Protection: Ruining Your Hardwood

Don't ruin your hardwood floors!  This sad story can spare you from major regret.  In 2010, we installed Mohawk's Marbury engineered hardwood for a Temple Terrace homeowner in his foyer, living room, hall, dining room, kitchen, and family room.  Over four years later, a major problem developed in the dining room.

Diagram of the Dining Room with a Section Marking the Primary Moisture

Diagram of the Dining Room with a Section Marking the Primary Moisture

Problem

The dining room had two problems which were plainly evident.  Visually, the individual boards were severely cupping.  Physically, the boards felt spongy due to delamination.  (The layers of the engineered wood were separating one from another.)

Two Joints Cupping to Create Evident Moisture Damage in the Dining Room

Two Joints Cupping to Create Evident Moisture Damage in the Dining Room

The cupping was more severe in person than is evident in the photograph.  A closer image reveals how great the peaking was on the edges.  These are both signs of moisture problems.  But, why?
A Closer View of Raised Veneer Due to the Delamination of the Layers

A Closer View of Raised Veneer Due to the Delamination of the Layers

Why?

On our first inspection in December 2014, we questioned the primary causes.  Was there a leaking pipe in the wall of the utility room or under the slab?  Had Mr. Homeowner spilt water or mopped his floor?  The backyard sloped toward the back of the house; the front yard sloped toward the front of the house.  Both were bad.  So, with heavy rains in prior weeks, we suspected that water might have seeped under the front wall below the window.  Our customer wanted us to price the replacement for new hardwood.  He wanted us to supply more of the same Marbury by Mohawk.  We were pleased to replace the hardwood, but the job would have a qualification and a prerequisite.

Qualification:  Color

The hardwood was now over four years old in a room with a large window.  Hardwood changes color over time.  Wood also changes color due to sunlight.  Furthermore, hardwood of the same specie will possess a different color based upon the forest from which the wood was harvested.  Manufacturers maintain quality controls, but there was a likelihood that the old wood and new wood would have color tone differences.  The installation would require that we delace a few boards at the end of the knee-wall and set new wood beside old wood for the entire length of the dining room.

Prerequisite:  Origin

After more than four years of beauty, hardwood floors do not develop major moisture problems without a reason.  We had to know the cause of the moisture, and we had to know that the cause was resolved.  The concrete had to be acceptably dry within tolerance for wood floors with a reasonable expectation that the home would not suffer future moisture damage.  We suggested a leak detection company.  It would have been unwise to jeopardize a second failure.  If the mill would grant a warranty for moisture damage, they typically limit assistance to a one-time replacement.  Mills understand that moisture issues are more likely to develop a second time.

The Cause

After about two months, the homeowner was ready to move forward with the replacement, but he had not contacted a leak detection company and still did not know the cause.  In additional conversation about possible causes, the likely source of the moisture was revealed.  In April 2014, Mr. Homeowner began a remodeling project.  In course, he used the dining room to store boxes with some sort of protective coating.  After about seven months, Mr. Homeowner removed the boxes to find the moisture problem.  The extra information was the missing piece of information needed for the mystery's most plausible explanation.

The Florida Aquifer:  Source of the Problem

Tampa is built upon a layer of clay and sand called the superficial aquifer.  On average, Tampa is only 48 feet above sea level.  If you dig your hands into the dirt anywhere in the Tampa Bay region, you are likely to sense that the dirt is moist.  Moisture vapor (from our aquifer) is constantly escaping from the earth's surface.  Concrete does not stop the moisture vapor.  Water (moisture in a liquid form) can absorb into concrete.  Moisture vapor passes through concrete with even less resistance.  The vapor moisture also passes through the hardwood and escapes into the air.  Vapor escapes if it is not encapsulated by items placed on top of the wood.

Detection

We used a Tramex's Moisture Encounter, a digital moisture meter, to find that the moisture levels near unaffected areas were below a measurable level.

Tramex Moisture Meter with a Minimum Reading Near an Exterior Wall

Tramex Moisture Meter with a Minimum Reading Near an Exterior Wall

As we moved the moisture detector away from the wall, the moisture level rose to about 11% and then to about 16% where the cupping was evident and then higher than the meter's range.  A F.C.I.T.S. certified independent inspector sent by the mill found "excessively high readings ranging from 28% to 30%" or more than twice the tolerance level.  The independent inspector observed "an outside garden area with a sprinkler head that butts up to the dining room window and where grading is towards the home."  The fact that the wood was cupping (and not crowning) meant that an imbalance of moisture content (MC).  The MC must have been greater on the undersides of the boards than the topsides.

 

Tramex Digital Moisture Meter - Higher Reading Approaching the Dining Table

Tramex Digital Moisture Meter - Higher Reading Approaching the Dining Table

The moisture readings matched our suspicion and that of the inspector:  subterranean moisture migration as "a capillary rise of ground moisture intrusion.  Capillary rise of ground moisture is the effect of surface tension that causes water to rise up against the effect of gravity."  Mohawk listed a possible cause being

"plastic sheeting affixed to an area causing condensation to build underneath ... for extended periods of time."

Most likely, the vapor was trapped under the belongings placed in the dining room.  The wood absorbed the moisture over many months.  With each minute increase in percentages, the layers of the engineered wood were swelling and pulling away from each other.  By the time Mr. Homeowner discovered the problem, it was too late.

Of all flooring products, hardwood is probably the most susceptible to moisture issues.  Following our advice on How to Protect Flooring would have saved this customer about $1,400.  Areas subject to moisture issues should receive a waterproof luxury vinyl flooring or a porcelain tile with a wood visual.

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