I am about to reveal to you some key facts that hardwood flooring manufacturers do not tell you about and it could save you thousands of dollars on your next hardwood floor.
Being an owner of a third generation family flooring business, I have seen flooring stores come and go all the time. I have seen gimmicks and tricks from manufacturers, representing their flooring products with impressive statistics and new “technologies” to guide people into how “their” product is better than the next. Sometimes the changes in product are actually viable and do work, but others are just plain nonsense.
Let’s talk about some things you may not know when it comes to hardwood flooring, both engineered and solid hardwood.
Did you know that wood flooring has a comfort level too? Wood flooring will perform best when the indoor environment in which it is to be installed has a relative humidity range of 35 to 55 percent and a temperature range from 60 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit. This is about the same comfort range that we as humans enjoy.
Let’s talk about the first thing you must do as an installer and the home owner. Ready for this…READ THE INSTRUCTIONS FIRST! Before you go gung ho and rip open the boxes, as most men do, take 10 minutes and read the complete instructions for the material provided. There should be a copy that comes in every box of material. Sit back, have a beer, and READ!
Now that we have that clearly understood, you need to INSPECT to know what to EXPECT!
1. Acclimation: The moisture content of the wood and subfloor must be within 2-4 percentage points of each other and the subfloor must not exceed 12% moisture content. The farther the percentage points are away from the subfloor moisture percentage, the more problems you will have. For proper acclimation, material must achieve room temperature (65-80 degrees F) for 24 hours PRIOR to installation. This means that the heat has to be on and working way before you try to install the flooring. To get proper acclimation, store the material according to the manufacturer’s directions. The instructions will specify whether to store opened or unopened and whether to store in the center of the room or at the edges. This leads into the next big topic of moisture content.
2. Moisture Content: What is the ideal moisture content of the actual hardwood product? Every manufacturer will very slightly, but the average approved moisture content in the hard wood flooring itself should be between 6-9%. For example, if the moisture content of the subfloor is 12% and the hardwood flooring is 9% there is a 3% difference between the two wood products, which is in the allowable tolerance of installation. Although some movement can be expected even in this range, dramatic expansion and contraction can happen outside of these measurements. There are several electronic moisture meters available on the market to test the moisture content of the hardwood and subfloor. These are generally a pin probe type meter and they can give you an immediate reading of your wood’s moisture level. It is very important that it is set to the species of wood that you are installing and that you take moisture measurements from several boxes of material and from several areas of the subfloor throughout the area that is to be installed.
3. Climate Control: Climate control might be the single most common reason for customer dissatisfaction with their hardwood purchase. It is CRITICAL, that the proper temperature and humidity level be maintained throughout the life of the hardwood installation. Improper climate control will result in the material swelling in the summer and shrinking, or gapping, in the winter. Without proper climate control within the house, gapping and shrinking will definitely occur. In the Northwest we do not have a huge problem with this issue unless there is a device used in the home which dries out the air to an extreme amount like a wood stove. This is why a pot of water is ALWAYS recommended to be kept on the wood stove when using it as a heat source. The pot of water keeps moisture in the air. Special Note: Some products that are constructed with HDF cores, are more stable and less prone to expanding and contracting.
4. Floating Floors: A key thing people miss when installing floating floors is to allow for an expansion gap around the room. Just as real dimensional lumber expands and contracts, so does your floor. There must be enough space left at vertical surfaces, like walls and posts to allow for this movement. The larger the area the more space that is required. Rule #1 – Always leave the required expansion gap called for by the manufacturer. Rule #2 – If your installer says that it is not necessary, fire them and refer to rule number one.
You can cover all expansion gaps with wood wall base or quarter round wood trim or a combination of the two.
5. Expansion Joint: Expansion joints are almost always required between rooms, where a room meets a hall or in large expanses. You can use a “T” molding in these areas to allow for the floor expansion and contraction.
6. Moisture Control: Here is a big one! Moisture in the subfloor, called “hydrostatic pressure or vapor emissions”, is a MAJOR reason for flooring failures. The subfloor is not to exceed 65% relative humidity. There are several moisture meters that can be used on the floor that provide accurate readings, or a calcium chloride test, used for “concrete floors”. If your wood subfloor is above 12% with a meter, do not lay the floor. If your wood subfloor is above 12% then you have to find out why – it could be a new floor and just needs to dry out. If you have concrete floors, you have to find out the source of the moisture. If you still cannot figure out why the floor is above 12%, don’t use hardwood. Period. I mean it…you will kick yourself. If your floor is OK to install, remember to always float an engineered floor over 8 mil plastic when going over concrete so as to eliminate and minimize water vapor coming through the concrete floor.
7. Glue down Flooring: In residential installations, most flooring that is engineered is either click together or tongue and grove. I don’t think I, personally, would ever glue down an engineered floor. It is an acceptable way to install but I find that it is terrible to rip out years later. Either glue it together or click it together but don’t glue it down to the subfloor unless you have a very specific reason to. I have seen more problems even stapling it down to the subfloor. Stapling down your engineered floor will just lead to squeaks and creeks that will drive you nuts. Pull out the instructions that you threw in the garbage and look up the manufacture’s installation methods, then go file the instructions with your purchase receipt for future reference.
8. Nail Down Flooring: A very common mistake we have seen in solid flooring installations is proper nail length, gauge of the nail, and spacing between nails. Always refer to the manufacture and double check the subfloor thickness. When using a pneumatic nailer, pay close attention to proper PSI settings.
9. Natural Product Variations: One of the inherent beauties of hardwood is the differences between boards and how much or little they accept stain. No two pieces will ever be alike and that is one thing that makes wood flooring so luxurious and realistic compared to laminate flooring. Pay careful attention to the layout and selecting the color and grain of each board when you are working with the product. Work out of 4-5 boxes at a time when doing a layout, this will randomize any variations between boxes of hardwood.
10. Culled Material: In every natural product like wood, there will be some pieces that, while not defective, and within industry standards, are not what the consumer, you, wants visually. Generally allow for 5-10% waste factor on material. This means that you need to buy 5-10% more material then what your job physically measures out to be. Larger jobs of 1000+ sf could work with 5% while jobs under that square footage can figure 10%.
When buying material from the “Big Box” stores you have to keep in mind that when they purchase materials for a “stocking special” they purchase a product that they can sell at the lowest possible price to use in their ads. This means that the hardwood that they pick up is “Tavern Grade” which means it does not meet the specs of normal running line material. The product will have more voids, mis-filled holes in the face of the hardwood, warped boards both side to side and up and down, and broken toungs. This product will have a lot more waste factor to it, even as much as 20-25% compared to the professional flooring stores stocking inventory. Buyer beware, what you could think is saving you that 10% difference in price, could be costing you 20-25% more in having to buy more wood for the same size job. Oh, and by the way, always keep 1-3 full boxes of material for doing repairs. Do not return them to the store. You will NEVER be able to match the floor again should you need to. Paint would fall into this same realm of thinking. When you need to touch up a wall, they will NEVER be able to exactly match the color. In hardwood there is not only color to match but grain of the wood, board width, color and the number one factor, gloss level of the hardwood or “luster”.
11. Scratches: All hardwoods scratch – it’s a fact of life. You just cannot change it. You will scratch, scuff, and dent your hardwood under the right conditions. Scratches occur more frequently under chair legs that are small in diameter and at entry areas where abrasion dirt is tracked in on the bottom of shoes. The industry has developed more scratch resistant surfaces like those containing aluminum oxide, they tend to show less scratching but the wood still dents under pressure. To help save your floors use felt chair protectors under all of your free standing chairs. Area rugs are great for rolling chairs in the kitchen, or replace the cheap plastic wheels with rubber barrel casters. The more expensive casters will spread the weight of the chair out more efficiently. The best first line of defense is an area rug by the front door or a tiled entry way to catch the dirt and sand “before” it gets dragged across the hardwood floors. Good rules of thumb, shoes get checked at the door.
12. Cleaning: For heaven sakes ask a flooring professional! Your wood floors are tough but they are delicate when it comes to moisture and cleaners. Throughout this article we have talked about moisture, now we don’t want to ruin the floor by trying to maintain it improperly. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions.
DO NOT: Use a wet mop system, a steamer, a bucket and mop, any “Wax” finish, no soaps, no polishes, and for heaven’s sakes do not over wet your floor with a wet mop.
The best way to clean your floor is to use a microfiber mop and spray a professional hardwood cleaner onto the mop head, to dampen the head, and then clean your floor. If you see streaking or a wet trail, you have used too much cleaner and immediately wipe up the excess with a terry cloth towel.