In my past FCIarticles, I’ve covered some of the most common mistakes and concerns among hardwood flooring professionals – from installers to retailers and distributors – which in turn affects their bottom line. It’s time to look at the manufacturing side of the flooring business, and some of the biggest concerns manufacturers face.

Overselling. When sales professionals oversell a product and have it installed where flooring performance is limited, that inflated performance promise is a large part of the reason the buyer decided to buy the product. For example, claiming “this floor is hard as nails” and “it will hold up to anything,” without knowing the buyer has a 100-pound dog, is going to cause problems. The buyer has the floor installed and in service for a few months, only to realize the floor has several dents/scratches from the dog.

In another case, a problem arose where a moisture-sensitive wood was installed over in-floor heating. This is when the long claim process begins and eventually ends up in a floor inspection. We look at who’s to blame in cases like this. The manufacturer, right? Wrong. The manufacturer can’t be held for damage caused by the buyer under neglect or when a product is installed for the wrong application.

Sales professionals may push the Janka hardness rating on engineered products to the buyer, yet these ratings don’t apply to engineered flooring, which in turn leaves the customer with a floor that will have concerns later. Now the buyer has a breach in product performance and the promise on which they were sold. The manufacturer has no choice but to decline the claim, and let the distributor or retailer settle the associated costs with the buyer.

In many cases the floor change-out can run three to five times the cost of the original floor and take several weeks to complete. It is vitally important the sales professional ask any questions to their distributor to ensure the correct understanding of flooring performance is met, rather than making promises they cannot keep.

Flooring grade and checks. Flooring grade is another big issue for manufacturers and many are proprietary grades. Some manufacturers are NOFMA certified. Others will manufacture flooring to NOFMA grading, and the rest have proprietary grades which may sit between two NOFMA grades. The most popular grade today is the rustic/country style grade which in many cases contains knots and checks.

Checks are a characteristic the manufacturer may or may not be able to control during the lumber drying process. Typically better grades have fewer checks and lower grades are more likely to have more checks. Does this mean this is a manufacturer defect?  No, it simply means these checks are part of the grade and is a normal grade characteristic.

These checks will open and close during the changing of the seasons, no different than the side gapping of solid wood floors. A buyer will see these characteristics become more pronounced during the winter months than in the summer months, and might call the dealer after spotting these “defects” and want a new floor. The truth is these anomalies are just a normal part of the grade and are nota manufacturer defect. It’s impossible to have knots without some of these characteristics. However, in many cases this was never disclosed to the buyer at the time of the sale.

Popping/crackling noises. Popping/crackling noises when a floor is walked on are common concerns when installed over wood subfloors. Is this a manufacturer defect? Typically not; it’s generally a fastener-related concern. All mechanically fastened flooring will have an occasional noise now and again. Many manufacturers spend thousands of dollars each year on inspections to ensure it’s not a side match problem.

As an inspector, I see this noise complaint all the time. Typically it will be caused from too short of a fastener or the wrong fastener type. If we have a project with a wood subfloor laid over 19.2” trusses and that became wet during construction, once the subfloor dries there can be a slight sag in the subfloor between the trusses. When laying a thinner engineered flooring over this subfloor, the fastener should hold the flooring tight against the subfloor. However, there will be constant upward pressure because the planks will want to self-level themselves from the mini-valleys between the trusses.

This is an installation issue rather than a manufacturer issue. Even though the subfloor flatness is within industry guidelines and these mini-valleys could be as little as half the thickness of a dime, the floor can still make noise. The manufacturer states in their installation guidelines the flooring can be installed by gluing or nailing; therefore the installation practice is left up to the installer.

Delamination versus shear. This subject is another big concern manufacturers face, along with how to determine if indeed it is a defect. The term “delam” has been used loosely in our industry just like radiant heat. The term “radiant” is generic for in-floor heating, rather than radiant heat which could be in the baseboard or the old cast iron radiators. The term “delam” automatically places blame on the manufacturer when in fact we often have ply separation instead.

Determining a delamination issue requires destructive testing by plank extraction and sending the specimen to a lab for further testing.  Just because one can see a corner or an edge is lifted, one cannot simply make determination of the cause without further testing.

Delamination is a clean separation at the bond line (glue joint), whether it’s in the location between the wear layer and core or any of the bond lines within the core. Shear is where the bond line is stronger than the wood itself, and through the stress of expanding or contracting, the wood actually fails from stress and comes apart. The manufacturer is responsible for bond line failures (delamination) where shear is typically caused by changes in the environmental conditions and moisture content since the day of installation.

Inspections. This is where the manufacturer has to draw a line in the sand: Is it or is it not a manufacturer defect? In order to make that determination, it’s required to have the floor inspected and collect data to make the proper assessment. Typically the retailer/flooring contractor gets a call that the buyer has concerns with their new floor. If it appears to be a manufacturer defect, they will call the distributor from where the floor was purchased. A site visit is required and in most cases this is where the problems begin.

The first party or parties that go out to the project often fail to properly document all the concerns and current conditions. For example, an upper Midwest retailer and distributor go out to the site and take MC and RH readings in the winter, failing to write them down in detail with locations included. If the floor needs to be inspected by a certified inspector three to six months later, the jobsite conditions now have changed.

Without proper documentation from the first site visit in February, the inspector completes the inspection in May with favorable site conditions, providing a false positive. This in turn makes it extremely difficult to make a determination of the cause under current conditions.

Floor retailers/contractors need to improve their claim process through better documentation. From the beginning of the sale all the way through closeout, documents outlining the entire process should be recorded and kept. If indeed the buyer’s concern does involve an inspector, all the proper documentation during their time possession of the floor will be readily accessible.

Those are some of the concerns that manufacturers face. It is important to note manufacturers are not perfect, even though many people think they should be. A hardwood flooring manufacturer is taking a natural product with natural characteristics and making the best floor they possibly can with modern technology.  It’s like buying a 2x4 at the local lumberyard and three months later after sitting in your garage the 2x4 twists or warps. The lumber mill can’t predict movement of any one piece of lumber because it’s a natural product and in a changing environment.

This applies to hardwood flooring as well, with the MC standard of 6 to 9% and 5% up to 12% MC. Therefore, the buyer may have a few planks that are in question yet may still be within the 5% rule for off grade, color, size, MC, etc.  For example, a 3” wide plank that is 4’ long equals one square foot.  This means you could experience 50 planks per 1,000 square feet and still comply to the 5% standard.  The hardwood floor industry is not a guaranteed profession – it’s based off of averages, knowledge and experience of natural products.  Therefore, when a handful of planks go south it’s more cost effective to just replace them rather than fight for inspection and determined in the end you’re within the 5% rule.

If there truly is a manufacturer defect, any good manufacturer will want to get to the bottom of it as fast as possible. An unknown defect could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, scattered across the country.  Manufacturers will retain qualified inspectors to collect field data and submit a report of findings. This helps them make the determination whether it’s truly a manufacturer-related defect, or a problem originating from someone else along the chain.