Polished Performance

Author: GMI Engineered Products April 22, 2013

Since the late 1990s, the growth of the polished concrete industry has accelerated rapidly, even through some trying economic times. Today, it is nearly impossible for any contractor in the commercial building trades not to acknowledge the advantages of this alternative system when comparing it to traditional commercial floor coverings. As a result, facility management professionals are beginning to understand the cost-effectiveness, turn-around time and reduced maintenance costs of polished concrete when they are considering a new floor system.

A growing number concrete sawing and drilling contractors are also adding polishing to their range of services with positive results. Like many applications, it is important to consider what value concrete polishing and floor preparation work will add to a business and what are the important things to think about when adding this service.

What are the reasons behind this growth?

When you consider the return on investment and include a minimal, regular maintenance program cost, you will find that dollar-for-dollar polished concrete virtually stands alone at the top of every low-cost-installed commercial flooring category. In addition, there are many aesthetically appealing design options available. With these factors in mind, it is no wonder that the polished concrete industry is thriving. Many chemical manufacturers have added colored dyes and stains to their product offerings along with customized training programs that teach contractors how to successfully complete complex “color-and-design” projects. The diverse range of colors, extraordinary gloss levels achieved through polishing and ease of maintenance will continue to make polished concrete a flooring system on the rise. It also has the added benefit of being generally recognized as a sustainable flooring system.

What are the first steps you should take to assess your interest in the polished concrete business?

This is a very important question, and is one that has been discussed many times among existing polishing contractors. As is the case for almost every business on the planet, managing customer expectations is a top priority. Many polishing contractors will openly admit that they lost money on their first two or three jobs. Things like determining job site conditions, concrete hardness, appropriate tooling, floor preparation, edge work, joint reconditioning or clean-out-and-fill joints are just some of the challenges that make those first few projects an educational process. Smaller, open-space projects will offer a contractor the highest level of success before they move on to larger, more complex projects. To put that another way: crawl before you walk. In addition, make sure you educate yourself on all aspects of polished concrete—attend seminars, trade shows and industry events—to absorb as much knowledge and expertise as you can before embarking on your new venture.

What amount of initial investment will you require for polishing equipment?

If you make the decision to purchase several pieces of essential equipment to launch a polishing business, you are generally looking at a minimum of $50,000 of initial investment. That investment may include, but is not limited to, a heavy duty planetary grinder, edge grinder, HEPA vacuum and enough tooling to execute test runs and provide you with the confidence to operate the equipment at a competent level. Familiarization with the equipment is a very good plan to have in place when you decide to make a purchase. Polishing a portion of your own warehouse or home is a perfect location to practice and perfect your technique. Proper technique is something that is acquired over time through many days, weeks and months of practice, so it is important for you to get in tune with your machine and develop these new skills.

How do you determine the best equipment available today, and if it is the right fit for your business?

In today’s market, you will see tools and equipment with added features and benefits that were not available to contractors just a few short years ago. If you have attended trade shows like World of Concrete recently and spoke with other contractors, you may have found that one of the biggest issues contractors have had with polishing equipment was durability. For the most part, equipment manufacturers have listened to these concerns and made a number of improvements. Keep in mind that machines are designed and built to satisfy a specific need. Several polishing machines on the market today are designed to be universal by application; providing functions such as coatings removal (bump grinding), profiling and surface preparation through polishing. Contractors who use these machines say that they do an excellent job at all stages of operation.

However, some machines are designed specifically to focus on one part of the operation and there can be advantages to using this equipment instead of an all-in-one machine. Equipment designed purely for polishing can do more square feet in a day than the universal machines, but an all-in-one machine still produces good quality polishing and may make financial sense for a new business. This is a good example of one of the many decisions you will have to make before starting up. Contractors that have a polishing machine will also have a specific machine for grinding as well. In this regard, you can use the more productive machine for each particular application, whether it be the removal of coatings or just plain polishing.

What assistance can you expect from equipment suppliers?

The scenario is a familiar one; you have successfully plugged in and powered up your new polishing equipment and you sales representative from the supplier is a new entry on your speed dial. You have called him after each grit pass during your test runs and explained to him, the best way you know how, the scratch pattern.

After a long day of changing tools on your machine and spraying some kind of clear water-like material (densifier) on the concrete slab, you have amazed yourself as you can see the beginnings of what looks to be a reflection on the floor. Upon closer examination, you see areas where you may have been going too fast and you have not removed all of the scratches. In other areas, it looks wonderful with no scratches at all. You now consider what you were doing to produce such perfection and you have established the steps necessary to replicate the best results for your very first project, which may be days, or hours, away.

You finally get to your much-anticipated first polishing project, get the machine plugged in and everything seems to be running smoothly. Then you discover that the concrete on the job site is much softer than the floor you practiced on. Initially, you are not concerned because the densifier that you purchased for the project claims that it can harden the softest of all concrete surfaces. During the grinding process, you are frequently going through diamonds and the customer keeps reminding you about that granite counter top finish you claimed you could produce. Unfortunately, many first time polishing projects have similar beginnings and endings. All of your intentions were sincere, but the end result was entirely opposite. The customer ended up with a horrible taste in their mouth about polished concrete in general, and you still owe $50,000 for the new equipment you have purchased.

If you have any concerns or questions about the equipment, do not hesitate to contact your sales representative or other knowledgeable person at the supplier. This is their field of expertise and they are often more than willing to share information and provide helpful tips. Your successful completion of polishing jobs also reflects well on the manufacturer and the equipment they have built.

How can you make sure a project is being done correctly?

Managing the customers’ expectations, and ultimate satisfaction, has always been the most important goal in any business. The customer has the check book and they typically do not pay until they are satisfied. Educate yourself in customer expectation and carry a handbook on the necessary steps to follow to keep clients happy. This is vital in today’s world, where a bad customer experience can quickly be posted to the Internet and affect your reputation and future business prospects.

The commonality that all polishing projects share are complex variables; such as concrete hardness, qualifying the project for the appropriate machine, the selection of diamonds and the type of densifier or hardener best suited for the project. In some cases, you may be working to customer specifications that do not match the working conditions of the facility. The next project will most certainly have a differing level of concrete hardness, which can significantly alter the approach to the other items mentioned. There is no finite set-up that covers all polishing jobs. Like concrete sawing and drilling projects, there are many elements to consider. Over time, you will learn how to “read” a job and select the correct tools, equipment and technique and make it a success.

How should you establish working guidelines for each project?

It is always best practice to offer the customer a test sample, or a free demonstration if the project warrants it. This allows both the customer and contractor to examine the test specimen, or finished product if it is a free demo, and establish a baseline for the job. It is essential to have the customer sign a copy of the estimate to say they have inspected and approved the test polish sample. This approach will become a powerful management tool that can and will eliminate potential finger pointing during, or at the end of, a project.

What are the various chemical materials in the market today?

The chemistry used for hardening and densifying concrete is evolving rapidly. Major chemical manufacturers continue to improve upon their formulas to make products more reactive and more user friendly. Offering contractors products that reduce or possibly eliminate some of the variable elements of problematic slab conditions, like densifiers or hardeners to soften or harden aggregate, is the new trend. In spite of spiraling growth within the industry, the level of competition in the market place is driving new advanced engineered chemistry and polished systems that continue to make it an affordable option for contractors that want to add to their range of services.

Education and training programs are a great way to give your polishing business an advantage over the rest. Continuing education on the latest products, together with a good mix of polishing fundamentals, is a fantastic approach to grow your business in the polishing industry. Organizations like the Concrete Sawing & Drilling Association (CSDA) are scheduling concrete polishing courses, seminars and university-structured classes for 2013, and participation in these classes is encouraged. As with other CSDA training and certification classes, instruction will be provided by industry professionals with real-world experience.

Understanding the potential growth opportunities associated with polishing concrete, developing a solid business plan and, finally, educating yourself on sound polishing techniques will create a recipe for success. This part of the industry continues to grow at a fast pace, and there is lots of potential work out there if you decide to add polishing to your service offerings.