The Tell-Tale Heart and Your Floors

Rick Stryker, PE
June 2016
Flooring

Over the past year, we’ve become aware of some innovations that may make carpeting a more suitable and attractive alternative than it has been before. Given the heavy soiling brought in with camp foot traffic, broadloom (big rolls) carpet required an awful lot of expensive care to keep looking good. Modern commercial grade carpeting (commercial grade is key) can include fibers that are inherently “the color” of the floor. That is, instead of being dyed, the fibers themselves are blue or green or red. This almost eliminates fading from sunlight or harsh carpet cleaning chemicals. One manufacturer also has patented a process by which the fibers themselves are atomically charged to repel stains. You may have seen this advertised in men’s trousers some time back; now that approach has been applied to carpeting. If the staining substance can’t soak into the fibers, it simply can’t stain. Further, most commercial carpeting is available in squares or “tiles.” Often these come with a rubberized backing that sticks to a water-based adhesive applied to the floor. Should the floor get an indelible stain or damage (like a burn), the affected tile is peeled up and replaced with a new one from stock, or is traded with one from another area. By itself, that feature could save thousands of dollars while still keeping the floor looking new. The most significant drawback to carpet tile is the water-based adhesive. Should the floor flood (from a broken pipe, for example), the flooring would have to be removed and stacked to dry, the old adhesive removed, the sub floor allowed to dry, and the floor completely reinstalled.

Readers of the classics should recall a creepy, eerie story by Edgar Allen Poe, called “The Tell-tale Heart.” In it, a deranged man dismembers his employer and hides the body beneath the floorboards. His guilt convinces him that the dead man’s heart continues to beat louder and louder until he can no longer stand it, rips up the floor, and confesses to the awful crime. Does the flooring at camp speak harshly to you even without a corpse beneath it? Is it time to put to rest the awful coverings and coatings that hide a myriad of unattractive and deteriorating situations below? You know in the end, like the murderer in Poe’s tale, that you can’t simply cover up the mess, but you don’t quite know where to begin to find a lasting, attractive, and smart money solution for really tough locations across camp. This issue, we’re going to look at several flooring situations and consider some great long-term, cost-effective solutions.

Concrete Floors

Poe’s criminal was fortunate in one respect: He didn’t need to jackhammer concrete to hide the evidence of his crime. Camps have long tried to hide their “ugly” concrete though. Concrete itself is durable and low maintenance. But its durability can override its beauty and comfort. Not long ago, the choices to coat, cover, or treat your concrete floors were very limited. Attempts to paint them, even with supposedly hard-wearing enamels, didn’t last very long. Hard chair and table feet (some missing glides), along with tracked-in grit and sand, quickly took a toll. Fortunately, two very attractive and promising solutions have emerged: epoxy coatings and concrete polishing.

Unlike traditional “floor paints,” epoxy coatings have been highly engineered to withstand all of the hard wear that camps can put their high-traffic area concrete floors through. The product has become very common in construction where the concrete slab needs to be showier than unfinished concrete, and you’ve probably walked on it in your local grocery store without even noticing. Epoxy coatings can look nearly identical to old-style terrazzo with flecks of color contrasting against a solid background. They can be a solid color like their floor paint counterparts or have your camp logo or any other graphic embedded, all at a fraction of the cost of terrazzo. Other formulations show swirls and clouds much like marble, only in any color you can imagine. In addition to big box and grocery stores, they’re used almost everywhere you’d find a concrete floor from restaurants to automotive garages, shops, airplane hangars, locker rooms, and swimming pool decks. These specialty products are chemically formulated and are highly stain resistant. So if camp serves meals family style, that dumped bowl of marinara sauce on spaghetti night won’t affect it in the least; it mops right up! If your infirmary has a concrete floor, imagine how great it would be to have a hygienic floor that sanitizes as quickly as it can be mopped. It can even be installed over existing vinyl composition tile (VCT), with some additional preparation we will discuss below.

Some things need to be considered in your planning to place an epoxy floor. First is the condition of the existing floor. Epoxies apply and cure very thick, so they will cover small cracks and imperfections. However, they will not tolerate settlement. So if the concrete slab itself is cracked and/or settling, repairs are necessary before coatings are applied. Either the damaged concrete needs to be cut out and replaced altogether, or the settled slab will need to be raised by pumping filler under it. Neither of these tasks is usually within camp facility crew’s skillset. Specialty contractors will be required to stabilize the floor before coating. Next is the preparation. Everybody has a tendency to want to get to the “fun part” of any project, but any professional painter will tell you that the effort spent preparing the surface to be painted will determine the outcome every time. This product is no exception. The manufacturers have specific instructions that must be followed completely to achieve the results you expect, and these may include grinding or sanding the existing floor to roughen the surface for the coating to adhere to. Again, many camps lack the equipment and expertise to do this, so hiring a special contractor may be in your best interest. Finally, though epoxy coatings are very resistant to scratching, and flecking helps to hide scratches, deep scratches and gouges are sure to occur. Those are repaired with more of the same epoxy and sealant without too much bother. But where it’s damaged in a decoration, logo, or other pattern, the repaired spot will always be visible to one degree or another.

One last point to think about before you proceed is that although the process looks simple, there is as much art as there is science to working with floor epoxies. So while you can buy these kinds of products in home and paint specialty stores, it’s best to “let the painters paint” as they say, at least when it comes to large, very visible locations. For example, consider the product itself: The longest wearing, most durable products are composed of two components being mixed together thoroughly and in the proper proportion. Too much of one and the product sets too fast leaving a lumpy and streaked finish. Too much of the other and the product never sets. The tarry goo must be scraped and the floor stripped with chemical solvents in order to begin again. Further, the relative humidity may affect the mixture or proportions, which will affect proper working time and curing both. If camp is really set on taking this as a do-it-yourself project, pick a small, out of the way location for your team to learn some of the ins and outs of this process. Match the area you’d like to try with the coverage of a single batch of epoxy to get the most out of your test, and follow all of the instructions to the letter. Give the product and your staff a fair chance to see whether this is the right task to tackle in hours.

Another great, lasting concrete floor finish is polishing. This process grinds the top layer from the plain gray concrete surface, exposing and polishing the aggregate just beneath. Bear in mind that reinforced concrete, though it looks the same from place to place, varies greatly. That’s because the gravel that makes up most of the concrete “matrix” is highly regional. Where smooth, rounded gravels are plentiful, those are dredged from rivers and streams for use in concrete mixes. In some places, the bedrock is granite, and those colors vary regionally. Quarrying for and processing granite usually produces the gravel that’s commonly used in road construction, pipe bedding, and concrete as well. So where your regionally available construction material is attractive, it’s likely that your concrete contains beautiful stones waiting to be polished and shown off. Conversely, if the gravel that’s used for your concrete regionally isn’t particularly attractive or showy (light gray limestone is common in Pennsylvania), your shiny, polished floor will not have much visual interest. If you’re getting ready to place a new slab, you might want to consider asking the supplier whether he can design a mix that incorporates aggregate specifically for a polished finish. While those materials may not be native, the long-term cost and beauty of that may well offset any incremental cost in the preparation of the mix.

As for care, know that polished concrete must be sealed and occasionally re-sealed to prevent staining. Although it requires no wax or other maintenance coatings, and is simply wet-mopped, Portland cement concrete is porous like the popular granite countertops. Unsealed, it can receive and hold all sorts of stains. Further, it is chemically very basic (high pH), and spills that are acidic (like the marinara mentioned earlier) will set almost instantly into an unsealed surface. An anti-skid product is often mixed into the sealant to ensure that the floor isn’t slick, and together they bond to the surface below to fill the pores and deliver a hard, impermeable finish. And what about preparation for the work? Although what you can see and walk on after polishing is the finished surface and cracks won’t affect the performance like they would with an epoxy, cracking is a symptom of a deeper problem for your slab. Cracks should be repaired (not simply patched or filled) as described previously, as the crack will likely only worsen over time. Again, settled slabs can be lifted by pressure grouting, or the damaged section can be cut out and reworked to prevent future failure from beneath. When the floor is stable, planar, and crack-free, it can be polished to a brilliant gloss that should last for years. Finally, this concrete polishing is a highly technical skill requiring much experience and expensive specialty tools. This should be left to the professionals.

Administrative Space Floorings

Carpeting

Over the past year, we’ve become aware of some innovations that may make carpeting a more suitable and attractive alternative than it has been before. Given the heavy soiling brought in with camp foot traffic, broadloom (big rolls) carpet required an awful lot of expensive care to keep looking good. Modern commercial grade carpeting (commercial grade is key) can include fibers that are inherently “the color” of the floor. That is, instead of being dyed, the fibers themselves are blue or green or red. This almost eliminates fading from sunlight or harsh carpet cleaning chemicals. One manufacturer also has patented a process by which the fibers themselves are atomically charged to repel stains. You may have seen this advertised in men’s trousers some time back; now that approach has been applied to carpeting. If the staining substance can’t soak into the fibers, it simply can’t stain. Further, most commercial carpeting is available in squares or “tiles.” Often these come with a rubberized backing that sticks to a water-based adhesive applied to the floor. Should the floor get an indelible stain or damage (like a burn), the affected tile is peeled up and replaced with a new one from stock, or is traded with one from another area. By itself, that feature could save thousands of dollars while still keeping the floor looking new. The most significant drawback to carpet tile is the water-based adhesive. Should the floor flood (from a broken pipe, for example), the flooring would have to be removed and stacked to dry, the old adhesive removed, the sub floor allowed to dry, and the floor completely reinstalled.

Engineered Flooring

These are plank-like wood waste products that have historically been patterned to simulate different wood grains and colors. We have seen some recently, though, that even appear to be slate or marble tile. They generally are laid atop a vapor barrier (some products have the barrier built into the plank) and snap together tightly. Unlike traditional hardwood floors, they are not fixed to the floor beneath, but “float” to allow them to expand and contract with temperature and humidity. Manufacturers have made great strides in quality over the past couple of years, applying highly scratch-resistant coatings over nearly fade-proof patterns. They’ve even gone so far as to engineer the joints that attach the planks to each other to be essentially waterproof, making them an appropriate solution for kitchen areas and bathrooms. As with all of the other flooring solutions discussed so far, preparation of the floor surface is the key to an acceptable result. Engineered floors are intended to be installed so they are in direct and continuous contact with the surface beneath, whether that’s concrete or wood sub flooring. Each manufacturer sets specific tolerances, and the installer should be prepared to apply the appropriate leveling compound correctly for a spectacular professional, quiet result.

Other than screen doors, the floors at camp take more abuse than any other single building feature. They require a hard wearing, maintainable surface that stays looking clean and neat for a long time with a minimum of care. There are a host of proven, great flooring solutions, but like nearly everything else, you can only expect the best outcome when you match the product to the application, research the available manufacturers, and then follow their installation instructions to the letter. Good-looking, carefree floors will impress parents and please camp staff while delivering value year after year. Improving your bottom line makes the leadership look like geniuses and the accountant happy too.

Rick Stryker, PE, is a professional engineer with a passion for camps and conference centers. He practices in Billings, Montana, but invites comments, questions, and suggestions from everyone. His e-mail is rstryker@reagan.com.