Performance and maintenance in school flooring: Flooring Forensics

By Lew Migliore


Schools, from kindergarten to college, subject floorcoverings to some of the heaviest and harshest traffic volume, soiling conditions and maintenance challenges that exist in the marketplace. Flooring for the lower grades, from kindergarten to about the sixth grade, withstands the worst abuse and is most adversely affected. Beyond those early grades, the soiling issues and abusive use diminish, but the traffic load increases. 

Floorcoverings must be chosen carefully for schools because they are expected to achieve the objectives of long life, appearance retention and ease of maintenance. The budget must also be met and will place restrictions on the selection of the flooring material. This may be a delicate balance. Schools must consider the up-front costs weighed against the performance of different flooring materials, the life expectancy, cost of maintenance and impact on indoor air quality. 

Carpet and vinyl flooring are the most widely used options for schools. There are still those who consider carpet to be a contributor to health issues, despite studies and tests showing that it is actually better than hard surface flooring when properly maintained. The challenge here is that carpet often doesn’t get the proper care required, so soil gets trapped and the appearance degrades. Effective cleaning processes can eliminate both appearance and health issues, extending the life of carpet dramatically.

Schools often choose carpet in lower grade classrooms because young children spend a lot of time on the floor with learning programs and arts and crafts. Carpet is the logical choice in these grades because it’s softer, safer and more comfortable when sitting or lying on it. Carpet also offers noise reduction properties that hard surface flooring does not. The carpet selected has to be durable, stain resistant, low and level, easy to maintain and easy to replace in part if damaged. 

In addition, something not often considered for carpet is the integrity of the seams. They have to be virtually indestructible, as desks, chairs, tables and feet with soft-soled shoes are frequently dragged across them. For these reasons the best product to use in schools would be carpet tiles or something like Tandus Centiva’s Powerbond. Regular broadloom carpet may be less expensive, but it would not hold up to the use and abuse, especially at the seams, compared to more highly engineered textile floorcovering materials. An option for lower grades or day care centers would be a carpet tile product that incorporates games, such as the carpet tiles from Joy Carpets. 

For play areas, indoors or out, a rubber flooring material with some absorptive characteristics for impact force reduction is often required. These materials are durable, long lasting and easy to maintain. They don’t really ugly out, and they are effective for the intended use. Keep in mind that to get a flooring material to deliver all these criteria, the initial investment may be high, but amortized over its lifetime, and taking into account the lower cost of maintenance, the correct product actually ends up being less expensive. 

In the higher grades, where more hard surface flooring is used, products like VCT and sheet vinyl are traditionally specified. Sheet rubber flooring may also be used in these environments, as well as linoleum and, increasingly, LVT. However, many of these products require daily maintenance with a planned program, which can escalate the costs of owning the material compared to carpet—this may seem unlikely but there is hard data to back it up. 

We’ve seen indentations from desks appearing shortly after installation of rubber sheet goods. With linoleum, a big problem has been the maintenance staff, who are likely used to wet mopping the old vinyl floors and will do the same thing to linoleum tiles. This will result in the tiles curling on the floor like potato chips, which is not a product or installation problem but a cleaning one. Think of linoleum as a thin wood flooring material, and maintenance of it must be strictly compliant with manufacturer recommendations. 

How about luxury vinyl tile or plank flooring? These products can also be used; however, they may be more expensive and too decorative for the more utilitarian setting of a school, regardless of grade level. They also have a tendency to be unstable when a value priced product is sourced. Historically, most textile or hard surface products used in schools are fairly bland and unassuming—common colors and shades with no design element—though there is now a trend toward a higher design aesthetic in schools.

Health concerns related to flooring in schools must also be considered. Asthma and allergy friendly products are becoming more important, especially since humans now stay indoors 93% of the time. For hard surface flooring, there is a move toward vinyl flooring that is phthalate free, or vinyl alternatives like flooring made of polyester or a polyolefin. At the same time, there’s increased demand for cushioned vinyl in gyms or multipurpose spaces. Sports flooring is often made of rubber or rubber blends, which can emit odors that may be offensive to some, even though they’re regarded as safe. 

Dust, mold and mildew are issues that schools often consider regarding flooring selection. Some flooring products contain anti-bacterial treatments, and the adhesives used to install them can also use similar treatments. Dust is in the air and falls on flooring, whether hard or soft surface. Mold, mildew and dust are generally site, maintenance and environmental issues that have to do with where flooring is installed—assuming that installation was done correctly.

The education market at all levels is still one of the most viable for flooring. Pre-schools are growing dramatically, and new schools are being built or refurbished. Participation in this active market, which purchases primarily by bid, requires an understanding of the products, the ability to interpret the specification and understand the site conditions, and the skills to successfully install the specified materials. And, as always, it is important that the right product be used in the right place, installed correctly and maintained properly, so it will actually deliver the long life performance expected.

Copyright 2015 Floor Focus 

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