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Sizing Up Your Surface

Options Abound When You Want Performance & Durability

By Rick Dandes

Floor surfaces at some facilities, such as sports arenas, multiuse on-campus fieldhouses, or private and municipal fitness centers, are where aesthetics meets athletics. At the highest end, witness the beautifully designed maple hardwood basketball floors with their artistic logos, installed fresh and new every year at the site of the NCAA men's and women's basketball championship.

But whatever the size of the recreational space or the limits of your budget, sports flooring manufacturers today are producing a wide variety of viable surfaces at various price points that can easily pass the eye test, while still meeting the needs and safety requirements of your clientele.

"Those of us who represent manufacturers realize that as facility owners or managers, you're always out for your members' best interests. That begins by looking to reduce the likelihood of head injury and concussion, which has become a hot-button issue over the past several years," suggested Joel McCausland, regional director of an Amasa, Mich.-based court surface manufacturer.

Members and visitors to your facility will walk, run, jump and sweat all over the floor; drop weights on it and generally abuse the surface on a daily basis. So finding the right flooring to accommodate client safety and all other activities cannot be an overlooked element of your facility's structure. "Still, keep in mind that no matter what the system is made of—wood or synthetic materials like modular tiles or poured-in-place urethane—manufacturers have to comply with certain standards. All sports floors must meet criteria for safety, shock absorption and traction," McCausland said.

Given all the options and taking into consideration your budget, "If you're about to upgrade or even install a completely new flooring system, your buying decision may well come down to personal preference for who will ultimately be playing on the surface," said John Gleason, manager of field services, for a Utica, N.Y.-based manufacturer of modular floors.

An Array of Options

The top sports flooring companies in the world understand the precise science that can produce a flooring system that gives you high-quality performance and durability. At the highest end are hardwood floors, a durable and long-lasting surface that can last for 30 to 40 years with proper care, McCausland explained.

The best hardwood surfaces come from northern hardrock maple, which is grown north of the 40th parallel, where long, cold winters give you slow growth and a really dense surface, if you were to look at a cross-section of the log cut in those forests. The rings are very close together, which makes it dense, firm, strong and durable.

"If you look at a hardwood floor from the top," McCausland said, "it looks almost the same, but the key to a great hardwood sports floor is the subfloor system beneath it. You lay this maple strip down, and it's a beautiful floor that you can paint and treat and create really nice-looking courts."

But the real key to the performance of that floor is what it is built upon, a great subbase. The best of those subfloor systems maximize shock absorption; they give resilience, a kind of a bounce to the floor, and finish on the top that gives you the right kind of traction and other key performance characteristics that are required for active playing competition.

Synthetics are a bit more cost-effective, are easier to maintain and have the ability to be resurfaced for less money than the wood option, said Joe Banks, marketing coordinator for a Lancaster, Pa.-based sports flooring manufacturer and installer. "If a facility isn't considering a competitive basketball sports floor," he said, "the synthetic floor will open up that space and allow for a more cost-effective sports surface than traditional wood."

You can break down synthetic flooring into broad categories, added Steve Hayes, regional sales manager of a Peshtigo, Wis.-based sports flooring producer. "One is a prefabricated sports floor. Essentially, something that would come out in rolls or tiles. And would be installed on site using an adhesive. You would glue the rolls or the tiles to an existing concrete floor."

The benefit of having this flooring, Hayes contends, is you are receiving flooring that has been manufactured in a factory-controlled environment. "So you have consistency, from a thickness and a color perspective and from the perspective of some of the things that they can do in a factory-controlled environment that can't be done when you are manufacturing it in the field."

For example, Hayes continued, you can have prefabricated rubber sports flooring or vinyl sports flooring. You can have prefabricated modular tiles. So, there are a lot of different product types on the prefabricated product side.

Digging deeper into synthetics, you'll discover modular flooring, usually made from engineered polypropylene. It is a plastic flooring involving numerous small pieces, or modules, the same size, which lock together to form a playing surface grid. These modular floors can last up to 20 years or more, deliver great performance and at a much lower price point than wood or most of the other synthetics.

In a sense, a modular floor is also a floating floor, McCausland explained. "And that quality has some advantages, both from a practical and from a performance characteristic. With modular flooring you can lay down a floor on top of a concrete surface."

Typically, a modular floor installer would put down a rubber underlay to create some cushion, resilience and shock absorption. The side-to-side action is very slight. The floor itself will shift slightly during play and studies show that this actually reduces the stress on joints. When you plant a foot, pivot and take off in another direction, the floor gives a little in that direction. This is something that can attenuate the shock, which normally a player's body would have to absorb. It is an advantage from a playability standpoint, a performance and a safety standpoint.

The practical advantage to modular flooring is that almost every other surface is glued or nailed down, and it's very tough to move. Modular floors are very good for reconfiguration. So sports facilities that might be changing configurations, expanding, moving to a different place can see an advantage. With modular flooring you can pick it up and walk out the door and put it somewhere else. It's a unique problem-solver in many ways.

Rolled vinyl is another synthetic alternative. A multilayer resilient flooring, rolled vinyl is manufactured with layers to create a cushion on top. This type of flooring has great applications for many sports and activities, McCausland said. "It is a nice multipurpose surface. The best of these products have a durable wear layer on top, low maintenance cost and the right combination of those performance characteristics that you are always looking for: traction, ball response, player resilience, so that as they are jumping moving and running it is absorbing some of the shock their bodies would otherwise have to accommodate."

Rubber flooring systems can take several formats, added Brennan Prins, sales and dealer development, for an Ontario, Canada-based manufacturer specializing in rubber tiles of various thicknesses that can be installed anywhere in a facility and can absorb weight-dropping or treadmills operating on top.

Rubber goods come in so many different formats, Hayes explained. "You can have a polyurethane or a poured surface that is done on site. Those come in two different styles. One is a full-depth poured urethane, where you are pouring the entire surface in a fluid state on site. Here, the poured urethane is a self-leveling multi-level surface. Installers begin by putting a rubber mat down as a base and then the liquid urethane actually pours out onto and levels out over that surface. It's cured and treated. There might then be an additional level or two added to that with a vinyl line striping on the top and some kind of a clear coat, a protective top coat that keeps it all contained and cuts down on the wear and tear."

Sport tiles in general tend to be a great value option, added Gleason. "They are long-lasting, easily repaired or replaced, and are not affected by moisture, making them able to be installed in locations that traditional flooring cannot."

Another urethane system is a pad-and-pour system, where you have a recycled rubber pad that is installed first and then you have urethane that is installed on top of the rubber pad. Sometimes, these are also referred to as sandwich systems.

There is probably more use of the pad and pour than there is the full depth, Hayes said, "and part of the reason for that is cost. It is a little more cost-effective to do the pad and pour because you are using a recycled rubber mat as the base mat and then putting the urethane on top of it."

You'll usually see poured-in-place in large fieldhouses or large play houses where they accommodate many different activities, Hayes noted. "You can make poured urethane more resistant to spikes if the field surface is being used by athletes doing drills for track or football. The other area where we see rubber use is in weight rooms, because the material is dense and good at handling heavy loads and impacts."

Most other surfaces, "frankly, don't do very well if you take a 200-pound barbell in your hands and drop it on the floor," said Joe Banks, marketing coordinator, for a Lancaster, Pa., flooring manufacturer. "Recycled rubber flooring is another option for facilities. Its composition is usually a bit denser, and this makes it ideal for people that train on it by preventing joint strain and skeletal structure strain. It also protects the concrete and the flooring underneath as well. So your facility is not getting all banged up when guys are dropping 220-pound weights repetitively throughout the day."

Cleaning Up

Maintenance is a big consideration when purchasing a new athletic surface. "Some flooring requires costly maintenance programs to be implemented, while others require minimal maintenance, greatly impacting the total life cycle cost of the flooring," Gleason said. "Also ask yourself, if there is damage to a floor for one reason or another, how easily can it be repaired?"

Most flooring manufacturers start by recommending use of walk-off mats at all entryways to reduce the amount of dirt and debris coming into the facility, Gleason said. All flooring will require daily dust mopping, and damp mopping or using an automatic scrubber as needed.

Wood floors, which have a 30- to 40-year lifespan, probably require as much care and maintenance as any sports surface. Depending upon how much they are used, you'll have to refinish them every year or two. In some cases that includes kind of roughening up the surface and putting down some more urethane on top to protect the surface. Every few years you'll probably have to sand the floor down, redo the lines and refinish from scratch.

Meanwhile, you should dry mop your wood floor regularly. When dust accumulates on the floor, it increases the slip coefficient, so you want to avoid that for the sake of the athlete and members of the organization who are using the floor. Dry mopping should happen daily, while wet mopping and scrubbing should be done as needed, but that is up to the maintenance procedures, and each facility is different. Just be sure to follow manufacturers' and installers' recommendations, and be sure your maintenance is handled correctly and regularly.

"The thing to remember about wood," McCausland said, "is it's an organic material, so generally speaking it has to be kept in a climate-controlled building. If you have a wood floor in a building that experiences wide fluctuations in temperatures and humidity, that wood will expand and contract and that could create some problems. If it cracks, either the finish or the actual wood itself, it could create gaps in the floor. So most hardwood floors are recommended in a building where you can keep humidity and temperature in a middle range without a lot of variations."

Synthetic flooring requires deep cleaning and restoration annually using the manufacturers recommended methods, Gleason explained. "Many sport tiles require annual deep cleaning while some have a protective coating that needs to be re-applied."

Modular tiles are extremely low maintenance, Prins noted. "You're basically just keeping it clean, and that is all you need to do."

In most cases, maintenance crews can use an auto scrubber, a dry mop or wet mop to clean synthetic floor systems. There is no maintenance process to follow on any regular schedule other than to keep it clean. That is also true with vinyl surfaces; as long as you take care of the layer on top, it's very durable, long lasting and doesn't require much in the way of treatment. Rubber-based flooring as well, requires little maintenance, although it depends on the kind of rubber you are using, the kind of finish you have, and the appearance you are trying to preserve.

Urethane floors have an easy maintenance regimen, Banks added, which usually starts with dry mopping and wet mopping regularly just to keep dust and grit off the floors. "Depending on the facility's maintenance procedures, it can be cost-saving to use an automatic floor scrubbing machine. We recommend neutral pH cleaning products and red pads for the scrub machine. They are effective in pulling off scruff marks and grime."

Each flooring manufacturer will recommend methods for cleaning and maintaining their flooring products, and they should be adhered to, Gleason said. "Be aware of the maintenance requirements," he advised. "Have appropriate expectations prior to purchasing a floor to ensure that your maintenance staff is properly equipped."



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