Maintenance Series: Gymnasiums

Beauty and the Beast: Maintaining Your Gym

By Dawn Klingensmith

Among folks who maintain gymnasiums, "It's understood that bleachers are the beast, and not caring for them properly is cause for concern," said Grant Warner, CEO, Sports Facilities Group, Riverside, Calif.

By contrast, basketball backstop systems are often installed and operated with no maintenance plan whatsoever. "With the ceiling-mounted ones that fold up and down, you have thousands of pounds hanging over people's heads," Warner said.

Should the system fail, "It's like a pendulum and a guillotine," he added.

Basketball backstops are perhaps the most overlooked maintenance responsibility; still and all, a bleacher system is indeed a beast that can potentially cause injury to a lot of people.

The Beast

So let's start with the beast. What do maintenance and operations directors, custodial staff and sometimes even patrons need to know about keeping the beast in top form?

More than you realize, perhaps. Warner said California regulations regarding bleacher and grandstand inspection, maintenance and repair may eventually apply in other states if not across the board for safety reasons. The guidelines, adopted in 2007, state that any school district, municipality or government agency must have telescoping bleachers and stationary grandstands inspected on a yearly basis; file an annual report of their condition; and maintain these seating systems in like-new condition. These guidelines further state this work is to be performed by a qualified person or an individual certified by the manufacturer.

In California, and perhaps elsewhere now and in the future, failure to follow these guidelines could expose a facility to costly litigation should someone be injured on poorly maintained or non-inspected systems.

Indeed, proper upkeep, repairs, renovations and installing non-skid surfaces on bleacher floorboards, stairs and walkways would reduce slips and trips, two of the leading causes of injuries in school bleachers, according to Massamont Insurance Agency, Greenfield, Mass. The agency recommends replacing older bleacher systems if possible as opposed to retrofitting them with safety features.

While Warner calls California's regulations "convoluted," you'd be wise for starters to simply follow the bleacher manufacturer's guidelines for care and maintenance, he said. And it's not just bleachers but the gymnasium as a whole that ought to be inspected annually to ensure the facility is safe and necessary repairs are undertaken. Seating systems, basketball backstops, divider curtains and sports surfaces all require regular maintenance. So, too, do scoreboards but generally to a lesser extent. It is typically more cost-effective to keep on top of regular, preventive maintenance than it is to pay for repairs.

A bleacher maintenance and inspection checklist includes cleaning drive rollers; inspecting for proper motor voltage; tightening loose handrails and safety railings; and lubricating supports (L-channel, C-channel, brackets, etc.) and moving parts (rollers, cantilever arms, etc.).

"With bleachers specifically, it's critical that school districts be aware that they can break down often and they need maintenance on a regular schedule," Warner said. "When you recognize something's not operating properly, you need to stop and call someone—ignoring the problem will only lead to bigger problems. It could be something as simple as a water bottle jammed somewhere in the bleachers. Or it could be a broken weld that means your bleachers are about to collapse."

Neither bleachers nor basketball backstop systems should be operated by anyone other than a specially trained individual. Students, most coaches and other unqualified operators "are not in tune with or aware of what may be a bad sound or an odd angle" indicative of a structural or mechanical problem, Warner cautioned.

"Once you establish that protocol, then cleaning is probably the next most critical issue with bleachers," Warner said.

The main problem, he added, is that people keep feeding the beast.

"So many schools allow food into the gym," said Warner, adding that he understands it's a source of revenue.

Unfortunately, "Food gets into all the mechanisms—we see this constantly. And every time the bleachers cycle in and out, the stuff gets tracked around and works deeper and deeper into the mechanisms," Warner said.

This can attract pests, cause equipment failure and necessitate costly emergency repairs. Therefore, if food is permitted, trash receptacles should be plentiful and patrons urged to use them, Warner said.

"There are ways to clean bleachers properly," Warner said, "but it's not easy. It's time-consuming. I'd say 98 percent of schools don't do it."

Spilled food is not the only threat to the beast. "The biggest (gym maintenance) challenge we face here at Iowa State is the climate. In winter, people track in snow and sand and salt, and that causes a lot of wear and tear to the flooring and bleachers," said Doug Arrowsmith, coordinator of facility operations, Iowa State University at Ames.

For cleaning crews, "It's a constant battle to keep the grit out," he added. "We have rugs and carpet runners at the building entrances to try to get it knocked off."

Yet grit off the street finds its way to the gymnasium and even up in the stands.

"We are constantly trying to keep the bleachers clean," Arrowsmith said. And special care needs to be paid to the flooring underneath the bleachers when the system is recoiled.


If the bleachers are a gymnasium's beast, a well-tended floor is its beauty. A gleaming gymnasium floor is a pride point for schools, not to mention a focal point if mascots and other icons are part of the surface.

But keeping the floor clean isn't merely for aesthetics. "It's also a safety issue—grimy floors become slippery," Arrowsmith said. "And it's also financial because the long-term result is that grit wears down the surface quicker."

Gym floor maintenance begins at the building's entrances. Walk-off matting helps remove grit from shoes that would otherwise abrade the gym floor like sandpaper, dulling the surface. Many would argue that gym floor preservation begins by banning street shoes. Indeed, wherever possible street shoes should be prohibited on gymnasium floors; even rubber-soled athletic shoes can damage the surface due to grit embedded in the tread. However, banning street shoes isn't always feasible.

Frequent dust mopping also prolongs a gym floor's beauty, especially in high-use facilities. One hardwood flooring manufacturer recommends that a gym floor be dust-mopped after every two hours of use.

Dust mops require a degree of care that might surprise people. There are treatments on the market for cotton dust mops that are said to attract dirt. These must be applied properly (usually through the mop's backing), and in the correct amount. Then, the mop is rolled up and placed in a plastic bag for 24 to 48 hours, which allows the treatment to work its way through the cotton fibers. If you skip this step and use the mop immediately after treating, you'll transfer oil to the floor and create a slip hazard.

When re-treating the mop, a spray bottle may be used and the treatment applied directly to the fibers at least one day prior to mopping. For daily care, the mop should be shaken vigorously to release the dirt and dust clinging to the strands.

Wet mopping also is necessary, though care must be taken because the wrong kind of cleaner or too much water can damage the wood. Wet mopping removes the sweat, soils and spills that dust mopping leaves behind. Arrowsmith's staff wet mops three times a week in winter and perhaps once a week in the milder seasons; however, some cleaning product companies recommend floors be wet mopped daily.

Depending on your type of flooring and manufacturer's specifications, "a walk-behind auto scrubber" with white buff pads may be used to clean the floor, said Thomas Mindek, housekeeping supervisor for the facilities management and planning department at Eastern Connecticut State University at Willimantic. "Anything more aggressive or coarse would scuff the floor."

"When using the auto scrubber to wash the gym floor, which we try to do two to three times a week, staff need to be diligent in keeping an eye on the pad soil and wear, being sure to turn or replace the white pads as needed," he added.

To be sure, the biggest cause of wear and tear to a gym floor is the concentrated traffic or action on specific areas, such as near the volleyball net or where basketball players slide, shuffle, halt and jump. After a year of use, a typical gym floor will need to be resealed. Arrowsmith said that this is one maintenance responsibility that's tempting to skip due to tight budgets and the expense of having it done.

"My advice is to not put this off," he warned. "It's easy to say, 'We'll just skip it this year.' But if you stay on top of it, your floors will last longer."

Sanding should be done very infrequently and only by a hired professional. It's a delicate process and if done wrong, it can ruin your floor.

Hoop Dreams

Having addressed the beauty and the beast, let's look more closely at basketball backstop upkeep, which Warner, of Sports Facilities Group, said is the most overlooked component of gymnasium maintenance. "I've seen many cases where the system has not been touched since it was installed," he said.

That's dangerous, he added, because parts need to be lubricated and components replaced due to vibration and other forces. "You have bolts holding (the system) into the ceiling, hinges, electric winches, and a hoist cable that spools and unspools and starts to deteriorate. Slam-dunking causes an extreme amount of stress.

"Here in California, earthquakes are a concern," he added. "I have seen these things fall out of the ceiling."

Every basketball season in Southern California, one or two basketball backstop failures come to Warner's attention. "They can fall out of the ceiling and swing violently, hitting the wall and breaking the glass," he said. "We've seen schools have to replace chunks of the gym floor or fix holes in the wall. It has happened often enough, it's alarming. No one we know of has been seriously injured, but it's only a matter of time."

Indeed, farther up the West Coast in Gervais, Ore., a middle school student was hospitalized in December after a basketball hoop fell on her. According to a student witness and news reports, the hoop hit her and then swung back and hit her again, causing serious injuries.

Speaking to the press, the district superintendent seemed mystified: "The hoop is on a fulcrum. It doesn't fall—it swings and it just came down. We don't know why. We're investigating it."

How often a backstop needs to be inspected depends on its level of use and severity of play. A system that has not been inspected in four or five years, or not at all, should be serviced immediately, Warner said.

Frequently used systems call for annual inspections, but in other cases, once every two or three years might suffice.

"Bleachers are different. I almost always tell people to have them inspected two times a year," Warner said. "You have many more moving parts, and you're carrying a live load."

One reason only trained individuals should operate basketball backstop systems is the widespread tendency among coaches and student athletes, when raising and lowering baskets, to override a safety feature requiring them to "stand there and hold a switch until the basket comes to a complete stop," Warner said.

It's inconvenient, but intentional, so if something goes wrong during the 60 to 90 seconds the system is in motion, the operator is right there to disable the power.

"Schools defeat the design in various ways to speed up the process and so they don't have to stand there, which creates a safety issue," Warner said. "You need someone who understands why the system is designed the way it is and is aware of the potential dangers before they start operating it with a lackadaisical attitude."

A thorough basketball backstop maintenance and inspection checklist includes inspecting the motor drive unit, adjusting limits as necessary, inspecting the complete cable system, lubricating and tightening all moving joints, inspecting and tightening bolts, inspecting support tubular steel, tightening clamps and joist hangers, checking and adjusting deployment for proper movement, inspecting switches, and inspecting and lubricating pulleys.

One feature you should have even if you inspect and maintain your suspended basketball equipment regularly is a fully automatic safety strap, which acts as a backup so if a cable fails the safety strap senses it and is actuated to stop the backboard from falling in much the same manner as seat belts prevent a car's occupants from flying forward in the event of a crash.

Set, Spike

From a safety standpoint, another maintenance and operation issue that causes Warner some concern is the storage and installation of volleyball equipment. "It's almost always students setting it up. They put it in the fittings in the floor and then throw it in a closet or on a cart when they're done, so it gets banged up," he said.

"Almost all volleyball systems are made out of aluminum nowadays," he added, so they're prone to damage.

Moreover, volleyball players generally prefer to play with extreme tension on the net, which flexes the poles. "This can lead to catastrophic failure if a steel cable lets go," Warner said. "Someone could really get injured."

Sports Facilities Group and other companies will include volleyball equipment in their gymnasium inspections.

Gym wall padding starts to break down before the obvious signs of deterioration, such as sagging vinyl and bunched-up foam. Replacing padding "is almost always addressed as an aesthetic issue—someone just decides it's too ugly to leave up there," Warner said.

But gym padding is not installed because it's pretty. It's intended to protect athletes, and when it starts breaking down, it's not offering the same level of protection. A wall pad maintenance checklist includes inspecting all pads to ensure they are tightly fastened; securing loose pads; repairing tears and rips immediately to prevent further damage; and cleaning pads with a mild detergent and water or a vinyl cleaner, or in accordance with the manufacturer's recommendations.

Keeping Records

Gymnasiums are places where people go to have fun and stay in shape. So it's ironic when owners and managers don't do whatever it takes to keep the facility itself in shape. It might be easier, perhaps, if maintenance staff were to keep a "written plan of action," Arrowsmith said.

"Have a set schedule and a calendar to keep track of what you've done and what needs to be done," he advised. "You should have a specific time of year or day of the month or week when you should be doing things."

Because certain maintenance duties are performed once every two or three years, Arrowsmith also recommended keeping a database of contractors who have met or exceeded your expectations in the past.

That way, when you need expertise or elbow grease to get a job done, you'll have a roster of winners on hand.

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