Inspector’s Report: The Effects of Improper Maintenance on Hardwood Flooring

Damage from lack of floor protectors.

As an NWFA wood floor inspector, I am called to investigate numerous floor failures related to improper maintenance and care of the hardwood floor. In this article, I will describe some of the more-common failures and causes.

The purchase of hardwood flooring is a major investment in one’s home. Hardwood is expensive and one expects a long service life from hardwood flooring. With such an investment, following the manufacturer’s maintenance instructions for hardwood is an important step to protecting that investment.

Wood floors have transitioned from strip floors to plank and wide plank formats. More exotic species are being used than in years past and are affected differently by moisture. With the introduction of the more-stable engineered floors, there comes new concerns. Engineered floors move the same amount in both length and width, creating larger gaps on the ends of planks. Solid wood tends to move more in the width causing larger gaps between the planks. Engineered hardwood requires a similar temperature and relative humidity range as do solid hardwood floors. There are new finishes such as aluminum oxide, ceramic bead finishes, hard wax oils, and polyurethane, to name a few; and texture changes such as hand scraped, wire brushed, rustic, open checks, and knots as well. All of these variances have different maintenance procedures. These changes mean that caring for flooring the way one’s parents did may possibly fail, causing damage to a new floor.

The most damage to a hardwood floor is moisture-related. Too much or too little moisture or too much of a fluctuation between the two can cause cupping, crowning, gaps, splinters, face checks, or other unsightly concerns.

There has been an increase in radiant heated floors in northern climates. Often times, the radiant heat has been used as a main heat source for the home and caused major damage to the hardwood. Hardwood flooring has a maximum temperature at which it will perform, and some hardwood species do not recommend being used over floor heat at all. Drying out the floor with floor heat can cause checking, splits, splinters, and wood shear. Putting an area rug over the heated floor substantially raises the temperature under the rug creating a hot spot. I have found in some rustic floors where wood putty in the hardwood has come loose, the putty does not move, and the wood around it shrinks when it dries out.

Before cleaning a new floor, after installation, it is best to read the manufacturer’s maintenance instructions. One example of why reading the maintenance instructions is important is that many wire brushed floors recommend newly installed flooring to be swept or vacuumed, removing any dirt or debris before cleaning. If a liquid cleaner is used before this is done, construction debris or dirt will turn into a paste and settle in the fine grooves that occurred during the wire brushing process, creating a haze on the floor and fill in any open knots. Once this paste is formed, it is very difficult to remove.

Damage from steam cleaning.
Damage from using wrong cleaner.
Construction debris in open knot.

Useful tip from an inspector:
Before cleaning a new floor, after installation, it is best to read the manufacturer’s maintenance instructions.

Another cleaning method gaining popularity is steam cleaning. Most manufacturers do not recommend this method and doing so may possibly void the floor warranty. The first thing noticed on a floor using the steam method is usually a haze across the entire floor. If caught early enough, it may be possible to remove the haze, but it will take a long time and a lot of effort to restore the floor. The haze is caused from incorrect maintenance and is not a manufacturing-related concern. If not caught in time, permanent damage to the finish or
the wood floor itself may require complete replacement.

The term hardwood has little to do with the ability to resist denting. Some woods are harder than others, but that does not mean they will not dent at some point. The easiest way to describe the difference is hardwood is a broadleaf tree and softwood is a cone bearing tree. Most hardwood floors are compared to oak as this has been the most-common species used over the years. Oak is actually in the middle of the hardness scale. Some of the most-common causes for dents are high heels, rolling appliances, and items dropped on the floor. When moving appliances with rollers it is best to set down a piece of ¼” plywood or hardboard to roll across. This will prevent dents in the hardwood floor.

Scratches in hardwood floors have become more noticeable with the use of enhanced flooring finishes. The products used to make the finish on the floor harder leaves a white line when the floor is scratched that is easier to see than the older traditional finishes. The use of proper felt pads on the bottom of furniture legs can diminish this concern immensely. Felt pads over hard plastic protectors are more desirable, as the hard plastic glides tend to leave scuff marks on the floor. When felt pads are used, it is a good idea to flip the chair over and vacuum the grit and soil off the pad occasionally to help prevent it from damaging the floor.

When considering which hardwood floor best suits one’s desires and needs, it is always a good idea to consider the maintenance over time to make sure the floor selected is right for the client. As long as the manufacturer’s recommendations are followed, wood flooring can bring years of service and increased value to one’s home.

I have been inspecting flooring for more than 24 years. Throughout that time, I have found care and maintenance to account for approximately one-third of all floors I have been called in to inspect. If you add in improper climate control as a maintenance issue, this number is closer to two-thirds of the floors I have inspected. The importance of flooring professionals to educate their customers about maintenance, and for homeowners to conform to the care and maintenance guide for their flooring, can save time, frustration, and dollars in the long-run.

Barry Flath is the owner of Professional Flooring Services LLC in Grand Forks, North Dakota, and an NWFA Certified Wood Flooring Inspector and Certified Sales Advisor. He can be reached at barry@professionalflooringservices.com.

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