In a food processing facility, production room floors fall into Environmental Monitoring Zone 2, i.e., areas that are directly adjacent to food contact surfaces. Because it’s so easy for any contaminants on the floor to make it into food — via airborne dust, water droplets, equipment, and even workers’ hands — the FDA and USDA have strict requirements for flooring systems. Specifically, floors must be hygienic so they can be kept free of bacteria and other potential contaminants.

To learn more about this issue, and how flooring suppliers are working to address it, we spoke with Bob Sobocinski, a sales manager at industrial and commercial flooring company Crown Polymers.

Crown Polymers has been in the flooring business for 35 years and is today one of the leading manufacturers of high-performance epoxy and urethane-based floor coating products. They provide flooring for several industries, but the food processing side of their business really started to take off four years ago, when the company headquarters relocated from Chicago to California.

Sobocinski believes that relocating to California has given Crown Polymers a competitive advantage because it inspired the company to branch out into the food and beverage processing industry and to innovate to meet the state’s strict safety and sanitation requirements. The move has not only given Crown Polymers a stronghold among the abundance of food and beverage manufacturers on the west coast, but also positioned the company well to help processors across the country comply with current food safety standards.

Flooring that promotes food safety

“The number one thing food and beverage processors are looking for in flooring is something that meets their health and safety requirements,” Sobocinski says. That means floors need to be pitched for proper drainage and resistant to bacterial contamination, as well as able to withstand harsh sanitation practices such as regular use of chemicals and high temperature washdowns. “Floors have to be monolithic, which means seamless,” Sobocinski stresses. “They need to be hygienic. There can't be any open cracks where bacteria can breed.”

Crown Polymers provides the required level of hygiene by including antimicrobials in their formulations. Sobocinski says that today antimicrobial flooring is one of the features FDA inspectors look for and expect to find in food and beverage processing plants.

This represents a change from what was standard in the past. Tile flooring was at one point the market default, and some older facilities may still be using this outdated and unsanitary flooring. The problem with tile stems from the mortar used in the tile joints, which, over time, fails to resist liquid penetration. “Liquids can get through the joints and actually underneath the tile,” Sobocinski says. “And at that point you can have bacterial growth, you can have concrete deterioration, and not even know it because it's hidden by the tiles.”

Epoxies (chemical mixes that harden on the floor) were also common when Sobocinski started in the business, about three decades ago. What manufacturers discovered, however, was that the epoxy polymer coatings don’t hold up well to high temperature cleaning practices and intense thermal cycling.

That’s why the current standard is cementitious urethane, which can better withstand such sanitization practices. “Cementitious polyurethanes are basically three components, as opposed to epoxies, which are two components,” Sobocinski explains. “They do have cement in the mixture, which makes them more compatible with concrete, and the newer self-leveling slurries are typically easier to install than the first-generation screed / trowel applied systems. They bond better and they last longer. And the cementitious floors are really where the antimicrobials are most popular.”

Easier installation to reduce labor costs

Being easier to install is more than a minor benefit. The industry-wide skills shortage is taking a toll on processors’ ability to find qualified contractors to do such installation work. “Installing floors is a very unique craft,” Sobocinski says. “It's not cement finishing, it's not plastering, it's not painting. It's a combination of a lot of things. It's a specialty application. As a result, fewer and fewer people are picking up on this craft and taking it into the future.”

The problem, of course, is that floors that aren’t installed correctly require frequent repairs, which means unplanned and unwanted downtime. “You can have the best products in the world, but if they're not installed correctly, then there’s the potential for failures down the road,” Sobocinski says.

Although cementitious polyurethanes already provide an advantage in this area, Crown Polymers is continually working to develop products that are easier to install to help reduce labor costs. Sobocinski also sees the possibility of robotic applications in the near future as automated equipment continues to advance.

In the future: New, faster-setting floor coatings

Easier installation isn’t the only area where Sobocinski thinks floor coatings will evolve. He also sees the market expanding for certain materials. For example, fast-setting materials like methyl methacrylates (MMAs) are currently used in several industries because they can cure within an hour. Unfortunately, they have a strong odor that makes them unsuitable for food processing facilities because the odors could contaminate food products. Sobocinski predicts that, in the future, floor coating manufacturers will be able to produce an MMA type of resin without the hazardous odors.

Needless to say, floor coatings have come a long way. Sobocinski recalls a World of Concrete conference 30 years ago when his coating company was one of few in attendance. Now, these manufacturers are prevalent throughout an entire hall.

Crown Polymers has remained successful in this increasingly competitive environment by providing not only high-quality products, but also education and support for food plant employees, managers, and engineers. When possible, Crown Polymers gets involved from the very beginning, consulting with architects and designers as they plan the construction of new plants.

If you’d like to learn more about Crown Polymers and enlist their flooring experts to help you plan your next project, they’ll be at this year’s PROCESS EXPO. Visit them in Booth #963.