Bamboo flooring has become quite popular among home and business owners in recent years, for a number of good reasons.
It holds a beautiful finish, adds a certain elegance and natural feel to any room, and costs up to 50% less per square foot than hardwood. It’s also championed as an eco-friendly alternative to wood.
Yet, as good as bamboo flooring sounds, it poses several challenges–and risks–for professional wood floor installers.
Not all bamboo flooring sold today is high-quality. There are roughly 1,600 species of bamboo, but only a few are actually good for flooring.
Much of the unsuitable bamboo brought into this country comes from China, where there are no governing regulations to control product quality. To generate profits faster, many Chinese companies harvest bamboo before it fully matures and attains its full strength potential. This causes quality to vary widely from company to company.
As a result of inferior bamboo being harvested too soon and glued with toxic adhesives, the bamboo is easily dented from shoes, furniture, kids, pets, and dropped objects. Once the floor is indented, the finish becomes highly prone to flaking and peeling. This can lead to costly callbacks for installers. In fact, many customers have complained that their floors were scratched or dented the same day of installation.
Currently, there are no useful quality or grading standards for bamboo flooring. The National Wood Flooring Association (NWFA) has been asked to develop standards, but that task may be nearly impossible because many of the concerns are beyond the NWFA’s control. For instance, there are many initial steps in the Chinese harvesting and manufacturing processes that are prone to human error and corner-cutting–steps the NWFA cannot control. The only way to establish effective standards for bamboo is to monitor the whole process from beginning to end.
Drying bamboo at the factory is difficult because it’s hard to measure the moisture content. Most Chinese factories don’t dry the bamboo down to a target moisture content as we do here with wood. Instead, they depend on a fixed schedule.
Even when bamboo is carefully dried, consistent moisture content appears to be a problem for all strand bamboo manufacturers. It can cause bamboo to expand along its length and width. With strand-woven bamboo’s extreme density and fibers sheathed in glue, acclimating it at the job site can take a long time–sometimes several days or even weeks, depending on the local climate. Strand-woven bamboo can take much longer than other flooring to acclimate.
Installers should use the same caution with bamboo as they do in treating the densest tropical hardwoods. They can avoid problems during installation by carefully measuring the moisture content of strand bamboo with an accurate wood moisture meter. They need to make sure the room is at service conditions and allow sufficient time to let the floorboards reach equilibrium moisture content (EMC) before installation begins.
The huge variance in moisture readings presents one of the biggest challenges of installing a bamboo floor. While readings must be taken carefully, there is no assurance the data is accurate.
Installers need to get the best information available from their wood moisture meter manufacturer. This includes determining if their correction numbers are for traditional or strand bamboo, as these numbers will vary. Wagner Meters has done, and continues to do, extensive testing and has correction guidelines, but recommended corrections differ from one manufacturer to the next.
Presently, there is no standardized grading system for bamboo. Companies like Wagner Meters, however, are working with specific manufacturers to determine accurate settings. It’s highly recommended that installers check with their flooring manufacturer’s recommendation for SG settings.
When planning to install strand bamboo on a slab-on grade, installers consult manufacturer’s guidelines for appropriate installation substrates, and then carefully test to make sure there are no moisture issues.
Before installing traditional bamboo floors, installers should look for grayish, streaky discoloration in the planks. It’s likely a fungus attacked the bamboo during the first few days after harvest.
Raw bamboo rots quickly, so it’s normally treated within two days of being cut. If the treatment is too late, the mold may still be visible in the finished floor even though it was killed. There are cases where the mold was still alive and spread in the floor after installation, even in a dry environment.
If mold is suspected in a traditional bamboo plank, installers would be wise to avoid using it. Mold is not likely in strand-woven bamboo because the glue and curing process should kill any spores.
Securing bamboo to the sub-floor requires special care. Nails or staples can easily damage the bamboo. Care also must be taken to keep the surface clean for glue-down installations. Glue that gets on the surface of the floor can be carefully removed, but it’s difficult.
To create flooring strips, the bamboo must be glued together and compressed under extreme pressure. The Chinese use urea and formaldehyde in the gluing process, which is known to cause serious health problems in some humans.
One installation risk is formaldehyde off-gassing. Installers who need to cut or sand bamboo flooring should wear a mask and clothing that protects the skin. Because formaldehyde is also a pungent-smelling gas, the stench alone can be unbearable.
Customers, too, can become ill from off-gassing–even long after installation.
As an alternative to traditional hardwood flooring, bamboo is seeing increased interest recently among home and business owners. There are several good reasons for this, including its variety of styles and colors and lower cost.
However, there are drawbacks–and even risks for the home and business owner as well as the professional wood floor installer. These include high susceptibility to dents, scratches, and other damage if using inferior bamboo…extra precautions are required to handle possible mold and/or moisture issues during installation, and health concerns due to formaldehyde-based glues and finishes and their off-gassing.
Despite the drawbacks and risks, however, bamboo flooring can still make a great floor. The key to satisfaction: It should be properly made and installed by a reputable company with several years of experience importing and installing bamboo.