How to deal with moisture - the CFA way

Richard Catt, ceo, CFA.

HAPPY new year everyone! In this, my first article of 2020, I’m returning to a favourite subject within CFJ - moisture in subfloors. Aimed at flooring contractors, the focus of this article isn’t really from a technical perspective, but more from a contractual viewpoint, to give some ideas and guidance about giving clients good service, while at the same time protecting your business.

At the end of the article, suggested as a very last resort, I recommend you might consider using the CFA’s moisture disclaimer. We’ve just finished updating it and it’s available to be downloaded with our new terms and conditions template from the members area of the CFA website.

I can already hear readers of CFJ crying ‘they [disclaimers] aren’t worth the paper they’re written on!’ But that hasn’t proved to be the case with the CFA version. Read on to find out why.

One main problem with moisture is that we (as an industry) could do better in terms of knowledge and the wider construction industry is probably worse. I hear too many stories of sites where flooring contractors are being invited to fit on a newly laid subfloor soon after it’s been finished and while it’s still clearly holding moisture.

Similarly, refurbishments can pose issues where a moisture sensitive floor covering is replacing one that is generally more tolerant and there’s no integral construction vapour barrier. ‘Why are you proposing to test the floor?’ the client asks suspiciously.

‘The old floorcovering was fine and never lifted!’ It can sometimes be a barrier to wining work when those with less knowledge, or who are prepared to cut corners for cost alone, imply the issue of moisture is exaggerated and drying times or a surface damp-proof membrane are an unnecessary cost.

The CFA’s standpoint must be that all involved should be working towards a successful installation and therefore the issue of moisture must be addressed. But in the real world, how do you achieve that balance between winning business, delivering quality floors, providing the client or main contractor with support and avoiding unnecessary risk or cost?

I’d suggest there are no hard-and-fast commercial rules. No template you can use every time. Strong relationships are important, but each contract is different, and the approach therefore also needs to vary. Nevertheless, there are some underlying principles that should guide. Above all, ensure your standard terms and conditions include references to what’s needed such that they form the basis of a contract.

The CFA’s new terms and conditions template (updated in late 2019), includes basic wording relating to moisture and therefore offers a starting point for a contractual relationship and commercial/technical understanding.

If tender documents are being completed, or a different form of quotation is submitted, particularly based on a site survey, then we’d suggest this should also include references to BS8204  (Screeds, bases and in-situ floorings) and the recommendations contained within BS8203 (installation of resilient floorcoverings). BS8203:2017 says:

‘Those responsible for the design and construction of the subfloor should ensure that it meets the requirements for hardness, strength, soundness, levels and surface regularities (see BS 8204‑1), dryness and other design parameters before floor covering installation is commenced.’

Some would argue that these references in isolation are enough ie it firmly puts the onus on the main contractor to provide a suitably dry subfloor. If they don’t challenge that statement or fail to deliver a dry subfloor, that’s their problem. But I’d suggest there are two further things to consider:

First, in the worst-case scenario of a failure that goes to court, a judge is very likely to consider if a flooring contractor has acted responsibly as the nominated professional. If they suspect the contractor has gone ahead and laid a floor without adequately advising the customer and/or in the knowledge that a floor will (or is very likely to) fail, my understanding is that they’ll probably find against the contractor. Even if, within terms and conditions and small print, they have the references mentioned above from British Standards as their defence.

The second consideration when faced with a subfloor that isn’t suitable and you’re being pressed to go ahead, is what happens if or when it fails? At minimum there is an unhappy client, a floor that needs replacing and almost inevitably a dispute about the cost. My experience is that it rarely ends well. You can wave goodbye to repeat business and will probably end up spending money even if you have records to show you tried to offer some guidance. See above.

So robust t&cs are good, asking for a dry floor is perfectly acceptable, but if that doesn’t float (excuse the pun!) what next? Well, if you’re not convinced the floor is dry even if this was assured by the client, you really must push harder and if moisture testing hasn’t already been carried out, it needs to be done.

Many subfloor manufacturers will offer a site survey if also given the chance to offer a specification for their products.

Their independence can often help, as can backing this all up with extracts from the British Standard or the CFA’s Guide to Contract Flooring. But what if they still refuse to budge, and for example they’ve promised a dry floor and you’ve received the material and booked the labour? But you know the floor is wet and will fail if you go ahead and fit.

I’ve heard this scenario many times with the main contactor refusing the cost of a surface DPM and threatening the subcontractor with finding another company who’ll lay the floor, leaving the original contractor with the cost of the unused material and labour.

Ideally don’t fit the floor has to be said. But as a very last resort, the CFA would suggest issuing a disclaimer. However, the CFA’s specific moisture disclaimer has a clever trick up its sleeve that avoids the main reason most disclaimers fail.
Rather than long and technical explanations about moisture to explain how or why the floor will fail, it suggests the floor is only being laid as a temporary floorcovering. Thus, the judge is unlikely to suggest a flooring contractor has been negligent by explaining why a floor will fail yet still going ahead and fitting it.

Equally, the client can’t claim to have been blinded by science or misled. They’ve been told in plain English that the floor can only be considered as a temporary floorcovering owing to technical limitations. To date, we’ve had no reports of it failing. Indeed, one of its main purposes is to facilitate more discussion to get to the better place of laying on a subfloor that is suitable.

There’s naturally more to the legal wording used and of course the CFA’s moisture disclaimer is only available to members as a benefit. It’s just been reviewed by our legal experts as have our terms and conditions template. This, and a whole host of other templates were relaunched to CFA members recently – all very practical ways you can obtain value from the £631 (plus VAT) annual CFA membership fee.

The CFA is a leading trade association representing the Flooring Industry. If you would like an application pack or further information on the benefits of membership, please contact the CFA offices.
0115 9411126