Green home renovations — installing wood floors

I hate carpet.  HATE carpet.  There is possibly nothing worse for you when it comes to indoor air quality.  Carpet traps up to 100 times more allergens than hard floors, and while vacuuming and shampooing can provide an improved cosmetic appearance, no amount of cleaning can possibly remove all the deeply embedded dust mites, mold spores, pet dander and just plain old dirt.

Additionally, though I imagine there are more green options available on the market today, most carpets contain adhesives and backings that create off-gassing of formaldehyde and other volatile compounds (VOCs).  In case you need reminding, formaldehyde is a proven carcinogen.

Most carpets are also made partially or completely from petroleum-based synthetics, and represent a classic cradle-to-grave manufacturing paradigm.  According to the Carpet America Recovery Effort, over 5 billion pounds of carpet are disposed of in landfills each year.  Some carpet is recyclable, but recycling facilities that accept carpet are limited. Carpets have a limited lifespan and must be continually replaced, unlike hard floors which, with proper maintenance, will last a lifetime.

A home with wall-to-wall carpeting may be cozy, but it is an unhealthy home indeed.

So, it is not surprising that I was thrilled to welcome new hardwood floors in my home last week in place of the NASTY carpet that has been there for years!

That wood floors, which obviously come from trees, are a greener option may surprise some.  And yes, there are some things you have to be careful about when purchasing and maintaining wood floors.  Nonetheless, in my very humble opinion I think wood is one of the greenest flooring options available, and here’s why:

-As stated above, solid wood floors do not have the same issues with allergens as carpeting, and they do not contain dangerous VOC adhesives (with some caveats; see below).

-Faux wood, laminate and vinyl flooring is usually petroleum based and also contains the dangerous glues and ingredients that cause formaldehyde off-gassing.  There is one natural linoleum option called marmoleum, which may be an option if you are looking for that type of flooring specifically (such as in a bathroom or kitchen).

-Engineered wood flooring also contains the same off-gassing ingredients to adhere all the scraps of wood and the veneer together.

-Clear-cutting ecologically sensitive regions such as the boreal forests of Canada and Russia or tropical rainforests in Brazil and Indonesia remains a problem, but luckily is driven less and less by demand for wood products in the US.  Most major retailers, including Lowe’s and Home Depot, now source much of their wood products from sustainably managed forests. If managed properly, trees are obviously a renewable resource and while plantations are not quite as valuable in terms of wildlife habitat, they do provide the same carbon cycling benefits. Managed forests are a bit better in that regard.

Some caveats:

-Most stains and finishes for wood flooring also contain harmful VOCs.  If you are refinishing or staining existing floors in your home, insist on low-VOC, water-based finishes.  If you are purchasing pre-finished wood, it is not as much of a problem in terms of your home’s indoor air quality.  I have also heard that pre-finished wood is more durable, lessening the need for refinishing once installed in your home down the road.

Mr. R and I purchased a dresser made out of unfinished pine last year, and traveled across town to find a hardware store that supplies zero-VOC water-based stain.  The results were totally worth it though and I must say my dresser turned out beautifully :).

-Most domestic hardwood flooring will be sourced from managed forests.  You cannot be quite as certain when it comes to exotic hardwoods, however.  For added security, purchase wood that is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council.  Most major retailers stock certified wood nowadays.

-If you are replacing carpet or other flooring like we were, check if you can recycle it.  The website fore the Carpet America Recovery Effort, www.carpetrecovery.org, lists recycling centers nationwide.  Unfortunately, the center near me only accepts carpet made out of a certain type of nylon, and ours did not fit the bill.

We were very pleased with our new flooring.  There was an immediate difference in air quality once the carpet was removed.  Little by little, we’ll tackle the rest of the house as well.  Breathe easier!

-R

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