Changing a customer’s perception of engineered versus solid is always a daunting task in my area. Around Chicago, the old perception is that an engineered wood floor is typically viewed as a product of lesser quality. This can sometimes create a mountain to climb to change the customer’s view. The majority of our installations, about 95 percent, are solid wood flooring.
When we see a specific project where an engineered wood floor would perform far superior to that of a solid, we recommend it to the customer. We explain the benefits of an engineered floor, as well as the risk of using a solid wood floor for the particular installation. Many times, even when we have explained the risk solid presents versus the benefits of engineered, the customer will still go with solid and accept the risk and the greater environmental controls.
On one such installation, a designer’s harmful misinformation on engineered, as well as the additional cost of the engineered, lead to a solid wood floor installation. This installation has seen excessive gapping in the winter as well as some slight cupping in the summer, which has caused the homeowner some grief. Upon my jobsite inspections to address the concerns, I ever so gently reminded the homeowner of the importance and the necessity of maintaining a strict year around environmental condition to maintain a perfect looking solid wood floor (which was not followed).
There is no sense of reminding the homeowner that they did have the option for an engineered wood product that would have performed far more superior at this point. At the end of the day, the client writes the check. We always suggest to the client the best option for their particular installation. We won’t install a floor that’s doomed to fail. We will, though, guide them to a quality long-term installation option.
Here in Arizona, we are a mostly slab market. So, it is natural that most of the floors we do here are engineered. This is not my preference, but it is how the industry has been trending. The quick install, the monetary savings from not having to do a subfloor, and the ability to install directly over concrete are the factors driving this trend. On average, about 80 percent of our floors are engineered, and 20 percent solid.
From the inspection side, I have only inspected one solid wood floor this year. Mostly what I see are issues directly related to the home’s environment or installation-related issues.
The biggest challenge that I see here in Arizona in relation to engineered and solid are the environmental conditions we face in the desert. We commonly have an RH percent below what the manufacturers state as recommended for their products. Because installers don’t take the time to educate their homeowners about the risks of not maintaining a healthy environment for their floors, many floors fail.
Many of our homeowners are “seasonal visitors,” and this means an unoccupied home for much of the year. These homes need to have a consistent environment throughout the year, which means not turning the HVAC to 90°F to save money.
Educating the end-user about how to properly care for their floor is key to the successful life of any wood floor.
My company’s product mix is heavy on the unfinished side (85 percent). It was a decision I made decades ago as I saw the explosion of new engineered manufacturers emerging, plus the ever-increasing shift toward engineered lines with existing makers. Both groups were forcing market expansion by stuffing every flooring store with waterfall racks. These products were getting into the hands of untrained subcontractors whose mission was to maximize production, often skipping on processes and quality controls. I asked myself, “Do I compete with dozens of floor stores/subcontractors within my area, or niche myself so well there was little to no competition?” I chose the latter.
The dramatic shift towards engineered flooring was nearly impossible to resist: end-users were getting floors done in less time, general contractors and the architect and design community embraced the ease of product selection from tote boards, retailers were able to generate both in-house installations as well as cash-n-carry sales, and finally, manufacturers were reaching max capacity at plants. The challenge I face daily is finding the clients who still perceive a solid, site-finished floor as being a better long-term value despite the overwhelming promotion of engineered floors.
Depending on the time of the year, the upper Midwest has a mix of solid versus engineered wood flooring inspections. The upper Midwest has a manufacturing-rich environment with several solid and engineered wood flooring mills. From my experience, about 90 percent of all inspections of a wood floor are moisture related. Even though solid/engineered wood floors are constructed differently, they often experience very similar claims: cupping.
The higher humidity months tend to confuse homeowners on why their floors are cupping, basically a moisture imbalance from the bottom of the wood to the top. This is not always due to high relative humidity. The relative humidity is higher than the manufacturer recommends, so the wood flooring starts to expand resulting in the flooring edges starting to lift resulting in a cupped appearance. What’s fascinating is that an engineered wood floor has the same response to low humidity or the heating season. The real wood veneer/lamella/fillet starts to dry out by lifting around the edges, causing the floor to cup. What’s great about wood flooring is that both of these issues can be easily addressed. If the RH is too high, balance the ambient RH by dehumidifying. The same is true for the “dry cupped” floor; add humidity, and the floor will relax and look like the day it was installed.