From warehouses to showrooms and from office building to malls, approximately 80 percent of American commercial flooring is concrete.
For facilities managers experiencing problems with aging and wearing floors — or for those with new floors who wish to minimize costs — an effective, economical solution is concrete polishing.
Concrete Polishing Is Beneficial
Most contemporary commercial buildings are erected on concrete slabs.
Grinding and polishing an existing concrete floor produces a high-quality surface that doesn’t require covering; equally important, it’s a floor that lasts.
Traditional coverings such as carpet, hardwoods, tile and finishes, sealers and other coatings must be periodically removed and replaced with resulting costs in material, transportation, labor and disposal.
However, properly maintained polished floors can deliver five to 10 times the life expectancy of tile.
Polished concrete is also incredibly strong, even in high-traffic areas.
Its abrasion resistance is excellent, and a high coefficient of friction (COF) ensures that polished concrete is not slippery.
Wet or dry, polished concrete floors meet and often exceed U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards for slip resistance.
And, the highly-polished, resin-free surface virtually eliminates tire marks from vehicles and fork trucks, creating less drag on tires and floor cleaning equipment.
When it comes to environmental compatibility, polished concrete floors are both green and sustainable.
Polishing produces a floor that qualifies for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) credits as a green construction alternative to traditional floor coverings.
Moreover, the polishing process is not harmful to the environment: Once it’s in place, polished concrete reduces dust mites and allergens and is not conducive to the growth of bacterial molds.
These features make polished concrete an ideal flooring choice for hospitals, pharmaceutical companies, laboratories and foodservice operations.
Polished concrete floors require minimal maintenance compared to traditional coverings that demand frequent stripping, sealing, finishing and occasional replacement or repair.
Sweeping and scrubbing to remove dust and debris from the surface are the only maintenance functions that must be routinely performed.
Depending on the type and degree of traffic, polished concrete requires only periodic re-polishing or buffing to maintain its original luster.
The refinishing process is efficient and economical, requiring little to no commercial downtime.
The durability and minimal maintenance needs of polished concrete are complemented by its aesthetic appeal.
For a new floor, the finish options can range from matte to a highly reflective, glossy surface similar to polished marble, terrazzo or granite.
The finish on existing polished floors is determined by the natural aggregate in the original concrete; however, a topping slab may also be added that offers the same finishing options as a new floor.
Highly reflective finishes offer the added benefit of increased light levels, reducing costs for artificial lighting, while creating a safer working or retail environment.
The Concrete Polishing Process
Just like other cleaning and maintenance tasks, achieving shiny, slip-resistant concrete floors requires a process.
To turn your dull concrete floors into coverings that exhibit aesthetic appeal and offer sure footing, consider the following four-step process:
1. Floor preparation
The first step in the process is to completely remove the existing floor coating or covering and prepare the concrete for grinding.
It’s a critical step toward ensuring a sound surface for either re-coating or polishing.
Machines required for the initial step include industrial scrapers, shot blasters or grinders.
The size of the machines and their fuel types can be matched to the specific requirements of a building, facility or campus.
Propane, electric and battery-powered equipment is available in walk-behind and riding designs; machines that can fit into elevators and be used in hard-to-reach areas are also available.
According to Mike Trotta, national sales manager of Niagara Machine Inc., distributors of a full line of concrete cleaning, polishing and maintenance equipment, the floor preparation phase is determined by the specific floor covering and the thickness of the substrate.
“For tile removal, we recommend using a riding or walk-behind tile scraper followed by a grinder,” says Trotta. “If you are removing a heavy mil coating, we recommend a scraper followed by a concrete grinder or a shot blaster. Thin mil coatings can usually be removed with a shot blaster alone.”
2. Surface and joint repairs
The second step in the process — an often overlooked but critical step — is repairing surface defects such as cracks, pop-outs, gouges and joints.
Unrepaired surface defects or open joints not only detract from the finished appearance of a polished floor, but such defects can also compromise the floor’s safety.
Open joints or cracks can create slip-and-fall hazards and bacteria collection points that can lead to food safety concerns.
When selecting repair products for a polished floor, a number of issues need to be considered, including the durability, cure time, safety and color stability.
“We work every day with clients in retail and commercial settings to provide repair materials tailored for specific repair scopes,” notes Scott Metzger, president of Metzger/McGuire, a manufacturer of concrete repair products. “It’s a different kind of scenario from just providing ‘standard gray’ concrete repair materials. We need to look at color match, surface appearance and the finish of the material we provide.”
The third step in the process is to hone floor surfaces, which requires heavy-duty machines using diamond-impregnated pads or other coarse disks.
During the grinding process, tools are gradually replaced with finer grits that help eliminate the scratches from the more aggressive steps to achieve a smooth floor.
The quality of the diamonds and bond material are vital in achieving the desired surface.
It’s important to note that grinding and polishing can be done without moving existing shelving, as edging machines are available that can remove material in extremely close proximity to permanent shelves and walls.
When equipped with dust collectors, grinding can be done during normal working hours — even while the facility is inhabited.
“Concrete polishing equipment has come a long way in a short period of time,” proclaims Nikolay Nikolaev, president of Superabrasive, a manufacturer of concrete grinders and polishers. “In the last few months, Superabrasive has introduced remote-controlled and self-propelled machines. One of our remote-controlled models actually uses gyroscopic technology that helps maintain the machine’s working path.
According to Nikolaev, the industry has come a long way from the time when the only option was to stand behind a machine and push.
“It’s a great thing to be able to offer these kinds of solutions to our customers,” adds Nikolaev. “A remote-controlled machine, for example, increases productivity while also reducing labor costs.”
The third step in the process, final polishing, is actually an extension of the grinding process.
The finest grit abrasives are employed in polishing, and a compound may also be applied to remove any residue remaining on the floor to produce the desired final sheen.
In addition to the mechanical polish achieved by diamond abrasives, fast-drying, water-soluble densifiers may be applied to close the surface pores of unpolished concrete, resulting in a denser, less porous finish that is hard, strong and water-resistant.
Don’t Overlook Proper Maintenance
An important guideline in polished floor care is matching the cleaning and maintenance solution to the substrate.
“Concrete is a reactive material,” declares Trotta. “People often use a highly alkaline or highly acidic cleaner that can actually damage the surface. Periodically cleaning the floor with the correct detergent preserves the finish for years.”
Even in the infrequent cases when a polished floor requires resurfacing due to extraordinarily high traffic, the process entails only simple polishing without the costs or downtime associated with restoring other types of floor coverings.
“We actually recommend not applying a cleaning agent to a polished concrete floor; it’s not necessary and can even be counterproductive,” proclaims Nikolaev. “Diamond pads, for example, clean and maintain a polished concrete floor’s shine with only water. It’s a simpler, less expensive and a much more environmentally friendly way to maintain polished concrete.”
Maintenance requirements, environmental compatibility, aesthetics and service life are key criteria in making decisions about retrofitting or installing new polished concrete floors.
Reputable suppliers of concrete polishing equipment can be extremely valuable resources for information.
Some distributors offer training and certification classes taught by experienced instructors with in-depth knowledge of the polishing process, an understanding of the proper equipment selection and familiarity regarding their operation.
“Finding a trusted manufacturer and distributor is an important key to the success of any concrete polisher,” concludes Nikolaev. “Reputable companies offer support through many different avenues — product training, customer service, in-depth product knowledge and experience in the market.”
Trust your suppliers and distribution partners to help smooth the way to appealing, functional commercial floors.
Wade Christensen is the vice president for Niagara Machine Inc. He can be reached at Wade@NiagaraMachine.com. Niagara Machine carries the top brands in the industry and has tools and equipment available for purchase or rental. Plus, Niagara also offers training and equipment repair services both in-house and on-site. For more information on the complete line of shot blasters, scrapers, grinding machines, polishers and abrasives available to help you achieve high-gloss, slip-resistant concrete floors, please visit www.NiagaraMachine.com.