Floors fume dilemma

Who gets one coat into having three coats of polyurethane on their floors and has serious second thoughts?  We do!

Here’s the thing — we did a LOT of research, and we never intended to use a polyurethane finish in the first place.  One of the first flooring guys who gave us an estimate suggested we look at Rubio Monocoat, which is a hardwax oil, and I quite liked the idea of a no- or very low-VOC finish that could be touched up easily.

I found a great resource on hardwax oil finishes in the Tadas Wood Flooring blog.  They tested and reviewed four brands of hardwax oil, including Rubio, and another product, Pallmann’s Magic Oil.  It seems like the tide is slowly turning away from the standard polyurethane finishes to these healthier, more environmentally friendly options.

In the end, they declared a tie between the Rubio product and the Pallmann product.  After reading through all of their results, I decided that the Pallmann’s Magic Oil might be a little more forgiving on our imperfect floors.

A bit more on our floors — while all the floors in the house are oak, our flooring guy said we essentially have FOUR different floors because of what floors in different rooms have had on them in the past:

  1. Bedrooms: at some point these likely had some kind of polyurethane finish.  Most recently, they were carpeted.  The wood in both bedrooms has fairly extensive urine stains.
  2. Hallways: had vinyl flooring adhered to the wood with a water-based adhesive; water staining from one of the closets being turned into a main floor laundry.
  3. Kitchen: had linoleum adhered to the wood with an oil-based adhesive (tar paper — yuck!).  Once all of the gunk was scraped and sanded off, this floor looked the best of all of them.
  4. Living room: Not sure if this had ever been finished — maybe some kind of wax or oil finish at some point? Most recently had carpet.  Some staining in this room as well (likely urine), but not nearly as bad as the bedrooms.

Anyhow, the guy we chose to do the floors had used Pallmann’s Magic Oil before, but was concerned that our wood floors would not be good candidates, based on all of the issues outlined above.  He was concerned that the oil would not penetrate well and/or would have weird chemical reactions with previous compounds that had penetrated the wood (i.e., urine, adhesives, etc.), but he said he would try to bleach the urine stains (he did) and that he was willing to do a test patch of the Pallmann’s Magic Oil (he didn’t).

So last week, his crew had an unexpected opening, and they came in and sanded the floors and worked on bleaching the stains.  In order to best hide what remained of the stains, he suggested we use a stain that was darker than what we planned.  He had a test patch of this darker flooring stain (“chestnut”) for us to look at.

When I went over to check the color, I was a bit taken aback.  I wasn’t comfortable making this relatively big decision for our future home without Matthew seeing it in person as well, especially since he was more hesitant to go dark than I was.

But in the end, the color wasn’t the biggest issue.  Once our floor guy saw the sanded floors and the results of the bleaching, he did a one-eighty on the Pallmann’s Magic Oil, basically saying our floors were not a good candidate for that finish, and we’d be unhappy with the results unless we went with a standard oil-based polyurethane.  He also pushed us to make a “decision” quickly, as he didn’t want to leave the floors with nothing on them in the high humidity.

And so we okayed both the darker stain and the standard 3-coat oil-based polyurethane finish.  I should add that this is the finish that we’ve lived with in both of our apartments for the last eight years.  It looks shiny and pretty and is fairly durable.  But with an oil-based poly, you’re essentially walking around on a plastic floor, not a wood floor.

On Thursday night, the day after the first coat of poly was applied, we got a sneak peek at the result.  The floors look really great (we’re both happy with the color) . . .


. . . but after just a few minutes inside, my eyes and throat were burning.  The fumes were horrible!

Now I’m having serious regrets about going with the poly.  The thing is, other than vaguely knowing that oil-based polys are bad in the VOC / indoor air quality realm, we didn’t do all that much specific research, because we weren’t planning to use a poly finish!  I feel like the flooring guy railroaded us into it, without ever even testing the Pallmann’s Magic Oil (we were too overwhelmed to really process that at the time).

So here we are, one coat into a three coat process with the poly.  Realistically, the worst (or at least most obvious) of the fumes will have off-gassed by the time we move in in mid-June.  And we’ve been living with poly floors for the past eight years (I believe the floors in both apartments were refinished not too long before we moved in, but I don’t really remember detecting a smell in either).

But I’m feeling kind of sick about this, especially with a little one in the equation (children are usually more sensitive to respiratory irritants because of higher respiration rates, and there’s just so much still developing in their little bodies — I would prefer G not be inhaling high levels of formaldehyde, benzene, etc.).  I feel like we were talked into perfect-looking floors at the expense of a healthy finish, and really, I would prefer the latter.  We’re not in this for resale value, and it’s not going to be a “perfect” house.

I’m not sure we have a lot of options at this point.  If there is another finish left in the floors, we could have them sanded again and insist on using the Pallmann’s.  If the flooring guy is to be believed, there is some risk in this, as in, it just might not work.  But after regretting falling for his hard sell on the poly, I’m less inclined to trust.  If there is not another sanding left, we’d be looking at tearing out and replacing All. Of. The. Floors., which has is own environmental costs.  Not to mention the $$ cost, which we probably cannot afford.

So we’re probably stuck with the poly.  And it will probably be okay.  But the whole thing stinks!

UPDATE (5/5/16): The floors do have a sanding left in them, but we decided to stay the course with the poly (and keep that sanding for a future refinish).  The final coat was applied on Tuesday, more than 6 weeks in advance of our move-in date, so it will have quite a bit of time to off-gas before we are living there.  Not our first choice for floor finish, but we’re embracing good enough.


  1. Rachel Smith says:

    I don’t know much about flooring, but a blog I used to read (Young House Love) swore by these products to seal-in things that were potentially off-gassing. Could you use them for the final coat? http://www.afmsafecoat.com/products.php?page=3

    1. Melissa @ HerGreenLife says:

      I read about AFM SafeCoat products in a “green remodeling” book. I think this would basically be a water-based polyurethane, and I’m afraid you have to choose between water- or oil-based, you can’t just put a coat of water-based on top of oil-based. Again, this goes back to the fact that we didn’t really do much research on any type of poly finish.

      Interestingly enough, the conventional wisdom (and what our flooring guy said) is that water-based polys, while lower in VOCs, are less durable than oil-based polys (meaning you’ll have to redo your floors sooner). HOWEVER, the guys over at Naperville Flooring have a different take, based on the current oil-based polys (which are apparently somewhat lower VOC than their predecessors, though still quiet high): “Recently, we’ve also had to stop using oil based finishes as well. The new lower VOC finishes just aren’t up to the standard we have promised to maintain for our clients. It’s unfortunate really
      because these were among the nicest looking finishes available” (source).

      Their recommendation for a water-based poly is another Pallmann’s product. It would be interesting to compare that to the AFM SafeCoat product — a moot point for us, right now, unless we’re going with the sanding back down and starting over option, but maybe helpful for others considering different floor finish options.

  2. Melissa @ HerGreenLife says:

    Just found out that the floors do have another sanding in them. If we sanded, we could at least test the hardwax oil (which should have been done in the first place!). If it was a no-go on the hardwax oil, we could at least do a less offensive water-based poly. Debating whether or not it’s worth the extra time and $$.

  3. Oh boy! We encountered the same thing when we redid our flooring in the little house and will eventually want to redo the upstairs floors (they are patched together and stained and not very appealing in their current state), and maybe the downstairs (there is hardwood under the front LR and DR carpet but it’s dark in the middle and light at the edges and we don’t know if it has another sanding in its life or not). We also lived in our apartment while we were renovating. Here are some tips from a green blog:

    Turn up the heat to speed up drying time.
    Ventilate the room by opening windows and doors (and keep them open as long as possible).
    Turn on multiple fans to blow fumes outside.
    Use air purifiers to clean up the air (but note that VOCs can’t be filtered out of the air).
    Use an encapsulating sealer designer to prevent VOCs from off-gassing.

    Honestly, we basically did 1-3 and it was fine. The floors were finished a week or so before we moved in. We stopped noticing the smell pretty quickly after that.


    They do look lovely! The color is gorgeous with your original FP stone. I am so excited to see this coming together. Here’s the thing – we went through all of this when we moved into the little house and we’re slowly doing the same now (more slowly because two babies) but almost 11 years into our former home, I honestly loved all of it and it felt so much like my own and I think you’ll find the same with your new home – especially once your things are in it and your life is happening there! I am so happy for you!

    1. Melissa @ HerGreenLife says:

      Always good to hear from others who survived this! The windows open thing is tricky since we’re not living there (which I’m grateful for, but still), but we’ll definitely open up fully whenever we’re there working.

      I don’t think an air purifier will do much here, but I’ll look into the encapsulating sealer.

      Definitely check out some of the resources from Naperville Hardwood / Tadas Flooring. It seems like they really know their stuff and have a lot of good information!

      I don’t think we’ll do it, but I’m tempted to have our floor guys re-sand and then use the Pallmann’s water-based poly. But it would be a waste of a sanding, not to mention the extra cost 😦

  4. misha says:

    Hopefully, the smell is gone now and you are happy with the color? I haven’t refinished a floor in a long time, but am glad to know about avoiding polyurethane coatings as they are NASTY. In the 90s sometime, my ex and I redid the entire first floor of our big house on Hartford and OMG – our bedroom was on the third floor and we could not sleep – headaches, nausea. Luckily we did have the internet and I discovered zeolite, a voc absorbing mineral. I had some fedex’d and within 12 hours we notice a difference. zeolite is pretty amazing – now you see it in kitty litter and in carpackets etc. but I think the best way if you need quantity is to find a pool store (also used in pool filtration) and get a 25 lb. bag – i haven’t investigated this for stl as i STILL have about half a lb left from way back when – the stuff is reuseable – you put it in a black plastic bag in the HOT HOT sun for a few hours, then empty the bag and let is air out a bit and you are good for another round of odor removing. to use, just set it in bowls around where the smell is. For organic odors, esp pet (but works for mildewy and musty odors too), i like Nature’s Miracle, which can be gotten at pet stores.

    1. Melissa @ HerGreenLife says:

      The smell is gone, and they look really nice. The trade-off to having of plenty of air-out time was that there was still a lot of work done after the floors were finished. Keeping them clean and protected was a LOT of work — glad to have that behind me!

      I’ll have to look into the zeolite, as some of our closets have an odor that I dislike, even after repainting (we used zero- and low-VOC paints, but I disliked the closet smell enough that I was actually hoping for some paint fumes!).

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