5 Tips to Prevent Floor Coatings Failures

Proper prep will save you from costly callbacks

If you’re a painting contractor thinking about expanding your business into floor coating, then you’re not alone. Whether it’s bidding on a large-scale industrial project or staining a customer’s garage floor, contractors are increasingly expanding their services to include floor coatings.

Chris S. Simpkins, a Sherwin-Williams field training specialist, is encouraged by this trend.

“Contractors want to offer a broader range of services to their customers,” Simpkins says. “They’re looking for other opportunities within the space they’re working, like concrete sidewalks, driveways, porches, patios, pool decks, and garage floors—and Sherwin-Williams is here to help.”

Floor coatings can generate additional profits, but failures usually mean a complete do over. Simpkins explains that failures are rare (“less than one percent” of all cases), but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be focused on how to avoid them.

“With paint, if the color is wrong, it’s fixed with another topcoat of paint, and off you go,” says Sherwin-Williams’ Mark Merrifield. “When there’s a failure in flooring, it generally costs more to fix the problem than what the original contract was for in the first place. If failures do happen, they cost everybody a lot of time and money, including the owner, general contractor, and subcontractor—everybody involved loses when there’s a failure.”

Though the exact problems that cause floor coating failures vary from job to job, it almost always stems from one core issue: lack of preparation. That often means a contractor didn’t do their homework.

“Crawl before you walk, and walk before you run,” Merrifield says. “I’ve been involved with contractors who’ve had ideas of grandeur—it’s a $100,000 project and they’re used to doing $10,000 projects or less—and I needed to give them a reality check: ‘You don’t have the capabilities, the right equipment, or the trained personnel. You’re setting yourself up for failure.’”

So how can you get started the right way?

“If you want to move forward in this segment, take measured steps,” Merrifield says. “Start with small floor coatings jobs—a couple bathrooms here or there, or a shop floor for your buddy—where you can learn.”

Merrifield, Sherwin-Williams’ business development manager for high performance coatings, primarily works with commercial and industrial projects—jobs much larger than many painting contractors will ever take on. But the fundamental advice he gives contractors applies equally whether they’re working on an airplane hangar or a patio: Don’t skimp on prep work.

Even if a contractor has all the right equipment, training, and crew, it won’t matter if they cut corners and miss important details. Merrifield and Simpkins offer five key tips to help contractors prep properly.

1. Know What You’re Working With

Base your prep on the type of substrate you’ll be treating. Merrifield says concrete is “by far” the most widely used substrate for flooring jobs.

“Addressing what’s going on with the concrete represents probably 90 percent of all the problems most contractors run into,” Merrifield says.

But not all concrete should be treated the same. Is it bare concrete or has it been treated before? If the concrete is bare, Simpkins recommends making sure it’s ready to be coated.

Before using any H&C products, he says contractors should look for a couple primary qualities:

  • The concrete profile should feel relatively rough, like 100- to 120-grit sandpaper.
  • The concrete should readily absorb water. If a drop of water soaks in within 15 seconds, it’s sufficiently porous.

If the concrete has been sealed or stained before, determine whether it was treated with a solvent-based or water-based sealer. (If you’re not sure, run a xylene test on the concrete.) Make sure the new coating is compatible with the previous coating.

“With regard to sealers specifically, we never want to intermix a water-based and a solvent-based sealer, because they won’t work together,” Simpkins says. “You would be at risk of solvent attack—which could cause it to wrinkle or chip up—or adhesion failure.”

2. Review the Specifications

Merrifield recommends beginning every project with a site evaluation. Inspect the concrete substrate: Is it new or old? Look for anything out of the ordinary, like excessive cracking, weird staining, or odd movement and shifting.

He also recommends double-checking the specifications given by the client or architect for the coating against your own evaluation: “Just because it was specified doesn’t mean it was specified with the correct system or the correct surface prep. You may need to submit an RFI to have the architect re-evaluate their specifications. Then get any major parties involved—such as a general contractor if you’re working with one—and review expectations and responsibilities for the job.”

3. Involve the Whole Team

To prevent a lack of surface prep from wreaking havoc on your job sites, make sure that everybody on the job site is familiar with the job specifications before they put a single drop of resin on the floor.

“We’re here to help and make your life easier,” Merrifield says. “Our sales reps are very approachable. And if our sales rep doesn’t know the answer, he will get a technical service representative involved.”

4. Find the Right Materials

Sherwin-Williams sales representatives can also recommend products that will save you time, money, or energy on the job. They can help you find the perfect tool for the particular project you’re working on.

For example, decorative concrete coatings are thin-mil products with vastly different properties than high-build, high-performance products. There are important differences to consider when it comes to your prep.

“For bare concrete, mechanical prep is the fail-safe way to go,” Simpkins says. “Often though, when you’re dealing with thin-mil products—like decorative concrete sealers and concrete stains—etching can be an acceptable option for concrete prep. For those applications, Sherwin-Williams makes ConcreteReady Phosphoric Etching Solution, a phosphoric acid etching product.”

5. Consider the Environment

Be aware of how your environment may affect the products you’re using. A product that spreads smoothly and quickly on an 80-degree day might suddenly develop the consistency of peanut butter on a 60-degree day.

“A rule of thumb for high-solids resins is that for every 10-degree swing, you’re either going to cut your viscosity in half or double it,” Merrifield says. “Apply common sense: What’s going to happen to the resin in the environment you’re working in? If a temperature change cuts my pot to half of what it once was, maybe I need to have more manpower on the job or break up the project into smaller pieces.”

While every contractor wants to save time and be more productive, it should never come at the expense of quality prep time. For some contractors, prep may seem like an easy place to cut corners and save time. But skipping steps is only going to lead to more hassle in the long run.

“Marginal prep will only work as long as you’re OK with marginal performance,” Simpkins says. “Think of proper prep as an insurance policy for your coating job.”