Things to Consider When Installing Wood Floors in Dry Climates

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“Wood floors can’t be installed in Arizona; it’s too dry!” This is something that we hear weekly at our showroom in Scottsdale. Then after some education about wood floors and our unique environment, the answer is of course, “Yes, you can!” I am sure that everyone has had similar experiences of misinformation. There are just some things that you need to pay close attention to in order to ensure success. It is really no different from installing in other regions. All regions have unique requirements for successful wood floor performance.

I am not going to talk about humidifiers. Humidifiers require a separate article, and I am by no means an authority on them. I started my company, Blackhawk Floors, Inc., in 2001 and since then we have worked on more than 4,000 projects, of which we have had humidifiers in six of them. Three of which were museums. So for me to take the easy road and just tell the customer that they must have a humidifier is not going to be very profitable or realistic. I don’t have one in my own home. We have to find ways to successfully install wood floors in a dry climate.

Acclimation
Arizona is DRY. We do experience humidity, but it happens during our hottest time of the year when HVAC units are running nonstop pulling moisture from our air. This makes us relatively stable compared to other areas of the country that can range from virtually no relative humidity to 100 percent relative humidity seasonally. Phoenix averages 37 percent RH annually outside. And with the records that we have kept and documented at our home we have an average of 32 percent annually inside. The high we experience is in the mid-40s and the low is in the low 20s. The extremes happen for only a couple of weeks and then return to normal.

I am telling you this to give you background on why we acclimate our wood floors the way we do. For the average home we want our wood floors to be between 6 and 6.3 percent moisture content. If we attain this MC percent before our install, then our floors will move very little throughout their life span.

We always check RH percent and temperature at the time of our first visit to the home. This starts the acclimation process for us, and we now know what MC percent we have to achieve with the wood floor. The RH percent and temperature is checked again at the time of material delivery, and again before installation. This gives us an accurate picture of the home’s environment. This is the exact same process for engineered, solid, and all of the various species.

Wood floors will move during environmental changes. Our job is to make sure it is in its “happy place” before install.

Species
Not all wood species enjoy a dry environment. This is much more prevalent when dealing with engineered wood floors, but some species don’t perform as well as others. In Arizona I have not found a solid wood floor that can’t be installed successfully with proper acclimation.

With that said, you must educate your customer about the issues that can arise with their wood floor choice. The same as you would recommend that a customer with 100 pound dogs and four children maybe not choose American cherry. You might not recommend a 10” wide x long length hickory floor. You can install both of these floors, but you must explain in writing and in person the risks and benefits of their choices. Don’t be afraid to say, “No.” This is your responsibility to the customer and the industry.

Engineered Versus Solid
In Arizona, we have a predominantly slab market. So we install an immense amount of engineered flooring. Most of what we install is unfinished engineered. Once installed we treat it exactly the same as a solid unfinished wood floor. Some of the benefits are increased dimensional stability, no need for subfloor, and exceptional milling tolerances.

As great as they are, some engineered floors just don’t handle the dry environment well. The failures are caused from many different issues. Some engineered floors fail due to the species or the way the product is constructed. Distress in the form of delamination, surface checking, and splitting are quite common.

Bottom line is this: talk to your wood floor distributors and find out what is working and what is not. I promise they don’t want a claim or a failure any more than you will. A responsible distributor will not sell a product in a region in which it will not perform, and neither will a contractor.

Wood floor maintenance is the same across the country. Educate your customer on how to take care of their wood floors. Let them know that they must maintain their home’s environment in order for their floors to perform. This includes not shutting off the air conditioning and heading for cooler weather in the summer. You would be surprised how many calls we get in the early fall complaining of gaps in floors.

Yes, you can install wood floors in dry climates. Work with your distributors to understand the products you are installing, and work with your customers to understand their wood floors and their role in the successful performance of their floor. Build these relationships through communication and you will have many successful installations and many happy customers.

Jason Elquest is owner of Scottsdale, Arizona-based Blackhawk Floors Inc. and is an NWFA Regional Instructor. He can be reached at jason@blackhawkfloors.com.