Often, he says, “the heat’s not on, the doors aren’t on, so it’s hard to do moisture testing.” A conflict arises when a flooring installer tells a general contractor that the building isn’t ready and the product warranty will be void without a proper moisture test. In addition, installers often have to work long nights and weekends. “It’s becoming a huge issue in the industry. General contractors tout that they can do a job in a certain number of days, but the subs on the back end just get beat up. This has been going on for a decade, but it’s getting worse.” Right now, Roberts says, there aren’t any good options for contractors facing this kind of situation.
Another factor affecting the industry in general is that it isn’t attracting enough young people into the profession to replace older workers who are slowly leaving the field or have already left due to the economy. Experts say this is due to a number of factors, including poor pay and the considerable physical demands of the work.
On a positive note, one difficult industry issue may be on its way to a fix. The National Tile Contractors Association, the National Wood Flooring Association and FCICA have all endorsed a position paper put together by the American Society of Concrete Contractors that deals with the flatness of concrete floors, which are usually subfloors for the final flooring. The problem is that a concrete floor may be flat when it’s initially installed but it has a tendency to curl as it dries, which can cause problems for flooring installers. This has been a bone of contention for years and has caused more than one lawsuit. Their position is that in every case a bid allowance should be made to allow for grinding or patching as necessary. Now the challenge is to educate designers, owners, and others involved in the bid process.
Below are issues facing individual flooring types.
The big news in the carpet industry is that the bulk of the work toward the formulation of an ANSI installation standard, known cryptically as BSR-IICRC S600, has been completed. The Institute of Inspection Cleaning and Restoration Certification is developing the standard with funding from the World Floor Covering Association and the Carpet and Rug Institute.
IICRC was approached to set up and monitor the development process because it was experienced and already had the infrastructure to develop ANSI standards, which are voluntary but generally have a significant impact on the industries they address.
CRI’s 104 and 105 standards, which were replaced last year by a combined residential/commercial standard, served as a starting point, but the new ANSI standard will represent a significant overhaul. Up to 100 different people from virtually every facet of the carpet industry have been involved to some extent, from serving on the consensus body to working on individual chapters.
While CRI’s current and previous standard described what to do, the new ANSI standard will also be accompanied by an extensive reference guide that gets into much more detail about how to achieve the various end results. In fact the reference guide is actually the basis for the standard. Areas where words like “must”, “shall” or “will” are used are pulled out and used as the basis of the standard.
As this is written, a reference guide has been completed and is in the editing phase. The whole process could be completed by early next year.
The impetus for the change, according to Shaw’s Carey Mitchell, who was one of the early advocates, came from the recognition that the carpet industry was losing marketshare, combined with research that showed consumers would gladly pay more for a quality installation job. In addition, the carpet mills needed to stop subsidizing bad installations.
The standard will almost certainly become the basis for training and certification programs. And the longer term goal, probably several years out, is for the standard to become part of the carpet warranty system, which will put pressure on retailers to use installers with better training.
“One of the things that excites me is we’ve got a good model of how to build on it,” Mitchell says. “In the cleaning industry, training and certification are highly valued and they’re willing to spend a lot of money for it and have the infrastructure to support the schools, certification and testing. Installation doesn’t have any of that. If you’ve got to train 100,000 installers, where do you go? Well, older installers could build training businesses, there’s a lot of new business opportunity. But you’ve got to create demand, and that’s where the retailer comes in. The mills have to push this. It’s going to be a slow process.”
A parallel objective of the standard is to draw more people into the installation trade by elevating its importance, which should result in higher pay.
Certified installation has become a major focus within the U.S. tile industry in the past several years. Bart Bettiga, executive director of the National Tile Contractors Association (NTCA), says the most prevalent issue facing his industry today is the continued use of unqualified labor, which leads to an increase in failures and a loss of future sales.
“Tile installation is a craft that takes years of training and field experience, and unfortunately many people are working on projects that they’re not prepared to successfully complete,” Bettiga says.
In addition, he says, many companies with a proven track record in tile installation can’t charge enough in today’s environment to make a profit. “Work is being bid at rates that are literally impossible to expect a quality installation. It is the most significant problem in our industry today.”
The non-profit Ceramic Tile Education Foundation is a primary training and certification agency for the domestic tile industry (non-union) and it works closely with organizations like the NTCA to address installation concerns.
Educating the people who hire installers has been a renewed focus. This year, for the first time, the Tile Council’s handbook has included a section that emphasizes the importance of hiring a skilled installer, and lists the groups that have company recognition, training and certification programs.
“The driving factor should not be price, but the talent to do the work,” says Stephanie Samulski, project manager for the Tile Council of North America. “This is the first time we’ve said anything about the quality of the labor.” The Education Foundation also offers a contractor questionnaire to help screen potential installers.
Bettiga says that similar language was also included in the MasterSpec document published by ARCOM. It’s a widely used master specification system used by engineers, architects and specification writers.
“The International Masonry Institute was instrumental in assisting us to get this language approved,” Bettiga says. “It is our hope that these efforts will help us to get this language inserted into national accounts and specialized projects. At a minimum, we are stressing to the architect, designer, builder or project owner how important it is to have a means of verifying that the installer can prove that they have the ability to successfully install the tile or stone specified on a particular project.”
Another issue, Bettiga says, is that changing technology is rolled out into the marketplace before a standard can be written for installers to follow. He cited the example of thin, very large format tiles with very narrow grout lines that are frequently being used.
“This is why it is so important that the NTCA becomes a vehicle to disseminate the information and help the contractor to understand the technology and assist them in training their field superintendents and installers,” Bettiga says.
While the Ceramic Tile Education Foundation was initially focused on training, it has also become more involved in certification. It holds training events at distributors around the country. It has one level of certification, CTF Certified Tile Installer, which requires passing a written online test and a hands-on test, the latter making up 75% of the score. The day-long hands-on test includes installing both wall and floor tile, backer board and grout, and about 50 items are graded.
Almost every installation problem that occurs is the result of several problems compounded, at least half of which the contractor/installer has no control over, Samulski says. These range from the wrong specified material to building schedules or interior temperatures that aren’t conducive to tile installation.
Installation training classes sponsored by the National Wood Flooring Association are about half the size they used to be, these days attracting about 400 students annually, mostly because of the depressed economy, says Frank Kroupa, senior director of technical training for the NWFA.
NWFA is the primary source of formal training and certification for wood flooring installers in the U.S. It holds 12 schools in Las Vegas and 12 schools at its home base in St. Louis. Nevertheless, NWFA only represents about 10% of installers. The association has a hard time reaching subcontractor installers that work for independent retailers, where they might also be installing carpet and resilient, Kroupa says.
“There’s a lot of underemployment,” among installers, Kroupa says. And that keeps installers from attending NWFA training. A few scholarships from manufacturers and distributors are available for each class, but not enough to meet demand, and most of those businesses can’t afford to provide more right now. In addition, he says, a lot of installers have gotten out of the business, and pay in general is no better than it was ten years ago.
That will create a problem eventually if housing construction turns around significantly.
“We have had this problem forever,” Kroupa says. “When things pick up, we’re scrambling. It takes two or three years to train a floor person, and that lag time can be difficult.”
The acclimation of wood at the jobsite is still probably the biggest technical issue installers face, Kroupa says.
“A lot of prefinished manufacturers say to leave the flooring for three days and then install it, but that’s not enough,” Kroupa says. “Sometimes it takes four or five weeks to acclimate.” The problem, he says, is installers often have no idea where the wood has been. In addition, prefinished wood is packaged tightly, which makes it even more difficult for the wood to take on moisture.
“We have all the information, it’s just a matter of getting it out there for individuals,” Kroupa says.
It might seem logical that the development of prefinished engineered flooring, often with click systems, has made it easier for homeowners to install flooring themselves. But that’s not necessarily true. A homeowner might be able to handle a perfectly square room, but beyond that installation gets far more complicated. In addition, the new finishes require more careful handling, Kroupa says.
“Some guys make a good living cleaning up after others,” Kroupa adds.
About half of all laminate flooring is installed by professionals, estimates Ron Starkey of laminate maker Torlys, who’s also a certified trainer for the North American Laminate Flooring Association. He describes laminate installation as “a dying trade, unfortunately.”
“When I started, I was in the carpenters’ union and spent four years working with a mechanic,” Starkey says. “There’s no training like that now.” He also notes that there are few young people getting into laminate installation and “there’s no type of training that encourages young people to get into the business.”
When laminate was first introduced, it was a glue-down product and wasn’t easy to install despite marketing to the do-it-yourself crowd. Today, all laminate is constructed with a glueless click system, which has made it easier to install and has had the effect of depressing prices paid for professional installation.
“I understand that, but as an installer for 40 years it irritates me that consumers don’t want to pay for quality installation,” Starkey says. The big box stores, where much laminate is sold today, also don’t want to pay installers much.
Laminate has essentially become a commodity, Starkey says, that’s all aimed at the DIY market, and that’s not likely to change. Cheap imported laminate has made it difficult for domestic producers to compete, and has also made it more difficult for installers, who often have to deal with varying kinds of core material and joints that don’t fit together well.
“Some guys have refused to install really inexpensive laminate,” Starkey says.
NALFA offers certification training, this year with four classes around the country.
“I think the industry needs to take a look at the inspection end of the industry and see how business is done,” Starkey says. “There are tons of inspector schools that offer training in wood and laminate and they’ll train you on subfloor moisture and all kinds of things. But there aren’t a lot of installation schools. Unless you get training, the industry isn’t going to get better.” Starkey also says he’d like to see manufacturers put money into a fund for scholarships to make the cost more reasonable for installers.
The Resilient Floor Covering Institute offers a fair amount of information about installation on its website, but the organization does not offer training. Most training of resilient installers is done through the manufacturers, along with groups like CFI and the unions.
“All commercial manufacturers offer training and it’s up to the good installers to take advantage of that,” says John Kozak, manager of technical support for Johnsonite. “We are more than happy to help those who come to us and say they want to sharpen their skills.” Kozak says that flooring contractors should treat their installation crews the same way they treat, for example, their accountants who need to stay up to date on tax laws. “They should invite manufacturers to come in and give talks. We love to go out there and meet with the installation community. We’d rather do that.”
With the increasing popularity of luxury vinyl tile, resilient flooring installation is requiring greater skill, Kozak says. That’s because end users are more frequently choosing high performance flooring, which means they’re also being more selective and are ultimately more critical of the final product. Installers, among many other things, need to know how to create a very flat underlayment, so the final floor can be buffed effectively. Thorough subfloor preparation is the key to every installation.
Kozak also says that not enough young people are entering the trade.
“It’s not so much the pay—if they’re skilled they can make a good living—but the work is hard and respect for the professional isn’t there.”
The floorcovering installation industry isn’t likely to rise significantly in stature or overall quality until wages increase, as homeowners and business owners become as insistent about installation before the fact as they are about purchasing the right product in the first place. Nothing can ruin a flooring purchase like a shoddy installation, whether the problem lies with the installers or factors beyond their control, yet a little planning can go a long way toward ensuring a successful installation.
Flooring is ultimately no different from any other building material. It takes just as much skill and knowledge to install a floor, for example, as it does to put on a roof. Planks, sheets, rolls and boxes of squares or rectangles of flooring are no different from squares of shingles until they’re installed by a trained professional. And while your roof might leak the day it’s installed, a flooring problem might not manifest itself for months or years.
Copyright 2012 Floor Focus