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Why temperature onsite is so important

Martin discusses the factors that greatly impact on flooring installations when temperatures aren’t ideal.

A COLD snap earlier in the year saw temperatures plummet to a big fat zero degrees. This is, as I’m sure you’ll all know, the point at which water begins to crystallise and freeze. I’d like to discuss the factors that greatly impact on flooring installations when temperatures aren’t ideal.

Having worked in the industry for a ’few’ years now, I have also sat on many committees discussing standards, site requirements, adhesive application etc. to put forward guides to good practice and even British standard codes of practice.
With this experience, I’m not naïve enough to think that projects can always meet the specified needs. So what are the challenges to professional flooring contractors when conditions aren’t right? This article will refer only to cold site conditions as damp and hot or humid sites will have different challenges.

First, the priority is to get conditions as good as is feasibly possible. This more often than not includes the introduction of warmth. The number of times I’ve had main contractors unable – or unwilling – to provide any warmth yet still expecting product performance is considerable. First of all there’s a cost, which probably hasn’t been budgeted for.

Second, few of the other trades really need it: painters and plasterers perhaps, but electricians, joiners, ground workers, light fitting teams and suspended ceiling installers can all cope in cold conditions. For reference, I’m suggesting ‘cold’ is anything below 15deg C and ‘very cold’ is below 10deg C. Once you get below 5deg C, please do walk away from the job.

Heating can’t be provided by propane burners as this increases moisture levels in the building, which affects products that are curing and drying. Warm air-blowers offer a good source of heat but tend just to be pointed at a particular area.

Red rads are very localised so can’t really heat large areas. Controversially, I’d always recommend using any warm water underfloor heating system to keep the building warm. Use the heating at a cutback temperature to get an air temperature between 15deg C and 20deg C and products will perform extremely well.

However, all the above incurs costs so are often not even considered. If this leaves you in a cold or very cold situation, your first port of call has to be a conversation with the main contractor and/or client to explain your dissatisfaction. You will have to ensure they are aware that failures are more likely to occur, time to complete the works will be extended, and your costs will increase, whilst the quality of your work may well decrease.

So, what are the potential pitfalls in cold conditions?

Smoothing compounds: drying times are quoted at 20deg C, so as soon as temperatures decrease your drying times will be extended. Not only does this mean you have to wait longer to install the flooring, but it also means the areas need to be kept traffic free for longer or the compounds will be damaged. You may need to quote for a feather finish repair.

Options for faster curing products are there, but, again, this can add more costs. Would it be more cost effective to have the heating instead?

DPMs: reactive DPMs, such as epoxy or PU systems, require certain temperatures to enable the reaction to take place. Typically, 8deg C minimum is quoted for epoxy systems to enable the epoxy and amine components to react together, so if these temperatures aren’t forthcoming then the products will not perform; they won’t suddenly start to cure properly as the temperatures increase either. Also, the colder temperatures will make them ‘stickier’ and harder to apply, generally resulting in reduced coverage. Finally, curing rates will be dramatically slowed down, with products claiming 12 hours easily taking 36 hours under very cold conditions.

Use of faster curing systems or accelerator additives can be considered but, again, they cost more. Maybe heating would alleviate some of these additional costs?

Water-based suppressants, primers, and adhesives: colder temperatures reduce the coverage rate of these products (if water-based) simply due to their increased viscosity (in layman’s terms, they become thicker). A recent site I was on consisted of a large open area, about 2,000sq m, with one warm air blower. The coverage rate achieved at a nominal 10deg C with a quality acrylic vinyl adhesive was only 75% of the normal rate. This did improve a bit when the adhesive buckets were placed close to the warm air blower. Great for us selling more adhesive, but – again – a further cost; I wonder if using heating might have negated some of this?

Waiting times for adhesives are also extended, with the optimum open time easily being 3 times as long in very cold sites compared to working at 20deg C. Time is money, so if your project is tightly framed for time and your fitting team has other works awaiting them, heating has to be the answer, or you are going to be out of pocket… again.

The more challenging area for me to comment on is the floorcovering itself. What I do know scientifically is that the warmer it is the more active molecules become and the more pliable resilient flooring products become. Commercial vinyl at cold or very cold temperatures can be extremely stiff and needs a lot of manual effort to manipulate it.

Any memory in the shape of the floorcoverings will remain and, coupled with an adhesive that isn’t at its optimum, it can be very difficult to get the vinyl in intimate contact with the floor. Being unable to take the vinyl down completely flat is not a fault of the vinyl, or indeed the adhesives, but is purely due to the temperatures.

This is why floorcovering manufacturers will stipulate minimum fitting temperatures. There could be grades of vinyl at a higher cost with more flexibility that may perform better, albeit still against the manufacturer’s rules, but again this is an extra cost. Heating could definitely balance some of that.

Linoleum and rubber are also much more difficult to apply in cold temperatures, as manipulation and cutting are harder to perform. Expansion or shrinkage of these high strength products (throw in LVTs too) means that starting at a cold point is likely to result in issues when the buildings warm up. Using a high temperature adhesive may help here but guess what? They usually cost more.

Wood flooring is an obvious concern in such conditions. The moisture content of timber flooring is critical to ensure it performs properly over time. Cold conditions can result in an increase in wood moisture which can expand the flooring. On warming the environment, gapping can occur, ruining the overall effect of the floor and, with solid flooring particularly, it will look awful when sealed or stained with gaps exaggerated.

Textiles can also be stiff under cold temperatures and the grab on carpet adhesive can be significantly reduced, making it difficult to pull the curl down, particularly on ‘boardy’ carpets such as needle-punch. Carpet tiles are generally quite stable but can slip in the cold. With the tackifier adhesive having less tack as temperatures drop, this can occasionally be an issue.

So, other than smoothing compounds drying more slowly, adhesives taking longer to tack off, coverage rates being reduced, and floorcoverings being much more difficult to manipulate and bond as well as being prone to shrinkage later on, colder temperatures aren’t an issue. It’s to the credit of the flooring contractors I’ve seen working under these sorts of conditions that they have managed to get an acceptable finished floor down. However, I do worry how the floors will look in a few months or years’ time, knowing the conditions they have been installed in.

I hope the contractors’ conversations with the clients expressing concerns over the low temperatures are covered with something in writing and the optimistic disclaimer to go with it. Nobody wants to be called back to a job to perform a repair, snag, or refit when there was little they could have done in the first instance.

It’s hard enough competing with tenders for projects without all the ifs and buts above having an impact. I can only see flooring contractors as the ones who suffer when sites aren’t to standard. How you absorb the unknown extra costs I do not know, but maybe there needs to be a winter premium added to all your tenders in future if the main contractor is not able to provide the conditions as laid down in the guidance notes and standards.

Heating is a cost – that’s easily understood – but ensuring good site conditions will help to reduce all those extra costs listed above and make the job run better. How do we get that message across to the clients?

The Flooring Show
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