Lessons My Flooring Taught Me

Lessons My Flooring Taught Me

A decade of mistakes I wasn’t wise enough to learn from others guides my New Year

My father always said that a wise person learns from the mistakes of others. But what happens when you don’t know anyone who made the mistake you’re about to make, and you don’t know you’re about to make a mistake?

When I hired a flooring company to install solid strip hardwood flooring in 1998, I was not yet working in the flooring industry. How was I supposed to know to ask about the chemical emissions that would fill the house when they finished the floor with a toxic, oil-based polyurethane?

Okay, some people would argue that I should have investigated when the installer mentioned he had liver damage, and assigned the cause to his profession. He did not expound about finishes or less-toxic, water-based options. So, I assumed he was talking about a different liquid all together.

Lesson No. 1: Low-VOC might be a catch-all, inaccurate buzzword, but it’s still the best indicator we have in choosing polyurethane finishes. Pay attention!

Lesson No. 2: No one was talking about FSC-certified or sustainably harvested  hardwood when we bought this floor in 1998. Today, it is somewhat inexcusable not to inquire whether your wood was sustainably harvested.

Despite the odor from the noxious polyurethane that took about three months to go away, this site-finished, hardwood floor proved to be indestructible. Three-year-old children — pushing Tonka trucks, missing the paper when it was time to draw with crayons and, yes, sometimes wearing their roller blades into the kitchen when I called them inside — were unable to damage the floor.

But we were challenged to learn again when winter came in 1999. The floor began to shrink. Tiny spaces between each board appeared. Dirt began to collect between them. By this time, my research about non-toxic floor finishes had led me into starting a “green” flooring distribution business. I had read enough to know what happens to wood in winter.  I called in our furnace company. Yes, the humidifier needed to be replaced.

Lesson No. 3: Always maintain recommended humidity levels.

With the new humidifier running, the flooring boards, amazingly, expanded back into place. Life briefly returned to normal. We added a Labrador to our family, which meant more dirt tracked in from the yard and more vacuuming because of the shedding. My husband was busy at work, our son had started  school, and I was trying to build a business.  We also had begun to accommodate frequent six-hour drives out of state to help my mother, who had been diagnosed with cancer. My house was not in order. It was time to hire a cleaning person. The first thing I told her was to never leave water on the floor. But old habits die hard.

Lesson No. 4: Clean hardwood floors with a flat, microfiber mop sprayed with a hardwood floor cleaner or white vinegar and water solution. Do not use a bucket and mop or sponge and leave water sitting on the floor.

By then, my son, now six, was too big to skate into the kitchen. Had he done so, he would have noticed the problem first as the floor would have made him fall. The floor was cupping. It had expanded because of the moisture left on it, so the edges of each board were curling upward. I turned off the humidifier and dried out the house to no avail.

A great thing about square-edged, site-finished hardwood is that it can be sanded, flattened out and refinished. This time, I called a company that knew what it was doing, and ironically, for which I now work.

Lesson No. 5: I found a company that was working with one low-VOC finish at that time. This waterborne finish was very low odor, and the repair was beautiful. But, because the lessons were not finished yet, we would be using it again.

This very matte finish that does not show scratches was in for a test. My mother had died, my dad needed help, and the frequent drives out of state to his home continued. He wanted to sell his house. It needed painting.  We did it. He did not like taking long drives alone, so we drove him to appointments in Iowa and elsewhere. Miraculously, my business also was skyrocketing, I often had the office phone on forward to cell, I was constantly stressed out. And while everything in my Dad’s life was under control, I struggled to manage, and  my home — and my  floor — were often neglected.

My dad finally moved in with us, and when his home sold, the movers arrived. All of my parents’ belongings that were left, despite my attempts to sort, give them away or sell them, now had to be stored somewhere. So in the movers came, it seemed like a hundred times, through the door, across the wood floor and into the basement. The assortment of belongings and furniture would be pulled out and moved and sorted again later when my dad moved into to a retirement community.

Despite the traffic and neglect, our floor remained strong and resilient. My husband commented many times that the first floor was so attractive and durable that we needed to install wood treads on the stairs and get rid of the carpet on the stairs and second floor.

But my gut said not to spend this money. The suggestion of changing the stairs would always trigger the memory of my son, when he was small, having fun sliding down them on his rear end, or crouching on the landing in the dark on Christmas Eve, thinking we did not see him, as he tried to catch a glimpse of Santa.  The carpeted stairs were staying. End of debate.

Lesson No. 6: And that was a good decision. In 2005  my Dad stumbled on the stairs and fell. Fortunately, he landed on the landing’s soft, padded carpet. That carpet had lived its useful life by 2008. We put in another – this one  chemical-free and biodegradable, but it will pad a fall just the same. I am fairly certain that the installation company took the old carpet to be recycled. But I did not take a moment from my hectic schedule to make sure of that. Shame on me!

The lessons I could learn from my flooring reached the peak, I hope, in 2009, when I arrived home from work to hear a very slight hissing sound in the kitchen. Nothing appeared out of order and there was no time to investigate because I had to pick up my son from tennis practice. By the time we got home, there was a loud hissing noise in the kitchen, and a flood under the refrigerator, pantry and oven, that was flowing toward the dining room and through the floor into the basement.

Amazingly, our floor would be successfully repaired again. Of course, we had to pull out the refrigerator that needed a new water line, all of the cabinets and nine rows of flooring. And we replaced the water-soaked drywall and sub-flooring.

Lesson No. 7: An antimicrobial treatment on the sub-floor, which was not available in 1998, would have made a lot of sense, especially in areas where there is plumbing that is going to leak at some point. This technology kills mildew and mold, and provides a lasting, protective barrier as long as it is not abraded. It off-gasses no chemicals after it dries, and your family doesn’t touch it because it is under the floor.

It occurs to me now that this floor, which likely will outlast me, holds all of my good and bad memories from the past decade.  Some of the bad ones could have been avoided had more flooring companies with expertise in healthy indoor air quality existed when this story began.

Some have advanced today, and I remind myself of this and all of my good memories daily.

Lesson No. 8:  As for the mistakes, I can only strive not to repeat them. As for not having the wisdom to have learned from others before making the mistakes my own, I can only compensate by putting them out there for someone else to learn from.

Since this time, an array of low- and zero-VOC finishes have become available, and the Natural Interiors® program uses all of them. Call us at 513-200-9471 or email contact@naturalinteriors.com for more information.

By Nancy Kibbee, editor at naturalinteriors.com.

1 Comment
  • Erin Smith
    Posted at 06:54h, 16 April Reply

    This is excellent. I come here all the time and it’s post like this that are the reason. 🙂 Keep up the great work.

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