Trained Eye

 
 
 

Hardwood Floor Separations

Question:

We purchased a new townhouse condominium this past summer. We had hardwood floors installed in the great room and kitchen area.  I noticed this past week that the floor separated itself and came undone along an 8-foot board.  It is not a very large separation but you can notice it.

I thought the flooring was hammered into grooves for the boards to fit side by side. Is it a problem because of the house settling and shifting with this cold weather or is it shrinkage in the material, poor workmanship, or poor installation? Will it correct itself in warmer weather? What advice can you give me? Should I contact the builder or the company that installed the product or do I wait till the spring?

Answer:

Hardwood flooring, particularly newly installed material, is a natural product and is very sensitive to changes in moisture levels.  This can be affected by changes in Relative Humidity within your home due to seasonal variations.  The phenomenon you are experiencing may be due to these factors, or a problem with the material at the time of installation.  We will explore both possibilities.

Wood is an ideal material for construction of homes due to its excellent adaptation to a wide variety of temperature and environmental changes.  It is also well suited to typical construction practices due the nature in which the material shrinks as it dries out.  Wood planks or boards tend to shrink very minimally along their length, but may shrink considerably in their width and thickness, depending on their original moisture content at time of installation.  They may also swell and expand in these two dimensions if excessive moisture is added after the wood has dried to minimal moisture content levels.  Softwood, such as the typical Spruce and Fir used for house framing is quite open pored and may shrink considerably after construction.  Hardwoods, such as those in your home, are less subject to shrinkage due their density, but their moisture content at time of installation is much more critical than with the framing lumber.

When hardwood flooring is milled, the surface is dressed and the tongues and grooves and bottom profile are cut into the individual boards.  The moisture content of the individual boards may vary and a certain amount of seasoning will be required to minimize these differences.  This may be done by kiln drying the wood in a controlled environment or by simple stacking and air drying the wood in a warehouse or mill.  Once the flooring has reached its optimal moisture content, which varies according to the species of wood and the manufacturer, it will be shipped to the distributor for sale.  This material may remain at the lumberyard or distributor for quite some time, or may be sold shortly after arrival.  If the material sits for several months, the moisture content may change considerably depending on the conditions of storage.  This can have a huge effect on the shrinkage or swelling of the finished flooring after installation in your home.

It is good practice for unfinished hardwood flooring to be placed in the area of the home where it will be installed for a period of several days to a few weeks.  This will acclimatize the wood flooring to the average relative humidity in this area, which may vary significantly from the environment at the supplier.  If this step was omitted during the installation process in your home, it may be the reason for the shrinkage and separation that your are experiencing.

What is also possible is that because the flooring was installed in the summer, and shortly after the condo was completed, the relative humidity in your home may have been significantly higher than it is in the winter months. The building materials, drywall, and paint in a new home will release considerable amounts of moisture for several months after completion.  Once colder weather arrives the relative humidity in the home will drop and the moisture being given off by the new materials will slow down. This can cause the problem you are seeing, and it may reverse itself somewhat when the warmer weather returns.  This may occur even if the material is properly installed. 

A potential solution to this is to add moisture to the air in the home, at least in the area that the hardwood is separating.  This can be done with the use of a humidifier or vapourizer in the dry winter months.  Care must be taken not to overdo it, as this may cause excessive condensation on windows and other moisture related problems.  Purchasing a good Hygrometer, to measure the Relative Humidity, will help to see the changes in the home environment. 

If this does not solve the problem to your satisfaction, or you see the problem extending to other areas of the hardwood floor, then the material may not have been properly seasoned or acclimatized prior to installation. A call to the builder or hardwood flooring installation contractor will be required, in that situation.

 

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Winnipeg, MB
R3P 2G9