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Assessing Hard-Surface Floor Types - Properly identifying floor materials is essential for cleaning

Written by  Robert Kravitz

When submitting a bid for cleaning a facility, many BSCs offer some initial cleaning at the start of service—a technique that can often swing the deal to help them secure the contract. These extra services, which usually involve carpet cleaning or floor cleaning, stripping and refinishing, are offered at a very advantageous price and many times for free.

However, when it comes to offering floor work as an initial cleaning enticement, a problem contractors may encounter once they have been awarded the contract is that they are not sure what kind of floor they are dealing with. The days of just installing VCT (vinyl composite tile) flooring in facilities are long gone. The costs to purchase and install premium stone floors or even terrazzo, have come down considerably in the past few years, which has made selecting them far more palatable for many building owners.

While contractors will still encounter VCT floors, they may also run into these types of floors:

• Ceramic, porcelain, quarry, or Saltillo (Terracotta) tile
• Stone floors, such as marble, granite, flagstone, slate, travertine, serpentine
• Finished, polished, or stamped concrete (concrete that is designed to resemble other types of floors, such as brick, slate, flagstone, stone, tile, wood, etc.)
• Terrazzo, which is made of cement and marble chips, as well as other types of hybrid flooring materials.

Not knowing exactly what type of floor you are working with can be a significant problem because certain floors can be damaged by some types of chemicals, strippers, cleaners, or finishes. This is the last thing a contractor wants to happen: start work for a new client and damage their floor right off the bat. However, if you are unsure what type of hard surface floor is installed and what you are working with, fortunately there are ways to find out.

Key Identification Steps
The easiest—but not always the most successful—way to learn what type of floor is installed in a facility is to simply ask. An astute building or office manager may file away information about the floors, including the company who manufactured the floor and who installed it. If so, this information will be extremely helpful, and contractors can not only tackle the initial cleaning safely and effectively, but also use this knowledge to build a floor care maintenance program.

You will also want to know if a sealer has been applied. If the flooring is determined to be stone, a sealer may have been applied. If it is determined to be a ceramic or porcelain tile floor, the tiles may not have been sealed, but a sealant may have been applied to the grout areas.

The problem is that not all building/facility managers keep this information. Very often this information ends up in some accounting department and is treated as an invoice. Once paid, it may be tossed or deleted from the client’s database. This is especially true if the floor is several years old. As to how the floor has been maintained, many managers have no idea if a sealant has been applied to the floor or how the floor was maintained in the past.

Another challenge is simply the fact that building/office managers come and go. The manager that selected the floor covering may have moved on to another position years ago. If there are no records and this person is nowhere to be found, we are back to square one.

However, according to Doyle Bloss with U.S. Products, which manufactures floor and carpet cleaning equipment, there are other indications that help identify floor types. These include the following:

Appearance: A colorful or patterned surface indicates glazed ceramic or porcelain tile, according to Bloss. Quarry tile often has an earthy look in shades of red, gray or brown. “Visit a local flooring retailer,” says Bloss. “Very often you will see the same or a similar floor or someone there can provide advice.”

Repeat patterns: Patterns that repeat typically indicate that the floor is a man-made type. Natural floors usually do not have repeating patterns

Check the edges: If possible, check the edges of the floor. This can help distinguish a real stone floor from a floor that is designed to look like stone. “Stone tile has a small bevel on the edge,” he says. “Man-made tiles usually have square edges.”

Measure the width of the grout: The tile grout for a VCT floor, for instance, may be 1/4 inch thick; a stone floor will typically have a much narrower grout channel, about 1/8 inch thick. “If the grout has been sanded, this is typically an indication that you are working with a man-made tile, not a natural stone.”

Porosity: Place a few drops of water on a wiped clean floor. Porcelain or glazed tile will absorb the water so slowly, you may not even notice it. On a marble floor, it may take as much as ten minutes for the water to be absorbed. However, unsealed terracotta will absorb water quickly, but a stone floor will absorb water at different rates. A lot depends on whether or not it has been sealed.

“Another indication is if the floor has permanent stains that cannot be removed,” adds Bloss. “This usually means it is a porous floor that was never sealed.” For more on this, see sidebar “Just Scratch It.”

Hopefully at this point you have been able to identify what type of hard surface flooring you are working with. As to cleaning, there are various options. The traditional way involves using a powerful stripping chemical and a floor machine to strip the old wax off the floor, a wet/dry vacuum to remove the solution and soil, and then a clean water rinse. This is a very involved, labor-intensive process that invariably will need to be repeated more than once.

A less labor intensive, but still effective, way to clean a new client’s floors is by using a “dual-surface” cleaning system. Many cleaning contractors now have hot-water carpet extractors to clean carpets, using them as an add-on service for their customers. Some of these machines can be turned into dual-surface systems—they can clean carpets as well as hard surface floors simply by changing the wand.

“Some more advanced systems [can] produce as much as 1,200 psi, which loosens most soils on many different types of floors as well as clean grout areas,” says Bloss. “Because it is attached to an extractor, the moisture and soils are vacuumed up as the wand is used, dumped into a drain, leaving the floor clean and dry almost immediately.”

Just Scratch
It Friedrich Moh, a 19th century German mineralogist developed a scratch scale for stone to identify different types of stone used for floors. Using a scratch tool—quartz, a steel nail, or a fingernail—can indicate the type of stone. If the floor is hard to scratch, it is likely a man-made ceramic or porcelain tile or it could also be marble. Softer stones, such as travertine, limestone, and slate, will all scratch to differing degrees with this test procedure.

Making Good on the Offer
Offering an initial cleaning at little or no charge can really pay off. If the work turns out well and the new customer is happy, it can be the beginning of a very healthy and long relationship with this client. Not only have you improved the appearance of their facility, you have now demonstrated that you are a skilled and professional contract cleaner.

And one of the best ways to do this is with floor care. “Customers love to have their floors looking their very best,” adds Bloss. “Just make sure you know what type of floor you are working with… and use systems that make floor care faster, less labor intensive, which also means less costly for you.”

Robert Kravitz is a frequent writer for the professional cleaning and building industries. He may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


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