This paper was created for shoppers like you who may have never looked for flooring before. It is taken directly from our training manual that we use when training our flooring salespeople. The questions are based on our experience with thousands of flooring customers over a thirty year period. It is designed to save you time and money and to get it right the first time.
Google has done a great job of educating us on how to search for products. We’ve all learned that narrowing our searches is the only way to get meaningful results. If we search on “flooring” we get over 41-million pages to sort through. If we type in “green flooring” we get 11-million results. Then we realize we need to be even more specific so we try “non-toxic green floors” or “discount green floors” which drops us down to around a half-million results.
Although Google provides comparative pricing, product descriptions and basic specifications, most websites really don’t tell us what is best for our specific needs. We always have to sort out one product from another and make the best choice we can with the information we’ve found. That assumes we know the right questions to ask.
This paper is all about the right questions to ask.
Buying a new floor is a major investment and not anything like buying clothing. When you buy clothing you look at the style, color, brand and price. These are the obvious things to look at. But you still have to try them on to see if they fit. That’s why the first question a salesperson asks is “what’s your size?”
If you make a mistake with your clothing you can return it and try another. With flooring, no matter how beautiful or expensive a brand may be, if it does not “fit” or does not perform well, it may not be returnable after installation. Replacement might be prohibitively expensive.
Below is a list of six critical and loaded questions that will help you find a green floor that fits your needs and avoid the costs and headaches associated with making the wrong choice.
1. What’s my sub-floor made of, and how clean, flat and dry is it?
The sub-floor is always your starting point. The type of subfloor you have will greatly impact your choice of flooring because flooring is designed to be installed over specific types of subfloors.
Some common sub-floors are:
- lightweight concrete (Gypcrete)
- OSB (oriented strand board)
- wood planks (2”x 6” or larger)
If you have a concrete subfloor in a basement or a slab on grade, for example, you should avoid solid ¾” hardwood flooring because of potential moisture issues. There’s always moisture in concrete which can vary with the seasons and cause all sorts of problems such as buckling, warping, mold and mildew. Most manufacturers do not warrant solid ¾” hardwood floors below grade.
However, floating (engineered) floors are much more stable and are typically warranted below, at or above grade as long as moisture barriers are utilized. There are always exceptions, of course, but these require professional advice.
Here’s another example: if you live in an older home they generally do not have flat or level sub-floors. This may be due to settling, sloppy construction or multiple layers of old flooring in some stage of deterioration. If you want to glue or nail down a solid hardwood floor, your subfloor must be perfectly flat. This may require patching, sanding or structural changes, all of which require professional help and can be prohibitively expensive.
However, if the dips or bumps in the subfloor are minor (less than 3/16” variation over an average 6’ expanse), a floating floor may be used because they float over most imperfections with the help of an underlayment.
If your subfloors are oily, dirty or damp, have a high pH or have gypsum content, they will not accept glue easily and will require serious cleaning and/or sealing before a floor can be glued down. Again, there can be some hidden expenses to tackle these issues. This may be yet another reason to use a floating floor which doesn’t require any adhesives. However, they will still require a clean dry surface with adequate moisture protection.
Both concrete and wood subfloors absorb and emit moisture. If they haven’t been properly sealed, moisture from the crawl space below or from the concrete below can be drawn through capillary action into your flooring. Excessive moisture can cause serious structural issues with flooring that is glued down or floated.
Moisture vapor isn’t easy to identify by sight or touch alone. That’s why almost all manufacturers require moisture tests on the plywood and concrete subfloors prior to installation. Each flooring company has its own rules for how much moisture is allowed but most comply with National Wood Flooring Association (NWFA) standards of less than 12%. Get a head start and test your sub-floor with a moisture meter or calcium chloride test kit prior to making your purchase.
2. Who will be using this flooring?
Will there be kids and dogs or do you and your partner wear socks or slippers in the home? For example: if you’re replacing the floor in an entryway where dirt and/or snow are tracked in, a moisture and abrasion resistant floor like porcelain tile or strand woven bamboo makes more sense. A resilient floor like cork or linoleum may not be the best choice. It all depends on the traffic.
If you need a new floor for a child’s bedroom, something soft, warm and quiet like cork or wool carpeting might be needed. If it’s for a rec room in an attic or basement where kids are playing, something resilient, easy to clean, and sound resistant like Marmoleum or cork might be best. As you can see, some options make better sense in some areas than others but there is no one size fits all.
3. How safe is it and is it certified?
If you’ve ever walked into a new home with a brand new nylon carpet, you may notice that “new home smell.” For some, that odor may be very unpleasant and quite hazardous to your health. The long term effects of exposure to toxic chemicals (even in very small, finite amounts) is a concern that hasn’t come close to being fully researched. Read 44 Reasons Why We Don’t Sell Synthetic Carpet.
Even small amounts of toxic chemicals can be intolerable to young children, pregnant women or those with multiple chemical sensitivities (MCS) or allergies. When it comes to indoor air quality, we believe in safety first. Understanding the chemical nature of adhesives and finishes is critical because of their effects on indoor air quality and health. Unfortunately, manufacturers usually don’t divulge all the details of their ingredients. Many use green labels and certifications to provide confidence in their products; however these cannot always guarantee absolute safety. Neither can reliance on Safety Data Sheets (SDS) as they don’t tell the whole story. Read: Hazardous Chemicals: A little bit won’t kill you?
Over the past twenty years we’ve taken calls from hundreds of customers who’ve experienced negative health effects from flooring products that contain low volatile organic compounds (VOC’s) and green labels. Manufacturers who are trying to go green sometimes “greenwash” their products by making claims that are either exaggerated or cannot be backed up by third party certifications. SDS requires all “known hazards” to be listed and but are not approved by government agencies for their accuracy. Furthermore, chemicals are usually tested on animals and have never been tested for their effects on humans. Chemical threshold limits for safety are educated guesses based only on algorithms.
We recommend personal testing of every product BEFORE purchasing to be sure you and your family can tolerate them. There are several methods for testing that you can perform yourself to establish if a product works within your own tolerance levels. It’s important to note that samples that may have been sitting on a shelf for several months or years have had adequate time to off-gas. You may need a new one.
4. How will it be installed and by whom?
Solid tongue and groove wood or bamboo must be nailed or glued down to a concrete or plywood subfloor. Sheet or tile Marmoleum is always glued down. Engineered wood, bamboo, cork or linoleum, on the other hand, is usually floated over an underlayment or vapor barrier.
The nail or glue down floors require a perfectly flat subfloor which is rare in older homes and not always easy to create by do-it-yourselfers. Therefore, professionals are typically employed because they require special tools and more experience.
However, if your sub-floor is in a brand new home or not too bumpy, dirty, or wet, a floating floor may be the answer. Floating floors can be made of solid or engineered wood, bamboo, cork, or linoleum. They usually require an underlayment and a moisture barrier and in some cases these are built into the bottom of the flooring.
NOTE: If you live in an apartment, there usually are rules about what type of flooring and underlayment should be used. Check with your building manager. If you have a radiant heated sub-floor, floating floors are ideal but not all are warranted for this application so you have to check the installation guidelines.
If you are a do-it-yourself type person, floating floors may be a good choice. They are generally much faster and easier to install, require fewer tools and woodworking skills and will save you lots of money on labor. They may also save you money on sub-floor preparation if your subfloor is reasonably flat. If it’s not flat, we recommend hiring a pro.
In the post Covid era, finding a reliable contractor may not be easy. We recommend getting a few quotes. Here’s a good article on How to find the right contractor.
5. What makes it green?
Depending upon how you define green flooring, the following may be the most important questions for you.
- Are there any toxic chemicals used in manufacturing?
- How about bio-based ingredients?
- Does the manufacturer consider the social, environmental and economic impact of the harvesting, manufacturing and distribution of its products as well as how it will be returned to the earth?
- Can the product be recycled after its useful life?
- How large is the carbon footprint required to source raw materials, manufacture, and distribute the product?
- How does the product affect indoor air quality when installed?
- Is the product certified by a third party independent agency?
- Is there a chain of custody to ensure that what you are buying is really what the manufacturer claims it to be?
At Green Building Supply we can be a great resource because we’ve already asked these questions for you. The research involved in finding the right information is significant. Go ahead and make a few calls. It’s almost like doing a Google search on flooring--you’ll get a hundred different answers.
There are many emerging companies and organizations now attempting to clean up the misinformation on the market. Call around. That new green floor you found may look awesome and may be on sale, but few manufacturers will tell you if the factory workers live in abject poverty or whether there are proprietary chemicals used in the product that are not fully disclosed on an SDS.
You have to know your sources and that takes time, patience and persistence in discovering the truth about a product. Most people don’t have the time to do this type of serious research. For the past thirty years Green Building Supply has researched and personally tested almost all of the products it sells in order to confirm that they perform as advertised and are safe to the end user.
6. How is it repaired, refinished or replaced?
Durability is a very important feature in the performance of any product. Most wood, bamboo, cork or linoleum floors are not equal in durability, yet they can all last 30-40 years if properly maintained.
The Janka scale, which is one industry standard for measuring the hardness of wood, is a quick way to determine the durability of a hardwood or bamboo floor. The range of hardness is wide and does matter if it is a solid or engineered floor. Strand bamboo and most exotic woods are the hardest and pine or fir are near the bottom with hundreds of other species somewhere in between.
Cork and linoleum are not on the list because they are not considered hardwoods but they are durable for other reasons; namely due to their resilience. Both handle foot traffic, not by their tough finish or density but by their ability to rebound after pressure is exerted. Both cork and linoleum will last 30-40 years or more if properly maintained which is why both are used extensively in hospitals, schools and commercial properties as well as residences.
How a floor is Repaired, refinished and replaced are important questions to ask because all types of flooring will scratch, dent and are subject to moisture, mold and mildew. At some point, or at several points in their useful life, they will all need some attention.
Repairability of all natural floors is their hallmark. A little wood putty usually does the trick for most. For Marmoleum, the putty can be made with ground up powder of linoleum and wood glue.
After 5-10 years, however, refinishing may be necessary. Hardwood, bamboo and cork can all be refinished multiple times with a water-based polyurethane once the surface becomes worn. This is generally done by professionals and can be costly. When Marmoleum becomes scratched or dull it can be buffed out and refinished too and is generally done by professionals. The cost is usually much less.
When damage occurs from severe flooding or when major renovation happens and flooring needs to be removed, replacement costs can be much less with floating floors versus solid bamboo or hardwood that is nailed or glued down. Floating floors are not glued or nailed so they pop out relatively easily and are replaced easily too. However, you must have extra boxes on hand to make this easy and inexpensive. That’s why we always recommend ordering 10% extra as an insurance policy because stuff happens.
Remember, manufacturer’s warranties only cover defects in structural integrity or wear layers due to improper manufacturing. They don’t cover normal wear and tear or damages resulting from your pet running through the hall, excessive moisture, skateboards or furniture dragged over the surface. Therefore, you need to be sure to choose a floor that can be cleaned and repaired easily to extend its useful life and protect your investment.
As you can see from the list of questions, there is more to buying green flooring than simply color, style, brand and price. Once these six basic questions have been answered, it should be much easier to narrow your search to find the right floor that suits your lifestyle, home style and your budget.
For those who would like to dig into this subject more deeply, we offer two white papers:
How to Buy a Green Floor: 7 common mistakes and how to avoid them. This 12 page document provides many practical tips and lessons learned by our customers over the past 20 years. Most wish they could have read this before they purchased their first green floor.
IAQ and Your Health; a Deeper Look at VOCs and Formaldehyde Emissions. This paper goes deep into the history and chemistry of toxic chemicals. Some very useful information about MSDS sheets and government regulations is also explored in depth.
For more information: call 800-405-0222 or email [email protected].