Installation Update - April 2010

By Jessica Chevalier

Will installation, a perennial headache in the business of floorcovering, see significant forward traction in 2010? It’s clear that the pool of floorcoverer training programs is growing as the choice of flooring materials becomes more expansive and installers need more specialized knowledge of materials and techniques to install them. What’s not so clear is how many installers have ever attended a formal training session, or how they can be motivated to do so.

Floor Focus’s annual retailer survey has ranked installation as the number one or two industry problem for a decade, and a major contributing factor is the uneven level of installation expertise. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that most floorcovering installers and finishers learn on the job, beginning as helpers who haul materials and assist with simple tasks. This on-the-job training eventually yields workers who, while perhaps competent in their work, are often unfamiliar with the formal standards of the industry. On top of this, nearly 35% of floorcovering installers are self-employed, so a mandate for formal training will likely need to come from above.

At the same time, the recession-inspired do-it-yourselfers cast a shadow across nearly all installation categories, and they’re being aided by technology like sophisticated click systems. According to Market Insights/Torcivia, DIY floorcovering installation is on the rise, up about 4.4% across all flooring categories (except rubber) from 2002 to 2009. Laminates have seen the biggest jump, a rise of 7%, due to their glueless, click installation systems. In 2009, 90% of all laminates sold utilized this method. Though hardwood manufacturers have been increasingly offering click systems, only 10% of all wood flooring sold in 2009 had this installation feature. Click systems are even beginning to appear on products like luxury vinyl tile.

During the heart of the recession, as new construction ground to a halt, renovation slowed and homeowners shouldered the workload rather than hiring professionals, many floorcovering installers turned to other means of making a buck in a tough economy. Will these professionals return once the day brightens, or are these career changes permanent? It’s possible there could be a severe shortage of qualified installers once the economy turns for good, and that may mean a new generation of inexperienced installers who will need to learn quickly.

The primary issues dogging the floorcovering installation business are, in part, questions of responsibility—who is responsible when a problem occurs. Beyond that is who bears responsibility for creating installation standards that offer equal consideration for all vested parties: mill, manufacturer, retailer, installer, and consumer alike? How should these standards be enforced within the field? Who bears the burden of monitoring enforcement? These are issues it will take some time to sort out.

Certification Sees an Influx
Major training organizations like the Certified Floorcovering Installers, the United Brotherhood of Carpenters through its INSTALL program, and the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades (IUPAT) through its through its Finishing Trades Institute (FTI) emphasize that training across all categories of floorcovering is key to achieving successful installation outcomes in both residential and commercial projects. These organizations seek to effect change via the consumer route, propagating their message that trained workers offer greater efficiency, a higher quality of work and cost savings.

CFI holds about 50 training programs in the U.S. and South Africa annually and turns out between 75 and 100 trainees weekly. It claims to have trained about 36,000 installers, which is just scratching the surface of the industry. Both INSTALL and FTI offer four-year apprenticeships and journeyworker programs. The majority of large mills and manufacturers also offer training programs detailing installation of their products. There are also programs through organizations like the North American Laminate Flooring Association (NALFA).

In addition to field training, CFI, INSTALL and FTI programs teach their trainees how to better manage the business side of floorcovering. CFI advocates that each floorcovering bid should include not only payment for the installer and the helper but also the business itself to support the acquisition of necessary goods and services such as insurance, tool purchase and replacement, and advertising. Jon Namba, executive director of CFI and a former floorcovering business owner, adds that the organization emphasizes that subcontractors are business owners in floorcovering, rather than floorcoverers in business. IUPAT’s Labor Management Cooperation Initiative offers instruction on the business side of construction and seeks to teach trainees how to keep a healthy bottom line, and INSTALL emphasizes skill, productivity and sustainability training in teaching trainees to be good independent contractors. 

All three organizations partner with particular mills and manufacturers in developing their training programs. Armstrong’s training through CFI and INSTALL has turned out more trainees in one year than the company produced under its own roof in the previous five years of training combined. Armstrong abides by a three-strike rule in relation to certified installers; after a third mistake, installers lose their Armstrong certification. The company reports that its claims rate from jobs completed by certified installers is less than 1%. With over 8,000 certified trainers already in the field, Armstrong has had difficulty filling all requests for certification during the recession, as installers seek means of helping themselves stand out in a competitive market. 

At Coverings 2008, the Ceramic Tile Education Foundation (CTEF) kicked off its Certified Tile Installer Program, which is a two-day certification class for existing installers meant to validate the talents and knowledge of those already in the field. To date, the program has certified 300 professionals and seeks to certify an additional 300 in 2010. Scott Carothers, executive director of CTEF, notes that new products, advances in current products and changes in how products work together necessitate that even seasoned installers participate in ongoing training to learn how to properly handle these new innovations. The organization also offers basic classes for those new to ceramic installation.

NALFA is opting for an alternative and less formal approach to training. The organization recently released a 15-minute demonstration video, which can be downloaded from its website. Led by NALFA Installer Certification School instructor Anthony Palandro, the video demonstrates proper installation tips and methods for NALFA-certified products. As use of new media becomes common across all industries, floorcoverers are sure to see innovative means of training arise to complement traditional methods. 

Formulating a Carpet Standard
This year marks the collaboration of stakeholders from across the carpet industry in rewriting the standards for installation. Overseen by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), which has created standards across a variety of business sectors, and managed by the Institute of Inspection, Cleaning, and Restoration Certification (IICRC), the committee unites mills and manufacturers, unions and trainers, accessory product manufacturers, and dealers to replace CRI 104 and 105 with the new S600. Organized by the Carpet and Rug Institute (CRI) and the World Floor Covering Association (WFCA), S600 will be the standard by which installers will work and organizations such as CFI and the unions will train. 

Originally published in 1982, CRI 104 details the installation of commercial carpet, and CRI 105, published in 1990, focuses on residential carpet installation. CRI president Werner Braun notes that in the years since his organization first published 104 and 105, the techniques of laying carpet as well as the sophistication of the product itself have progressed. CFI CEO Jim Walker, an S600 committee member, adds that the previous standards do not offer a how-to of installation but rather broad statements that many installers find hard to follow in the field. He offers the example that not all carpets can be stretched 1% to 11/2% as the original standards dictate. The committee hopes that S600 will be more user-friendly and, therefore, more applicable. 

In considering the process of creating new standards, Carey Mitchell, vice president of Technical Services for Shaw, who also serves as an IICRC board member and chairman of the Installation Issues Management Team, suggested that CRI and WFCA emulate the process that was employed for carpet cleaning in which the IICRC certifies trainers but does not conduct training itself. Third party organizations, then, certify cleaners, and many major carpet mills now specify that product must be cleaned on a dictated schedule by a certified cleaning company in order for the warranty to remain valid. 

Many across the industry hope that when S600 is complete, mills will mandate the same warranty rules for installation, raising the bar for carpet installers and, at the same time, simplifying the chain of responsibility in handling customer complaints. This action has the potential of yielding major positive change, offering a solution to a problem that has plagued the carpet industry for years. Of course, this transformation cannot take effect until there are enough certified installers to handle the demand. However, Chris Davis, CEO of WFCA, notes that when the industry makes it financially attractive for installers to stay in the business, there won’t be a shortage of good installers.

ANSI protocol dictates specific processes for creating standards, which the IICRC will follow in creating S600. To begin, the developer must get word of the project to all materially interested parties via advertising, trade publications and all possible avenues of communication, calling for committee members from all fields of the industry. Once a committee is assembled, the initial project, which is a reference guide, is broken down into chapters and assigned to members. As each chapter is drafted, it is brought back to the full body for discussion, then released for open review by anyone inside or outside the committee who feels they are a stakeholder. Every comment and suggestion is considered before the reference guide is finalized, and it should be noted that majority agreement is not sufficient to finalizing the standards; committee members must compromise to come to a point of full agreement. Finally, any reference guide portions that contain “shall” or “should” phrases are moved into the official “standard of care.” This highly democratic process levels the playing field for all vested parties and should result in an impartial, all-encompassing standard credible enough to hold up within a court of law. 

For S600, there are 26 committee heads; and the subcommittees consist of all additional volunteers. Completion of S600 is expected to take 18 to 36 months, although members report that deliberations are moving more smoothly than expected, and the committee is actually ahead of schedule. 

Davis notes that the S600 is unique among ANSI standards because there is generally a market for the works produced. For instance, when a standard regarding electromagnetic compatibility is completed, medical device, cell phone and computer manufacturers line up to purchase the piece so that they can design their products according to the standard’s specifications. In fact, the ANSI website even includes an eStandards Store where their standards can be purchased and downloaded at costs that range from $40 to $1,900. For these standards, the $150,000 to $300,000 cost of producing the work is offset by sales. Davis doubts, however, that most carpet installers—as small, independent contractors—will make the investment to purchase S600. Therefore, CFI and WFCA will shoulder the cost of the project and share ownership with the IICRC long-term. The IICRC will be charged with updating the standards as well as maintaining their ANSI approval until they are again rewritten.

The S600 committee, then, hopes to provide the standards book at no cost to installers. However, the method of effectively disseminating S600 to floorcoverers remains a challenge. Walker notes that, though 104 has been in existence for 28 years, many floorcovering professionals do not realize that installation standards exist. Until mills tie their warranties to certified installation, a means of distributing the book among floorcoverers must be formalized if the project is to have a significant impact within the industry. A comparable project completed by the Tile Council of North America (TCNA), the annual Handbook for Ceramic Tile Installation, is sold at both major booksellers like Amazon and specialty dealers like Builder’s Booksource and retails for less than $25. As S600 will be a product of a committee rather than a single association, sale of S600 would necessitate discussion regarding dispersal of the profits. 

In the interim before S600’s release, CRI updated 104 and 105 with CRI 2009, a combined standard for both residential and commercial installation that took effect on October 1, 2009. This standard addresses developments in process and policy. 

S600 has the potential to significantly change the way installation is handled within the carpet industry. When the stakeholders in carpet come together to create a cohesive, clear standard, business is likely to change: dealers and installers may no longer work at arm’s length, and mills’ warranties may cover not only product but also process. Ultimately, consumers will yield the benefit of buying from an industry in which areas of responsibility are clearly established, and with the headache that has been installation eased, the industry may feel the consumer warm up to carpet again. 

While CFI and UBC are familiar names in floorcoverer training, to some in the industry, IUPAT's work in floorcovering appears to be a new development. However, according to executive vice president Kenneth Rigmaiden, a floorcoverer by trade, IUPAT has been involved with floorcovering since the early 1900s.

In fact, early on, five unions sought to represent the workers who installed asphalt and rubber tile and linoleum: UBC; IUPAT; the United Slate, Tile, and Composition Roofers, Damp and Waterproof Workers' Association; the Bricklayers, Masons, and Plasterers International Union; and Operative Plasterers and Cement Finishers' International Union. Referred to as the Peter Eller Decision, a July 6, 1942 ruling dictated that representation of floorcoverers in these fields would be divided between UBC and IUPAT: UBC in the territory west of Kansas City, Missouri and IUPAT in the territory east. The decision mandated that UBC and IUPAT absorb all floorcovering workers who belonged to the other three unions.

IUPAT's presence in representing floorcoverers, then, isn't new. However, the organization used the Surfaces 2009 trade show to roll out its Finishing Trade Institute--Floorcovering program, which seeks both to promote training and to help consumers find FTI-trained floorcoverers in their area.

Resilient and Hardwood
Resilient products are attractive in tight times, as they are perceived to be more affordable than natural products like wood and tile. Mannington’s Dave Sheehan, director of resilient business, says that mid to high price point resilients are doing better than low price point resilients, possibly because frugal consumers are considering not only initial cost but also life and longevity. He notes that the market’s affinity is for resilient products that are easy to install, either for the DIYer or the professional installer. Glass-backed vinyl is on the rise, in part because it offers more forgiving installation than traditional felt-backed vinyl. 

According to Dean Thompson, president of the Resilient Floor Covering Institute, due to the diminishing pool of skilled labor, resilient manufacturers are seeking to simplify product installation. New loose lay methods of installation eliminate the 20 to 30 minute wait time for adhesives to set and continue to increase in popularity as believers in the time is money credo seek fast, affordable flooring. 

To assist with questions arising in the ever changing installation market, Earthwerks, a producer of vinyl, laminate and hardwood flooring, has gone back to basics. Installation product manager Robert Thomas staffs a technical hotline 24 hours a day, seven days a week, fielding calls from both professionals and DIYers. Earthwerks notes that, in this economy, weekend warriors may choose floorcovering based on their level of comfort with the installation method; they may want ceramic but choose instead a laminate to eliminate the cost of paying an installer.

Wood flooring installation has lost a bit of marketshare on each end of the spectrum. Simple wood flooring installation projects, such as click systems, have lured the DIYer away from professional installation. At the same time, ultra-technical, design-oriented installations featuring medallions and borders have slowed as those consumers who still seek the quality of hardwood are cutting corners by eliminating the bells and whistles. Ed Korczak, CEO of the National Wood Flooring Association (NWFA), estimates that the industry has lost approximately 15% to 20% of its workforce during the recession. However, he notes that the business is moving in a positive direction; many NWFA member installers who weren’t booked even weeks ahead during the heart of the downturn are now booked two to three months in advance.

With the S600 carpet installation standards in progress and training programs gaining popularity across all floorcovering sectors, perhaps the coming years will see retailers’ concerns about installation eased as the lines of responsibility are more clearly etched.

Copyright 2010 Floor Focus 

Related Topics:Shaw Industries Group, Inc., Armstrong Flooring, Mannington Mills, The International Surface Event (TISE), Carpet and Rug Institute, Coverings, NWFA Expo, Lumber Liquidators