In today's market, the two major choices are solvent-based urethane (i.e., oil modified, moisture-cured, acid cure, etc.) and the newer, waterborne urethanes. All of these finishes will protect the floor from wear, dirt and moisture and preserve the wood. But there are other significant considerations - health, safety, durability and performance - that make the waterborne products, pioneered in 1979, an attractive alternative and the best choice.
From the personal health and safety aspects, the wood flooring professional using a solvent-based product faces a number of hazards. Application requires the user to wear a respirator, but in reality, this doesn't always happen. The professional must also be cautious in application, as some solvent-based urethanes are highly flammable. Safety and correct use is paramount, and caution must be taken to avoid spontaneous combustion or explosion.
Another health consideration for the flooring professional is the increased exposure to Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), which are key in the formation of ozone, when using a solvent-based product. Breathing air with ozone concentrations above air quality standards aggravates symptoms of people with pulmonary diseases, either on the job site or at home, and increases asthma attacks. Also, prolonged overexposure to solvents can cause permanent damage to the lungs, brain and nervous system.
The Environmental Protection Agency, in conjunction with state and regional air quality agencies, is implementing laws limiting the VOC content of paints, varnishes and finishes. States such as California, New York, New Jersey, Texas, Arizona, Massachusetts and Oregon have already set limits and established limits for allowable VOC content can vary by region. Flooring professionals should contact their local air quality agency or attend local seminars to learn about these VOC regulations that directly affect their business. For their own protection, they must prevent the illegal use of non-complying coatings and be able to identify options for compliance.
In a waterborne finish, the polyurethane molecules are dispersed in water. When the finish is applied, the water evaporates in two to three hours. The polyurethane forms the finish layer.
"There are environmentally safe and healthy alternatives which are more advanced in quality and technology than solvent-based finishes," said Ron Peden, president and CEO of BonaKemi USA. "Health and safety is our No. 1 priority for hardwood flooring professionals, homeowners and the environment."
Over the years technological advances in waterborne finishes have resulted in improved performance, durability and even lower VOC levels. They are easy to apply, dry within hours, and are healthier to use.
Today high-quality and high-performance waterborne finishes are popularly used on residential and heavy-traffic commercial hardwood floors, and one product, Bona Traffic, has been shown to outperform solvent-based finishes in independent laboratory and real-life testing.
Cost is a concern of any flooring professional. On the surface, waterborne products carry a higher price tag, due to the production process including extensive research and development and more technically advanced raw materials. Finishes represent only a small portion of the overall cost of the job. Superior performance, easy application, faster job completion and customer convenience and satisfaction more than offset the extra cost spent on a waterborne finish.
Factors, some briefly touched on earlier, that weight the decision in favor of waterborne finishes:
• Speed - waterborne finishes dry the fastest, typically two to three hours as opposed to eight to 12 hours with solvent-based finish. Its fast curing rate minimizes downtime, allowing quicker access to the floor, especially important to commercial retailers.
• No toxic fumes - as opposed to solvent-based finishes, which have a strong chemical odor that can linger for days and requires the homeowner to vacate the premises.
• Durability - thorough independent lab and real-life durability testing demonstrates that a high-performance waterborne finish can outperform moisture-cure and oil-modified finishes.
• Non-yellowing - highlights the true color of stained or natural wood floors and will not "amber" over time like solvent-based finishes.
• Non-flammable with non-offending odor - solvent-based finishes have vapors that are flammable; some may be explosive.
• Easy clean up with water.
Ultimately, the contractor will find that customer satisfaction and the fact that the work is completed faster, may well mean he can charge more; thus, realize greater profit per job.
Increased consumer awareness of waterborne finishes and the benefits will reflect in the value of a "premium" product that homeowners will demand - and buy.
If you're using solvent-based urethanes and haven't yet tried using waterborne finishes, either from habit or non-familiarity, there are educational opportunities to see firsthand how waterborne finishes work. Manufacturers and associations, such as the National Wood Flooring Association, offer classes and seminars introducing new technology and advanced processes in various locations in the United States throughout the year.
We've focused on a better way to sand and finish hardwood floors and the health benefits of using dust containment systems and waterborne finishes. Stay tuned for our next article on the future of the hardwood floor industry, the ever-increasing roles of dust containment systems and waterborne finishes and how the hardwood floor professional can financially benefit by combining their use on the job.