Decorative garage floor coating systems have become a popular home improvement service as the interest in residential garage organization has grown. The garage flooring component is truly the foundation of a complete garage makeover. It highlights the entire renovation which often times includes sleek storage cabinetry and innovative organizer accessories. The most important features of a good flooring system include durability, aesthetics, and slip resistance. The best coating systems are are known as resinous coating systems, primarily integrating epoxies. Epoxies which have been around for decades have been tested and proven over the years of use to be both a reliable and long lasting concrete coating solution. The argument can be made that dollar for dollar their really is no better system in existence.
Improvements in chemical technologies over the years has led to the development of even more advanced epoxy materials. While their are hundreds of different epoxies out there for various industrial applications, there are key attributes that make certain epoxies better for garage floor coating applications. What makes a great floor coating epoxy system? First off, you’ll want to choose an epoxy that is completely solid often referred to as “100% solid”, this can be confusing terminology because obviously coating materials are liquid. What “100% solid” means is that the epoxy remains the same thickness before and after it dries. Coating are applied by spreading them out on the concrete at a very specific thickness (often referred to as spread rate), the default standard for most coating systems of this type is 10 mils. So if an epoxy is spread out at a 10 mil thickness and remains at a 10 mils thickness after is dries we know it’s a 100% solid material.
Why is this important? For two reasons, 1) generally the thicker the coating the more durable the performance of the system and 2) the safety of the product is higher because what decreases the solid content of epoxies is the inclusion of solvents (harsh chemicals) in the formula that ultimately evaporate out into the air as the epoxy dries. This can cause high odors and a potentially toxic situation which we definitely want to avoid in a residential application. As the solvents evaporate out the epoxy decreases in thickness as it dries. So, if an epoxy is 90% solid and it is applied at a spread rate of 10 mils, when is dries it will decrease to 9 mils.
When we talk about a floor coating “system” we are referring to the integration of various layers of materials as well as the application techniques used. There are three basic components of a typical decorative garage floor coating system; 1) a base layer of epoxy, 2) a decorative flake layer and 3) a clear top coat layer. The first material applied to the concrete is known as the “base layer” this layer is the only one that actually comes in contact with the concrete slab and creates the foundation of the system. The most important role of the base layer is to create a super strong bond with the concrete. The objective is to create a monolithic bond where the concrete and the coating become one. This bond is imperative to a durable, long lasting floor system.
Preparation of the concrete prior to applying the base layer is the most important application technique and is essential to facilitate the creation of a good bond. Preparation requires a mechanical method of abrasion using diamond grinding or shot blasting machines to remove the very top layer thereby opening up the pours of the concrete and eliminating surface contaminants. Concrete is very much like a sponge with small pours running throughout, opening them up will allow our base layer to penetrate deep into the pours before it begins to harden and this is what creates a super strong bond.
At this time, it is important to make mention of other recent technologies that have been introduced into the decorative coating market. In particular, the use of “poly” based materials which have two distinct characteristics: 1) fast cure rates and 2) UV stability (UV stable means they will not discolor from prolonged exposure to sunlight). While the UV stability of Poly based technology make them an ideal option for the top coat layer of the system, their fast cure rates make them risky at best for use as base coat materials. It’s simple, if the base coat material cures too rapidly it will not have the best chance to penetrate as deep into the pours before curing and this will impair the bonding strength. There is no testing in existence that proves anything bonds better with concrete in a decorative system then 100% solid epoxy. And since the benefits of UV stability are practically meaningless in the base layer of the system there is no good reason for its use. Not to mention, the cost of “poly” based materials is often double that of epoxies.
It can be argued that they only benefit offered by poly materials is quicker installation of a decorative system, sometimes completed in a single day. Additional cost of poly material is typically more than offset by reducing multiple trips to a job site which benefits the contractor by cutting installation cost. But, in the long run the greater risk of system failure certainly does not benefit the customer. Admittedly at EncoreGarage, we were intrigued by these new materials when then hit the market around 2006, and as such began integrating them into our system. However, within a few years our floor failure rate had substantially increased. Fortunately we learned from experience and have since returned to the tried and true method utilizing 100% solid epoxies materials and continue to have excellent results.
Once the base coat has been rolled out and before it cures the decorative component of the system is brought in. This component consists of small acrylic chips (usually 1/4″ in diameter) in various colors which are mixed together to create colorful blends, of which there are dozens to choose from. When these flakes are applied by heavy broadcast into the uncured epoxy the floor begins to take on the look and feel of granite or terrazzo. The flakes also add built and body to the epoxy much like inserting rebar into cement, thereby increasing the overall strength of the system. In addition, the flakes help create a texture which increases the overall slip resistance of the system, remember slip resistance is a key component of the good residential epoxy flooring system. The final component of the good system is the top coat. The top coat encases the flakes to protect them, adds greater overall thickness to the system for durability, increases wear and impact resistance and adds a beautiful gloss for better aesthetics and light reflectivity. There are typically two options for a good top coat material – 100% solid UV resistant epoxy or high solids UV stable poly (commonly know as polyurea or polyaspartic).
Each material is an excellent choice and each has its distinct advantages. Epoxies are extremely safe and very durable. Their slower curing nature allow them to self level very naturally making them easier to work with and promoting a smooth and consistent floor surface. The main draw back to epoxies is that while they are UV resistant (meaning they will resist the effect of prolonged exposure to sunlight), they can ultimately discolor from UV exposure. If a garage does not receive much direct sunlight (door down most of the time) UV resistant epoxy is a great option and it’s less expensive. As for poly top coats, while they offer the benefit of UV stability, their quick curing nature makes them more difficult to apply and decreases their ability to self level as smoothly as epoxies. Generally with poly top coats it is more difficult to achieve the smoothness and gloss consistency of epoxies. Poly top coats are also more expensive than epoxies, generally because the patents on the ingredients used to create UV stability are controlled by a few major world wide chemical companies. Another important difference to consider when considering a poly top coat is that they are generally not 100% solid in composition. While recent advancements have improved the toxicity of some solvents used in these polys, they are generally not considered as safe as 100% solid epoxies.
So there you have it, a lot of information on what makes a good decorative garage floor coating system good. While the type of materials and application techniques are critical, they are only as good as the knowledge and experience of the team installing them. I have learned from experience that floor coating is a science. It involves chemicals formulated to correctly react with one another only when specific mixing processes are followed. It involves cement slabs of which no two are exactly alike. Not to mention application conditions such as temperature and humidity which constantly very and can effect how the chemicals react. Some one once told me it take a lot of years to get really good at delivering high quality polymer flooring systems, I could not agree more. My best advice to to hire experience and educate yourself before making a decision on which contractor to choose.