For the last several years, I have come back from Surfaces, the big flooring and stone show in Vegas, saying, “What have they done to us this time?” The industry has been presenting those of us in the cleaning industry with one cleaning issue after another. But not this year. If there is one word to describe the show this year, it would be “waterproof.” Manufacturers have finally caught on to the fact that consumers, to say nothing of professional cleaners, want surfaces that can be easily cleaned without damage. One of the advances that can make this possible is the wide adaptation of the UV-cured finishes. For cleaning purposes, we can treat them like polyurethane, but they are harder and more durable than the traditional polys. They also are low VOC since they are applied without solvents. The only drawback is that they must be applied in the factory, so you will not see them on site-finished floors. Let’s look at some specific categories.
Luxury Vinyl Tile (LVT)
As the problems with laminate flooring were becoming obvious, LVT came bursting on the scene. LVT has the ability to mimic other materials, wood or stone for instance, but is not sensitive to moisture. LVT is a pattern printed on vinyl, laminated to a vinyl or other waterproof core, and covered with a wear layer and a protective finish, often those UV-cured finishes mentioned above. The printing and embossing (texturing) of the products has become quite realistic and can give the look of wood or stone for less money and easier care. Because of this, LVT has gone from zero to 18 – 20% of the total flooring market in about five years. LVT can be cleaned with controlled amounts of water and mild detergent. Be careful not to let water get in between the tiles or planks. Water itself won’t damage the LVT, but it can become trapped under the flooring where it can cause mold or other problems. For this reason, manufacturers discourage the use of steam mops on the floating-floor versions of LVT. LVT comes in two main categories, flexible and rigid, with an alphabet soup of product names.
FLEXIBLE: This was the original version of LVT. As the name implies, these tiles or planks (LVP) are flexible and come as loose-lay, floating click-installed, or glue down options. This product has been very successful except when exposed to heat such as extended direct sun from a glass door or window. It can deform in such situations. This problem led to the search for a more stable core, and Rigid core was born.
RIGID: These products are more stable than the flexible LVT and have their own set of initials.
SPC: Solid Poly Core, also called Stone Poly Composite, is the most common subtype. The core of this product is made up of a mixture of Limestone and Polyvinyl chloride. SPC is the most durable of the types and is recommended for high traffic or wet areas.
WFC: Waterproof Foamed Core. WPC has a waterproof poly core that has been foamed to give the product more resilience and more comfort underfoot. This flooring is recommended for residential living areas.
WPC: Wood Poly Core. WPC is a combination of wood product and polyvinyl chloride. WPC is less common, but because of the wood derivatives is considered greener.
MgO: These products are considered the greenest choice since they have no poly in the core. The core is composed of Magnesium Oxide.
All these products are easily cleaned with a mild detergent and a microfiber mop. Since most of these products are textured to mimic the natural material, a flat mop with a thicker nap is advisable.
This category used to be the most frustrating for cleaners. Excessive moisture caused the plank ends to curl up, and in extreme cases, even the plank faces would blister. The result was that one could not use enough cleaning solution to properly clean a moderately dirty floor. Fortunately, the better manufacturers have finally figured out that they must make their product waterproof. Waterproof is defined as able to withstand water sitting on the floor for 72 hours without damage to the floor. Mohawk even has a line, REVwood, that they will warranty even if a steam mop has been used on it. Printing and embossing have also improved, so it is sometimes hard to know exactly what material you are looking at. Be aware that there is still a lot of product coming in from China that has not been as well sealed against water. Also, as a professional cleaner, it is difficult to tell the grade of the laminate that is already in a home. It is certainly a good idea to look for preexisting damage.
Some manufacturers are now advertising waterproof wood floors. Again, this is using the 72-hour standard. This is possible partly because of the UV finishes we mentioned earlier, and partially because the definition of a wood floor has changed. Now, with the condition that the top layer (under the clear wear and polyurethane coats) is genuine wood, the flooring can be sold as a wood floor. In some of these products, the wood is a thin shaving laminated to a waterproof solid core. When I first saw these products, it seemed very few trees were harmed in the production of these items. There are other engineered wood floors advertised as waterproof with wood layers that have a more traditional thin wood layer laminated to the solid core.
The newer, stronger finishes are allowing the flooring manufacturers to give longer warranties on their wood floor products. A number of these warranties go up to a generous 20 or 30 years, and in some cases even longer. Because of these extended warranties, manufacturers are increasingly more concerned with the care and maintenance of the floor after installation. As was true last year, every manufacturer I spoke with specifically said not to use vinegar and water on their flooring. Three indicated that any use of it would void the warranty.
Although there is still a lot of Nylon carpet on the market, Polyester is newly dominant in carpet sales and is seeing a growing share. Polyester has advantages in price-point and stain-resistance. It also has a nice, soft feel or “hand.” The drawback is that it lacks the resilience of Nylon, so it is more likely to mat down in high traffic areas. The newer carpets have somewhat compensated for this shortcoming by having denser pile.
The other big story about Polyester PET, which is the main poly used in carpets, is that it is made from recycled plastic drink bottles. Many of the carpets available have between 40% to 100 % recycled material in them. At the January show, Mohawk was claiming that they had recycled 40,725,219,242 plastic drink bottles and counting. Other companies are also recycling plastic bottles and improving their processes to use less power and water.
Much of today’s carpet is solution-dyed, which means the color is in the fiber rather than added after the manufacturing of the fiber, or even after the manufacturing of the carpet itself. This makes the carpet more stain-resistant and resistant to chlorine bleach, a major selling point. But you may have noticed if you have looked at a carpet display lately, that there is a limited selection of colors. It seems that most carpet is made up of a combination of relatively limited set of fiber colors, largely browns, beiges, grays. This is because the mills are only inventorying a limited number of fiber colors. The spray dying system, which was the standard for nylon carpet for years, allowed short runs of almost any color desired but left the carpet more vulnerable to bleaching by sun or chemicals.
Natural stone, and man-made stone such as Quartz, are still popular. New this year are two special finishes to protect acid-sensitive stone, such as marble, from acids and other chemical assaults. This can be very useful in kitchens or other places where the stone may be exposed to acidic foods such as citrus fruits, soft drinks, or even tomatoes. Both seem to be effective, but neither is cheap, running $40-60 per square foot. That cost is in addition to the material cost of the stone. Note: normal penetrating sealers do not protect stone from chemicals.
Although wood and stone are still important categories, the push towards natural that was dominant several years ago has subsided. Customers have shown they prefer the ease of care of the synthetic surfaces and finishes over the more temperamental, vulnerable natural ones. Four years ago, almost every wood flooring manufacturer was showing the more natural oil finishes. Today some still offer them, but they are much diminished. Bamboo, which was everywhere at the show six years ago and was heralded as a sustainable, natural flooring material, has all but disappeared. In this case, the material was very disappointing after it was put into use. Sisal and other natural fiber rugs were also much less in evidence at this year’s show.
In conclusion, while floors being waterproof was the initial big take-away from the 2020 Surfaces show, cleanability and convenience are emerging as important themes in the flooring and surface industry this year.
Bruce Vance is the co-owner of Town and Country Cleaning in Raleigh, North Carolina.