Floor Chemical Basics

April 1, 1998
Decisions regarding the selection of floor-care chemicals and materials often can be complex, and should be based on a variety of information.

Business and facility managers are confronted with choices on a daily basis. While some are fairly easy to make, others are not. Decisions regarding the selection of floor-care chemicals and materials often can be complex, and should be based on a variety of information.

The most complicated and misunderstood group of chemicals fall within floor-finish systems for hard-surface floors. Floor-finish systems usually bring to mind resilient floors. A resilient floor-finish system is comprised of five basic chemicals, some of which are used for other processes. The most obvious is the floor finish, but the stripper, neutralizer, neutral cleaner and rejuvenators are all important.

-Strippers. Most strippers are rated high on the pH scale, usually around 12. This is because the floor finishes they need to remove are slightly acidic. Strippers are formulated to work with specific types of floor finishes; therefore, the stripper should be specific to the system it is being used with. Unfortunately, this is not always possible, often because there is no record of what previously was used. In this situation, use a general stripper provided by a major manufacturer. However, once the new finish is down, the stripper always should fit the system. When using a floor-finish system, use the entire system of products; do not mix and match products.

-Neutralizers. Professional neutralizing products are a fairly recent addition to the chemistry of floor maintenance. Neutralizers have high suspension properties (to suspend impurities on the floor until they can be removed) and have the ability to chemically make the floor surface come to a pH of 7 (neutral).

-Floor finishes. Floor finishes are the heart of any resilient floor-care program-they put a protective, safe and attractive coating over the surface of the tile.

One finish is natural, or Carnauba, wax. Most maintenance personnel have switched from Carnauba waxes to polymer floor finishes. One reason is that Carnauba waxes are soft and must be buffed back into place; polymers are more rigid and can withstand greater traffic. When first introduced, polymer finishes could not be buffed and brought to a high luster. This is not the case today.

When selecting the appropriate floor finish, keep in mind that what is new is not always what is needed in every area. Thermoplastic high-speed finishes work well in large open areas, such as halls and foyers. In crowded rooms with lots of furniture, the process of burnishing on a regular basis is almost impossible unless the school has large amounts of money to spend on employees moving furniture. One solution is to use thermoplastic finishes in open areas and regular metal interlock (sometimes called non-buffable) finishes in congested areas. Most manufacturers have floor systems whose chemicals intertwine with the finishes they manufacture in both finish systems.

-Neutral cleaners. The neutral cleaner in a floor-care system is probably the most important link in the system next to the finish itself. This is because when properly formulated and used, cleaners will keep the floor finish from deteriorating and being damaged by soils. Neutral cleaners are named what they are because their pH is very close to 7. When used properly, they cannot damage the floor finish, whereas all-purpose detergents with a pH of 9 or above can.

-Rejuvenators. Rejuvenators are used with thermoplastic polymer finishes to create a longer-lasting and better-looking floor. After a period of time, these types of finishes start to look dull, even if they have had excellent care with proper neutralizers and good schedules for dust mopping and high-speed burnishing. Rejuvenators actually bring new life to a floor finish by softening its hardened surface so the high-speed equipment can reform it. It is important to have rejuvenators that fit into the system; if it is not formulated for a specific type of floor finish, problems can arise. Some floor-care systems have up to three different rejuvenators that can be used in one floor-care system depending on the condition of the floor and how long the finish has been down.

Keeping hardwood looking new Hardwood floors are installed in many areas, including lobbies and athletic areas. The problems that are presented by these floors usually are a result of years of abuse, misuse, poor maintenance habits and poor chemical selection. These floors, if not prepared properly to receive the seal, will start to peel, flake and/or discolor. If an inexpensive finish is used year after year, the floor will start to look dark, dropping light-reflection ability in the room. The floor also will begin to look rough and wavy.

Constant dust mopping with non-oil treatments and damp mopping with neutral cleaners will keep hardwood floors looking good. When reseal time comes, it is best to use a water-based urethane, especially in these times of high environmental awareness. Water-based urethanes have a short dry time compared to most oil-modified urethanes. In addition, they last longer and are more durable than they were a few years ago.

Caring for carpet

Although there are not as many chemicals used for the regular care of carpet as there are for resilient floors, there are more systems that use different kinds of materials. While each has its own set of chemicals and materials, there are some basic traits to look for.

As everybody knows, dirt accumulates in carpets. If carpets are dirty, they will hold bacteria, mold and dust mites, which may travel into the air and become a source of sickness in a building. This is an important factor to consider when choosing carpet-cleaning materials because some cleaners actually cause the carpet to become more of a sink for harmful materials. This is because these chemicals either deposit sticky materials in the carpet, which attract more dirt and grit and hold it there, or deposit materials into the carpet that are meant to absorb dirt, but the materials cannot be fully removed.

Wet carpet extraction, bonnet cleaning of carpets and dry foam extraction are all good methods for cleaning carpets. Wet extraction is restorative, and the other two are considered interim methods. However, some extraction chemicals, spray-on bonnet cleaning shampoos, and foam-generation materials have sticky substances in them, which can remain behind on the carpet fibers and create a magnet for dirt. The more materials left in a carpet, the better chance a problem will develop.

In some areas, dry extraction is considered the premium way to clean carpets because wet extraction creates too many mold problems. This is true in high-humidity areas, as well as in facilities that operate 24 hours a day, where the carpet constantly is being walked on. The drawback is that these can drive soil-gathering materials-a type of tiny sponge that absorbs dirt-into the carpet, which many standard vacuums cannot remove. Therefore, they could become a source of dirt. The solution here is to not overuse this method; use good, high-quality-suction vacuums, and periodically wet extract with quality wet-extraction chemicals.

Another potential problem area is carpet spotting. Never use all-purpose cleaners or regular neutral cleaners to spot-clean carpets, because they leave sticky residues. Use a quality wet-extraction shampoo diluted properly or a professionally designed spotting kit. Spotting kits contain various chemicals that will remove most materials, except in cases where carpets have been stained.

Carpet protection chemicals do work; however, they do not make dirt disappear and do not replace the need for a good extraction program. Of course, when a carpet is extracted, the process typically removes these chemicals and they must be replaced. Fluorochemical protectors usually do not cause any problems and, when applied at the carpet mills, keep new carpets from soiling for a long time.

Making the purchase

Most educational institutions have developed elaborate systems for purchasing, storing and delivering chemicals to buildings. Buying chemicals in large quantities has been popular, especially in large organizations. In the days of inexpensive building costs, low energy costs and low labor rates for delivery personnel, this made sense. But in the last 10 years, this idea has come under question as to whether it is the most cost-effective way to buy materials.

Most educational warehouses work at one turn a year on inventory. Floor finish is not a product that keeps well over a long period-most are formulated to be used within a year. A warehouse gets its annual supply and heats it, moves it around and delivers it to a school. All these things come at a price, but it does not stop there. After delivery, many maintenance workers place the chemicals in a master supply room for a while, often months. Then, it is moved to the custodial closet where it may stay a bit longer before actual use.

All these moves and costs deteriorate a price that may have seemed good in the beginning, but when the actual costs are determined the product often ends up costing more than it should. This does not take into account shrinkage while in the warehouse, requisition and paperwork costs, loss and damage at the site, etc.

Some organizations have determined that partner shipping with suppliers that deliver the materials quickly to each site, as well as provide training and inventory control, is the most cost-effective method for purchasing.

Over the past few years, there has been a lot of talk about so-called green chemicals for cleaning. Chemicals with names containing such buzz words as "bio," "eco," and "natural" are found in almost every chemical line. While great strides have been made in this area, many compounds and materials used still have a harmful effect on the environment with phosphates and volatile organic compound (VOC) problems.

Probably more important than how a chemical is formulated in this fight to protect the environment is the way in which it is used and in what quantities. Most maintenance departments have no definite way of tracking how much material is used in operations on a per-job or per-process basis. Many cannot even determine what was used in the last month.

Managers worry about such things as management of labor and time lost due to employees not performing as they should. They also worry a great deal about safety on the job. All these things can be affected by the inappropriate use of chemicals. If chemical competency is not taught, jobs must be redone constantly. If too much of a chemical product is used on a job, an extra trip must be taken to refill containers, which results in additional labor costs. The case for safety is obvious.

The processes that maintenance personnel use are dependent on materials and chemicals; without a chemical tracking system, smart processes cannot take place, and the environment ends up with more chemicals flowing down the stream than need be.

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