Floor Prep, Underlayment, Backing and Pad: Challenges of the last few years have led to innovation - January 2023
By Jennifer Bardoner
Like the overall flooring industry, those in the floor preparation, underlayment and adhesives part of the business had a strong year last year. But the year was also fraught with hurdles as they worked to keep up with demand amid lingering supply chain challenges, which, in some cases, were more pronounced for the niche providers than for the wider industry. While new concerns are emerging as market conditions shift, the manufacturers with whom we spoke are generally optimistic about the new year.
“We predict a slowdown in housing starts and remodeling during 2023 but a quick turnaround in 2024,” says Foam Products vice president of sales and marketing Jim Wink.
Meanwhile, with over 27 million apartments and more than 95 billion square feet of commercial space in the U.S., says Schönox principal Thomas Trissl, there will always be “a pronounced need” for renovation work.
“Increases in mortgage rates during 2022 certainly got the attention of new homebuyers, encouraging many to consider multifamily housing,” he adds. “In turn, rental rates have increased, which will eventually guide those needing housing back to single-family homes. And those in their homes, especially those who secured those historically low mortgage rates of the past decade, want to hold on to their homes and those mortgages.”
Universal Textile Technologies (UTT) business development director Ken Mitchell estimates 2023 will be relatively flat overall, but that’s coming off record sales years.
Andy Acker, Schluter’s manager of education, says the company could have sold more in 2022, had it been able to produce more. Some of the chemical components relevant to this part of the industry remain hard to get, especially related to adhesives. The Covid-induced pullback on production has been difficult to catch up from, especially since labor remains a challenge and global demand for such products increases as new flooring markets emerge around the world, reports Acker-which could pose a longer-term problem amid a growing focus on sustainability.
“I just don’t think with the environmental concerns going on globally that these manufacturers are going to be willing to invest the capital it would take to put in another plant to manufacture more,” he says. “It’s very similar to the argument you hear from the petroleum industries: ‘Every indication is that you want to shut us down. Why would we turn around and invest billions and billions of dollars into a plant to increase production?’”
Labor shortages have compounded the effect of several storms that threw off petroleum-related production beginning in 2021, directly affecting backing and underlayment manufacturers and indirectly raising transportation costs across the board. While supplies have largely recovered and pricing has started to normalize, it’s an illustration of the volatility of such weather-dependent products, especially amid a somewhat challenged labor market and increased threats related to global warming.
To help ensure their own production, many of our sources report having increased benefits and pay, though labor remains an issue.
This part of the industry is also acutely aware of the shortage of qualified installers, who are the primary customers for their products. As such, these manufacturers continue to innovate in order to simplify their products’ use.
“The number of contractors/installers is an industry-wide challenge,” says MP Global marketing and account manager Deanna Summers. “Making products that help with their time efficiency and speed to the next job with minimal time and effort is paramount.”
With flooring manufacturers seeking their own solutions to make products easier to install, such as providing attached underlayments on LVT, that could create challenges for underlayment suppliers.
“While pre-attached padding in some cases simplifies the buying process, increases installation efficiency and reduces overall costs, a conventional underlayment product is capable of delivering these same benefits while adding many attributes consumers prefer and demand,” notes Mike Croes, vice president of interior finishing for Sika. “Inefficiencies in pre-attached padding, such as voids in the sound control membrane, also add to the developing situation in the marketplace. As multifunctional underlayments continue to evolve, the moisture mitigation, sound abatement and cushion qualities of attached padding will struggle to reach the same standard and deliver the same value over time.”
Challenges often lead to innovation, and that has been the case for floor prep, underlayment and backings/pad producers. In light of supply shortages, manufacturers have begun seeking alternative solutions.
“The biggest challenge shaping the industry right now is the raw material situation,” says Jody Proudfit, product manager at Ardex Americas. “With the ever-changing landscape of raw materials, we’re constantly looking at what we offer to the market to ensure we are providing the best materials and solutions without delays or supply chain interruption.”
Similarly, LVT’s continued growth in the marketplace and the proliferation of offerings with attached pad could be seen as an opportunity to focus on differentiated options, which typically offer greater profit margins, says Mike Cronin, Leggett & Platt’s director of national accounts and marketing. He cites the company’s consumer research, which revealed they are seeking enhanced durability and comfort, and 90% of those surveyed said they looked to and trusted the sales professional’s recommendations for achieving this. However, many retailers were leaving this on the table, afraid of jeopardizing the sale, he reports.
“The opportunity to make more money is there-we’ve been able to grow our carpet pad business in dollars when units were shrinking,” Cronin says. “The same thing is happening here with LVT and other hard surface products. The opportunity is there to sell a separate underlayment, because we don’t know what the lifecycle truly is.”
Meanwhile, the growing volume of rigid core flooring has solidified the need for floor prep products, especially moisture mitigation, self-leveling underlayment, patch and skim coat solutions.
“These more rigid-type products typically have much less flexibility and lend themselves to potential issues, should the subfloor preparation done below the flooring not be in peak and optimum conditions,” Croes explains.
UNDERLAYMENT, BACKING AND PAD
Faced with sky-high lumber prices during the pandemic, flooring installers began seeking alternatives to plywood in order to build up the subfloor-often a necessity when replacing carpet with LVT. MP Global developed QuietBoard in response. The 6mm fiberboard underlayment not only addresses the approximately 1/4” gap left between the existing subfloor and trim, but it also provides a vapor barrier and acoustic mitigation and has been shown to reduce joint fatigue.
The Norfolk, Nebraska-based manufacturer has a patented process for turning pre-consumer industrial waste from carpet and textile mills into fiber-based underlayments, making them a cost-effective solution. While plywood prices have started to come back down, Summers expects plywood will never be as cheap as it once was. Additionally, QuietBoard is easier to work with and install since it is lightweight and can be cut with a utility knife.
Thanks to its more rigid construction-a shift from the firm’s QuietWalk and QuietWalk LV rolled underlayments-QuietBoard can be used with multiple flooring materials, though it is targeted at the growing number of homeowners and multifamily property managers swapping carpet for LVT. Homing in on dealers that serve those sectors is a company focus for the new year, Summers says.
Applicable in both residential and commercial settings, MP Global’s overall business leans slightly more toward residential on the flooring side. It sources and produces all of its products domestically, salvaging 450,000 tons of scrap fiber each month. The company also produces box liners and insulated packaging for things like meal delivery kits, utilizing pre-consumer recycled pulp.
A natural fit in commercial and multifamily environments due to fiber’s inherent acoustical benefits, the products’ sustainability story is resonating with more homeowners, Summers says. All of the company’s offerings are Greenguard Gold certified for healthy indoor air quality.
Following a shift to applications including marine and RV carpet and residential turf during the pandemic, UTT (Universal Textile Technologies) is beginning to see its commercial business pick back up, especially on broadloom for hospitality and trade shows. The Dalton, Georgia-based provider of polyurethane backings and pad is also beginning to look for opportunities beyond flooring as the soft surface side of the business slows down amid the transition to more hard surface. However, UTT’s offerings are also used with fabricated rugs, a trending category.
Having struggled to get enough materials during the pandemic, the third-party solutions provider didn’t want to allocate precious resources to trials for brand-new applications, says Mitchell. Instead, it experimented with new compositions that replaced a portion of petroleum-based ingredients with recycled materials. The company was able to swap about 10% of those polyols for PET derivatives made from post-consumer recycled carpet fiber and plastic bottles, he says. That shift proved invaluable during the pandemic, the effect of which was compounded by storms and worker shortages that further diminished raw material supplies.
UTT’s new material composition also increased product performance on multiple fronts, to the point that Mitchell says the company is taking marketshare. Each yard of UTT’s backing comprises 60+% of recycled or bio-based content, but performance is more often the selling point, he notes.
Though supply constraints are easing up a bit, the company is continuing to bolster its inventory of materials, as well as spare equipment parts, working with its suppliers to store adequate reserves to enable UTT to quickly service its customers in all scenarios.
“We have tried to work around formulations and processes that would make us less dependent and more available to continue operating without having all our eggs in that petroleum basket that’s coming in out of the Gulf of Mexico,” Mitchell says, adding that UTT maintains “a hurricane inventory.”
Following Foam Products’ rollout last year of its Silencer CPS underlayment for ceramic tile, the Calhoun, Georgia-based underlayment and carpet pad manufacturer will add a new offering this year for laminate and vinyl. The new acoustic-mitigating underlayments, Eco Silencer Infinity and Eco Silencer Max, include a bonded vapor barrier-something Wink says flooring manufacturers have been requesting-eliminating the need for a separate moisture-blocking film.
“They’ve had too many instances where the actual plank starts buckling up like wood when moisture gets to it,” he explains, noting that plank thickness has, in some cases-especially in multifamily, a strong category for the company-been diminished as a cost saving measure. “When they got down to 3mm, 3.2mm clicking, locking, floating system, moisture started causing it to curl on the edges.”
The company’s underlayments offer Crushpruf technology thanks to their high-density polyurethane foam, which also helps account for subfloor imperfections.
Wink foresees a slowdown in new multifamily this year. Residential retail, which accounts for the bulk of Foam Products’ sales, began dipping in the fourth quarter of 2022, he reports. The company serves the commercial sector, as well, going through distribution. On the residential side, Foam Products goes to market direct with major multi-store retailers, through distribution and as an OEM supplier.
The slowdown has eased supply issues, which carried over from 2021. Foam Products sources its chemical components domestically from three major manufacturers, so it was able to buffer its customers from any shortages, Wink says. Foam Products utilizes vegetable-based polyols and recycled granulated rubber tires to supplant some of the need for petroleum products, something he says the company will continue to experiment with. Supplies of soy and castor oils have been steady, he says.
While oil prices have started to come back down, less reliance on petroleum-based products equates to general cost savings, notes Wink.
Although more of a premium product-a general company focus adopted in the wake of heavy industry commoditization and the housing crash of 2008-Leggett & Platt has seen increased use of its Whisper Step underlayment, especially in multifamily, says Cronin. The styrene butadiene rubber sheeting can be used under all hard surfaces save for ceramic, which the company services with its ACI-125 underlayment. Made from the same synthetic rubber, the latter can also be used under other hard surface flooring to provide sound abatement and protection against moisture and mold, with the added benefit of safeguarding tile floors from substrate cracks up to 1/8”.
Extremely durable and versatile, allowing for single gluedown, double gluedown, floating and nailed applications, Whisper Step has helped propel multifamily to the largest segment of Leggett & Platt’s flooring business as LVT becomes more and more prized in those environments. In commercial applications, the product’s additional ability to withstand more than 5,500 pounds has helped drive its use in retail and hospitality, both of which are seeing good activity, Cronin reports, though residential replacement is Leggett & Platt’s other primary market.
Originally solely a producer of high-density rubber carpet pad, that division has shrunk as soft surface has lost share to hard surface-though Cronin reports that the company’s pad has remained strong in the marketplace thanks to its differentiated premium offerings, a model he sees as an opportunity for retailers amid slowing sales.
“Despite the year’s overall struggles and the challenges we’ve had with soft surface units declining, we still did well this year in soft surface products, but we did much better in our underlayment category,” he says, adding, “Every year has been good growth for us.”
FLOOR PREP AND ADHESIVES
Last year marked Schönox’s highest production and sales volumes in its 12 years in the U.S., and the Germany-based subfloor products manufacturer is optimistic for 2023. “A slowdown in one area leads to growth in another,” says Trissl, who sees healthcare and multifamily as high-growth opportunities.
Trissl says the company’s primer, moisture mitigation, patching, smoothing and leveling products achieve faster drying times than other solutions, important in such time-sensitive commercial environments, and its synthetic and hybrid chemistries are ideal for multifamily substrates, which often contain gypsum.
Schönox is rolling out a ten-pound version of its HS Sturdy repair and smoothing compound with patented hybrid active-dry technology. Debuted in a 33-pound bag, the smaller size was designed with confined spaces in mind-such as multifamily bedrooms, Trissl says. The firm is also working on a new product set for release this year that will simplify the priming process.
The company produces some of its adhesives and cementitious leveling compounds domestically, though most of its products are manufactured in Germany. Amid ongoing supply chain issues, Schönox has relied on close communication with customers to prioritize needs and increased its inventories and the geographic distribution of those inventories to meet those needs. Running additional production lines and shifts, Schönox saw growth and “significant increases in revenues” in 2022, says Trissl.
“As excited as we are about the growth in sales, we are even more pleased by our attainment of broad distribution goals and the adoption of the Schönox brand,” he adds.
In December 2022, Sika strengthened its partnership with Schönox through a minority investment in the firm.
Trissl also credits thinking creatively about customer needs as an engine for the company’s growth, citing as an example a program initiated in 2019 through which Schönox technicians bring a Graco pump to a jobsite to help spread self-leveling compounds and expedite larger projects. “It’s a great way for installers to learn more about pump technologies and Schönox self-levelers in a hands-on manner,” he explains.
With Schluter well diversified between new construction and remodel in both the commercial and residential markets, last year was a good growth year in spite of widespread logistics and supply chain challenges, Acker reports. The manufacturer offers a variety of floor prep and leveling products and membranes primarily geared for use with ceramic tile.
“The demand has been unbelievable. We could sell more if we could produce more,” he says.
While interest rates are “definitely putting a damper on residential sales,” he anticipates another strong year thanks to the company’s market mix. And there is growing demand for Schluter’s in-floor-heat products as more homeowners become aware of the potential, he says, noting that they tend to be affluent, meaning they should be less affected by an economic downturn.
Addressing one of the chief complaints about ceramic tile, that sense of warmth and comfort is also being sought under LVT floors, giving Schluter access to a new market that is growing for the company, says Acker. To service it, Schluter has developed guidelines for the use of its existing offerings in conjunction with LVT.
The company recently released peel-and-stick versions of its flagship Ditra uncoupling membrane. Ditra-Heat-PS and Ditra-Heat-Duo-PS can hold radiant-heat cables in place without the need for thinset. The Duo version includes an attached felt backing to reduce sound transmission and heat loss. The new products’ bonded adhesive film allows for initial adjustment but is extremely strong once firmly applied with pressure, and it is not compromised by in-floor heat, Acker explains.
With the growth of its products’ popularity and the time lag when importing offerings produced in its native Germany, Schluter has ramped up stateside production and has plans to broaden its network of distribution centers, according to Acker. Based domestically in Plattsburgh, New York, it manufactures there, at its Montreal headquarters, near its Toronto training center, and in the Great Lakes region.
While always part of the plan once growth hit a certain level, the increased domestic production has helped to offset supply chain and logistics shortages. To mitigate the widespread labor challenges both here and abroad, the company has increased flex-time and compensation along with offering other incentives.
While it primarily serves the commercial sector, Ardex has seen growth in residential applications of its floor preparation, installation, adhesive and remediation products. Thanks to its wide-ranging portfolio, the Germany-based solutions provider is a key player in both residential remodel and new construction, which has seen increased development of manufactured homes, according to Proudfit.
As labor has become more of a challenge in homebuilding and flooring installation, Ardex has sought to create products that reduce the amount of time needed. The new Ardex K 40 Rapid self-leveling compound prepares concrete, ceramic and epoxy subfloors for most types of floorcovering in two to three hours. Ardex K 530, another new product, adds a decorative white overlay to concrete floors that can be polished as soon as 16 hours after or used as a base for aggregates and pigments.
“The overlay allows for a more consistent outcome when the original floor may have too many years of abuse or other challenges that aren’t as appealing for the end user,” Proudfit explains, noting that polishable overlays have been gaining in popularity in both commercial and residential spaces.
The company, which produces all of its U.S.-sold products domestically, has been beefing up its Surfaces line of products to offer more options for those who like the polished concrete look.
Proudfit says 2022 was “a good growth year” due to strong demand in all of the markets Ardex serves, with the company gaining both market and wallet share. Despite supply challenges, the manufacturer was able to meet demand when others couldn’t, he says. With its global footprint, Ardex shifted materials to areas of need while also leveraging its relationships with core suppliers domestically and abroad to keep ahead of shortages.
In some instances, this came at a cost, and Proudfit says the company had to adjust pricing as needed.
In light of these challenges, Ardex is exploring alternative raw materials and sources, including bio-based and recycled content. “We have a focus-forward initiative underway that will continue the shift as we look to improve multiple attributes,” says Proudfit. “More on this to come in 2023.”
Having acquired DriTac in March 2021, Sika grew exponentially that year, and 2022 has been a record-breaking year for the Switzerland-based manufacturer of floor preparation materials and adhesives, Croes reports. He attributes “continuing to capitalize on a robust global supply chain and expanding capacity position partially geared toward increasing marketshare in the wood and resilient floor installation sectors” for that growth and anticipates gaining more marketshare as supply chain issues slowly abate.
Sika’s products are used both commercially and residentially, in retail, education, healthcare, hospitality, corporate, mainstreet, multifamily, residential remodel/replacement and builder. While Croes acknowledges a slowdown in the single-family builder market, Sika’s diversification will allow it to target sectors that show continued strength, including multifamily and commercial, he says.
“Sika’s growth over the last 12 to 24 months has enabled the addition of new facilities throughout the United States that will allow an even greater domestic capacity, rate of production and innovation in the coming years,” notes Croes.
The company recently released Sika MB EZ Rapid, a roll-on membrane that mitigates vapor transmission on porous subfloors for commercial and residential installations of all flooring applications. This polyurethane resin reactive primer can also be used to prime gypsum-based underlayments and patches prior to the application of flooring adhesives-all part of the firm’s portfolio. Working in tandem to enhance outcomes, many of Sika’s products are low- or zero-VOC and independently certified by the Carpet and Rug Institute’s Green Label Plus Program for Indoor Air Quality.
Sika MB EZ Rapid dries in one hour, allowing for same-day nail-down and gluedown flooring installations over plywood-in which case, no tar paper is needed-concrete, gypsum and old cutback adhesive, thus saving time and reducing labor costs. The moisture barrier is endorsed by the National Wood Flooring Association for installations in crawl spaces and basement areas, and when used in conjunction with SikaLevel and SikaBond products, it offers a lifetime-warrantied solution.
Streamlining purchases through a single-source provider can lead to logistics savings, though Sika, like others, has raised its prices amid increased transportation and raw material costs. While raw materials remained constrained last year, Sika’s global supply chain allowed it to supply more product to the market than in any previous year in the company’s history, Croes says.
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