Poured Floors-A Look at Epoxy: Opportunity abounds as interest grows for epoxy floors - April 2021
By Meg Scarbrough
For decades, concrete as a finished floor has dominated the poured floors landscape, where function along with the movement toward the industrial urban “look” has driven demand even though it’s hard, it cracks, it’s expensive and it’s acoustically bright. Fortunately, there’s been a shift in recent years that has seen epoxy floors gaining share of the poured category in both industrial and commercial settings, thanks to its durability, ease of maintenance and customization options. It’s even finding its way into the home.
But in the world of poured floors, the competition remains stiff among the likes of finished concrete, terrazzo, polyurethane and methyl methacrylate (MMA), among others, where advancements in technologies and formulations over the years have generated more opportunity than ever. These days, within the resinous floors category alone, material manufacturers might have 30 to 40 systems to meet any number of needs. Says Tim Smith, senior manager of training and field engineering for Stonhard, a manufacturer of seamless floor systems, where resinous was once relegated to industrial settings, “it’s now opened up to almost any environment.”
Contractors and suppliers alike are optimistic and predict continued growth for epoxy, especially in spaces where, amid a pandemic, health and safety are taking center stage. But they say success for this complex category means building strong relationships with their partners in the business.
Epoxy has historically been used in industrial environments, like automotive manufacturing, where large interior spaces come with tough requirements. Some have even been approved and are used in spaces where there are regulatory standards for flooring set forth by the Food and Drug Administration or the U.S. Department of Agriculture, like food and beverage and pharmaceutical processing plants.
Over the years, as aesthetic elements have been added and chemistries have changed, interest has grown in the more traditional vertical sectors, and epoxy is gaining momentum in retail and healthcare settings. Smith says his company recognized the growing demand in commercial epoxy about ten years ago and began to expand its product line.
Epoxy floors have seen increased attention amid the pandemic, which brought higher scrutiny around floors. Says Casey Ball, global market director of floors for Sherwin-Williams, “People are concerned about cleanability or hygiene, even more now than maybe they were in years past.”
As a result, Stonhard has adjusted its strategy to address urgent needs. Says Smith, “We really had to take a step back and consider what type of markets we wanted to really focus on, and we went directly to healthcare, pharmaceutical, food and beverage and general manufacturing. And the reason we did that was because everybody needs food, everybody needs healthcare, especially during a pandemic.” The focus on manufacturing came about as a way to meet the needs of companies that had shifted their normal production to making ventilators, masks or other essential safety gear and needed sterile environments in which to operate.
Ken Barnum, vice president of marketing for Dur-A-Flex, a manufacturer of high-performance seamless floor and wall systems, says that in 2020 there was activity on the commercial side in spaces where work was already planned but could be accelerated due to lack of occupants, like schools and education settings.
Despite some business slowdown on the industrial side, manufacturers report that 2020 finished strong, and they predict a solid year with more growth ahead as projects that were deferred come around again.
Outside of more traditional settings, epoxy manufacturers have also seen growing demand for solutions to meet highly specialized needs.
Thanks to technological advancements, people are more connected than ever, and with that comes an increased demand for products to satisfy them. For the makers of computers, microchips and other electronic products, there are myriad challenges. Among them is static charge, which is easy to generate just by walking across a traditional epoxy floor. In the world of electronics, it’s a destructive foe. Someone who has built up an electric charge can fry a circuit board just by touching it.
So to reduce static shock, an ESD (electrostatic dissipative) coating is used, which directs static build-up down into the floor. Says Ball, “ESD has become a huge market today with electronics, whether it’s a laptop, a cellphone. With the amount of electronics that people use today, electronics manufacturing is a big industry, and they have to be concerned about those static charges.”
ESD isn’t new and has been used for years in spaces where static can have major consequences. Steve Dorando, vice president of high performance floors for Diverzify, a commercial flooring contracting company, has seen ESD used in aerospace facilities where floors need to withstand traffic from forklifts but also ensure components being assembled aren’t damaged by static charge.
Beyond damage of electronic components, there can be fatal consequences.
Says Smith, “There are cleanroom classifications (places where particulate contamination is filtered out to provide a clean working environment) where the hazards that they’re working with are defined. Sometimes people are working with flammable gases that they’re exposed to. Other times it’s combustible dust. A lot of sugar and flour plants have silos with very fine powders, and they make sure that when their employees are walking across the floor, they can’t build a charge there either.” Ball notes that these floors are also sold to the military for missile-building facilities. In any of these areas, a spark could potentially trigger an explosion.
Another growing area of the epoxy business is in cannabis production, as more states legalize its use. Indoor grow facilities face building regulations in much the same way as food and beverage spaces, where creating a sterile environment is key. Barnum says it’s “probably the most interesting vertical right now. Guys in our space like to talk about it, because as it becomes more prominent and growing it legally has to be more regulated, there are requirements for grow facilities. So a lot of the resin manufacturers are clamoring for those types of new sales opportunities.” Safety aside, there has been movement to create more reflective epoxy that can help boost light exposure in indoor grow facilities.
While epoxy floors will continue to be mostly used in industrial and commercial settings, suppliers and contractors say they’ve seen an increase in residential applications, primarily in garages. Barnum says the demand in the market has been “huge.”
And in the past year as homeowners sought to update their homes or create more comfortable spaces, the demand has grown more. Says Ball, “All of a sudden, you want to have a space where you can socially distance from people and still be with people. And so you have your garage door open, you have a TV out there, maybe you’ve got a garage fridge with cold beer in it. That garage space became even more critical.”
FINDING THE PERFECT SOLUTION
Because of its wide array of customization options and installation challenges, suppliers say it’s critical to ensure the right product is being specified to meet a space’s needs: there’s no one-size-fits-all approach, and sometimes, you might find epoxy isn’t the solution at all.
Part of the key to success-for the suppliers, the end users and everyone in between-is collaboration. Says Barnum, “It really is all about what is the ultimate customer need, because for the most part, if you have a need, we really do probably have a solution. So one of the big things that we do is work with architects, designers and specifiers to make sure that they’re recommending the right products for the right solution.”
Dorando agrees, saying there must be awareness of the importance of material selection and proper engineering details. He adds, “Each resinous system is designed with the owner, general contractor and architect. Once we clearly understand the needs, we will recommend the solution based on performance. Our team will white-board each project focused on resin formula, engineering details and our safety plan.” And the supplier is intimately involved in the specifications and design of the project.
But another component is that due to the complexity of some of the epoxy formulations on the market, some suppliers won’t sell to just any homeowner, contractor or retailer. In fact, some either require contractors take a certification course or they staff their own in-house installers. Part of the reason is that a huge part of epoxy application comes down to floor prep, and without proper inspection on the front end, failures can and do happen. It’s about supplying a high-quality finished product.
Says Smith, “One of our main focuses for the last four to five years has been to train our salesmen to be able to walk onto a jobsite and actually inspect the prep of the concrete, because for us, it’s one of the biggest issues throughout. Looking at failure analysis over ten to 15 years, floor prep is what guarantees your floor is going to bite into the concrete. And when we install floors, we generally expect them to become part of the building.”
What sets epoxy apart:
Durability: Epoxy is considered the strongest and most durable among resinous options and has seemingly endless customizations, making it the most widely used resinous flooring as a result, in both new construction and replacement flooring.
It can be applied in varying thicknesses, from a thin coating (generally 20 mils and under) to heavy pours (more than 250 mils), based on the needs of a space and the amount of traffic and weight that will be applied atop it. For example, in high-demand areas where maybe there’s heavy machinery, aggregate like sand or powder will be added to give it additional support.
Cleanability: The seamless, nonporous nature of epoxy makes it easy to clean and maintain. Ball says it’s what makes epoxy so attractive in a functional sense. He says, “If you’re competing against something like tile, which has grout lines, seams and joints in an area that requires a high level of hygiene, those are areas that potentially hold bacteria.”
Slip resistance: Aggregate can be added to provide slip resistance. Says Ball, “If you go into a car dealership to have your car serviced where the technicians are working on your car, oftentimes, there is epoxy floor there. And at one point, some dealers tried to go to a polished floor there. But what they found is it was just too slippery because of brake fluid, transmission fluid and oil.” With epoxy, aggregate can be added that provides grip and improves overall durability.
Ball points to another example where slip resistance is key: football stadiums. At the Tennessee Titans stadium in Nashville, Sherwin Williams installed floors in the concourses and outside the stadium. He says testing was conducted around food and drink spills, “They wanted to make sure that if you’re walking at a football game that you don’t slip and fall after somebody spilled a beer or coke and then a hotdog. And so we really had to dial in the texture for that, because in public spaces, that’s a huge concern.”
The downside of adding aggregate for slip resistance is that it loses some of its cleanability because of the texture. Ball says for manufacturers it’s a challenge finding the perfect balance of slip resistance and cleanability. But with health and safety a top priority, he says the disadvantages don’t outweigh the benefit for end-users.
Decorative: Beyond function, epoxy has gained some aesthetic appeal and it’s becoming a decorative flooring option, especially in commercial settings. Says Ball, “What’s really popular in commercial settings right now is metallic floors where you take clear epoxy and add a metallic additive you see in car paint and it makes it kind of reflect.” And the color options are virtually limitless, as well.
Many major suppliers of epoxy in the U.S. also manufacture materials for other types of poured floors. Here’s a look at some of them and what they are doing:
Stonhard is a Maple Shade, New Jersey-based manufacturer and installer of seamless floors, walls and linings for industrial and commercial environments. It’s one of the largest resinous turnkey companies in the industry and is part of RPM International, a global producer of industrial chemicals and materials. Its high-performance poured floor offerings include epoxy, urethane and methyl methacrylate resin-based systems. The company recently released Stoncrete EFX, which is a troweled epoxy mortar system that has the look and feel of polished concrete. In other big news for the company, Stonhard will be celebrating its 100th anniversary in the coming year.
Sherwin-Williams’ General Polymers brand specializes in floor and wall systems for a variety of commercial and industrial applications and offers poured options, including epoxy and terrazzo. Its origins date back to 1996 as the General Plastics Company; in 2000, it was acquired by Sherwin-Williams. It is one of the world’s largest providers of protective and marine coatings and serves markets in the U.S. and internationally. One of its industrial epoxy products is TPM Seamless Epoxy Floors, which can be customized to meet traffic, texture and color needs.
Dur-A-Flex is a 55-year-old family-owned business based in East Hartford, Connecticut that manufactures high-performance seamless floor and wall systems, including epoxy, MMA and urethane for commercial, industrial and institutional settings. It offers a broad range of epoxy solutions, including Dur-A-Gard ESD, its static dissipative system; ReFLEXions Designer Floor, a decorative system; Dur-A-Crete, a 100% solids epoxy with a sand aggregate; and many other options.
Sika USA is a specialty chemicals company based in Lyndhurst, New Jersey, that is a leader in the development and production of systems and solutions for bonding, sealing, damping, reinforcing and protecting. It is part of the Switzerland-based Sika Group, which has expanded in the past decade with several acquisitions, including Schonöx. It offers a number of polyurethane and epoxy flooring systems for industrial and commercial settings. In March, Sika announced it had acquired the flooring adhesives business of U.S.-based DriTac.
Key Resin, based in Batavia, Ohio, specializes in epoxy terrazzo and resinous flooring, wall coating systems, concrete repair materials and maintenance products. While it makes its own labeled terrazzo products under the KRC Terrazzo brand, the resinous flooring it produces and sells is for Flowcrete Americas, which has a range of poured floor solutions for industrial and commercial settings and includes urethane, MMA, epoxy and terrazzo. A newer Flowcrete product is Flowcoat ESD Nano, a 100% solids, chemical-resistant epoxy system designed to dissipate electrostatic charge. It contains Carbon NanoTube Technology that allows trapped air to escape through the substrate during cure.
Laticrete, based in Bethany, Connecticut, a global supplier of flooring products and services, has a line of premier resinous floor coatings under its Spartacote brand, which it acquired from HP Spartacote in 2014. In 2018, the company released its Resinous Flooring Estimator, an online tool that allows users, both the general public and authorized Laticrete distributors, to specify their area, receive an estimate of the individual components of any Spartacote system, quantities and optional accessories, and place an order.
Crossfield Products, based in Rancho Dominguez, California, is a manufacturer of a variety of construction coating, overlay and fluid-applied flooring materials. Its major brands are Dex-O-Tex, Miracote and Dex-O-Tex Marine. Dex-O-Tex offers a variety of poured floor options, including epoxy, terrazzo and urethane. It also does private label manufacturing.
Dudick, based in Streetsboro, Ohio, has been a manufacturer of high-performance linings and coatings for more than 50 years. The company offers a wide range of flooring solutions, including epoxy, polyester, vinyl ester and urethane resins, like its Steri-Seal, a high-build epoxy for floors and walls.
Epoxy, with all of its benefits and variations, is not without its drawbacks and challenges.
One is that it’s not a permanent solution. It may last a couple of decades, but it will ultimately need to be replaced due to cracking and wear and tear. It also has UV stability issues and will discolor due to extended light exposure. UV stabilizers can be added to slow that process, but end users should still expect their floor to yellow with time. Epoxy application can be a longer process than other flooring options, taking days to dry depending on the thickness. And floor prep and installation can be challenging. It’s applied over concrete, and that surface must be cleaned and grinded and free of grease or moisture prior to introducing the resin.
One particular pain point for the industry over the years has been the odor epoxy emits while wet. It has limited its application in commercial settings, where fumes could disrupt adjacent occupied spaces.
The strength of the smell depends on the amount of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the resin. Historically, epoxies were solvent-based and had high levels of VOCs. But environmental regulations have gotten tighter in an effort to stem ozone depletion, restricting VOC content. In the last decade, water-based epoxies have come into the market that are seen as greener and more environmentally friendly and with less odor, albeit less durable. It’s opened the door for more opportunities in commercial work. Dorando says it’s been one of the most exciting changes he’s seen in the industry. “The product that was installed 20 years ago ... you would never open that up in a hospital or food company,” Dorando explains. “But right now I’ve been watching someone make sushi in airline kitchens while we’re putting product on right next to it, just separated by plastic. So I think that’s really exciting.”
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