Backing & Underlayments: Acoustical abatement and moisture issues drive new introductions - Jan 2020
By Darius Helm
There’s a lot that goes on under the surface of a floorcovering-like attached backings, unattached underlayments, cushioning, membranes, pads and floor prep materials. All of these products that are hidden from view are the problem solvers, compensating for the limitations and protecting the integrity of what’s on top or beneath them.
When there are big trends in flooring, they are mirrored by big changes in backings and underlayments. For instance, two of the biggest developments in the flooring realm are fast-track construction and the shift from carpet to hard surface flooring. The shorter construction schedules have put pressure on the most time-consuming production in the built environment, the curing of concrete, resulting in a slew of moisture problems. Moisture pushing up through concrete not only damages floorcoverings, but it also generates salts that eat through adhesives, leading to flooring failures. In response, the market has seen the development of a range of innovations that effectively seal in moisture, prevent it from migrating up or create systems to wick it away.
One of the biggest unintended consequences of the shift from carpet to hard surface has been acoustical transmissions, both within the space and transmitted from adjacent spaces. Without carpet to soften them up, interior environments are getting louder all the time. There’s plenty that can be done with décor elements, like area rugs, wall hangings and ceiling treatments, but this only reduces airborne sound across a space-measured in STC, or Sound Transmission Class.
Backings and underlayments come into play to reduce the transmission of impact sounds-measured in IIC, impact insulation class, and Delta IIC, the difference in impact transmission with and without use of the product-like shoes hitting hard surface flooring, shooting the sound to the space below. This has become a huge problem in the built environment, particularly where people live on top of each other, like in multifamily housing.
Acoustical abatement with hard surface flooring is nothing new, and acoustical underlayments have been around for decades. But now there’s less carpet than ever, and hard surface flooring is installed in much larger applications, so noise issues are more prevalent than ever, driving demand for higher performance in sound mitigation systems.
In some cases, flooring producers build acoustical barriers in their backings-for instance, the cork backing in some WPC products both adds cushioning and reduces sound transmission. And floor prep and underlayment suppliers also create products that break up sound in different ways.
CARPET BACKING HIGHLIGHTS
When it comes to carpet, primary and secondary backings are largely developed to not just hold the product together but also to keep it stable, so that the pattern on the surface will not be skewed. Residential broadloom generally features a polypropylene primary backing, into which the face fiber is tufted. Then a secondary backing, also of polypropylene, is attached through the use of a latex binder. There are a few exceptions, like Shaw’s Lifeguard backing and Mohawk’s Airo carpet, which use more innovative backing solutions.
On the commercial side, the market is dominated by carpet tile, where polypropylene cannot endure the heat of the manufacturing process, so the go-to solution is spunbonded nonwoven polyester. And in recent years, Propex has pioneered the use of woven polyester carpet tile backings as an alternative.
One of the big stories in the carpet backings business last year was the sale of Propex Operating Company to a family investment group in Vancouver, British Columbia, with the European operations purchased on April 1 and the U.S. assets on April 30. It was renamed Propex Furnishing Solutions.
Propex has been the most prominent independent carpet backing firm in the domestic market for decades-including in its earlier incarnations as part of Amoco and BP-pioneering a range of carpet backings, including the Polybac family of broadloom primary backings, the ActionBac secondary backing and, more recently, the Artis line of woven PET carpet tile backings.
Propex has three production facilities-one in the U.S., in Hazlehurst, Georgia, as well as one in Gronau, Germany and another in Gyor, Hungary-and it is in the process of building a new facility in India. The firm’s new CEO Robert Dahl, who joined Propex in 2011 as vice president of sales in its specialty products division, emphasizes his firm’s “commitment to uninterrupted service on our entire fabric portfolio, including the interchangeable supply from any of our operational sites…. From this global footprint, we can service large volume carpet backing demand as well as regionally sourced specialty fabrics, new innovations and solution-based alternatives.”
Toward the end of 2019, news emerged of another major acquisition, with Freudenberg’s announcement of an agreement to purchase Low & Bonar. Combined, the two account for the vast majority of spunbonded nonwoven primary carpet tile backings in the global market. Freudenberg is a family-owned $10.5 billion firm. Freudenberg makes a range of technical materials, including foams, knitwear, nonwovens and composites, serving a wide range of markets. And Low & Bonar, a U.K.-headquartered, publicly traded, $500 million business, focuses on performance materials and is best known in the flooring industry for its Colback line of carpet backing-Low & Bonar acquired Colbond in 2006.
In the U.S., Colback is the leading nonwoven carpet backing. Low & Bonar has two production lines in China, three in Europe and two in Enka, North Carolina, on the outskirts of Asheville. Freudenberg’s U.S production of nonwovens is in Durham, North Carolina. Both firms also serve the automotive carpet market.
Low & Bonar also makes some backing systems for LVT, though that’s still a small part of the business. However, it is in the midst of rolling out Colcore, a multifunctional underlay system for click vinyl. It comes in a roll and features a thermoplastic honeycomb system that offers acoustical abatement and high compression strength.
The acquisition deal is now being assessed by the European Union, which is expected to approve it, setting the stage for a closing next month. Meanwhile, Low & Bonar continues to invest in its business-$3.7 million last year and $8 million this year-including new technologies, handling systems and product development.
Among the most innovative domestic backing producers is Universal Textile Technologies (UTT), which makes a range of polyurethane backings for the commercial market under the BioCel and EnviroCel brands, with high bio-based and recycled content. The firm has now developed a BioCel foam pad for commercial and hospitality applications with the characteristics of rubber cushioning. The freestanding pad is a higher density than traditional BioCel, and it comes as a stretch-in product or a double gluedown. The product will launch this spring.
Also, UTT has increased its total recycled and bio-based content from 60% to 65% with the use of Arropol, a polyol made of recycled PET carpet fiber that is processed into urethane. Arropol, a CARE grant recipient, is the brainchild of Ralph Boe, former president of Beaulieu of America.
In late 2018, Dubai-based Mattex made the decision to shutter its Eton, Georgia backing facility, which was started up in 2014 with a $60 million investment, and revert U.S. production to its facilities in Dubai and Saudi Arabia. The U.S. facility had started with traditional polypropylene backings, then it added woven PET, competing against Propex’s Artis in the carpet tile market. Last year, the firm moved the U.S. equipment to a new space adjacent to its Jeddah, Saudi Arabia facility. And in the next month or two, the transferred machinery will be fully up and running.
Mattex’s U.S. operation did not succeed for a number of unrelated reasons, including polypropylene costs, the fact that Engineered Floors bought Beaulieu’s underutilized backing plant in Bainbridge, Alabama and started it back up, and, according to the firm, finding qualified labor. However, perhaps the biggest challenge was the production itself. Apparently, it’s no easy task using polyester to make woven carpet backing. There are a lot of technical challenges, from extrusion to beaming, and that generates inefficiencies and waste, driving up the cost.
The firm reports that one of the advantages of shifting U.S. production back to the Middle East is that the capacity can serve more than just the U.S. market. Nevertheless, the U.S remains Mattex’s largest market for carpet backing, followed by Europe.
Mattex’s Middle East facilities make both polypropylene woven primary and secondary backings, and it also has a polyester extrusion line, targeting the carpet tile market, and a PET fleecing line for capping woven products. Mattex also supplies PET backing for Mohawk’s Airo carpet. And it is working on secondary backings made of PET.
Looking ahead, the firm intends to lease a large distribution center for warehousing and offices, likely in Georgia, to resume servicing the U.S. market.
The U.S. carpet backing business has never been more competitive, largely because of its shrinking market, but the changes over the last few years have kept it dynamic. And one firm that has found a place for itself in the shifting landscape is Proglobal Products, which distributes mostly woven primary and secondary backings from it 35,000-square-foot warehouse in Dalton, Georgia. Formed three years ago by Barclay Payne and Forrest Jaquith, the firm sells backings sourced both overseas and within the U.S.
The bulk of Proglobal’s business is in the residential market, though its nonwovens program, which is mostly used in artificial turf, is also used in carpet applications.
Just about all broadloom uses latex binder to adhere the carpet to the secondary backing, and the largest global supplier of latex systems for carpet and textiles is Trinseo, which was formerly Styron and, before that, part of Dow Chemical. Over the last year, latex costs have been relatively low and stable, which helped the firm have a healthy 2019, and more of the same is expected this year.
In addition to traditional styrene butadiene latex products that, mixed with limestone, mills use as binders, Trinseo also offers carboxylated latex and, more recently, an acrylic latex precoat for carpet tile, which is a growing market.
The firm has partnered with Agilyx, an Oregon-based developer of chemical recycling technologies, and Ineos Styrolution, a global styrenics producer, to build the first ever polystyrene recycling facility that turns the polymer back into pure styrene in high volumes-it should be able to process up to 50 tons a day, turning it all into liquid monomer that’s identical to virgin material. Foamed polystyrene-commonly known in the U.S. as Styrofoam-is a huge waste stream. It accounts for 2% of landfill volume by weight and 30% of total volume, according to American Disposal Services.
UNDERLAYMENTS AND MORE
A range of producers supply the industry with hard surface underlayments, from underlayment specialists to floor prep producers. And specialists in specific types of flooring, like Mapei with its focus on tile and stone, are quickly adapting to market demand by providing solutions for products like LVT and rigid LVT.
One of the leading solution providers is Leggett & Platt, whose Tred-Mor brand of synthetic rubber products help tamp down the transmission of vibrations from sound, like its commercial dBarrier.
A couple of years ago, Leggett & Platt launched a product called Whisper Step, which is the densest underlayment on the market, according to the firm, with a Delta IIC of 22 and a thickness of only 1.4mm. Testing with LVT on a 6” slab installed with and without Whisper Step yielded a 25% improvement in noise abatement. The firm claims that the product also reduces in-room noise by up to ten decibels. In addition, Whisper Step offers moisture control with Block-Out Moisture Guard, along with Fresh Dimension antimicrobial protection. Block-Out prevents spills from seeping into a subfloor and also allows moisture to escape from beneath.
Schönox HPS North America has been rapidly growing and is best known for cement-based and synthetic gypsum-based materials, including self-leveling compounds. The firm also offers Schönox Renotex 3D, a multidimensional glass fiber reinforcement fabric that has been out for a couple of years. It comes in an 82’ roll that is 6.5’ wide, so each roll will cover more than 530 square feet. The product, which targets multifamily and senior living, can be combined with Schönox AP Rapid Plus, a pumpable self-leveling compound (and a sound insulation layer over wooden subfloors) to create a UL-classified floating construction.
Also, the system can be installed over existing flooring, creating a smooth and level surface that offers insulation, fire resistance and sound dampening.
Healthier Choice, one of the leaders in the underlayment category, offers OmniChoice and Sound Solution for acoustical abatement, and both have IIC ratings of 73. Sound Solution, which is ideal for hardwood and laminate products has a Delta IIC of 21, while OmniChoice, which also works well with ceramic tile and LVT products, has a Delta IIC ranging from 20 to 22, depending on the flooring type. The firm is currently working on a product that will offer the same acoustical benefits of those products, along with sound suppression. The product is expected to launch this spring.
Also launching in the next few months-likely at HD Expo in May-is what the firm calls “the perfect foundation for any floor,” a new underlayment line designed for use, through multiple gauges, with everything from broadloom and carpet tile to LVT, ceramic and hardwood. A major advantage of the product, which is geared for acoustics and comfort, is that it can be used under all flooring types in a single installation.
Mapei offers products for impact insulation, like its Mapesound 80 and Mapesonic 2, which are fabric-reinforced bituminous membranes with peel-and-stick application and a reflective layer, along with a recycled crumb rubber system called Mapesonic RM. The two systems work on all types of hard surface flooring and have Delta IIC’s of 20 or more.
Also, the firm has taken its Mapeguard UM uncoupling mat, which has been out for a couple of years, and added heat cables to create Mapeguard Heat, through a partnership with NuHeat’s Nvent, the parent company of NuHeat, which produces radiant underfloor heating systems. The product has already been rolled out in Canada.
The uncoupling profile of the product not only relieves stress between the substrate and the floorcovering, but it uses those same air voids in the lightweight underlayment to prevent the build-up of water vapor, releasing it laterally. Fabric tapes installed over the seams ensure a continuous waterproof layer.
Laticrete, which, like Mapei, has traditionally focused on applications relating to tile and stone, has also been expanding its offering with a wider range of performance attributes for use on more flooring types, mostly in the form of liquid applications. For instance, the firm’s Vapor Ban Primer ER, launched in 2019, is an all-in-one moisture vapor barrier and primer in a one-step application over concrete slab, and it is particularly well suited to resilient flooring, in part because it protects adhesives. The new formulation cuts downtime from 16 to 20 hours to just three to four hours. Products with adhesives need to be installed within 24 hours-after that, the surface is too glassy.
Laticrete also has developed a product for another strong flooring trend-concrete. Introduced last August, NXT Level SP is another poured product. “SP” stands for salt and pepper because the product looks like very small scale terrazzo. The product is poured to a half-inch thickness, and contractors can finish it using standard polishing equipment for a polished concrete visual. Its biggest advantage is that it can be used to resurface rough or distressed concrete flooring, yielding a monolithic finished visual.
And Schönox HPS North America has taken its Schönox DSP cement-based self-leveling and concrete topping compound and added a larger aggregate. The product can be installed at a minimum of 3/8” and up to 2”, creating a dense and durable surface, and is ready for grinding and polishing after about 24 hours.
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