The Big Bounce

Innovations in Sports Flooring Abound

By Rick Dandes

For gymnasiums, sports courts, fitness centers and more, a sometimes-overlooked but critical component affecting the safety and performance is the playing surface. Having the right sports flooring improves traction, reduces stress on joints and muscles, and reduces the occurrence of sports-related injuries.

If you're looking to buy the best sports flooring for your arena or club, "It's all about finding the right application at the right price, and balancing that with need for performance and safety," said Dan Wollman, director of commercial sales for a sports flooring manufacturer based in Salt Lake City, Utah. "There are so many options out there," he added. And while both maple flooring and synthetic surfaces have been around for decades, manufacturers continue to evolve their products, to improve performance and respond to environmental concerns.

Do not think that there is only one way to go because that is how it has been done for the past 50 years. The products available are constantly changing. For example, a new generation of portable floor systems is faster to assemble and take apart. New technologies allow for portable floors to stay down permanently. New wood constructs can be half the weight of traditional materials. Some new finishes can last up to three years. Open yourself to new possibilities, and it can save you maintenance time and money from start to finish.

"There is a whole list of factors I take into account when trying to decide what kind of sports flooring to buy," explained David Proffitt, senior architect at the University of Louisville. Proffitt initially sits down with the staff at one of the on-campus facilities and asks them what kind of sports flooring they need and want. Do they just want something to play on, or do they want something really superb and top-notch? What level of use are they going to have?

Once you know that, he said, determine what type of floor surface (wood or synthetic) best meets the needs of what will occur on the floor. The type of sport that the area is used for is often a determining factor. For example, track and field is better held on a synthetic floor, or perhaps even a combination floor that features both wood and synthetic could be considered. If basketball is going to be the main use of the floor, a wood floor might be the best selection. If events such as banquets, meetings or other non-athletic events are going to be the main use, a synthetic floor might be best.

Each surface option on the market today has myriad positive and negative characteristics that can be presented subjectively by the manufacturer. Annual maintenance, staff experience, typical equipment needed—all should be considered into the equation before you make a decision.

What is also very important to review, Proffitt continued, is not only what the floor will be used for and the cost of the floor you are thinking about buying, but also the history of the product, where it has been installed and the time it lasts. "Certainly cost is a major factor for many facilities," he said. But there is more to making a decision than that.

Still other factors have to do with the people installing the floor. "I'll want to know, for example, the financial strength and resume of the manufacturer, their history of customer service and the value that they provide to the procurement process." Find out what their record is when you ask for a call back. How do they perform? If you have an issue, will they come back quickly and resolve the problem, regardless of whether the problem was yours or theirs, and fix it in a timely manner?

Innovations in Flooring

The sports surfacing industry is a constantly evolving marketplace where demand is focused on providing an environmentally friendly product that allows for multipurpose activities, requires minimal maintenance, can be customized by hardness (durometer) and color, and is provided by a financially strong manufacturer and installer that will stand behind a 5- to 10-year warranty.

On the performance side, current trends in the sports flooring manufacturing industry are systems that provide uniformity of performance in terms of ball bounce and shock absorption throughout the entire floor area. In an effort to assist this trend, the MFMA (Maple Flooring Manufacturers Association) has developed a new performance testing criteria called PUR (Performance Uniformity Ratings). This test standard ensures that the floor meets a very high standard, but that it also must achieve this standard with very little variance with the test data.

Meanwhile, safety, along with growing concern about concussions, is a trend as well among both manufacturers and buyers of flooring, whose clients (or students, if we're talking about schools) use it. Optimal energy absorption and surface friction are two of the key factors that are commonly believed to prevent injuries to athletes.

As you begin your decision-making process, Proffitt said, "The one thing you are going to find is that all manufacturers are looking to innovate products."

At one time, for example, the only time you could have a floor that performed like a wood floor was by installing a wood floor. But now you have rolled synthetics that have the look of wood. You will always find companies looking to improve a floor's cushion aspect, shock absorption.

Options Abound

Sports flooring can be made from a variety of natural and synthetic materials. When choosing a sports surface, the options can at times seem overwhelming. Depending on how it responds to an athlete, said Jeff Williams, director of sports for a Peshtigo, Wis., manufacturer, a sports floor can be classified based on its elasticity.

The most common types of elasticity are area-elastic or point-elastic. The key difference here is seen in the relative area of deflection, when a downward force is applied to the surface. As an example, when a basketball player runs across a court, each step creates energy as it lands. That energy has to be dispersed in some way across the floor. An area-elastic floor disperses energy over a wide surface area, while a point-elastic sports floor reacts in a more localized area. A combination flooring system combines the properties of both area-elastic and point-elastic flooring.

Area-elastic flooring is almost synonymous with wood flooring systems. Wood sports flooring typically consists of a solid surface with shock absorbing pads underneath. With area-elastic flooring, a larger area of the surface is engaged in returning energy to the athlete. However, an inherent property of area-elastic floors is a dissimilar performance over the entire surface, Williams said, due to an unavoidable lack of uniformity in the placement of shock pads, sleepers and other subfloor supports.

Athletic facility managers interested in acquiring a wood sports flooring system have several options from which to choose. The first and primary choice to be made is between permanent wood systems and portable wood systems. Portable wood systems are typically used in multi-use facilities such as municipal arenas, which may not be dedicated to year-round sports. Permanent wood systems are used in facilities dedicated to sports like basketball or volleyball. Wood sports surface systems are usually surfaced with either a solid or laminated strip of wood. The wood species most commonly found in the best basketball floors are maple, beech and oak.

Solid wood strip products generally can be sanded more times than laminated floors over the course of a floor's life. Another important factor when developing the appearance of a floor is the finish. The finish is what controls the level of surface friction.

Resilient sports flooring such as vinyl, rubber, polyurethane and linoleum represent point-elastic flooring systems. These gym flooring options have uniform performance across the whole playing surface. This means that every location on the floor will have almost identical shock absorption. One benefit here is that the surrounding areas of the floor remain relatively unchanged by activity in a particular area. Essentially, a point-elastic floor interacts with each athlete on an individual basis.

Combi-elastic systems, also known as combination systems, consist of an area-elastic substructure with a point-elastic resilient surface. By engaging both types of elasticity, they respond to impact both locally and across the wider surface area. As a result of this duel response, combination systems are widely regarded as one of the best sports flooring options in terms of comfort and safety. Combination systems also provide a high degree of uniformity and are typically ranked in the higher classes of shock absorption.

Maintenance Issues

Both wood and synthetic floor systems require daily and weekly cleaning, said Drew Beynon, chief operating officer of a surface manufacturer based in Hunt Valley, Md. A synthetic floor is cleaned with water, but water should never be used on a wood floor. A wood floor is cleaned by using a wood floor cleaner. A wood floor needs an annual coating of new polyurethane. The annual maintenance for a synthetic floor typically involves making repairs to damaged areas.

All products have key maintenance guidelines provided by the manufacturer that must be followed to maximize the life of the surface and mitigate warranty concerns. One particular concern and competitive advantage for some products in the market today is the use of an aliphatic or UV-stable, water-based coating over the finished product to prevent staining from beverages, etc. To enhance the appearance of your finished surface for an extended timeframe, the application of a stain-resistant coating is highly recommended.

Wood floors have extremely long life spans compared with other surfaces, because wooden sports floors can be refinished and re-sanded multiple times over their life span. A good performing floor with a low lifecycle cost is a much better investment than a good performing floor with a high lifecycle cost, Williams said.

Moisture can cause wood to swell and warp, noted Randy Swartz, president of a Philadelphia manufacturer. It can also be a breeding ground for mildew. Proper vapor barriers, air ventilation system, dehumidifier, air filter maintenance and maintenance systems can keep this problem in check.

"Body oil, foreign substances, dirt, dye and scuff marks can play havoc with the floor surface, Swartz cautioned. "Use manufacturer-recommended products that address these issues. An unattended floor will wear faster, look terrible and can become slippery."

With proper maintenance, your new floor can look good and last long.

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