Frame your veterinary practice

Not in the literal way—Wayne Usiak, AIA, is talking about rusty door frames and the impact they have on the look of your clinic.
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May 26, 2014

During a hot and heavy discussion on materials last year at the Veterinary Economics Hospital Design Conference in Kansas City, an attendee asked what to do about his rusted steel door frames. We’ve all seen them—rusted, eroded metal where the door frame meets the floor. So, why does it happen and how can we prevent it? Let’s begin by looking at the history.

Cleaning and corrosion

During construction, a primed, unpainted steel door frame is installed during the wall framing, then brush-painted with enamel paint after the drywall gets finished. After you move in, the door frame is subjected to weekly (sometimes daily) baths from a string mop soaked in water and some volatile disinfecting cleaning product.

Here’s how it starts to fall apart. First, the paint-to-steel bond weakens from the daily immersions. The paint then peels away, and now the steel frame gets the bath directly. The protective coating is now gone. Over time, the water-and-chemical-cleaner solution penetrates past the primer, and the steel rusts. Left unchecked, the rust will continue to eat through the metal.

Fortunately, you have three ways to address this situation, depending on your budget and your specific situation:

1. Skip the steel

Standard-sized door frames are available in both aluminum and fiberglass.

Aluminum has the advantage of being prefinished, usually by anodizing, which is a lifetime finish. The disadvantages are limited color selection and cost. Aluminum frames cost two to three times as much as a steel frame. The average 5,000-square-foot veterinary hospital can have 30 to 40 doors. A $4,000 line item quickly becomes $12,000.

Another option is fiberglass. Fiberglass frames are durable and paintable. They look a lot like steel. However, only a few companies make them, so they cost almost as much as an aluminum frame and are difficult to find.

A final option is to specify galvanized steel frames, preferably hot-dip galvanized. This provides a more durable, robust protective coating than electrogalvanization. Once again, they will be a special order so you will pay a premium, though not as much as with aluminum or fiberglass. This is not foolproof, though. They can still rust if the galvanic coating is breached. They can also be more difficult to paint—what prevents rust also prevents paint from bonding with the material.

2. Refinish your steel

If you have steel door frames that don’t yet exhibit any rust but are starting to look a bit ratty, now is the time for preventive measures. Wire-brush and sand the frames down to solid metal, especially near the floor. Purchase and apply a good rust-inhibiting primer, then paint with a quality enamel finish coat. The paint system will act as a barrier to prevent the water (and cleaning agents) from getting to the metal. Prior to painting, inspect and thoroughly clean the joint where your floor meets the frame. Caulk this gap so water can’t get past this joint and attack the frame from the bottom or the back. Select the caulking carefully. It needs to bond to your frame, floor and subfloor.

3. Improve your maintenance

Floor cleaning products have a complex job in the veterinary hospital—both dirt removal and disinfectant. You must carefully consider the chemistry of the cleaning products you choose—as they’ll come into contact with your door frames. The pH scale determines how alkaline or acidic the cleaning solution is. On a scale that ranges from 0 to 14, above 7 is considered alkaline, anything below acidic. Seven is pH neutral. Alkaline solutions are better for cutting through organic items like dirt, grease, oils and proteins. Acidic solutions remove minerals like calcium. Alkaline cleaners—like chlorine bleach, ammonia and borax—will only accelerate that door frame rust. Acidic cleaners like vinegar and lemon or citrus hand cleaners can attack or weaken the paint coatings protecting steel door frames.

The solution: neutral pH floor cleaners. Lucky number seven! Fortunately, today’s heightened environmental and sustainable-product awareness means there are lots of pH-neutral cleaners available. Look to the manufacturer of your flooring for cleaning product recommendations, then follow them!

Wayne Usiak, AIA, is a member of the Veterinary Economics Editorial Advisory Board and senior partner of Wayne Usiak and Associates/BDA Architecture P.C. in Albuquerque, N.M.