A school's multipurpose gymnasium can be a valuable asset for the entire community, with the ability to host not only athletic events but election polling, craft fairs and pancake breakfasts. "Oftentimes the local municipality will want access to a school for different events," says Bob Curry, president of Rexdale, Ont.-based Covermaster. "You convert your facility into a multiuse facility, and you can generate revenue."
As appealing as that might be, if proper precautions aren't taken, the extra revenue will end up being spent repairing or refinishing the gym floor. "Wood flooring is the most expensive flooring you can put down, and it's the easiest to damage," says Pete Harvey, national director of sales for Putterman Athletics in Chicago. "People pay a lot of money every year or couple years to refinish these surfaces."
Simply put, hardwood courts are designed first and foremost for athletics, and a floor cover is an essential investment for any facility seeking to hold other events in the same space. "For schools that can afford to put it in the budget for the project, it's there from day one," Harvey says. "However, most are on tight budgets and can't afford it from day one. They get into it for a couple years and they're going to have a prom. They don't want people walking across floors in heels or street shoes and then they'll buy it."
Vinyl rolls are the most commonly seen floor cover option, but it's not the only choice, and not all vinyl products are created equal. "There are basically two different categories," says Will Plett, marketing manager for Enhance Mats in Marietta, Ga. "Roll systems — which would include vinyl and tarps — and tiles."
While Enhance Mats offers some vinyl products, its primary line of rolled covers is made with a carpeted surface and non-skid backing. Tiles can be carpet or plastic, interlocking or square. Each product has its advantages for different situations. "Carpet is your most expensive product, but it's very tough," Harvey says. "If you're going to set up for a tradeshow in your wood gym, it's very easy to put out. It can take abuse."
A lightweight vinyl roll tends to be the most inexpensive, but Curry warns against using price as the primary purchasing factor. "People start asking about the cost," he says. "What are you going to do in there? If it's only being used once a year, maybe you don't need the heavy cover. The key is to work with the customer and understand what the real need is."
Rather than focusing on cost, prospective buyers should seek answers to the following questions when determining what type of product would best fit their needs:
1. What are you doing on it?
A pancake breakfast, graduation ceremony or dance? All present very different threats to a gym floor. "Most of what we run into is family life centers and churches" using the gym during non-school hours, Harvey says. "They set it up for when they're eating on Wednesday night to protect from spills."
In such a situation, a basic, no-frills product will do just fine. For something like a speech or a lecture, acoustics become a factor, says Plett. "When it comes to using a gym floor to do other events, gyms are notorious for having bad sound. There's a lot of echo. It's not really conducive to concerts or even commencements."
Higher-end events might also make a more aesthetically pleasing product desirable. "Higher-end tile is more attractive," Plett says. "It really changes a gym into an event space."
2. How often are you using it?
Vinyl covers come in different weights, ranging from less than 10 ounces to 32 ounces per square yard. The thicker the vinyl, the more use a facility can expect to get out of it. "If you're going to use a gym floor cover one time a year — a Christmas event, maybe — an 18-ounce weight is fine," Harvey says. "It'll protect, keep the syrup off the floor, the Coke spills. But if you're setting up for heavy traffic areas or going to set it up twice a month, we usually go to 26 ounces or more."
Most warranties are tied to the number of times the cover will be used per year. "Every weight has its own warranty package and durability factor," Curry says. "We have some cases where it's used once a week, and then they want to go with a heavy-duty cover."
3. How much floor are you covering?
Most vinyl floor covers are custom-made based on the dimensions of the floor space to be covered, broken into widths of six to 10 feet. These sections are then secured with tape or Velcro to minimize the risk of tripping.
Storage for these products can be a headache, primarily because gymnasium storage in general is often lacking. Planning for a floor cover system in the early stages of a new project or renovation comes with the added advantage of planning storage to accommodate it, but even existing facilities can find the room. "The racks can sometimes be stored in the storage area of the gym," Curry says. "We have also seen them stored in the hallway with covers over them."
If only a portion of the gym floor needs to be covered, modular products are a good option. "Tiles are good if you want to set up an event during a game break," Plett says, noting that it's not just during non-athletic events that gym floors need protection. "You see a lot of issues with scorers' tables, basketball tables and chairs."
For these situations, many manufacturers also offer runners that are just a few feet wide to go along the sidelines of the court.
4. What's your staffing situation?
According to Curry, two people can cover a 6,000-square-foot gym with a vinyl cover in about half an hour. Heavier-weight products can take longer, while tile products are the easiest to install and can be done very quickly by a larger group.
While some systems can be put down by one person with enough time, most roll systems require at least two people — who know what they're doing, preferably. "If you go to a college, for instance, you generally have a dedicated staff who would be trained and responsible for deployment, setup and take-up of the floor covering," Plett says. "If you go over to a church or some K-12 schools, you're limited to volunteer labor. The learning curve of the individual systems would matter at that point."
Well-meaning volunteers can actually do damage to the floor. "When you're using any gym floor cover, a lot of people don't realize how important the adhesive is," Plett says. "People who want to tape the seams and leave too much space between the rolls so that the tape actually sticks to the floor. If that's left down for any significant period of time, it will bond with the finish and yank the finish off when you take it up."
Whoever is putting down the cover needs to know how to properly prepare the floor first, Plett adds. If the surface is not at least dust-mopped before use, the cover may catch particles of dirt and debris and drag them across the floor, damaging the finish.
The cover itself should also be cleaned before being picked back up, another step that requires familiarity with the product. "You don't use power washers on vinyl, and you don't use harsh chemicals," Harvey says. "The best thing to use is Dawn detergent. It's soft, easy to use, and it gets grease out."
Answers to those four questions will provide a good understanding of the needs of the program, though there are other factors that may come up. Sustainability, for instance. "That's a big movement — going to your greener, eco-friendlier product," Plett says, noting that Enhance Mats' GymPro line is made from 100 percent recycled products. Putterman also offers a recycled material called EnviroGuard.
For rolled floor covers, the storage rack is an essential part of the system. Some come with manual hand cranks to reel in the roll after use, while others offer power cranks. "We also have a brush attachment on the storage rack so that both sides are swept at once as it's drawn up," Curry says. "You're bringing up the dust and dirt from the floor itself, plus the stuff from the top."
Finally, facility owners need to be cognizant of the limitations of a floor cover. "There's a broad list of things that covers are great at protecting against, and there's a much smaller, specific list of no-nos," Plett says. "Full-blown dance parties on anything but a higher-end product would be a no-no. CrossFit is a no-no. Any sport in which you're changing directions quickly — field hockey, lacrosse, indoor soccer — those are beyond the capabilities of any floor cover that's intended to protect the floor."
Mention any of these activities to a knowledgeable flooring rep and they'll quickly turn you down, says Harvey. "Any time you're talking extreme situations, whether weights or bringing in a stage, we back off very quickly," he says. "We'll still sell it, but we'll put it in writing that this is meant for normal usage, and when you get into extremes, we can't protect your floor."
This article originally appeared in the May 2017 issue of Athletic Business with the title "Preparing a gym floor for non-athletic activities" Athletic Business is a free magazine for professionals in the athletic, fitness and recreation industry. Click here to subscribe.