Flooring manufacturers often assume that not only skilled contractors will be appointed to install their products, but that these contractors will have the tools and equipment they need. People in the built environment know that this is usually far from reality.

In the South African flooring industry, it’s a common occurrence for installers to not have the tools they need for flooring installations, and while the reasons behind this vary based on the situation, most of the time it boils down to affordability and availability.

Tools and equipment are an integral part of any successful installation and using the incorrect equipment can render the finished product vulnerable to failure in many ways. FLOORS in Africa spoke to some of the leading tool and equipment suppliers in the market about the topic and their response was that not having the tools available in South Africa is no longer an issue, because many manufacturers and suppliers have taken on the challenge themselves.

“In the past, a lack of availability lead contractors to become creative and adapt existing tools to do what was required. Today, almost all flooring tools are available in the market,” says one South African tools and equipment supplier.

Some of the suppliers who import tools for the local market said they are working with a very minimal mark-up to try and make the tools more affordable, but that these tools often don’t reach the correct people due to flooring contractors falling into one of three types of business models:

Scenario 1: A few large flooring contractors employ staff on a full-time basis and equip their workers with tools. This scenario is arguably the best one as the workers generally have access to the tools they need.

Scenario 2: The majority of flooring contractors don’t employ their own fitting teams because their requirements are variable depending on their project pipeline. While these companies have a core team, they employ sub-contractors to do the installation work. When subcontractors are paid a poor rate, they may find it difficult to take this hard-earned money to buy tools or replace their tools when they are worn. Tools wear over time and with an adhesive trowel costing R240, a flooring contractor that is being paid R15 per square metre for an installation will find it hard to forgo the R2.40 per square metre that the trowel ends up costing him. In this case, they may resort to using a hacksaw over a V-shape file to cut in V grooves so they can do the job instead of investing in a new adhesive trowel.

Scenario 3: Small flooring contractors who are often ‘fly-by-night’ establishments. In this scenario, investment in tools and equipment is often minimal.

According to one flooring supplier, a common mistake regarding tooling is the incorrect use of trowels. It is essential that the correct notched trowel is used relative to the product being installed as this has serious consequences. A further area is with some of the finishing (tool) options that are often applied universally, for example, welding nozzles and trimming knives. These items are designed to perform specific functions and when used incorrectly or not used in accordance with the correct application methodology, results can be calamitous, impacting on the overall quality of the installation and aesthetic appeal.

Whose responsibility is it?
The impact of the correct tools and equipment on a final flooring installation is significant. While the responsibility of training flooring contractors and equipping them with the correct tools and knowledge isn’t a single flooring sector’s responsibility, a collective approach to accountability can change the situation.

Flooring manufacturers, for example, have become wary of selling certain flooring products if they aren’t sure whether the contractor has the right tools and equipment, and some are even unwilling to apply their product warranties if the correct installation methods and tools are not used.

“If a flooring contractor doesn’t have a power mixer, then it’s not advisable to sell them self-levelling compounds because they won’t be able to achieve the intended finish without this product. When applying an adhesive with a notch that isn’t the right size, the contractor could unintendedly put too much or too little adhesive on the subfloor and there are consequences to this as well. With certain carpeting, it is very difficult to install the product correctly without a power stretcher as this could lead to little waves in the appearance of the carpet. Installation tools are critical to do a proper installation job,” said one tools and equipment supplier.

The specifying fraternity often don’t have much influence on the tools that flooring contractors use. Most of the major projects go out to tender and are generally awarded to lowest priced contractors, so it’s very difficult for an architect to control who is doing the installation work and whether the installers are properly equipped with tooling. However, there have been examples of government projects in the past where architects included the allowable amount to be paid to contractors in the bill of quantities, an approach that may help contractors invest in the equipment they need.

Specialised tip: While the responsibility of equipping and training flooring contractors with the correct tools and knowledge isn’t a single flooring sector’s responsibility, a collective approach to accountability can change the situation.

Thanks and acknowledgement is given to Alistair Mac Dougall from iTe Products (www.iteproducts.co.za), Shawn Lewis from FloorsHQ (www.floorshq.com), Shane Hinchliffe from FloorworX (www.floorworx.co.za) and Geoff McLea from Mactool (www.mactool.co.za) for some of the information contained in this article.

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