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Style over budget?15th of October 2010
Writing exclusively for ECJ, floor machine manufacturer Truvox International explains how cleaning budget should play a central part in determining the choice of hard floor surfaces.
Large, stylish office buildings, hotels, conference centres all have a way of inducing architects to think big when it comes to the floors. We have all been in a modern structure with a tall atrium as its reception area, wherein it is almost de rigueur to have a highly polished stone floor, which looks magnificent, but imposes all sorts of rules on staff and visitors alike to protect the shine. You may even work in such a building. I frequently visit one such building in London where nothing wheeled is permitted to cross the reception area floor. Not even a wheeled suitcase.
And the reason? Wheel marks, it is claimed, would increase the cost and complexity of maintenance. The last time I was there, the first thing I saw when I entered the reception area was the largest scissor lift I have ever encountered, with tyred wheels like a tractor, parked in the reception area. It seems that the inside surfaces of the atrium windows were being cleaned.
Increased range of materials
The range of hard floor decorative materials that architects can specify has gradually increased, partly because of improved CNC machining and finishing techniques for large natural stone panels, but also because the chemistry and manufacture of stone sealants is better understood and a wider range is available. Modern machining has made it possible for large areas of smooth slate floor to be laid and effectively maintained, and this has become very fashionable, if somewhat expensive.
Similarly, marble can be machined into smooth slabs, laid into a cement bed and then polished and sealed in situ. You will hear different grades and types of marble described as Florentine, Travertine or other names indicating its origin and type.
Lower down the cost scale are granolithic floors, essentially a poured concrete mix which includes granite dust or other powdered stone plus polymeric material, which can be sealed and polished to an attractive finish. Then there is terrazzo, a mixture of cement and marble chips, laid either as a continuous screed or as slabs separated by strips of brass or a similar material. And, of course, ceramic tiles and quarry tiles.
Requirements and restrictions
The changing pattern of maintenance requirements for hard floors is as much a fashion issue as a technological one, but cleaning contractors are increasingly required to meet specifications laid down by installers, landlords and tenants from their respective points of view.
The fashion issues concern whether the floor is required to have and retain a high gloss, a semi-matt sheen or the appearance of natural stone. In any mediaeval cathedral you can see the manner in which untreated natural stone floors can last centuries without being treated with sealants. People walking across limestone or sandstone naturally hones the stone and forms a natural seal on the surface – most quickly in the areas of greatest foot traffic. The consequently variable finish, while acceptable to the Dean and Chapter, is less likely to go down well with the board of a multinational company.
Sealants and impregnators
When a stone floor is new, the main concerns of those responsible for its welfare and condition are stains and physical damage, either to the stone itself or to the finish applied to it.
It is essential that the contract cleaner has an exact specification for routine cleaning and periodic maintenance. Although the cleaner will not be carrying out periodic re-sealing, it is important he knows when it should be done, so blame for a degraded finish is not unfairly pushed on to them if budgetary restrictions cause maintenance to be delayed.
Sealants are usually either acrylic or wax-based, and form a protective layer on the surface of the stone. The cleaner needs to have detailed information not only about what is safe to use for cleaning but also about what is not.
Impregnators are normally used as a protection against stains on a new stone floor, and are usually water-based fluoropolymers that are absorbed into the top five mm or so of the stone. As use wears the impregnator, it resists stains and leaves the floor looking natural in colour and texture. Gradually the impregnator is worn away, but protects the floor during the period while it is developing a natural seal – here again, the rate of wear is dependant upon the volume of foot traffic.
Where a stone floor has been impregnated (a more expensive process than sealing) it is more vulnerable to chemical attack from materials applied to it than is a sealed floor. Cleaning impregnated floors therefore needs to be undertaken very cautiously and with exact instructions for how it is to be cleaned.
What not to do
Always insist on and follow precise cleaning instructions for stone floors. But in
•Never use chemicals containing acids or whose pH is below seven. They will attack limestone (marble), damage the surface and discolour marble and some other stones.
•Do not use household soaps, as they tend to leave a slippery scum, particularly in hard water areas.
•Although bleach is strongly alkaline (pH above seven) it is not to be used because it is likely to discolour the stone.
Use right machines
The precise cleaning instructions should include details of which types of cleaning machines are permitted, as well as instructions on cleaning materials. A well-equipped cleaning contractor will often have appropriate machines already, but if you are presented with a cleaning specification you find ambiguous or confusing, remember highly trained sales engineers from reputable machine manufacturers should have detailed knowledge of which types of machines are suitable for a task and which are not.
Remember that scrubber dryers and buffing machines are capable of being individually set up, or supplied in a configuration particularly suitable for a given task, and a floorcare machine sales engineer will be able to recommend the best way of meeting a customer’s needs.
Remember operator’s health
Always ask the machine manufacturer how a given machine prevents the dispersion of possibly harmful chemical solutions to affect operators or others using the building - ask about overflow prevention, the spread of toxic vapour by polishers, or of toxic spray by scrubbers. Machines with cylindrical brushes are particularly useful for tiled or irregularly surfaced hard floors because they exert greater pressure, clean more deeply into tile and grout areas and use less cleaning solution because of it.
Too many floor cleaning contractors assume that training means little more than teaching people to use machines and materials correctly and safely, and telling them what they must not do to a given surface.
In the context of caring for stone floors, it must also mean ensuring whoever does the cleaning fully understands the science of how stone, terrazzo or granolithic floors must be treated if they are to be kept in first-class condition. They must be educated as to why certain courses of action can do serious damage, could cause serious accidents or could cause a contract to be cancelled. Management people must respect the ability of employees to grasp key information if expensive floors are to be safe.
Access to instructions
Where there are technically demanding cleaning operations to be carried out, all facilities management and cleaning staff must have access to written instructions for the cleaning of each area’s floor. Insurance companies, whose policies usually cover expensive floors, often insist on written instructions being read by all concerned in cleaning and maintenance before they work on the floor, as chemical damage from wrong cleaning materials could trigger a claim. Bear in mind that it is common for staff changes to happen in cleaning teams, and that new cleaning staff need to be as well trained in the requirements of a contract where stone floors are concerned as the original staff trained for the job.
Keep costs under review
Increasingly, the choice of which type of hard floor to lay in the public areas of prestige buildings is, and should be, determined by the cleaning budget. Facilities managers and cleaning contractors need to maintain a close watch on what the maintenance of hard floors is actually going to cost or is costing. Here again, cleaning machine suppliers’ sales teams have to stay up to date themselves.