When thinking about indoor air quality, many installers and contractors probably understand that a product with a high level of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) isn’t going to be the safest to use in an installation. Some may go on to conclude that VOCs are the only factor to consider when addressing indoor air quality. Actually, the truth is a little more complicated.

Testing and certification programs. According to Scott Steady, GREENGUARD product manager, high VOCs can contribute to poor indoor air quality, but that doesn’t mean VOC levels are a direct measurement of indoor air. Rather, when a label reads “low VOCs” or “no VOCs,” it measures whether a product has compounds that can contribute to outdoor smog formation.

“When you see a claim that a product is low-VOC or VOC-free, it’s fine to use for regulatory compliance in areas that limit smog, but it’s not appropriate to extrapolate from that claim that the product will have a minimal impact on the indoor environment as well,” he explained. 

Steady said much more important to indoor air quality is measuring the individual chemicals coming off of a product in a testing chamber. “That helps predict the types and levels of VOCs in the indoor air – things that can create odor, irritation or health complaints,” he noted.

Among the labels he recommends contractors and installers look for in low-emitting indoor products are certifications from GREENGUARD, the Carpet and Rug Institute’s (CRI) Green Label Plus and the Resilient Floor Covering Institute’s (RFCI) FloorScore program. “Any type of industry program is a pretty good go-by,” he said. “They all have limits on the number of chemicals that can be present.”

Werner Braun, CRI president, had this to say about working with carpet products: “US OSHA regulates safety in the workplace, be that a carpet mill or jobsite. VOCs in carpet directly from the end of the line are extremely low and pose no risk to anyone in the supply stream.”

According to Bill Freeman, RFCI technical consultant, choosing products that are certified and tested for indoor air quality are the safest bet. “Almost all flooring and flooring installation products emit VOC emissions. The key is to select materials that comply with an IAQ emissions testing program like FloorScore, which limits the emissions from chemicals in these products which may contribute to poor indoor air quality,” he said.

He noted that the FloorScore program tests resilient flooring and adhesives for compliance with IAQ requirements set by California Department of Public Health Standard Method V1.1-2010. “This standard establishes maximum VOC concentrations for many chemicals contained in building materials, including flooring and adhesives. Several other factors can contribute to poor indoor air quality including poor ventilation and how well the HVAC system is being maintained,” Freeman added.

The Tile Council of North America (TCNA) recently celebrated the first anniversary of its Green Squared certification. According to Bill Griese, TCNA standards development and green initiative manager, the program “was developed by the ceramic tile industry to acknowledge products which are environmentally and socially sustainable. A gamut of multi-attribute sustainability criteria was established, including criteria for positive impact on indoor air quality.”

He said that ceramic tile inherently contains no VOCs. “In fact, nearly all green building certification programs, including Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), exempt ceramic tile from VOC testing requirements,” Griese stated. “This means that all tiles which have no post-manufacture organic coatings satisfy indoor air quality requirements, regardless of whether or not they have been tested or certified for VOC content or emissions.”

Griese acknowledged that some installation materials including mortars, grouts, epoxies, mastics, backer board and membranes might contain low levels of VOCs. “While VOC emissions from these materials are typically low and within the tolerances set forth by the California Department of Public Health, it’s still a good idea to ensure that they meet the California Standard 01350, which is the most commonly referenced VOC emissions standard in green building,” he said.

Griese stressed that finish and maintenance products should also be taken into consideration when calculating potential IAQ impact. “Tile and grout manufacturers should be contacted to provide cleaning and maintenance recommendations for products used in green buildings. When a sealer is used, it is important to consult with the manufacturer regarding its product’s compliance with VOC content and emission criteria,” he said.

Manufacturers and IAQ. Steve Taylor, Custom Building Products director of architecture and technical marketing, said VOCs are commonly measured in two ways, through California’s South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) and the EPA. He added that contractors should be aware not only of the VOCs at the time of install, but any VOCs that will continue to be released during the lifecycle of the flooring.

“High-VOC content could affect the indoor air quality, or it could dissipate quickly and only be a concern to the installer,” Taylor said. “To assure the best indoor air quality for their customers, the flooring contractor should use products that meet the requirements of one of the organizations concerned with indoor air quality, such as LEED or Collaborative for High Performance Schools (CHPS).”

According to Jeff Johnson, MAPEI floor covering installation systems product manager, “Every floor installation brings in a completely new set of chemicals into a room that temporarily changes a room’s air quality one way or another. Once installed and acclimated, these flooring options become neutral and have little effect plus or minus on a room’s overall air quality.”

Basing a decision on a product’s VOC content alone can be misleading for several reasons. First of all, “Not all indoor air quality issues are VOC-based but could be caused by chemicals not classified as VOC. For example, acetone is considered an exempt solvent but no one would want to be in a room that smelled like fingernail polish remover for very long,” Johnson said.

He added that the label itself can be tricky. “Some companies report VOC levels using a calculation method. It is important to note that this is not an approved method for VOC reporting according to rule 1168 of the SCAQMD guidelines. So if a product states ‘zero VOCs calculated’ it does not mean that VOCs are not present.”

The deciding factor on whether a product has low VOCs is to make sure it measures below SCAQMD limits. Other ways to ensure better indoor air quality are “proper care and maintenance of the flooring itself as well as making sure that HVAC systems are routinely cleaned and maintained,” Johnson added.

LATICRETE’s Sean Boyle, director of marketing and product management, believes IAQ should be looked at holistically, beyond just the installation. “Building materials can release chemicals into the air, which can continue after the products are initially installed. People therefore can continue to breathe these chemicals while they work, sleep or relax,” he said.

Boyle noted that contractors should look for installation products which are VOC compliant, adding that LATICRETE’s products are GREENGUARD certified. (For a full listing of construction products that have achieved GREENGUARD certification, visit www.greenguard.org and click on “Find Products.”)

“The best way for any contractor is to select safe materials which have been independently tested by a highly professional third party relative to the off-gassing of noxious VOCs. These should be products, which both during and after installation, offer acceptable air quality levels,” he said.

When working on a jobsite, one final consideration to promote healthy air quality is a dust containment system, noted Robert Witter, founder, owner and CEO of Oneida Air Systems, Inc. “To be effective at controlling airborne dust, a dust containment system must collect dust at the source of emission,” Witter said. “Dust containment systems that have mechanical filter cleaning systems are far more practical on the job … with less personal exposure to dust or toxins.”

When choosing a dust collector, select one with a HEPA filter that uses a high-efficiency cyclone separator, he added. “Pre-separating the material prevents the fine dust from clogging the vacuum or filter. The HEPA ensures that the collected dust does not migrate back out into the air.”

Changes in LEED v4. The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) recently announced that it will launch LEED version 4 this fall. According to Jacob Kriss, USGBC media associate, the IAQ requirements will become more stringent, including “whenever possible, more performance-based.”

For example, under LEED v4 for new construction projects, two points are now awarded for pursuing air testing as opposed to a flush-out, which is worth one point. In LEED v2009, only one point could be achieved via either method.

Kriss added, “LEED v4 also looks more holistically at VOC emissions in a space rather than only the VOC content of individual products in isolation. In LEED v2009 (for new construction), there were four Low-Emitting Materials credits, three of which addressed VOC content. In LEED v4, all four have been combined into one credit that addresses the actual emissions of the product.”

LEED v4 is an update to all parts of the program, including Schools, Healthcare and Retail. Additionally, the new version of LEED will address new market sectors including Data Centers, Warehouse and Distribution Centers, Existing Schools and Existing Retail, Kriss said.