Diagnosing and solving problems as soon as they crop up is key: Contractor's Corner - Feb 2017

By Dave Stafford

The ringing of the phone pierced the quiet of the morning-another day in paradise. Maybe they’re calling me back on that school bid. As soon as I picked up the phone, though, I knew there was trouble. I could almost feel the spittle hitting my face as the client yelled, “The vinyl floor tile and some of the concrete patch is coming off the floor. What are you going to do about it?”

I recognized the voice of George, a usually unflappable facilities manager from the local school system. When I could get a word in edgewise, I arranged to meet him at the Conner school recreation activity room, site of the problems. I was surprised, since school had only been in session for two months, and the work had been completed during the previous summer. As I got to the location, I remembered this job: it was one I didn’t get because I had been underbid. So now, George was calling me about a problem in the one area where we had not done any work.

When George arrived, without any preamble he began to point out areas where the tile was loose on the floor, where there were bubbles in the tile, as well as numerous areas where there were cracks completely through the tile and into the concrete substrate. “This was such a fine looking job, and after only a couple of months, now this! What happened, and what are you going to do to fix it?” 

So I began, “George, I did several projects for you this summer at Conner school; however, I did not do this one. As you’ll recall, you reviewed my pricing and said you would have the general contractor take care of the flooring as part of the larger contract for site remodeling.” The look on George’s face was priceless! First, his face turned red, then white, and then in a soft voice he said, “This is a disaster. We’ve got to get it fixed. We can’t maintain it, and there are trip hazards, and we can’t clean it.”

As we surveyed the area, I told him, “Let me tell you what I see, or suspect, what I think will have to be done to correct, then make a recommendation. Fair enough?” 

George agreed, and so I began. “This whole area is below grade, a remodeled lower level space, so I expect there may be high substrate moisture,” I said. “It looks like some type of gypsum-based leveling compound may have been used, and because there is cracking, the compound may not have bonded properly with the old concrete. The vinyl floor tile may have been installed too quickly over the newly poured floor or the moisture emissions from the substrate were just too high.”

I continued, “As far as correction, I think the job will have to be completely redone with all tile and patching materials removed, and the concrete cleaned to remove any residue. Once accomplished, then moisture testing should be done. If moisture levels are too high, as I suspect, a moisture membrane should be installed prior to the floor leveling compound and floor tile. George, I really wish I had better news, but I believe I’m right.”

Finally, I added, “Your general contractor may be liable under warranty or performance guarantees. Since I was a bidder, I have a conflict of interest, so I can only offer my opinion. Here is my suggestion: since there is significant potential liability, contact at least two third-party inspectors and select one to do an official written inspection of the problems here. He will conduct the type of testing needed to uncover the reasons for the flooring failure, any steps for remediation and a conclusion as to where the fault lies. Even though this may not go to court, you need the type of inspector who has the credentials and experience with this type of problem. When you call, I would explain to the inspector that time is of the essence, since hazards exist in this situation.”

I did send George the names of some competent flooring inspectors, and he thanked me for taking the time to provide some help. “I’m sorry if I was a little excited this morning, but I had just gotten an earful from my boss on the problem, and I was pretty cranked,” he explained. “Maybe you can help us with the solution, and we can get it right this time.”

I heard nothing from George for about two weeks. He then sent over a copy of the flooring inspector’s report with a handwritten notation, “You were right-going after the general under warranty and workmanship.”

The inspection report was devastating. Apparently, the concrete substrate had not been cleaned prior to applying leveling compounds. Grease and debris were found embedded in the leveling materials. There was no indication that the required priming had been done for adhesion between the old substrate and leveling compounds. Moisture testing was done that showed high moisture emission levels-levels much greater than generally permitted with either the leveling compounds or the vinyl tile. 

Report conclusion: There was improper site preparation, deficient installation according to product directions, a failure to observe product specific guidelines for moisture testing and remediation according to the best practices of the trade. The general contractor and his subcontractor were at fault. 

Recommendation: Remove all existing patching/leveling materials, suggest sanding or shot-blasting to remove all residue. Conduct moisture testing over 72 hours; if emissions are higher than permitted by flooring products guidelines, apply a moisture retarder and then retest. Prime floor, using a cementitious-type floor leveling compound. After required curing time, install vinyl floor tile. Allow to set, clean and apply floor finish.

While this was a composite drawn from my experience, it does point out several lessons to be learned. First and foremost, even if it’s not a job you sold, as a professional you are expected to be able to diagnose a problem and provide wise counsel. Sure, it would have been quite satisfying to say to George, “Here’s a quarter, call somebody who cares. I didn’t do this job. You went with the low bid, remember?” I’ve been tempted a few times to do just that. In one memorable case, I told a particularly obnoxious buyer that “you must have misdialed, since Joe and his company did that project.” That was probably a mistake, but I had no intention of working with that pinhead again.

Second, get all the information possible-much like the doctor taking a patient history. How long after the work was done did you first notice the problem? Is it getting worse or remaining about the same? 

One client called about a high-end carpet job and said the “corridors looked like waves of the ocean.” I was intrigued with his description and asked, “Are you talking about few ripples or big waves in the carpet?” 

He went on, “Sometimes it gets better, then it gets worse. It’s happened several times recently.” Since he said it was unsightly but not an emergency, I arranged an appointment later in the week. 

When I got to the building, there was nary a ripple anywhere! After talking with Chan, the facility manager, the story unfolded. On the previous Monday, once again, the corridor carpet had waves; that’s when he called me. By Thursday, when I arrived, everything was fine. I checked the stretched-in carpet, and it seem taut. Finally, I asked about the building’s HVAC system. Had they been having any problems? And that was the culprit. The HVAC was being cut way down over the weekend and then back up on Monday when everyone came back to work. This accounted for the distortion in the carpet. The relaxing and tightening of carpet coincided with the raising and lowering of temperature and humidity. Once they left the HVAC at a more constant level, no more waves.

Finding a solution to a problem may be easy and inexpensive, or difficult, time-consuming and very expensive. Should there be several solutions, give your client options and then listen to their feedback. 

In two different school systems, there was a similar problem-how to deal with old asbestos floor tile. When asked for my opinion, I told both essentially the same thing: “With minor exceptions, all tile is securely bonded to the concrete and shows no signs of releasing. Therefore, you can carefully remove surface debris, lightly clean, replace those few loose tiles with ‘dummy tile,’ and then install new vinyl tile or carpet. Deal with the problem through encapsulation. Or you can close down the area, drape and tape the area with plastic, remove the asbestos tile, scrape up the asbestos-containing cutback adhesive, shot-blast the concrete to remove cutback residue, then prepare the floor to receive new vinyl tile or carpet.” 

The larger school system with more money and a higher level of political scrutiny opted to close the area down, mechanically remove all tile, shot-blast the floor, then use floor leveling compounds to repair the concrete and install vinyl tile. The cost was over $25,000. The small school system’s facility manager said, “The tile is in good shape, and we don’t have any moisture issues; we’ll clean it and direct glue carpet. I don’t have the time or budget to do anything else.” That was accomplished within a week for under $2,000.

Manage your liability and protect your reputation through a quick response to a problem. No, this doesn’t mean you are able to solve it immediately, but you need to be seen as treating their dilemma as a priority. Once upon a time, we were installing a poured floor in a public building. During the evening, a new security guard decided to close an open door that was being used to exhaust a 24” air mover. 

The result was that the acrid (but harmless) fumes from the process remained in the building. An after-hours elevator operator passed out (because he smelled something), and word spread that there was harmful gas. The building manager got a call, discovered what happened, reopened the door, and within an hour, no odors remained. However, the damage had been done. Despite the cause, I was told, “We are cancelling the contract, and you have 24 hours to get the unused drums of material out of here. We will pick some carpet tile in lieu of other credit.” Gritting our teeth, that’s what we did. And in short order, we exited the poured flooring business, unwilling to take on the potential liability of that flooring niche. 

When you sell anything, there is always the potential for complaints or serious problems. Enhance your reputation by treating any issue as a priority, and find a logical, workable solution for you and your client. You won’t go wrong and will escape most customer service nightmares.

Copyright 2017 Floor Focus