Bamboo Floors, an Environmentally Friendly Floor Option
An easy-to-grow grass that looks like wood
Bamboo flooring has the look, feel and durability of wood. This rapidly renewable resource can be harvested in four to six years (compared with decades for most trees used for wood floors). And don’t feel bad about the pandas. Of more than a thousand varieties of bamboo, only a few are used for flooring, and they’re not the ones that pandas eat.
Bamboo is available with three distinct patterns: horizontal (or flat) grain, vertical grain, and strand (or woven). It’s available in two shades: natural (blond) and a caramel achieved by steaming the bamboo before drying it (the sugars in the fiber caramelize, creating the darker color). Strand bamboo is harder than horizontal or vertical grain. The caramel-colored material in either horizontal or vertical grain is a bit softer than the natural color because the fibers are weakened during the steaming process, so it may not be as appropriate for high-traffic areas like entry halls or kitchens.
- Seal it. In high moisture areas such as kitchens and bathrooms, check with the manufacturer or supplier about whether a topcoat is recommended to help prevent moisture damage.
When shopping, look for
- Healthy adhesives. Choose a brand made without urea formaldehyde adhesives, which can irritate your lungs and may cause cancer.
- Low moisture. Choose a product that has been properly kiln-dried down to 6% to 8% moisture content compared with 9% or 10% for lesser quality products. More moisture means the bamboo is more likely to expand and contract or even delaminate after it is installed in your home.
- Long life. Buy from a reputable supplier, and choose products with a long warranty. One reputable supplier guarantees that its flooring will be free from defects for its lifetime and that the factory finish will last 27 years.
- For solid bamboo flooring, bamboo stalks are sliced into thin strips, pressed flat, dried, and laminated with adhesives to create solid boards that are then milled into planks or tongue-and-grove strips. To make engineered bamboo, a second type of flooring, a veneer of bamboo is laminated on top of wood, such as pine, fir, or rubberwood. From an environmental perspective, solid floors may be a better choice because the material grows so much more rapidly than the wood under the veneer.
- Flooring can be purchased prefinished or unfinished. From a healthy home perspective, prefinished products are usually preferable because the chemicals cure in the factory rather than in your home. The finish often used is a UV-cured acrylic urethane, which has almost no emissions once it’s cured in a factory. Aluminum oxide is sometimes added for scratch resistance. If a sealant or topcoat will be applied in your home, choose a low VOC product.
…to your wallet
Solid bamboo flooring can be sanded and refinished multiple times, extending the product’s life. Engineered floors may also be refinishable; check with the manufacturer.
…to the Earth
Bamboo comes from Asia (primarily China), so it takes a lot of fuel to ship it to U.S. consumers. But it also has environmental virtues. It’s a rapidly renewable resource. It produces a high yield of fiber per acre, can be harvested in four to six years, and naturally regenerates after it is harvested. Suppliers say that the crop is grown with little if any irrigation, pesticides, or fertilizer. Until recently, no independent organization certified these claims, but in 2008 a U.S. supplier became the first company to offer FSC-certified bamboo flooring on a special order basis.
Buying “bargain” bamboo. All floors are not created equal. Don’t settle for the cheapest materials or the first brand you come across. Shop around, find out about formaldehyde emissions, finishes, and warranties. Choose products that meet Europe’s E1 or California’s 2012 formaldehyde emissions standards (0.05 ppm or lower).
- Ask any potential installer the following questions:
- How much expertise does the flooring contractor have installing these kinds of floors?
- Ask for references, but also try to visit a few homes where the contractor has installed the same type of flooring that you’ve chosen. Check the quality of the installation as well as how well the material has held up.
- If any adhesives, stains, sealants, mortar, or grout will be used during the installation, ask about low- or zero-VOC options. If you meet resistance to using low-VOC products, consider shopping around for a contractor who has experience with healthy home practices.
- For general advice on what questions to ask contractors and other tradespeople, see our “What to Ask Your Contractor” article.
- Use our Green Directory to find a green flooring contractor and retailer in your area.
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