Installing Hardwood Flooring: Follow the Guidelines
Many times, installers get thrown under the bus when something goes wrong with a hardwood floor and it’s unfair. The property owner just spent thousands for the new floor and wants someone to pay for the replacement—and it’s sure not going to be them. Speaking as an installer myself for over 40 years, it breaks my heart to see these guys and gals get dragged through the mud.
We must understand every installation has standards, and when it comes time for an inspection or for litigation every standard will be flushed out in the report/court to determine cause. Therefore, it’s vitally important for the installer to thoroughly read and understand every requirement in the installation guidelines, as well as document all testing and jobsite conditions.
Let’s begin by reviewing a generic set of installation guidelines. The first section of any installation guidelines is a disclaimer. The manufacturer states at the very top that if the installer or buyer feels the flooring is the wrong color, improperly manufactured, has a finish problem or is the wrong gloss level, do not install the flooring.
This is where many installers will get hung up. “We have four guys on the job ready to install, only to find defective material. What do we do?” Simple. Contact the seller and tell them you found defective materials that must be replaced. “But now what do we do with the installers for the day? Either we’re going to have to send them to another project or home. Not a profitable day.” Yes, it’s frustrating. However, if you proceed with an installation of materials with visual defects, you now will be responsible for replacement including material cost and labor, which in the long run can be more costly than a lost day of work.
Most of the manufacturers have an industry standard of 5% allowable for defective materials. Installers must be aware of this 5% allowance and look for any defective material to be used as starters or trim boards. Many installers will take it for granted and just lay out the entire floor without inspecting the material. Then, when the inevitable happens and a wood floor inspection is required, there may be seven to 15 planks that need replacement.
The installer is thinking he will get paid $100 a plank for replacement, while the manufacturer is looking at these seven to 15 planks as falling within the 5% defect rule. Therefore, if these planks displayed visual defects at the time of install, the installer would be responsible for the plank replacement costs. This may include other things as well, such as removing and replacing the refrigerator, stove, dishwasher, toilet, furniture, etc. Ask yourself, isn’t it worth it to take the little extra time for material inspection?
The manufacturer lists within their installation guidelines the normal room temperature of 60 to 80 degrees and relative humidity between 40% and 60% for at least one week before installation. This means the installer should have discussed these jobsite requirements with the general contractor/homeowner well in advance of flooring delivery and installation.
It is also vitally important the installer record the jobsite interior environment (temperature and relative humidity) during the dates he or she is present during the installation. Data loggers (for example: www.onsetcomp.com/products/data-loggers/mx1101?gclid=CO-HsbXbk9ICFRi4wAodAD8ESQ) will automatically upload to your smartphone when within Bluetooth range. This extra step shows compliance to the installation guidelines and that the installer did his or her due diligence. Today’s smartphones also make it easy to photograph or voice log your information for future documentation.
If the wood floor is to be a glue down, the flooring manufacturer will defer to the adhesive installation guidelines for requirements such as age of the concrete, proper concrete moisture testing, PH, surface profile requirements, etc. They will also discuss the subfloor flatness tolerance of 3/16" in 10'.
Additionally, trowel size and the maximum square foot coverage before trowel replacement is important to follow per specifications from the adhesive manufacturer. Many times this is overlooked by installers until we get a call complaining of hollow spots in the floor. As an old installer myself I used to hang on to those old trowels from job to job. But with the new two-in-one adhesives it’s vitally important to purchase new trowels for every job.
Again, these practices must be completed and documented, just in case of a wood floor inspection. And remember: the flooring manufacturer doesn’t warrant the connection of the flooring to the substrate; that warranty comes from the adhesive manufacturer and the adhesive manufacturer alone.
The installer should be well-educated on identifying the appropriate subfloor beforehand. Floor manufacturers will have specific subfloor moisture levels for wood subfloors, such as 12% or 14% depending on manufacturer or plank width. They will also get into the type of plywood/OSB they require (such as CDX grade, Exposure 1), and go into detail regarding joists/truss spacing as well as subfloor fastening schedules.
These guidelines may differ from National Wood Flooring Association (NWFA) standards. Always follow manufacturer standards, as that is what the floor is warranted for.
Hardwood flooring installation
This is the critical part of the process, but many guys and gals who have been installing for years take these steps for granted. As a flooring professional, your workmanship can be professionally inspected and every detail will be pursued.
Improper fastening schedule/size is one of the top causes for wood floor inspections. If an inspection is ordered for floor gapping or noise, the inspector will use rare earth magnets to locate the fasteners. I will see an engineered flooring require a schedule of 4" to 6" apart and the installer went 6" to 8" because “he’s been doing it that way for years.” That well may be, but this installation will fail standard compliance and inspection.
The size and length of the fastener being used is also vital. If the floor required a 1 1/2" length and the installer used 1 1/4" instead because that’s all he had on the truck, these shorter fasteners will be identified and reported as failing the standard when the inspector completes destructive testing.
Expansion space is another issue we take for granted. The method too often seems to be: “If it fits in the opening, install it.” However, proper expansion space is one of the first things that will be checked when floors buckle. Many times, I will see 1/2" on one end of the wall and net fit on the other side. If the drywall is irregular in size, the installer is required to follow the contour to provide consistent 1/2" expansion. You could get called on it if things go south. This is exceptionally important when dealing with engineered floating wood floor systems.
A hardwood floor is not made of a single component but several. Think of the spokes in a bicycle wheel. Every spoke plays an important role in the performance of the wheel. Similarly, all the components and skill that goes into the manufacture of a wood floor system—lumber, sawyer to saw the lumber, millwright to make the flooring, then finishing, packaging, shipping, distribution and on to the GC, retailer, installer and end-user—are all important parts of the whole.
If any one of these components fail, the flooring system fails, just like a missing spoke in the wheel. The flooring installer has the largest exposure for liability due to the application/installation process. Therefore, every detail within the installation guidelines/standards is vitally important to the success or failure of the floor.
Remember, before the job begins and if possible, discuss the flooring requirements such as relative humidity control and proper floor care instructions with the end user. This can help ensure you have a decrease in liability/claims and no one can come after you for saying, “I was never told that before today!”—which is the common end-user trump card when they’re stuck in the corner paying for the replacement floor. We have to remember, “installation warrants acceptance” of all the conditions at the time of installation.