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.