Failures as a teachable moment

Another 1,000 words

Christopher Capobianco

First, I want to thank the readers that reached out to me about my last column “Worth 1,000 words.” I asked about how you liked the format and the reaction was very positive. Here are a couple of examples of problems I saw recently that are nothing new, but installers still made an old mistake; the two situations I encountered recently were preventable problems related to floor covering installation.

Floating floors

It’s all about expansion! The first time I worked with floating floors was with engineered wood products in the 1980s, but the industry learned about them quickly when laminates took the industry by storm in the mid ‘90s. Point being, this is not a new category, yet I continue to see problems related to ignorance of proper expansion. Engineered wood, cork, linoleum and laminate floors have a wood or high density fiberboard (HDF) core, and the written specs call for those products to be installed with space at the perimeter for expansion, expansion joints with t-moldings on runs longer than 30 to 40 feet (depending on the product) and around heavy items like millwork, cabinets or reception desks. Been that way forever, right? Still, seems some people don’t know that. Over the past eight months I’ve seen a plank floor in an office corridor was installed tight to the walls and in the middle buckled over two inches off the floor. Talk about a speed bump!

Photo 1

I saw two commercial applications recently where these types of products were installed with heavy cabinets on top, and the joints in the floor were opening all over because the floor could not “float.” I once saw a beautiful laminate floor in a law firm that was installed in a 55-foot run with no joints AND had a reception desk on top of it. The gaps were over ½ inch in some places! Photo 1 shows an example – the molding on the left side of the photo was nailed down through the planks, locking them in place and causing the end joints to let go. Forgive me, but these products have been on the market for over 30 years, so there is no excuse for making these kinds of mistakes.

While we are on the subject, the newer category of WPC, “rigid core” and other floating vinyl products are often sold with claims that expansion joints aren’t needed. Well, Photo 2 shows an example of a large commercial project where that assumption was made, and the product did not perform; the end joints didn’t hold, and gaps opened up in several locations. This led to all kinds of finger-pointing and eventually the floor got replaced.

Photo 2

My advice, based on this bad experience is if you are installing these products in large areas, make contact with the manufacturer, let them know exactly what you are planning on doing and get their recommendation in writing to cover yourself!

Stair treads: To caulk or not to caulk?

I recently inspected a rubber stair-tread installation in a college that was fairly new. What I saw lead me to think it might be worth a few words this month, since it’s been over 10 years since my column on stair tread installation here in Coverings.

While we talk about proper installation of all types of flooring here, I think stairs are maybe the most critical. Because of the way we walk, steps take a lot of pounding, not to mention that once in a while someone may drag a cart up or down the steps. Failures of stair treads or other floor coverings on stairs can create serious hazards and someone could get hurt badly if they trip down the stairs. So, preparation and installation are that much more critical in this case.

Photo 3

The problem I looked at was cracking of eight treads out of 30 that were installed, as seen in photo 3. As you can see by the photo, they cracked right at the corner of the nose. This prompted an examination of the adhesive beneath the tread and that’s where the problem was. The job had been specified using stair tread adhesive and epoxy nose caulking, but the caulking was not applied properly, which caused cracking under the heavy traffic the steps were exposed to.

Now, I realize that some manufacturers are saying you don’t need nose caulking and others list it as optional. However, I am old school on this one. Regardless of manufacturer’s recommendations, this “belt and suspenders” approach assures success, especially in the high-traffic commercial spaces where these treads are often used.

Some think the caulking is there to adhere the tread, and, while that is somewhat true, that’s not the reason it’s there. The caulking acts to fill any voids between the step and the tread, since the profile of the step and the shape of the stair tread are not always the same, especially if the step is damaged. Epoxy cures “hard as a rock” so there is no “flex” of the stair tread. Without the caulk, movement occurs and eventually the tread may crack.

Photo 4

You can see this in photos 4 and 5 (these are photos from American Biltrite) where the lack of nose caulk leaves a void and the caulked option is filled.

The epoxy caulking can be ordered in cans, mixed and applied with a small spatula or putty knife, but it’s a lot easier to order in tubes that fit a special caulking gun. Follow the instructions and completely fill the angle under the nose of the tread. Apply adhesive to the rest of the tread and firmly set the tread so that the epoxy molds to the shape of the step and the tread.

While we are on the subject, substrate preparation is worth discussing as well. Use a very high-quality patching compound to fill in any low steps.

Photo 5

Make sure to use a patch that is rated for heavy traffic and mix it properly to assure it dries as hard as possible because steps take a pounding like no other floor covering. The mix is important. Wetter is not better! A stiff mix is stronger, so follow the exact recipe of powder and water.

When covering metal stairs, clean the surface by wire brush, sandblasting, or other mechanical methods, and then prime with the recommended primer, per the stair tread manufacturer. For ceramic or terrazzo stairs, sand thoroughly to remove any glazing and then fill grout with a heavy-duty patching compound. If there is an existing star tread or other resilient flooring on the steps, they must be removed, and so must all of the old adhesive.

The most important part of the preparation of a step is the nose itself — the very edge of the step where feet hit as people are walking. If this edge is damaged or wavy, this will be a point of weakness that will cause the tread to crack and might cause someone to trip. Epoxy nose filler can be used to take care of minor irregularities, but any major damage needs to be fixed with a patching compound before the treads are installed. If the tread cannot be installed with a relatively tight fit at the nose, don’t proceed with the installation.

Christopher Capobianco has been in the floor covering industry since the 1970s in various roles including retail and commercial sales, technical support, consulting, journalism, education and volunteer work. He currently is part of the sales team for Spartan Surfaces in New York City. You can reach him via christopher@SpartanSurfaces.com.

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