More and more retailers are putting hard wood, engineered wood, or laminate floors made to look like wood, in their stores. The fact is, people are attracted to nice looking, well-maintained wood floors. Studies have shown that stores with wood floors encourage more traffic than those with carpet or tile. Wood, however, requires considerably more maintenance than carpet or tile, and occasionally restorative efforts are required to keep wood floors in premium condition. To answer questions that often arise regarding restorative efforts, a basic understanding of the nature of wood – hard wood and engineered – is necessary.
“Hard Wood” is a general term used to designate lumber or veneer produced from broad-leafed or deciduous trees in contrast to soft wood, which is produced from evergreen (pine) or coniferous trees. Basically, trees with leaves give us hard wood; trees with needles give us soft wood.
Let’s go into the woods and cut down an oak tree (don’t forget to plant a new one in its place!). Let’s then cut a log from the tree, and from that log, saw a board 8 feet long, 10 inches wide, and 1 inch thick. We’ll put that board on a scale, and for the sake of example, let’s say that board weighs 100 pounds. Now we’ll put our board in a stack and leave it to dry for four to six months. Placing our board on the scale again, we find that it now weighs 50 pounds. It has lost half its weight from moisture evaporation.
Now we will put our 50-pound board into a dry kiln. Fans circulate the air, steam pipes create heat, and steam induces moisture. The humidity is lowered and the temperature increased over a seven-day period until the moisture content reaches about 8%. Our board now weighs 42 pounds. From our original tree felling, our board has lost almost 60% of its weight, and measures 31/32” X 9-1/8”, X 8’. The board has withered as each vessel and fiber is smaller in diameter and has shriveled. This is why the board is narrower and a little bit thinner, but not shorter.
In an effort to get a new store open, your General Contractors can rush the electrician, and rush the plumber, but by all means, they must never rush the wood floor installation! One of the most important aspects of wood floor installation is acclimation. Prior to installation, all the wood to be used must have the same moisture content, and be acclimated to the store itself. This takes time. If the wood is brought in from different areas of the country, the wood needs to be acclimated for 1 to 3 weeks prior to bringing the wood to the job site. Once on the job site, the wood must not be exposed to humidity or moisture, and the store temperature must be maintained at occupancy level for 4-5 days. Only after this period should the wood floor be installed.
“Engineered Wood” is an assembly made by bonding layers of veneer or lumber with an adhesive. There are usually three or more layers: the face, the core, and the back. These layers are locked together to improve dimensional stability by alternating the wood grain at each level.
Let’s go back to the tree we cut down in the woods. This time, however, instead of sawing a board out of our log, the trunk will remain whole, and the logs will be kept wet until processing. Our log is placed in a large vat and literally cooked with steam and hot water for at least 24 hours. The logs are then cut into bolts, and the bolts are placed on a lathe. This lathe is turned at a high speed against a sharp blade. The result is that our wood is actually peeled, or unrolled like a roll of tissue. This thin wood surface (usually about 4mm) is then glued to the layers (the face, core, and back) we have already locked together. Then our sheets of “engineered wood” are cut into floorboards for installation (they are usually stained and coated prior to being cut into floorboards).
Vinyl floors can be made to look like wood, cut into planks and glued to a subfloor. Keep in mind that though the product gives the appearance of wood, the maintenance is much different. Further, unlike engineered wood or hard wood, the “wear layer” is often less than 0.03mm (less than 1/16th the wear layer of engineered wood). Unless significant finish products are maintained on this floor, the vinyl will wear through long before the life cycle of the store expires. Be prepared to either spend significant money on floor finishing services, or replacing the floor within a few years. Though some flooring products are less expensive to purchase or install, the maintenance costs far exceed the savings in the long term. Several retailers have experimented with Vinyl wood “lookalikes” and gone back to engineered products. In the flooring world, there’s no such thing as “maintenance free.”
Clearly, wood floor damage is often caused by moisture. Floods, spills, and incorrect maintenance can easily result in damage to your wood (hard wood or engineered) floors. Fixtures dragged across floors by unknowing store personnel can cause numerous scratches and gouges, and even the foot traffic itself will often damage a wood floor. Which do you think would put a greater force on a hardwood floor: a two-ton car, a 125-pound woman, or an African elephant? A car has a load of 28-30 pounds per square inch (psi), an elephant 50-100 psi, and a 125-pound woman with high heels a 2000 psi! Indentation will occur from the heels themselves, and even more so from protruding nail-heads. An exposed nail head on a woman’s heel exerts a force of 8000 pounds per square inch! Clearly, there are times when restorative efforts are required.
Screening is a restorative service, less aggressive and less expensive than sanding, that can bring “new life” to your wood floor. Screens (similar to those in residential windows) are cut in rounds to fit a low speed buffing (swing) machine, and come in various grades of coarseness or grits. The screen will remove the surface product on the floor without removing the wood itself. The floor can then be recoated and restored to its original luster. Both hard wood and engineered wood floors can be screened any number of times to remove the topcoat products. It is imperative that only professional wood floor technicians provide screening services. It is very easy for a floor to be ruined by inappropriate action by unskilled floor technicians.
Screening is also often used as a “face lift” effort when sanding is not quite necessary, but cleaning is insufficient. Some retailers also use screening to “hide the sins” of a floor surface and buy another year or two before sanding when the budget just isn’t available.
Sanding is the more aggressive, and more expensive restorative service. Sanding a floor is a process of removing both the finish products and wood from the floor to remove minor abrasions. Most engineered floors can be sanded twice before replacement. When purchasing engineered flooring, make sure the wear layer is at least 4mm so sanding can be accomplished twice if necessary.
A hardwood floor can be sanded repeatedly based on the thickness of the floorboards. The hardwood used in most stores can withstand about 15 sanding treatments. After sanding, the floors will need to be re-stained (in most cases) and both sealed and top-coated with multiple layers of each product.
In the typical life cycle of a store (10 years, or the length of the lease) screening is usually performed every three to five years and sanding every 7 to 10. Interim maintenance programs will lengthen the time between restorative efforts. Current market rates for typical maintenance services range from $0.07 to $0.09 per square foot depending on the products applied (lower rates are also common with sufficient volume to justify). Sanding rates are approximately $2.50 per square foot (if stain is applied, add another $0.75 or more) and screening runs around $1.25. Of course, every vendor’s rates are different and chemical choices and volume of business has significant impact on pricing. However, it is clear that it is much less expensive to incorporate interim maintenance than to consistently budget for restoration.
Both engineered and hardwood floors require professional, interim maintenance to be kept in an attractive condition for your customers. Cleaning frequencies are determined by: weather patterns in varying climates, store locations based on soil tracking (mall stores, strip center stores, and street stores), store traffic levels, and the type of coating (products) on the floors themselves. Products should be chosen based on the wood itself, and the desired sheen (matt finish, high gloss, etc.).
Needless to say, your company has made an excellent investment by putting wood floors in your stores. As wood floor maintenance and restoration require highly skilled, experienced technicians, that investment needs to be protected by a carefully planned cleaning and preventive maintenance program. Bringing customers into your stores remains the primary objective and is clearly enhanced by proper maintenance. In a “perfect world” wood should be maintained professionally at least on a monthly basis and more often for flagship or four season street stores. Given the current economy and the need to reduce expense, some retailers are opting for 10 times per year, 6x per year or even quarterly service. If you are considering such decreases in maintenance, it is imperative that you also plan for the restoration that will be necessary in a year or two. Needless to say, we all hope and pray that the economy will have recovered by then and the budget will be back in place to restore the deteriorated floors.
The primary mission of most facility departments is to protect the assets of the retailer. Assets such as flooring, lighting, HVAC units, and fixtures need to be the primary concern when determining where to spend the limited resources. Ask your floor maintenance company to develop a long term strategy based on your current budget. If you can afford only half of the interim maintenance this year, when will the floors deteriorate to the point of needing restoration? Budget that amount in capital expense for the next year (s) based on your expectation of the need to compensate. It is always wise to carefully plan ahead and let your superiors know what the results of budget cuts will be down the road. The equation is still the same – the more often you perform interim maintenance, the less often you will need to perform restorative maintenance and vice versa. Cutting today will require spending tomorrow. Budgeting for the full life cycle of the store is the best method for achieving the mission of asset protection. Your floor maintenance vendor should be able to assist you in developing the plan for success.