As gorgeous as they are, hardwood floors are like a magnet for trouble. If it’s not a cat trying to sharpen its claws in them, it’s your morning coffee spilling all over or your heavy feet stomping down while you watch the game.
Sure, you can protect against most of these obvious attacks by applying a scratch and scuff-resistant top coat for hardwood floors, but what about the dangers you can’t see?
As innocuous as it seems, humidity is the number one threat to your hardwood floors. Luckily, there is a simple solution.
How does humidity affect hardwood floors?
As long as the level of relative humidity is normal, this isn’t a problem. But too much or too little, and you’ll be calling Houston.
Just to recap, relative humidity (RH) is the amount of moisture in the air compared to how much it can contain at a specific temperature. RH is expressed in percentage, so the higher it is, the more humid it is.
When the RH is too high, the hardwood floors can absorb too much moisture and swell, which can cause them to:
- Cup – As the planks absorb water, they can press against each other, causing the edges to rise higher than the center. When the water in the wood reduces, the edges will regress, but the cup shape will still be visible.
- Crown – This is the opposite of cupping, as the middle of the plank rises higher than the edges. This can be caused by sanding floors that have cupped. It also happens when floors have been wet for a long time.
- Buckle – this is similar to cupping, but it is so extreme that the floor detaches from the sub-floor and buckles. This will require a more extensive repair, or you may need to redo the floor.
On the other hand, low humidity can cause:
- Splitting – when there is too little moisture, the wood gets dry and begins to crack or split along the grain. This type of damage is irreversible, as even though the planks may swell when there is more moisture, the split will remain.
- Gapping – this is when the planks shrink away from each other, causing gaps to appear between them. This is usually not as problematic as splitting, as the planks will expand as humidity increases.
While water-damaged wood can often be fixed, it is best to avoid it altogether. As you can see, some of these effects of humidity can be very expensive to correct. They are also quite similar to the effects on humans.
Low humidity can cause dry skin, cracked lips, and can cause respiratory difficulties. On the flip side, high humidity can cause overheating. It also encourages the growth of mold, bacteria, and dust mites, which can cause mild to severe illness.
Therefore, ensuring optimal humidity all year round is beneficial both to humans and to hardwood floors.
What is the best humidity level for your hardwood floors?
The ideal humidity level range is 35% to 55%. This falls slightly outside the recommended level for humans, which is 30% to 50%.
Most people function best when the indoor humidity is 35 – 40%. However, during winter, the ideal range is 25 – 35%. So, for the sake of your hardwood floors, you can keep them at the high end of this range.
Remember that the RH level will not affect the temperature, but it may affect how cold or hot you feel. As a result, you might need to adjust your heat settings in winter as you maintain adequate humidity.
The tool you’ll need to measure the humidity level is a hygrometer. You can either purchase a standalone device or have it installed in your HVAC.
How to protect your hardwood floors from high humidity
There’s nothing worse than spending thousands of dollars to make your home look pretty, only to see it fall apart in just a few months.
When properly maintained, hardwood floors should serve you faithfully for decades. So, here are some of the things you can do to protect your investment.
Install a humidifier or dehumidifier
Depending on where you live, you may need one or both devices. A humidifier adds moisture into the air, while a dehumidifier removes it.
Dehumidifiers are more common, and they come in all shapes and sizes. You can get these as separate units, or you can have them installed with your HVAC. This central unit would be capable of both functions and will be monitored from one central switch.
You will also need a hygrometer, as mentioned above, which should come as part of the installation process. If the system has a humidistat, you will be able to set the desired humidity level automatically, and you may only need to adjust it slightly during warmer or colder months.
Apply a water-resistant topcoat
While a humidistat and humidifier can protect your floors from invisible droplets, it is not enough to give you peace of mind. For example, you would still need protection from rain, mud, snow, pets deciding to pee on the floor, household chemicals spilling on the floor, etc.
Once a large amount of water pours on your floors, there is nothing a humidifier can do to correct it, and that’s why you need a topcoat.
Topcoats are used to protect hardwood floors from several different threats, but you need a water-resistant finish like polyurethane to keep it safe from humidity and water damage.
Topcoats are also designed to protect floors from changing temperatures. Wood will shrink when it is cold and expand when it is hot. So, with or without high humidity, it can still crack or gaps, thus making a topcoat necessary.
Use the right cleaning products
Finally, only use approved cleaning products for wood floors. If you have applied a top coat, you won’t need to clean it often. But when you do, use a hardwood cleaner.
A little care goes a long way
Despite some of the challenges of hardwood floors, it doesn’t take a lot to keep them in top condition. As long as you have your floors installed and coated by a professional, maintain an optimal RH level, and clean it as instructed, you shouldn’t have any problems.
Plus, if anything goes wrong, it will typically only affect the topcoat, leaving your hardwood floors intact.