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Lonnie Talks Flooring: Knowing What’s Important – and What’s Not

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Lonnie Presson, owner of Lonnie’s Carpet Max, in Rockford, offers tips on selecting the perfect carpet for your home.

Lonnie Presson, owner of Lonnie’s Carpet Max, Rockford. (Dustin Waller photo)

The year 1986 was an important one in the world of flooring, especially for folks in northern Illinois/southern Wisconsin.

The industry was revolutionized when Dupont invented a product named “STAINMASTER” that made carpet virtually stain-proof. Rather than coating carpet fibers with a dirt repellant that eventually wore or washed off, the solution-dyed nylon technology filled the open spaces inside of carpet fibers with a clear, colorless dye so that stains had no room to penetrate. Suddenly, consumers no longer felt obligated to buy only dark-colored carpets; a new era of design freedom emerged.

And, in 1986, a small-fry carpet guy named Lonnie Presson opened his own flooring store in a tiny rented building off North Second Street in Loves Park, Ill. He’d been happy enough working as a carpet installer until knee and back injuries forced a change. “It was scary going out on my own, because I had a family to support, and I needed a regular paycheck,” he recalls. “But flooring was all I knew, and I loved it, so that’s what I did.” Today he owns Lonnie’s Carpet Max, 6551 E. Riverside Blvd., Rockford, the busiest flooring center in the region, and sells residential and commercial flooring from all major manufacturers.

DuPont sold the STAINMASTER brand to INVISTA, one of the four largest fiber producers in the world, and the brand became an icon, much like Kleenex or Band-Aid. Lonnie’s store is one of only 300 STAINMASTER Flooring Centers, and his name, too, has become an icon, locally. “Most people don’t even know I have a last name,” he jokes.

STAINMASTER Heat Wave carpet

Lonnie’s name also carries weight in flooring circles beyond our region. He’s one of the Shining Stars, an elite group of 22 top U.S. flooring retailers out of more than 500 in FlooringAmerica, the world’s largest flooring group. In November, he flew to San Antonio to share advice with other Shining Stars, most in much larger markets than Rockford, about “advertising that works.”

While he concedes that he’s “pretty good” at marketing, Lonnie would much rather talk about flooring. “It’s such an interesting field, with so much to learn about,” he says. “I really don’t know why there aren’t college degrees offered in Flooring Science. It’s a huge field. It’s amazing.”

Like a parent who loves all his kids equally, Lonnie educates himself about all flooring types. He travels to factories to watch carpet being stitched or hardwood planks rolling off the line; he grills foremen about the finishes as they’re applied; he hobnobs with flooring manufacturers, negotiating for better pricing.He attends flooring trade shows and seminars, including the twice-annual Shining Stars summits, in which retailers help each other to solve problems.

Occasionally, Lonnie offers feedback to industry executives: “Tell me why the same exact carpet should have two different brand names and two different warranties. Does that really make any sense?” Or “What’s up with that staple fiber carpet? It sheds too much fuzz when you vacuum and my customers don’t like it.”

Lonnie grooms his inventory to satisfy Rockford tastes and stores it at his own enormous warehouse. He stocks 20 kinds of hardwood – solid, ¾-inch planks because, he says, “Rockford is a solid town, not an engineered wood town.” He stocks a whopping 51 wood colors in all.

While maintaining his own warehouse allows him to buy and sell flooring at a deeper discount, Lonnie has never sold himself as the cheapest guy in town. Instead, he has focused on staying in business and providing full customer service with no hidden costs.

“I can’t tell you the number of calls we get every day from people who bought flooring from stores that have since closed,” he says. “The turnover among flooring retailers is just unbelievable. When it comes to questions about warranties, I always tell people: ‘You’re looking at your warranty.’ It’s much more difficult to enforce a warranty when your retailer has gone out of business.”

Luckily, most people don’t need their warranties these days, because the science behind flooring has advanced so much.

“Flooring technology is some of the most impressive found anywhere,” says Lonnie. It has even caused him to make peace with a stepchild he once despised – laminate. A processed wood product made by layering a printed image over core board and a backing, laminate once had a distinctly artificial personality.

“I hated that stuff for years – didn’t like the looks of it, tried to talk customers out of buying it,” says Lonnie.

Then, digital imaging technology improved so much that Lonnie barely recognized the newer products as laminate. “These days, whether they’re simulating stone or wood, the finishes on laminate are so authentic-looking,” he says. “The tones and wood grains are just beautiful. And laminate is a problem-solver. It floats over a pad, and you can put it in the basement or in a humid area. Expansion isn’t an issue, as it can be with solid wood.” He now stocks 21 kinds.

For the same reason laminate has gained ground – better digital imaging – vinyl flooring has improved, too. Easy to install and maintain, vinyl is warmer than stone or ceramic and impervious to most spills. Along with geometrics and solid colors, new simulated stone and wood patterns “really look classy,” says Lonnie. “I don’t even stock the long rolls of shiny vinyl anymore; the best new vinyl products come in tiles and planks.”

And what about real stone? As it gained market share a decade ago, Lonnie was so enamored with it that, in 2004, he opened Lonnie’s Stonecrafters Inc., 2529 Laude Dr., Rockford, with Rick George. “It was a response to demand for things like stone countertops, that customers wanted to buy from us to augment the stone and ceramic flooring they bought here,” he says.

He loves all flooring types equally, but there’s one he could discuss all day long: carpet. And there’s plenty to talk about in the surprisingly technical, dynamic $14 billion U.S. carpet and rug industry (2009 data, Carpet and Rug Institute).

“I got my start in carpet and, looking back, it really amazes me how truly inexpensive it has remained, compared to everything else,” Lonnie says. “It’s because of the efficiency in the carpet mills, the way they consistently turn out perfect products. And there’s a ton of science behind the fiber.”

Carpet begins with individual fibers that are spun together into yarn, which is then woven or tufted into a backing to form the pile. Different fibers have different properties.

About 90 percent of U.S. carpet and 70 percent of worldwide carpet is supplied by mills in Georgia. Very little is imported. All but 10 percent is made from synthetic fibers derived from petroleum products. Of that 10 percent, wool is the most commonly-used natural fiber.

Most synthetic carpet is made from nylon, olefin (also called polypropylene), polyester or, the new kid on the block, “triexta,” a subclass to traditional polyester rolled out by DuPont and assigned its name by the Federal Trade Commission just last year.

For heavy residential use, nylon fiber is considered better than polyester or olefin, and “nylon 6,6” is the best of nylons.

PET polyester is a newer fiber that’s stronger than regular polyester and made with some recycled materials such as plastic pop bottles. It has excellent stain resistance but doesn’t hold up as well as nylon in heavy traffic areas.

Olefin is more affordable than nylon and has some very good qualities, such as superior colorfastness and stain resistance. It tends to crush quickly, however, and attracts oily stains.

Triexta fiber is made with a solution-dyed stain-blocker technology similar to STAINMASTER. This newcomer doesn’t have a long track record, but anecdotal reviews are very positive and place it on a level with nylon for durability. Triexta is marketed by Mohawk as SmartStrand and is very close, chemically speaking, to nylon, says Lonnie.

“Nylon really is the best fiber,” Lonnie says. “All of the carpet manufacturers in business today produce some very good carpets, but you do get what you pay for. All carpet looks nice when you buy it, but some will look nice for much longer.”

Fiber is classified as either staple or BCF (Bulk Continuous Filament). Staple-made carpets shed more fiber when vacuumed; BCF is much preferred, says Lonnie. “I’ve always complained to manufacturers about those staple fiber yarns and now they’re finally going away.”

Because various brand-name manufacturers (Shaw, Mohawk, Beaulieu) use various branded fibers (Smartstrand triexta, Tactesse and Luxerell nylon) with various brands of soil repellant (LotusFX Fiber Shield, Teflon, Scotchgard, R2x), which is not the same as built-in stain protection (STAINMASTER)or static protection, carpet shopping can be really confusing. Ultimately, says Lonnie, it’s hard to go wrong with a good nylon STAINMASTER carpet. The Carpet and Rug Institute, a nonprofit trade association, recommends carpet with a stitch rate of at least seven to eight tufts per inch, and a face weight of at least 35 to 45 ounces, because higher yarn density is generally better. And the tighter the twist on a single bundle of yarn, the better. Be aware that shorter pile heights, frieze styles and low-profile looped carpets stand up best to heavy traffic.

“The newest thing is very soft carpet fiber,” says Lonnie. “It’s just as durable, but has a nice, soft feel to it.” The softness is achieved by bundling very fine fibers together – sort of like a bundle of baby hair versus horsehair. Two STAINMASTER carpets with a soft “hand” are Tactesse and Luxerell nylons.
Choosing the proper pad is also important and affects carpet lifespan. Newer kinds of pads with moisture barriers prevent liquids from penetrating to the subfloor. Some even contain chemicals that help to break down animal urine.

In the end, however, a good carpet also must be one that appeals to you.

“A lot of it just comes down to what you like,” Lonnie says, chuckling. “You don’t want to do what I did. I put a certain carpet in my own home about nine years ago, because I thought it was ‘the new thing,’ and I hated it. Really hated it. It was perfectly good, so I lived with it for years. Finally I replaced it this year with a carpet I love – a two-tone barber pole twist that’s very soft. So the lesson is to buy what you like, not what you think is in fashion. Even a guy who owns a carpet store can make that mistake.”

While hard surface floors like wood and tile are fine choices, Lonnie predicts there will always be a place for cozy carpet in the American household, especially in cooler climates like ours.

“When people put in a beautiful stone or hardwood floor, what’s the first thing they do?” he asks. “They run out to buy a big rug to put on top of it. I’ve had to expand the showroom space I devote to area rugs.”

Also, he says, carpet is still the easiest floor to maintain. “Why do you think our parents were rushing to cover their hardwood floors with wall-to-wall carpet back in the ’60s? They weren’t stupid. They were tired of keeping up wood floors.”

Still, today’s wood floors are more durable than ever, with UV-dried factory finishes that stand up admirably to reasonable wear. What is unreasonable wear? “Having an excitable dog with unclipped nails running around on it all day long,” says Lonnie. “You wouldn’t allow that on top of your furniture. Wood is wood.”

In the end, most homeowners today want a combination of flooring types in their homes. “That’s why we carry the best of each kind of flooring,” says Lonnie. “But no matter what kind you have, it’s important to maintain it. Dirt is like sandpaper that just grinds away at a surface.” For carpet, he recommends frequent vacuuming and professional cleaning at least every 18 months. There’s no need to worry about washing away the built-in stain blocker of a STAINMASTER carpet, since the invisible dye is part of the carpet fiber. But an external fiber soil repellant such as Scotchgard should be reapplied after each cleaning.

“And use water to clean carpet. The hot water extraction method is still best. Forget the powder stuff you sprinkle on and vacuum up. You wouldn’t take a bath in powder, right?” he jokes.

Whether or not American universities ever decide to offer a degree in Flooring Science, one thing’s certain: Our region already has its own in-residence Professor of Flooring.

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