Question

What's more sustainable: a longer-lasting floor finish, or one with lower VOC content?

Asked by Tom Leland, Beachwood, OH

Do you know of any research to support the idea that a long-lasting wood floor finish, even if it contains VOCs, is a greener choice in the long run than a low-VOC finish that has to be replaced more often?

Answer

J Neufeld

Answered by J Neufeld

December 4, 2008

Tom, I've been preaching this for years! Recently we were at a trade show talking about Osmo Polyx-Oil, which we use on all our floors, and the constant response was, "Is it zero-VOC?"

More and more people are equating healthy (low-VOC) finishes with sustainable finishes. And while we should be trying to marry the two, right now there are very few products that fit the healthy category and are also durable and long-lasting.

  • Most of the high-quality waterborne finishes, while meeting state and federal VOC requirements, have very close to the maximum limit of allowable VOCs in their chemical structure.
  • My installers report that all the zero-VOC finishes they previously used are peeling or worn out in less than five years. In my opinion that's just not acceptable, even if the finish has less impact on air quality during installation.
  • There are higher-VOC finishes, such as some Dura Seal products, that still fit the bill of being within allowable VOC guidelines and have a lifespan of 15 to 20 years, depending on maintenance and use.

This means you would need to refinish your floor three times in a 50-year period. And since ¾"-thick wood flooring has four to five sanding lives in it, you (or the next owner) would be replacing the floor in 60 to 75 years. Not bad, but I can do better.

A repairable finish

The finish we use on all our floors, Osmo Polyx-Oil, is a low-VOC finish that meets North American regulations. The reason we use this finish is because of its repairability.

Any time a floor gets scratched from moving furniture, or by pets, or just in high-wear areas such as hallways, entrances, or kitchens, you can repair the finish. 

  • All you do is lightly sand the area with an SOS pad—or if the finish is badly scratched, with a fine sandpaper—and brush some more Osmo on that area.
  • Do two coats and then very lightly sand the area to remove brush marks.
  • Wipe the area using a rag damp with Osmo, and you're done.

By completing basic maintenance like this, you could get away with never having to refinish your floor again. How's that for sustainability?

Traditionally oiled and waxed

Traditionally, wood floors were oiled and then waxed periodically. Natural oils such as Danish oil or walnut oil colored the wood and protected it from drying out. Floor wax was applied by hand, or in later years with a buffing machine.

This method is still used in plenty of homes today, when homeowners are after a traditional look and feel. If floors are waxed every three to six months, they can last generations.

Repair is similar to the method just described for an Osmo floor; lightly sand the area, reapply some oil, then wax the area. While these floors may never need to be sanded again, they do require regular maintenance and repair to ensure longevity.

Lifespan

While I don't know of any research to support your theory, I do believe that lifespan of a product plays a much bigger role in sustainability that many people realize.

And lifespan isn't just determined by a product's durability, it's also a matter of how long a product will remain in your home based on quality and a timeless aesthetic.

Tagged In: natural wood finish, hardwood floor refinishing

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