The mechanical process of refining and smoothing the concrete does create a finish that does not need to be maintained in the same manner as traditional flooring options at that time. There is no daily buffing needed. No waxing and stripping is required. So, in that sense the floors were “no maintenance”. But what was discovered quickly is that the concrete can and did scratch ever so slightly when sand particles are pressed into the floor and slid across the surface. This means that foot traffic, cart traffic and any other process that created an abrasive action would wear the floors down slowly. These small micro-scratches build up over time and lower the smooth finish and therefore the overall shine of the floor.
With this new-found knowledge, the manufacturers that were the most invested in the polished concrete market stared scrambling to find a floor cleaner or maintenance system that would help solve the scratching situation and extend the life of the floors. The first processes put forth were to sweep regularly and clean the floors with water only. Then we started saying “add a little bit of soft soap, like dishwashing soap to the scrubber water.” Next came the first polished concrete cleaners. These were simple neutral cleaners that would lift the dirt allowing for easier scrubbing. As time went along and the information and feedback came in, the products continued to change. Manufacturer’s had cleaners developed with a bit of densifier in them. Theoretically these cleaners would continually harden the surface as they made it denser and harder which would make it more durable and resistant to micro-scratching.
The best polished concrete cleaners are made by construction chemical manufacturing companies and as private label products for grinding machinery manufacturers. These construction industry manufacturers developed maintenance systems as a way of protecting their core products. Today, most of these types of products are sold directly to contractors and customers or sold through construction supply houses. This makes polished concrete maintenance difficult to sustain. The janitorial contractors that traditionally maintain floors already have good relationships built with their janitorial distribution companies. They want to buy from their regular suppliers. The only issue is that their regular suppliers do not make products that are a good fit for polished concrete. This leads to “best guess” substitutions of cleaning products. These substitutions typically do more harm than good.
Cleaners that are standard and fine for VCT or Terrazzo floors with a sealer as a protectant and a disposable wax as a living surface do not do well for concrete floors. I field calls daily from store managers, janitorial contractors or retail regional managers discussing problems on existing projects. I find that problems that start with “the color is coming off on our floors” usually means that the cleaner being used has a solvent in it which strangely enough affects solvent based dye color. Problems that start with “My floor is losing its shine much faster than I expected” typically means that the cleaner they are using has an acid component that is having a chemical reaction with the concrete and eats the surface. This results in pitting, which lowers the shine. As a side note, I did have one customer though that was using an approved polished concrete cleaner but had no shine less than a year after opening. I was having a hard time understanding why the floor was losing its gloss in all the main isle ways only. Even the color was coming out in specific patterns and areas. We talked several times with all the parties about the scrubbing process and chemicals and pads that were being used and it all seemed in order. After showing up on site at 2:00 in the morning for a surprise visit, I found the issue. The maintenance program stated that the floor should be burnished two to four times per year with a diamond impregnated burnishing pad. The store manager thought “If burnishing four times a year is good, then burnishing nightly would be much better”, so that’s what they were doing. Burnishing nightly with a 400-grit pad for a year. This resulted in a slow sanding of the surface only in the main walk ways where the burnisher was running. As you can see there are a lot of possible ways that the simple process of polished concrete maintenance can be miss managed or messed up.
Where the Industry is Headed
As polished concrete continues to gain momentum, the large janitorial manufacturing companies will start working to develop processes, chemicals and programs to address this large market segment. I believe that the janitorial giants have not wanted to get into polished concrete maintenance because the margins and volume are not as large as other flooring types. This mindset is changing though because the sheer volume of polished concrete floors being completed annually makes up a major and growing segment of the overall flooring market.
Over the next few years I believe that every major janitorial supplier will carry products specifically made to address the polished concrete market. I see two ways that the market for maintenance systems can go. Alternate flooring types are lucrative because the sealer or wax is replaced regularly. This is at a large cost to the owner, but the floors always look good. Most of the damage that occurs is held at the surface and only affects the disposable sealer. I know of one large manufacturer that currently sells a thin topical sealer system that needs to be replaced several times a year. I could see the manufacturers pushing to go this direction because it would mean higher revenue as more product is used. I think that this approach will slowly collapse the polished concrete market. My thought process behind the statement of a slow collapse is that polished concrete is an attractive floor because of the look, but there are always flaws and imperfections in the concrete slab. The true benefit is the lower maintenance cost. If the market goes to a disposable sealer regularly applied, it will creep the maintenance costs up. Currently, using a good maintenance program with the best available polished concrete cleaners and regular burnishing a customer will spend less than .75 per foot per year to maintain their floor. This investment will keep the floor serviceable for ten years or longer. Compare that to VCT which has an average maintenance cost of $1.50 - $2.00 per foot per year for scrubbing, buffing, stripping and waxing. VCT has an average life of ten years or less and then it needs to be completely removed and re-installed. The average cost for removal and replacement of VCT is $4.50 per foot. Compare to polished concrete at a refurbish cost of $1.25-1.50 per foot. The concrete never needs to be removed so the refurbish is less invasive and much quicker. If the maintenance cost of polished concrete creeps up towards the $1.00-1.25 per foot per year range, I do not think most retailers or owners would be as willing to deal with the inherent defects of concrete for the minor savings that are achieved. This will cause a decrease in the projects specified and a slow collapse of the industry.
The other route that can be taken is truly “maintaining” the existing finish. This involves performing mechanical treatments to the floor to keep the polish at or near the level of shine that was provided at the time of installation. There is one system like this that has hit the market recently by one of the larger janitorial product manufacturers. I am very excited by this mechanical path to successful maintenance as I see it continuing to expand the industry. The fundamental value of polished concrete is mechanically profiling the concrete surface to be smooth and polished. I see this type of mechanical maintenance program as boosting this core benefit daily while working to address the weaknesses of a flooring system without a sealer or sacrificial finish. Mechanically handling the maintenance daily removes the effects of micro-scratches that are created by the sanding action of the soil that we talked about at the beginning of this article. I see this as a fantastic solution, especially when a mechanical system is used with a good cleaner where densifier and stain protection are regularly applied to the floors. Based on the data that I have looked at this type of floor maintenance program will hold on to the substantial cost benefits of polished concrete flooring while addressing gloss levels and the periodic staining that occurs through routine usage. I see this type of system being especially valuable in the food service and grocery sectors.
The future of polished concrete as a flooring process is closely tied to the ability to sustain the look and durability of the finish. Maintenance can either help or rapidly hurt the overall look of the finish. As polished concrete continues to grow and become the flooring of choice, large manufacturers will start to court the industry with systems developed specifically to address the concerns discussed here. I am excited to see the next chapter in maintenance.