Recycled rubber flooring contains post-consumer and pre-consumer recycled rubber, and is often manufactured in cylindrical molds that are sheared into a thin layer to become sheet rubber flooring. Photo courtesy of Ultimate Systems LTD.

Linoleum uses natural ingredients and is one of the most popular “green” resilient flooring products. Properly installed, “lino” will last for generations. Photo courtesy of Forbo Linoleum.

This is the “green” issue of FCI so this article focuses on this topic with a focus on resilient flooring.  Call it “green,” “sustainable,” “eco-friendly” or whatever, the market is full of products that are trying to fill the growing demand for these types of materials. For the sake of discussion here I will use the work “green,” overused as that word may be.

This month marks six years that I have been in business for myself.  As a consultant and an independent sales agent I have been all over the “green” resilient flooring market and there are a constant flow of questions from installers, dealers, flooring contractors, architects, interior designers and inspectors.  As Chairman of FCICA, The Flooring Contractors Association, I presided over our recent mid year meeting, “Going Green” with FCICA.  We had an entire day of educational sessions geared to flooring contractors on all things green and it really was interesting.  For this column, I will share many of the questions I heard at those sessions and that come my way on a regular basis about “green” flooring.  There are some great things going on in recycling old carpet and carpet cushion but here we will focus on the resilient industry.

Q: What makes a floor “green?”  

A: A lot of resilient flooring has some level of recycled content or is made of “renewable” materials.  ASTM F 141 (Standard Terminology Relating to Resilient Floor Coverings) has two definitions – Pre Consumer and Post Consumer recycled content.  Pre consumer is material that is manufacturing waste or “scrap” that in the past may have been thrown away but today is used in a new product.  There are a lot of rubber and vinyl resilient flooring products that use pre-consumer material. Post consumer means something that has been used and then when its life is over is recycled into another product rather than thrown away in a landfill or incinerator.  For example, old tires are ground up and used in “recycled rubber” flooring, often mixed with “pre-consumer” rubber. Another example is Vinyl Composition Tile (VCT), which has used pre-consumer recycled material for a long time.  However, we learned at the FCICA mid year meeting about Tarkett’s initiatives in recycling old VCT into new tile.  This is promising technology for keeping tons of old VCT out of landfills.

As far as “renewable” resilient product, cork comes to mind right away. Cork is the bark of the cork oak tree.  It gets peeled from the tree, the tree does not die and the bark grows back every nine years or so.  That qualifies it as a “rapidly renewable” material. The main product from cork is bottle stoppers, or “corks”, and all of the waste cork or cork that is not suitable for stoppers is ground up and used for all the other materials made from cork such as floor tile.  So, cork floors also quality as pre-consumer recycled.  Cork is used in traditional cork tile that has been around over 100 years and linoleum, another classic resilient flooring material.  Now, cork is finding its way into floating floors,   underlayments and other resilient products like rubber tile and vinyl tile.

Other criteria used in the “green” definition include distance it travels from manufacturing to job site, the types of chemicals that are used to install and maintain the floor, the methods that are used to manufacturer the material, the ability to recycle the floor after its life and a number of attributes that are outside the product itself.

Q: What about vinyl? I heard it’s not “green.”

A: This is a hot topic these days.  There is more recycled content in vinyl floors today than ever.  However, we are seeing “PVC Free” on a lot of resilient flooring products and an increasing number of vinyl products just being called “resilient flooring” as some manufacturers seem to be avoiding using the word “vinyl, ” to make the product seem more “green” to people who think that PVC, is a bad thing.  What’s PVC? According to the Vinyl New Service (VNS), “Vinyl is polyvinyl chloride or PVC, a special type of plastic.  Like all plastic materials, vinyl is made from hydrocarbons (usually natural gas).  But, unlike other plastics, vinyl is even more derived from common salt, so less fossil fuel is required to make vinyl than to make most other plastics.”

The “anti-PVC” sentiment that is out there comes from claims that dioxin, a known health hazard, is produced as a byproduct of vinyl chloride manufacture and from incineration of waste PVC.  How much of that comes from floor covering manufacturing and use is a subject of much debate.

However, on the other side of the story, VNS defends the green credentials of PVC and references a 2007 article in the UK publication, “What’s New in Building,” claiming that vinyl (PVC) flooring uses less energy in manufacturing, transportation and installation than natural flooring products – which often have to be transported from developing countries. It also “scores extremely well” in life-cycle analysis of the “in use” phase, since it has a decades-long life span and manufacturers have eliminated the need for costly chemical cleaning agents, seals and polishes.

In addition, The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) panel on PVC (vinyl) in 2007 reaffirmed the conclusions of its earlier draft report that PVC should not be the subject of a negative credit in the USGBC LEED rating system. The report, by the Council’s Technical and Scientific Advisory Committee (TSAC), said materials-related credits are a “blunt instrument” that could steer designers to choose materials with a more negative life-cycle impact. The draft report issued in December 2004 reached a similar conclusion.Whether or not vinyl floors are a green material, there are a lot of alternative products on the market now and installers need to be aware.

To avoid curling edges on cork tile, always use contact adhesive.

Q: What do I need to know about installing “PVC Free” flooring?

A: Some products like rubber, cork and linoleum are well established and have specific installation characteristics, adhesives and methodologies.  I have covered all of those materials here in “Let’s Talk Resilient.” However, there are a number of products that look like vinyl and are similar in that they are made from synthetic binders and fillers. Vinyl flooring uses PVC as the binder and new products are using Polyolefin, “BioBased” materials and other polymers. The problem can be that these materials are harder to bond so the most important thing for installers to be aware of is the adhesive. They cut like other resilient products, need to be acclimated, rolled with a roller and so on.  But, these products usually have a very specific adhesive requirement, so even though they may look like vinyl, don’t be tempted to use a vinyl adhesive on them. There have been a large number of cases where the floors just don’t stick!   Also, if you are dong a renovation project, be sure to clean all the old adhesive off the substrate because there is the possibility of a chemical reaction between the different adhesives.  Don’t be tempted to just “skimcoat” over the old adhesive with a patching compound.  Take it off the floor.

Q:Is there no other way to install cork tile than contact adhesive? What about a good pressure-sensitive adhesive?

A: I get asked this all the time.  The short answer is NO! I have written about cork several times here in “Lets Talk Resilient,” including my December column about adhesives (Resilient Adhesive Update, FCI, December 2010). Virtually every complaint I have seen on cork with curling edges has been on floors installed with trowel-applied adhesive as opposed to contact. It may seem a longer process because of having to coat the back of the tile, but you can coat the tile a day ahead of time and done correctly contact adhesive is as fast or sometimes even faster than trowel-applied adhesives. The other benefits are that the installer can work on tip of the newly installed tile and the customer can use the floor immediately.  And you will rarely see a curling edge.

Q: Is rubber “Green” and what do I need to know about installing it?

A: Rubber was originally derived from latex, a milky liquid produced by certain trees and “tapped” much like the way maple syrup is.  This is a “rapidly renewable” material that is refined for a variety of uses. However, this material can also be made synthetically so with a few exceptions, most of what we see in floors today is synthetic rubber, not natural rubber.  There is also recycled rubber and rubber-cork flooring.  So, even though most rubber flooring is a synthetic petrochemical-based product, the fact that it is “PVC Free” has a certain appeal, as I mentioned before.  However rubber floor maintenance has many considering rubber as “green.”  It can be maintained without finishes and cleaned with minimal use of chemicals – some manufacturers recommend just water!   Fewer chemicals mean less environmental impact and lower cost, so rubber tile and sheet goods are more popular than ever.

For the installer, rubber is a flexible and forgiving product to work with.  However, it usually gets installed with “wet” adhesives, so it may not be as fast as other resilient products to install.  Again, stay with ONLY the recommended adhesive and follow the recommendations of the manufacturer.  Check some of my past columns for more details.

Q: How about the new lead paint rules?  Do I have to worry about this?

A: Many people in our industry haven’t heard the buzz about lead paint and many who know don’t think it affects our trade. Well, it does. A long time ago, a friend of mine in the industry said, “Lead will be the new asbestos,” because paint, wood floor finishes and some types of floor covering products like carpet and padding at one time contained lead. Lead poisoning is a very real health hazard, especially for children and pregnant women. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is now enforcing a federal rule regarding “lead-safe” work practices, and the implementation of the measure affects all trades involved in renovation projects for pre-1978 residential and commercial child – occupied properties. President George H.W. Bush signed the law in 1992 but enforcement is only now starting to occur. There is a one-day class and a certification called EPA Lead RRP Renovator Initial Training.  A lot of people are not happy about it, but with fines that start at $37,500, this is serious. Your choice is to stop working in buildings built before 1978 or get certified. From the EPA website:  As a contractor, you play an important role in helping to prevent lead exposure. Ordinary renovation and maintenance activities can create dust that contains lead. By following the lead-safe work practices, you can prevent lead hazards. Understand that after April 22, 2010, federal law requires you to be certified and to use lead-safe work practices. To become certified, renovation contractors must submit an application and fee payment to EPA. Contractors who perform renovation, repairs, and painting jobs in pre-1978 housing and child-occupied facilities must, before beginning work, provide owners, tenants, and child-care facilities with a copy of EPA’s lead hazard information pamphlet. Contractors must document compliance with this requirement.

Q: What is IAQ all about?

A: Indoor air quality (IAQ) is a big issue these days on “green” projects and even where people are not thinking green.  With allergies and worries about airborne dust, this is a big deal when you work in occupied spaces.  I took the EPA Lead RRP class last June and learned a great deal about HEPA Vacuums.  HEPA means high efficiency particulate air, and it’s a filter that is used to be sure that your “shop vac” doesn’t spit dust or other dangerous materials back into the air. This is beneficial for asthma and allergy sufferers, because the HEPA filter traps the fine particles, pollen, lead, fiberglass, and who knows what else.  HEPA Vacuums have come down in price and I recommend that all installers use them for their own safety and the safety of their customers.  Plus, it’s good public relations when you tell the customer you are using the latest technology to keep them safe.

Q: Anything else installers need to know about “green?”

A: Have a look at my column from a year ago (Green” Flooring Update, FCI, March 2010)  I tried not to repeat myself in this column and last time I covered a lot about IAQ issues such as moisture’s impact on the indoor environment, which makes moisture testing and mitigation an important part of the resilient flooring installer’s life.  I also covered a lot about VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) such as safe handling of any hazardous materials you may work with like solvent-based adhesives and seam sealers. There also is a lot to know about finishing and maintenance of floors, and a lot of installers are moving into this area of the business because they are being asked to do initial maintenance on new floors.  

For resilient flooring installers, being “green” is more than just so called “green” flooring products, although I hope you have learned more abut some materials you may not be familiar with. Work practices have a lot to do with it and there are more and more demands being made on our trade as our projects are being scrutinized for their environmental impact.