It's said that water sustains life. Those words have never rung truer than in today's highly competitive wood floor finishing industry. With the New Year have come stricter air-quality regulations for Volatile Organic Compound (VOC) levels, making waterborne and other low-VOC floor finishes much more than just a wave of the future. According to many wood flooring industry experts, contractor-safe, environmentally friendly waterborne finishing products are clearly crucial to contractors' businesses.

"It used to be that wood flooring contractors had a choice: apply a solvent-based or low-VOC finish," said Jeff Hamer, president, Galleher, Inc., a Los Angeles-based wood flooring distributor with eight locations. "Today, to a large degree, the new air-quality regulations are making that choice for contractors. Basically, contractors will need to switch to waterborne or other low-VOC finishes or run the risk of paying heavy fines."

Prior to 1987, the EPA identified high-VOC level solvent-based finishes as a contributor to poor air quality, and a health and safety risk for contractors and their customers. Today, new air-quality regulations have become law in many U.S. states, including Delaware, District of Columbia, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia. Other states begin adopting low-VOC laws in 2006.

"As more and more States outlaw high-VOC-level finishes, the greater the pressure will be on those contactors who haven't switched to waterborne products and who are risking incurring heavy fines," Hamer added.

In states where new high-VOC laws currently apply, wood flooring contractors can be fined up to $500 per gallon for use of noncompliant products such as oil-modified and moisture-cure urethanes with VOC levels of 350 g/L and above.

Diane Maxwell of New Jersey-based Hoboken Floors, Inc. says the industry's move to waterborne finishes has definitely created a new business environment for contractors and distributors alike.

"New air-quality regulations have forced an entirely new business environment upon everyone, wood flooring contractors and distributors," Maxwell said. "In this new way of doing business, the immediate beneficiaries are wood flooring contractors who've already made the switch to waterborne finishes, and who are experiencing the business and health benefits of waterborne finishing products.

"For the contractor who hasn't yet made the switch to waterborne products, as distributors we feel it's our job to serve as an information source, and to work closely with responsible manufactures that offer water-based and other low-VOC product information and training programs," Maxwell added. Contractor training programs for waterborne and other low-VOC products are readily available through leading manufacturers and the NWFA.

BonaKemi USA's Director of R&D and Regulatory Compliance Gerald Thompson and VOC experts say the new EPA regulations are essentially sealing the fate for most high-VOC level wood floor finishes used in this country.

"Waterborne systems are clearly the present and future of the wood flooring industry, and high-VOC level products are definitely its past," Thompson said of the new regulations.

"Some manufacturers of waterborne floor finishes have for years been preaching the virtues of waterborne finishes, and helping contractors prepare for the day state and air-quality districts would regulate high-VOC level products out of the industry, and out of existence," Thompson added.

"Using high-VOC level floor finishes can cost contractors not only their good health, but their hard-earned money with heavy penalties and fines."

Industry experts say in addition to the business and health benefits, waterborne and other low-VOC finishing systems are also becoming more and more in demand by home owners and building managers.

"We made a business decision more than four years ago to start using waterborne finishes," said Dean Leslie, owner of Portland, Maine-based Casco Bay Hardwood Flooring, Inc. "Waterborne finishes are not only safer, but offer accelerated dry and cure times which is great for a contractor's bottom line."

When using a leading, top-of-the-line waterborne system, floors are 75 percent cured in 24 hours; 90 percent cured in three days; and 100 percent cured in just seven days, with a dry-time of 2-3 hours. Cure times take longer for lesser-quality waterborne and other low-VOC products, according to industry experts.

"My advice to contractors, if you're not onboard with waterborne finishes, get onboard fast," Leslie added. "Get educated on waterborne products, get training and protect the future of your business, because customers are demanding it and the law is essentially requiring it. Waterborne systems provide a great business opportunity."

Manufacturers say it's important that contractors know today's waterborne finishes are virtually odorless and nonflammable and provide the durability required for both commercial and heavy-traffic residential floors.

"In many cases, water-borne systems clearly outperform even moisture-cure finishes," Leslie added. FCI

Editor's Note: This article includes the benefits of using waterborne finishes. You should keep in mind that other finishes such as oil modified urethanes and conversion varnish are widely used throughout the United States and might be legal in your area. VOC regulations differ from state to state and more information regarding state regulations can be obtained from the finish manufacturer, Environmental Protection Agency, Ozone Transport Commission, and relevant government authorities. For a complete explanation of the basics of wood finishes, please refer to Mickey Moore's article in the January/February 2003 issue of FCI.