The Backing Business - January 2011

By Darius Helm


With the sluggish economy, the backing business is less dynamic than in previous years. However, raw material price increases coupled with overcapacity driven by weak demand have put pressure on independent backing producers, and there are signs of significant shifts in marketshare among the top players.

While the pace of innovation has also slowed, the backing industry has not stood still. Specialty backing producers continue to come up with unique solutions to improve performance and increase the sustainability of their products, even though many of the more ambitious programs have been temporarily shelved.

Much of the pressure has come from low cost woven backings from overseas—for instance, Midde East polypropylene prices are currently more than 10% lower than domestic prices—along with gains by younger domestic firms and even carpet mills with internal backing production that have been selling product on the market. This has forced independent marketshare leaders like Propex to focus on the added value, brand equity and expertise that they bring to their customers.

The outlook for this year is modest growth at best, with no real recovery expected until 2012. Backing producers are focusing on maximizing the efficiency of their operations to keep margins as healthy as possible.

Over the last decade, the two biggest carpet mills, Shaw and Mohawk, have vertically integrated through the acquisition of independent backing businesses, and this has profoundly changed the landscape of the industry. Overall, specialty backing producers of, for example, cushioned products, have fared better than producers of woven primary and secondary backings.

Among carpet mills with in-house backing production, most of the developments have been in the arena of sustainability, particularly among the commercial mills. Reclaimed carpet is a growing source of raw material for backing systems, and bio-based products like soy polyols continue to gain traction—and that’s also true for independent specialty backing producers.

In recent years, the synthetic turf industry has shown good growth, though it has slowed over the last couple of years. But over the long term, that market is expected to grow, both in sports applications and in landscaping. Synthetic turf in both commercial and residential landscaping applications no longer struggles against negative perceptions, thanks in part to developments in the look and performance of artificial turf systems. Hospitality markets like Las Vegas and residential markets throughout the Southwest, where water comes at a premium, have embraced the trend. The biggest barrier in those sectors lies in the upfront cost of the turf, despite the favorable profile of the overall lifecycle costs.

Shaw Industries makes its backings in-house, from its woven primary and secondary backings for its residential broadloom and much of its commercial broadloom to its EcoWorx polyolefin backing for its carpet tile, and more recently for its commercial broadloom offering. The firm’s EcoLogix cushion tile features much of the same chemistry as EcoWorx, but with a PET pad on the bottom.

On the commercial side, Shaw is best known for EcoWorx, which was launched in 1998 and passed the billion square foot mark last summer. EcoWorx was introduced to the commercial broadloom side of the business a couple of years ago, and it comes in two forms: EcoWorx Performance Broadloom, which features an impervious moisture barrier; and EcoWorx Broadloom for standard applications. EcoWorx products are fully recyclable and also feature high recycled content. For a 20 ounce face weight, EcoWorx tiles feature about 40% recycled content, a quarter of which is post-consumer. EcoWorx Performance Broadloom with a 28 ounce face weight features at least 10% post-consumer content, all from the backing. As more carpet is reclaimed, recycled contents will steadily rise.

Most of Shaw’s carpet tile is hardback, but for cushioned tile, the firm’s EcoLogix backing also has a strong green story, with at least 44% recycled content, of which a minimum of 16% is post-consumer. That additional post-consumer content is from the pad, made of reclaimed PET bottles.

The firm recently came out with a couple of specialty backings for its marine division. Shaw Unitary Marine Back, designed for direct gluedown carpet, uses a latex backing application that locks the tufts on the top side and glues directly to the subfloor on the bottom.

Also new is NuWave Bac, designed for loose-lay applications that are generally snapped to the floor of the boat. The carpets for cockpit areas and the like, with bounded edges customized to fit the space and holes and slits for equipment and storage structures, require a stronger glue to maintain tuft bind with constant water underflow. To achieve the necessary performance, Shaw developed with a patent pending urethane chemistry and a proprietary construction with serpentine grooves to channel the water.

Tandus Flooring, which serves the commercial market with carpet tile, six-foot Powerbond and broadloom, offers a range of innovative carpet backings. Ethos, developed for Powerbond in 2004 and composed of 98% polyvinyl butyrate, a polymer salvaged from the laminating layer in post consumer safety glass, is now also used on carpet tile. Those backings are recyclable either into new Ethos or into ER3, the firm’s 100% recycled PVC based backing.

ER3 is Tandus’ standard modular backing, and about three years ago the firm came out with another PVC modular backing called Conserve that uses 25% less material and comes at a better price point.

On the broadloom side, Tandus’ standard woven backings use an enriched latex called Superloc, though the firm also offers a higher performance acrylic based binder called LifeLong that conveys an overall post-industrial recycled content of 28% to 37%. ErgoStep, the firm’s attached polyurethane cushion for broadloom, features a felt base made from recycled polyester along with soy polyols from Cargill for 8% to 10% post-consumer and 2% to 3% rapidly renewable content of the total weight of the carpet.

InterfaceFlor, the biggest commercial tile producer in the market, does mostly PVC hardback tile called GlasBac, which has 68% post-industrial content. Carpet reclaimed through the firm’s ReEntry process is separated, and the backing component goes through the firm’s Cool Blue technology to create GlasBac RE, which is 100% recycled (half post-consumer and half post-industrial). 

Currently, GlasBac accounts for over 80% of the firm’s carpet tile, while GlasBac RE accounts for 14%, up from 9% a year ago. The firm’s goal is to built GlasBac RE up to 25% of the total on the current line before adding more Cool Blue machinery.

Then there are the TacTiles, the 3”x3” polyester cards that attach carpet tiles to each other on the backing, replacing adhesive. They can be used for any application except for sloped floors, and they not only make installation and reclamation simpler, but they significantly reduce the environmental burden of carpet tile systems. This year, InterfaceFlor anticipates selling over 20 million TacTiles.

J+J/Invision, which recently announced its acquisition of Templeton, a hospitality carpet specialist, goes to market with both carpet tile and broadloom. The firm has two hardback carpet tile options, as well as a cushion backed option that accounts for only a small percentage of its sales. Eko, the firm’s polyethylene backing is certified Platinum under NSF-140. Nexus, the PVC backing, which weighs over 50% more than Eko, has not yet been certified. 

On the broadloom side, the firm’s PremierBac Plus and TitanBac Plus are both certified Gold under NSF-140, and both feature a minimum 10% post-consumer content.

California’s Bentley Prince Street, which targets the commercial market with both carpet tile and broadloom, has been offering a polyurethane cushion called NexStep as its standard carpet tile backing since the early 1990s. The backing features 18% post-consumer content in the form of glass filler along with 10% bio-based content through the use of soy polyols, and the polyethylene chip laminating layer that sandwiches the backing to the face includes 18% post-consumer content from asphalt recycling.

In addition, Bentley Prince Street is just finishing up beta trials of a polyethylene hardback tile that should launch later this quarter. The backing system uses the same polyethylene and asphalt laminating layer, and the backing itself features 54% post-consumer content, also from asphalt. The firm is in the process of certifying the hardback tile, which should have a total post-consumer content of 25% for the average tile.

On the broadloom side, last summer the firm started adding recycled content to Optimum Barrier II, its broadloom moisture barrier. The waste material, called B2B, is calcium carbonate recaptured from the latex waste stream of recycled carpet, and it’s sourced through LA Fibers. B2B accounts for 25% of Bentley’s latex formulation, so it comes to 8% to 12% of the total weight of the product, depending on the face weight.

Toward the end of last year, Beaulieu made changes to its Nexterra carpet tile, making it more flexible and easier to install. The modification to the polymer formula of the NSF-140 Platinum certified product does not impact its environmental profile, which includes 40% post-consumer content from PET bottles. Nexterra continues be a growth engine at Beaulieu, and last October the firm completed an expansion to add Nexterra capacity.

Though Nexterra remains Bealieu’s standard tile backing, at NeoCon 2010 the firm introduced an alternative backing system called TacFast. The backing system uses the LocPlate substrate, currently made of polypropylene, that is composed of 24”x24” Hook Plates—covered in tiny catches reminiscent of Velcro that attach to the soft fabric backing of the tiles—along with circular Connector Discs that attach the plates to each other. It’s a great solution for applications with moisture problems or where subfloors are uneven. Another advantage is that it allows the floor to be disassembled and moved to a new space.

Milliken makes both carpet tile and broadloom, and it is one of the few firms that puts all of its products on cushion backed polyurethane. All, that is, except the products from its recent Constantine acquisition. While cushioned carpet is somewhat pricier than hardback goods, Milliken feels that the thermal properties, noise reduction and comfort underfoot represent a better value proposition. According to the firm, the only commercial sectors that tend to avoid it are acute care and assisted living, where there’s heavy rolling traffic. 

All of Milliken’s cushioned backings are Dow Enhancer, sourced through Textile Rubber. The firm started doing cushioned backings in North America in 1985, and had fully exited the hardback market by 2000.

The three largest carpet producers now make more than enough primary and secondary backings to satisfy their own needs, especially now that carpet demand has fallen to its current level. As a result the independent producers are left with a smaller slice of the business, particularly on the commodity (non-specialty) side of the business. 

One of the most innovative backing firms, Universal Textile Technologies (UTT), has begun targeting the residential market with its environmentally friendly products. The firm’s claim to fame is its BioCel and EnviroCel backing technologies, which use materials like soy polyols and coal fly ash on a range of commercial backings. Also, the firm’s PET secondary backings are 100% recycled. Combined bio-based and recycled content runs from 65% to about 90%, and is third-party certified by Scientific Certification Systems (SCS).

Over the last year, the firm introduced its EnviroCel Laminate Home backing, and it’s already available at over 5,500 dealers across the nation. The lightweight high-performance backing system features the same environmental attributes as the firm’s commercial EnviroCel. 

Also new is BioCel Laminate Plus, a lighter weight and more cost effective version of BioCel Laminate that is dematerialized by over a pound per square yard (going from 60-63 ounces down to 43 ounces). The backing still uses the polyurethane precoat but the bonding technology is Extruded Fiberization, like on EnviroCel Laminate Plus, which not only adds delamination strength but also increases flexibility and pliability. The BioCel line, which is strictly for the commercial market, features a moisture barrier, while EnviroCel is moisture resistant and better suited to hospitality, retail and mainstreet applications. The EnviroCel products are also used in assisted living and EnviroCel Cushion has a strong position through the GSA in military housing.

This quarter, the firm is introducing a residential cushion tile, and a few of its customers have already started running it. UTT is also taking its innovative approach to the artificial turf market through three affiliated companies: SynLawn, AstroTurf and EcoPath (see last month’s Greenbuild report).

Propex Operating Company has been the largest independent backing producer in the U.S. for many years, thanks to the success of prominent brands like Actionbac and Polybac. The firm’s woven primary and secondary backing systems are widely used in both the commercial and residential markets, where volume is split about evenly. Propex used to be the marketshare leader in the residential market, but over the last several years firms like Shaw and Mohawk have acquired backing firms and moved their residential capacity in-house.

Propex manufactures from 11 facilities across three continents, and its U.S. backing facilities are located in Ringgold and Hazlehurst, Georgia. In addition to the residential and commercial backing markets, the firm is also targeting the artificial turf business, which it sees as a long-term growth market. 

Propex has been focusing on what differentiates it in the U.S. market and how it can add value for its customers and help them win in the marketplace. Its clear advantages include brand equity, domestic supply, and technical expertise from its seasoned professionals. 

Propex is also investing in innovation. Last March, the firm was awarded a U.S. patent related to secondary carpet backing material construction, and moving forward is planning on introducing new primary and secondary backing products, as well as an artificial turf product, later this year. Another major focus for the firm is primary backings in the commercial carpet tile market. 

Mattex continues to be the fastest growing player in the U.S. market. The Saudi firm makes a wide range of primary polypropylene backings out of its operations in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia and Dubai, and has been in the market for about six years. Over the last year, the firm’s U.S. business grew by about 30%, most of that in the residential market, though it showed gains in the commercial market as well. In addition to those two markets, about a third of Mattex’s U.S. business is in artificial turf backings.

Mattex’s share gains are due to a number of factors, including new equipment, lower cost labor and energy, no corporate taxes or duties, and a raw material price advantage.

The big news at Mattex is that it’s expanding, having acquired 1.3 million square feet of land in Saudi Arabia about a year ago where it is building two new operations. The first, a needle-punched nonwoven facility largely targeting the geotextile markets, should be up and running by the third quarter of this year. 

Once the second facility is operational, which should be in the first quarter of 2012, it will be the firm’s biggest woven manufacturing plant, vastly increasing overall capacity. The facility will also propel Mattex’s entry into the secondary backing business—the facility will make both primary and secondary polypropylene backings. 

The U.S. and the Middle East are Mattex’s two biggest markets, with the faster growth coming from the U.S. market. Also growing fast is the Asian market. Europe is Mattex’s third biggest market, though the firm has been strategic in its business in that region, based on capacity. However, with the new facility coming on line in 2012, Mattex anticipates taking more share in that market as well.

One of the firms with the broadest range of backing options is Textile Rubber and Chemical Company (TRCC), which supplies the carpet and synthetic turf markets with latex backing chemicals, polyurethane chemicals and backing systems, thermoplastic resins, and specialty chemicals. The firm’s Polymer Technology Group Division has fully integrated its 2009 acquisition of Applied Coating Technology, a Dalton based latex supply company, and is actively investing in the research and development of new polymers to add to its SBR latex and Durogan rubber backing systems to enhance value and performance.

TRCC’s participation in the synthetic turf market is through its Polyurethane Group Division, and that group also serves the carpet tile market. Its residential and commercial attached polyurethane backings—under brand names like KangaBack, KangaTrac, KangaHyde, KangaGold and Epic—now feature third-party certification by SCS for 30% post-consumer content and 10% bio-based content.

The firm’s ThermoTex Division has come out with the Phoenix series of 100% recyclable backing systems for broadloom and carpet tile. The existing ThermoTex technology, including both hardback and cushion tile, is already fully recyclable, but the precoat, precoat/laminate and capcoat compounds of the Phoenix series add significant post-consumer content to these backings. Broadloom that uses the Phoenix precoat instead of latex yields backings with 20% post-consumer content, while the Phoenix technology on hardback carpet tile features backings with 37% post-consumer content. Cushion carpet tile using the Phoenix precoat/laminate along with stabilized cushion composite from the Polyurethane Group Division bring the backing post-consumer content to 15.3%, along with 8.7% post-industrial content and 4.2% rapidly renewable content.

Dow Chemical Company, which licenses its technology to Textile Rubber as a commissioned finisher, is best known for its Enhancer and Enforcer polyurethane backing technologies. Dow’s polyurethane technology, applied in liquid form, generates a backing that impedes liquid penetration balanced by breathability from the bottom up, and the strong bond locks fibers to prevent zippering and unraveling, and fuses the backing to the carpet even under the most punishing conditions.

Enhancer is the cushioned backing, which is attached to broadloom or tile, or even synthetic turf, for enhanced durability, and it can also be used as a high performance underlayment. Enforcer is the non-cushioned compact backing system, also for tile, broadloom or turf, which conveys dimensional stability. Mills with coating capabilities can attach the backings in-house. Other mills use Textile Rubber as a commissioned finisher.

Enhancer and Enforcer also feature post-consumer content in the form of ground glass, reclaimed carpet and synthetic turf, with content in Enhancer as high as 50% of the final polymer weight, and as high as 70% with Enforcer. Dow has also used post-industrial content from coal fly ash to achieve 75% recycled content by weight of the final polymer.

Another major player in the backing business is Carpet and Rug Backing and Supplies (CRB), which started out strictly as a distributor of backings. However, its acquisition of Nexcel Synthetics in February 2007, a strategic move in reaction to volume supply impacts from the acquisition of independent backing producers by the likes of Shaw and Mohawk, turned CRB into a producer of both primary and secondary woven polypropylene backings. The firm still distributes backings from other manufacturers, but now the bulk of what it distributes is from its own production.

Over the last few years, CRB has also added looms to build capacity and has also shifted its ratio toward primary backings to meet demand.

CRB saw business grow last year, with units up by nearly double digits, though a more modest growth rate is anticipated for this year. All indications are that raw material pricing will increase this year, further squeezing margins. The firm is focusing on streamlining its operation to navigate the competitive market, including minimizing waste and maximizing efficiencies. CRB has pretty much eliminated waste to landfill by recapturing and regrinding waste, and repelletizing some of it. 

CRB also serves the synthetic turf market, targeting both the sports facilities side and the landscaping sector, which is a long-term growth market.

Last summer, Dow Chemical sold one of its business divisions, Styron, to Bain Capital Partners. Styron is a leading supplier of the latex adhesive that is used to hold the multiple layers of carpet together with the face fiber.

One of Styron’s most high profile programs is its Lomax Technology, which produces latex using methane piped from the Dalton landfill. Carpet mills using Lomax latex include Mohawk on the residential side, and J+J/Invision, Blueridge, Atlas, Masland Contract and Bigelow on the commercial side. The Lomax program, which is two-and-a-half years old, reduces CO2 emissions by 17 million pounds a year.

The biggest development at Styron is its Enversa Cushion Technology, a carboxylated latex process that avoids the use of a range of typical chemicals in vulcanization chemistries, including sulfur, zinc, heavy metals and nitrosamines. Enversa can be used in a range of applications, including attached cushion, underlayment and bath mats. It’s already being used by customers in the U.K. and Canada, and Styron anticipates many more partners joining up this year. The rising price of natural rubber, which makes Enversa more cost competitive, is helping the new technology gain traction.

Omnova, another major latex producer, mostly serves the broadloom side of the carpet industry, and the bulk of its product goes to the commercial sector. Its ammonia free products have strong wet strength and are formulated to more readily and rapidly disperse the calcium carbonate filler, yielding a more reliable, high performance bond.

The firm’s workhorse product is GenCal 7555, which has been in the market for two years and is 53% solids. NovaGreen 7510, introduced just over a year ago, features 56% solids. This means that when the latex is cured, a smaller proportion of water is driven off—which lowers operating costs and increases the energy efficiency of the oven by either saving energy or running faster, and ultimately reduces the overall environmental impact of the product. 

While GenCal 7555 serves the residential market, NovaGreen 7510 goes to both the residential and commercial markets. Though more price inflation is expected for 2011, which will shrink margins, it also helps set the stage for Omnova to renew its research and development of bio-based binder content; however, demand is still not where it should be for environmental programs.

Underlayments for both carpet and hard surface flooring come in a range of specialized forms to fulfill functions ranging from sound abatement and comfort underfoot to moisture control. On the carpet side, rebond, which uses a range of recycled foams (generally urethane), is the most common unattached underlayment. It’s cheap, it comes in a range of densities and qualities, and its role is to provide comfortable bounce.

A firmer form of recycled carpet underlayment for higher performance applications is carpet cushion, and one of the major producers is Reliance Carpet Cushion, the product division of LA Fibers, which uses a mix of 100% recycled fibers, including polypropylene, polyester and nylon. The firm also produces EcoSoft, a branded Stainmaster pad that uses only 100% recycled nylon 6,6.

EcoSoft is sold through independent retailers nationwide, and starting this year it will also be sold through all 62 Lowe’s stores in California. Hospitality applications account for 90% of sales, and the balance goes under thick carpets like berbers that require a firm pad.

QEP, which has been providing flooring tools to the industry for nearly 30 years, also offers a range of underlayments for laminates and engineered flooring, as well as a cork underlayment for tile. The cork comes in 1/4” thick rolls and 1/2” thick sheets.

Laminate and engineered flooring underlayments make up a bigger part of the business. One of QEP’s leading products for moisture control is Harmony, which sandwiches polyethylene beads between a thin film layer on the bottom that allows moisture to rise and a top layer that stops it from escaping. Over the last two years, QEP has sold over a million rolls of Harmony. The firm’s greenest underlayment is Super Felt, which contains 80% recycled content.

Last summer, QEP came out with Quiet Cushion, a cross-linked foam designed to provide a high degree of sound dampening, with an IIC (impact isolation class) rating of 69 and an STC (sound transmission class) rating of 67—among the highest in the industry. The Delta IIC, which some consider more precise because it measures what the material isolates on its own, as opposed to including the substrate, is 21.

MP Global makes underlayments for ceramic tile, natural stone, hardwood and laminate. The firm’s UltraLayer Peel & Stick, a self-adhesive acoustical and crack isolation membrane for ceramic and stone, is made from recycled post-industrial synthetic fiber, and is third-party certified by SCS.

The firm’s biggest seller is QuietWalk, with over a billion square feet installed over the last decade. The underlayment, designed for floating floors like laminates and engineered hardwood, features 95% post-industrial recycled content, also certified by SCS, with an IIC rating of 58 and an STC rating of 54. The only virgin material is the vapor barrier on top. MP Global’s FiberBacker, made of 100% post-industrial recycled content, goes under ceramic tile as a sound dampener (IIC rating of 60) and a lateral crack suppressant.

Healthier Choice was founded as a producer of mechanically frothed polyurethane foam carpet cushion, and for several years the firm has also been producing denser versions as underlayments for laminates and hardwood. Calcium carbonate and soy polyols combine, in more or less equal measure, for 55% of the total content of the underlayment. 

Last summer, the firm acquired Flexitions, a manufacturer of stainable flexible transition moldings. Healthier Choice pours polyurethane into the molds, which are designed with graining to look like real wood. The five transitions can be colored with the same wood stain as the hardwood in the application for a custom look. The line is being introduced at Surfaces later this month.

Floor Muffler, a division of Diversified Industries, produces some of the industry’s leading acoustical underlayments, with IIC ratings of 74 and STC ratings of 73. What’s notable about the closed cell polypropylene blend foam is that it’s only two mils thick. The products, which are also moisture barriers, target both the commercial and residential markets for laminates, solid hardwood and engineered hardwood. 

Copyright 2011 Floor Focus