When I left my life as a floor covering retailer 20 years ago, I joined what is now a major resilient manufacturer as a sales & technical specialist. In that role I had to immediately start looking at complaints, usually to answer the question, “Is this problem covered under the manufacturer’s warranty?” Later I started my own consulting company and became an Institute of Inspection, Cleaning and Restoration Certification (IICRC) certified inspector and IICRC accredited instructor of their inspector certification classes.

I gave up this work a year ago as I changed my career back to a purely sales position, but I sometimes miss the analytical problem-solving role I had as an inspector. In this role, I was often retained to answer the broader questions: “What caused this floor to fail and who is to blame?”

Having grown up spending a lot of time on my knees, I have empathy for installers who often get blamed for failures that may or may not be their fault. I have been lucky to know lot of gifted and skilled floor covering installation craftsmen and seen some gorgeous jobs. I also have seen a lot of jobs done by “hackers” that were beyond repair. A third category is jobs by good installers that went bad because material got installed when it shouldn’t have. This happens when everyone involved is more interested in getting the job done on schedule and not necessarily on getting it done right.

As I already mentioned, until recently I was accredited by the IICRC as an instructor, specifically for their Introduction to Substrate/Subfloor Inspection and Resilient Floor Inspector Certification classes. I think all interested installers and dealers should take those classes, because at every level of the floor covering sale and installation you should know what can go wrong. With that type of knowledge you can do a lot to help prevent failures.

 

Common causes of flooring failure

From the time the phone rings and the customer walks into the showroom, warning signs are already there for jobs that are prone to fail. Using the wrong product for the end use just to save money is the first example that comes to mind. Rush jobs are another. In those cases, extra care needs to be taken to do the job “by the book.”

The estimator has a big role to play from the time he or she walks onto the job site. It’s not just about getting the right measurements, although laying out the job is key so that seams are in the right location and the job is staged correctly so the customer knows what to expect. Other important questions include: Is there heat/air conditioning? Are the other trades finished? Is there enough light on the job? Is the substrate suitable for the floor covering being installed or will extra preparation be necessary?

In older buildings, a careful examination of the subfloor is important to be sure that wood subfloors are repaired if there are any areas of rot, loose or sagging boards, improper nailing or staining of the old floor. Renailing the floor, repairing damage and installing new underlayment go a long way to being sure that the new floor is installed on a “brand new” and structurally sound substrate.

One of the top causes of floor covering failures is concrete moisture-related, to the tune of over a billion dollars a year. Every floor covering manufacturer andthe industry standard ASTM F 710 (Preparing Concrete Floors to Receive Resilient Flooring) says, “All concrete floors shall be tested for moisture regardless of age or grade level.” New or old, basement or 50th floor, it has to be done. Don’t assume that an old slab has “cured” or “dried,” because some of the worst moisture-related failures are in older buildings where it was assumed that moisture testing was not necessary. Don’t make assumptions. Have it tested!

Finally, even before the installer gets there, the chance of success is improved by assuring that the product is acclimated to jobsite conditions, the right cushion is specified, the proper adhesive and trowel go out to the job, and enough time is allowed to do the job right. All of these points and many more are causes of failures that I have seen in person and had to report on. They are all preventable, so if you learn to think a little like an inspector you can prevent these kinds of problems and give the customer a beautiful floor that will stay that way.

 

Complaints: Who responds first?

A lot of times complaints are the result of a simple situation that the installer can easily remedy, but in my role as a manufacturer’s rep I have unfortunately had more than my share of calls to go look at problems before anyone from the dealer side has been there. If it turns out to be an installation issue, there is nothing I can do but bounce it back to the dealer, which just lengthens the time for resolving the issue and annoys the end user. These situations can be boiled down to problems such as a loose seam that needs to be glued down, a raveling edge of a carpet seam and so on.

When you get a callback, don’t immediately go into “manufacturing defect” mode. Go check it out, and maybe even fix it on the spot if that is a viable solution. The alternative is embarrassment when the manufacturer’s rep or other inspector tells the owner it’s the installers’ fault, requiring further delay and another appointment.

Similar to the example I just mentioned are cases where a dealer doesn’t investigate a problem him or herself, but calls their rep to do it for them. If it turns out to be something simple that has nothing to do with the material, and something that an installer can easily fix, you’ll waste your rep’s time and I’ll bet they won’t be to keen on doing it for you again.

For example, one time I got a call from a dealer about “out of square” rubber-cork tile on a job in progress that had to get finished. I dropped everything to go to the job site and investigate, going out of my way late in the day in New York City, which isn’t easy. The dealer hadn’t investigated the problem, but had passed it right to me.

Most infuriating was that the problem  turned out to simply be a tile that was supposed to be laid all in the same direction. The installer had been quarter turning it. When I laid a half dozen of them out in the same direction, there was no issue. I wound up late to dinner because of a problem that was caused by an installer not reading the installation instructions. For these reasons, I always advise manufacturers or distributors to establish policies that mandate that the installer and dealer look at the floor before an inspection can occur.

 

When do you need an independent inspector?

When problems or complaints don’t offer  simple solutions a good inspector can be valuable, especially when the cause of the problem is unknown. Sometimes everyone from the installer to the manufacturer is stumped, and it takes “the big guns” to figure it out. I’ve seen a lot of that with regards to concrete issues for example, where cores needed to be taken and all kinds of complex analysis have to be done to determine whether an additive used in the concrete was what caused the floor to disband, crack, discolor or whatever else.

When I worked for a manufacturer, I feel that it didn’t matter what I said sometimes, because I had what I call “implied bias” in the eyes of the owner, general contractor or whomever was making the complaint about the floor. It was assumed that I would always be looking out for the interest of my company, regardless of the truth, how specific the warranty was or how obvious it was that the condition was not a warranty issue.

The same can be said of an installer or dealer in that situation. So many complaints seem to be blamed as “installer error,” even if he did the job by the book and can prove it. Often, an assumption is made that nobody will assume responsibility and will “kick the can down the road” to someone else in the supply chain. For those situations, an independent inspector can be invaluable.

 

Thinking like an inspector

Some assume that an inspector will lean toward whomever retains their services, but the good ones will not. A good independent inspector does not have any implied bias but uses a process I call “O - A - C, and sometimes R.”             This boils down to: Observation of the conditions of the floor, plus Analysis of the published guidelines or industry standards that apply, which are used to draw a Conclusion about whether what is on the floor is “by the book.” Sometimes an inspector may also make Recommendations on how to fix the problem or prevent it from happening again. Many inspectors shy away from the “R” in this process but I was often retained to do just that.

Nobody wants to pay the money to hire an inspector in a case where they know the answer. However, in order to prove your case to your customer, you may have to do just that. A lot of the time, the installer/dealer/distributor or manufacturer knows it’s not their problem but need independent verification. An inspector can confirm someone’s conclusions in an independent way. Therein lies the key and the real value that an inspector brings.

Be sure to follow the inspector’s example in your own business. Observethe conditions of the flooring and jobsite, and analyzethe standards to know the best guidelines to follow. If you train yourself to keep an eye out for any problems and address them as soon as they develop, you’ll already be busy laying floor on your next job. Meanwhile, your competition will be left scratching their head as their latest installation fails, wondering what to do and whom to blame.