What lies beneath: Carpet Backing
Carpet backing, though left largely unsung, is an important piece of the carpet puzzle. A high-quality backing can help block moisture vapors that could ruin a luxurious carpet. The product can also be engineered to extend the overall durability of the floor. Additionally, certain types of backing are designed to create a softness underfoot that most any homeowner would prize.
Despite the advantages that the right type of backing can bring, consumers rarely spend time learning about them. That's not surprising given that consumers are drawn to the look of the carpet, not the properties underneath.The carpet might feature an eye-catching array of dyed yarns, sculpted textures and alluring sheens. The backing, however, will most likely contain some combination of polyurethane, thermoplastics, or attached cushion that only a scientist could properly appreciate.
"The first thing we ask the mills and turf producers is: What do you want in your backing?" says Scott Lowrie. global business leader - Floor Coverings, of Dow Chemical Co.'s Thermoset Systems. "Do you want a hard back? Cushion back? Moisture barrier properties? The ability to let heavy wheels and casters roll easily over the floor? Every mill has their own ideas. They each want to produce a product they can call their own."
Dow, whose customers include Milliken and Shaw, is widely recognized for its polyurethane carpet backing technologies Enhancer and Enforcer. Enhancer is designed as an attached cushion to bring extra softness to the carpet. Enforcer is a backing without cushion, engineered to make the carpet more durable. Both are designed for commercial carpets, a segment that Lowrie says continues to grow. Modular carpet tile, especially, is seeing a surge in popularity.
Most modular and broadloom carpets carry one of three types of backing: polyurethane, polyolefin or latex. Polyurethane is strong and durable, and for many years has been the predominant backing used in high-quality carpet. However, polyolefin and other thermoplastic backings are enjoying a resurgence of popularity, due to the ease of recycling the material. For carpets that won't see a heavy amount of traffic, latex and other water-based backings are available.
According to Lowrie, one of the biggest challenges facing carpet backing suppliers is ensuring that products are environmentally friendly but not cost prohibitive. "Customers are asking for environmentally sustainable products, but they do not want to pay a dime more for it. That's a challenging business proposition, to come up with ways of improving the recycle content, and do it at the same cost as if they were virgin materials."
Polyurethane is derived mostly from petrochemicals, and recycling the material is a complex and costly process. At least one supplier simply takes old carpet back, cleans it, bleachs it, and then sells it as a base-grade product, Lowrie says. The shortcut process is far less cumbersome than recycling the backing. To make the product more sustainable, carpet backing suppliers sometimes incorporate coal fly ash, a sustainable material, into the polyurethane.
"Without a doubt, we recognize the push toward sustainable products," says Giles. "We are total supporters of green technology and the green movement. And our BioCel backing with sustainable components has been well-received by the industry."
UTT's customers include Shaw, Mohawk and Masland. UTT currently offers backings exclusively for the commercial market. But, Giles notes, the company is planning to crack the residential market by 2007. "We're going to offer an environmentally sustainable backing at a residential price," he says.
Textile Rubber & Chemical also offers an environmentally friendly backing. Terry Wilson, director of sales and marketing for the company's polyurethane group, says its EPIC commercial backing system features more than 25 percent post-consumer recycled product by weight. (Textile Rubber also produces KangaBack, a polyurethane backing for residential carpets)
"We're all looking for environmentally friendly alternatives," says Wilson. "Mills are no longer looking at backings as a commodity product. They're seeing them as a way to differentiate their products."
Mohawk has also advanced in the carpet backing arena by introducing Optiback premium carpet backing. Optiback is designed to be up to three times denser than traditional backings. Mohawk is offering a 10 year warranty against backing delamination, which marks the first time the flooring maker has offered a backing warranty on any of its products.
With advances such as these, Dow's Lowrie says carpet backings show no signs of slowing down in their evolution. With the advantages of a good backing coupled with breakthroughs in technology, the segment is moving forward at a fast clip. Even dips in the economy are usually not enough to break the momentum, he says. "One of the key advantages of carpet backing is how useful it is," he says. "Backing can keep a carpet from pilling and fuzzing, and doubles the life of the carpet. Everybody needs it."
Suppliers say: Oil prices won't break our backsAs with every other segment of the flooring industry, carpet backing suppliers have been hit hard by the recent skyrocketing prices of petrochemicals and other raw materials. Because most backings are produced with petroleum-based chemicals, carpet backing suppliers are feeling the sting more than most. Here's what several major producers had to say on the subject:
Scott Lowrie. Global Business Leader, Thermoset Systems - Floor Coverings, Dow Chemical Co.
"If you talk to the carpet mills about the rising price of natural gas, they'll give you an earful. From a raw material supply standpoint, polyurethane and the components we use come from oil. Another, MDI, comes from natural gas. So it does hit us right between the eyes."
Mark Cline, VP and General Manager, Polyurethane Group, Textile Rubber & Chemical Co.
"Hurricanes Katrina and Rita certainly did cause some challenges for the industry. It wasn't just the fuel situation that proved problematic for many. It was also the displacement of workers. A plant may be physically unaffected, but if you can't get workers back in to start the plant up, or a truck or rail line to logistically move product to and from the plant, the plant is for all purposes shut down. However, we were very lucky. and weren't really affected. And it looks like the economy is showing signs of stabilizing now. I'm hoping that it will."
Doug Giles, Director of Marketing, Universal Textile Technologies
"Our BioCel high-performance polyurethane backing features BioBalance polymers. These polymers are made using soybean oil. Hence, we have been very fortunate to offset the costs associated with petroleum-based products. We hope to continue on our mission of increasing the levels of sustainable carpet backing."