Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Engineered Hardwood Floors

Engineered Hardwood Floors are very popular today.
What are the pros and cons of this technology?

I have engineered hardwood flooring in both my houses. Today, they are quite common and have basically replaced "real" hardwood flooring in most modern construction and remodeling.

For me, there was no choice in the matter.  In one house, there is a concrete slab as a foundation, and traditional hardwood flooring would have been hard to install.  It also came with the house, so it was an existing installation I was not about to replace.

In my other house, we have hydronic in-floor heating, which sounds like a nice thing to have, that is, until it is 20 years old and starts to leak.  But more about that later.  Since you can't nail into hydronic heated floors, you have to glue down material, which you can do with engineered hardwood, but not as easily with "real" hardwood floors.

What is engineered hardwood flooring?  Well, as the diagram above illustrates, it is a flooring product that is made up of layers of laminated materials - plywood basically, oriented in different directions, and topped with a veneer of hardwood, pre-finished with a very durable urethane-type finish. This material comes in strips, which are packaged in boxes. Each strip has a tongue-and-groove on opposite sides, so it interlocks with adjacent strips.

What are the advantages of this material? There are many, which is one reason why it dominates new construction and remodeling today:

1. Cost: Engineered hardwood flooring is probably less than half the cost of installing a real hardwood floor and in fact may be competitive with the cost of refinishing an existing floor. It is roughly double the cost of quality wall-to-wall carpet (the cheapest floor covering there is).  For this reason alone, many people opt for engineered hardwood. It really is the only choice. 
2. Ease of installation: Tied to cost is installation cost. It takes little time to install engineered hardwood flooring, and a typical house can be completely floored in a day or so. Since the material is pre-finished, it requires no staining or urethane to complete, eliminating several costly and time-consuming steps in the process. 
3. No fumes or mess: We had a "real" hardwood floor refinished once, and it was quite a process that took several days. The entire floor had to be sanded, stained (optional) and then varnished with a urethane finish. It was dusty, and the fumes were intense. What's more, the sanding dust, when bagged up, ended up catching fire due to spontaneous combustion (which turns out to be quite common in that industry). Fortunately, an astute neighbor called the fire department in time and the installers cleaned up the mess. But others have been less fortunate. 
4. Consistent quality: A hardwood floor is only as good as the installer. Sanding, staining, and varnishing all take some modicum of talent, and defects in the final product may appear if stain is not evenly applied or varnish not properly applied and buffed. Engineered hardwoods, on the other hand, are finished in a factory under controlled conditions, so the finish is uniform - almost too perfect (and one way you can spot such products easily). 
5. Limited Maintenance: The makers of these products claim they require no waxing or regular maintenance. Just regular floor care products are needed occasionally to clean them. Unlike a hardwood floor, you don't need to mop them, and in fact, you really can't because of the water ingress issue. But as we shall see, it might not be a bad idea to wax these materials anyway. 
6. Dimensional Stability: Real hardwood floors can expand and contract with temperature and humidity and do funky things over the years. Engineered hardwood flooring, on the other hand, having differently oriented strands, tends to be more dimensionally stable, regardless of changes in humidity and temperature.

OK, so this wonder of modern science is perfect, right? Less cost, less hassle, looks better, what could go wrong?

Well, as with anything else, there are trade-offs. And I have learned the hard way there are some significant ones with engineered hardwood floors. Nothing to indict the product as undesirable, just some considerations to bear in mind:

1. Unfinished Edges: Yes, the tops of the panels are pre-finished at the factory and look nice and shiny. But the edges of each panel are not finished, and are in fact, raw wood. This means if you spill water on engineered hardwood floors, it can (and will) seep into the edges and damage the panels. Even water from the dog dish, or from a potted plant can seep into these edges and permanently stain the panel. 
The panels do "bounce back" from some staining, so if you end up with a water stain, don't panic and pull up the panel immediately. Wait a few weeks or even a month, and you may see the water stain disappear somewhat. The surface finish may tend to wrinkle, however, which does not seem to go away with time. 
I have found that applying a layer of paste wax to the floor helps in preventing minor water damage from spills and the like from staining the panels. We even have this material in one bathroom (not by choice, the installer messed up) and by waxing it heavily after the install, it seems to have resisted water damage. 
And of course, regular hardwood floors can be damaged by severe water spillage too, so they are not immune. But for the most part, a well-sealed "real" hardwood floor will not absorb much water, even if you dump a gallon on it. It is more resistant to water problems. 
2. Limited refinishing options: Engineered hardwood floors supposedly can be refinished once or twice. I am skeptical, as the veneer is very thin. However, the hardwood floor refinishing business has changed over the years. Gone are the days when we would sand off 1/16" of wood to get down to "bare wood" and refinish. New scrubbing pads are replacing sanding discs and belts, and instead of removing wood, we remove only the top layer of finish and then re-seal. 
So today, a "real" hardwood floor has an almost unlimited lifespan with refinishing, but engineered hardwood might only get one or two refinishes out of it. But then again, given the labor cost of refinishing a floor, merely installing a new floor is not that much more expensive.
So perhaps that evens out. 
NOTE:  Check your floor carefully before trying to refinish it.  Some engineered hardwood floors can be sanded and refinished once or twice.  Others have such a thin veneer that refinishing is not an option. 
3. Lifespan: In the same vein, while a hardwood floor may last 100 years or more, my experience seems to show that engineered hardwoods might last 15-20, depending on care and use. Granted, if you never walk on your floor, have no dogs with sharp claws, or friends with high heels, or small children with Tonka trucks, your engineered hardwood floors might last forever (if you never, ever spill on them). But for the rest of us, who actually live in their houses, the floors will take a beating, and after a decade or so, they might look a little ratty. 
However, the lifespan of engineered hardwood flooring is probably double that of wall-to-wall carpeting, so it still is a sound value, in terms of wear versus cost. 
4. Appearance: While engineered hardwoods may look "perfect" when installed, because of this, they do tend to look fake. You can tell the difference between engineered hardwood and a real hardwood floor, often because the real hardwood floor has imperfections, and also because a real hardwood floor doesn't have these lines in it where the panels join. 
Like a lot of modern technology, the perfection of appearance tends to take away from the character that we associate with real quality. Shiny fake gold trim, for example, is very easy to spot compared to real gold. 
5. Maintenance: Although touted as maintenance-free, as my experience illustrates, waxing this material with good old Johnson Paste Wax is probably a good idea, as the raw edges of the seams will wick in any water that is spilled and damage the panels.
So there are pros and cons to engineered hardwood floors. Regardless, these materials are here to stay, and chances are, in your lifetime, you will own or rent a home with these materials in them. As our planet gets more crowded, and the amount of virgin hardwood diminishes (and the environmental impact of harvesting hardwoods increases) it is more efficient and less costly in all respects to make flooring in the form of engineered hardwood than in the traditional manner. Of course, this will tend to make "real" hardwood flooring all that more desirable for those who have it.

In other words, if you have real hardwood floors, consider yourself lucky in this day and age, even if they are a hassle sometime.

A special note on Pergo(tm) brand flooring and similar types: There are other types of engineered flooring which use masonite-like layers and what is essentially a photograph of wood on the surface, instead of plywood layers and real veneer. These are usually cheaper, but tend to "potato chip" over time, particularly if they get wet at all. I have seen some of these installations in kitchens look very poorly after only a year or two.

On the other hand, a friend installed a Pergo floor in a family room, and it has held up well. The advantage of fake veneers is that you are not limited to hardwood designs. They chose a design that mimicked a tile floor, and it does look convincing.

However, while it was cheaper to install than tile, it clearly will not wear like tile (but then again, it won't crack like tile, either). But overall, I am not sure these types of flooring are a real bargain.

A note on floating floors: Ikea sells (or used to sell) an engineered flooring product called a "floating floor". I am not sure if it had real veneer or just a photograph of wood on it. Floating floors do not attach to the underlying flooring (as the name implies) but instead the panels interlock together and rest on a layer of foam material. Edges are concealed by molding on the baseboard, which allows the floor to expand and contract.

These types of floors have one major disadvantage, however. Since they are not really attached to anything, carrying a heavy load over them can damage them severely. For example, I've seen a situation where a mover tried to move a refrigerator across a floating floor on an appliance dolly. The dolly dug into the floor, tearing it into kindling wood as he dragged the refrigerator across it. Ouch.

For that reason, I would not recommend floating floors, unless some specific issue required them.

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Overall, I would say Engineered Hardwood Floors are a good product.  As I noted, since they are here to stay and are much more affordable than traditional hardwood flooring, chances are, they are the only choice you have.  The only downside to them is the water issue.  In wet areas like kitchens and bathrooms, or near outside doors, under dog dishes and potted plants, I would strongly suggest applying a layer of paste wax to "seal" the edges and minimize water wicking issues.  Or just use tile flooring in those areas.