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Already got your new green flooring picked out? Well, your eco–friendly work isn't quite done yet. There's more to green floors than just the surface material. Getting that new green floor in place will likely involve things like underlay, adhesives, finishes and sealers. It's a great start to pick a green flooring material but if you want to be as environmentally friendly as possible, you have to look at all the elements needed to complete your floor. And then there's the issue of upkeep and cleaning. Never fear! Green – or relatively green – alternatives are available for the range of flooring products you need.

Green Underlayments

A number of environmentalists feel that it's not enough to have green flooring; the floor underlayment should be green as well. An underlayment is material placed between the subfloor and the floor being installed to act as a sound or moisture barrier. Many manufacturers are now making underlayments out of 100% post–industrial recycled textiles.

Some underlayments may contain products that contain harmful levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs)*. In order to manage a healthier indoor atmosphere it's important that you choose an underlayment that's free of these toxins.

Cork, an eco–friendly material, is one of the most popular types of underlayment due to its unmatched sound–deadening capabilities. Cork is considered green because it's made from the bark of the cork oak tree, and is sourced without harming the tree or the environment. In addition, cork is naturally hypoallergenic and can be produced with VOC–free adhesives. A cork underlayment can be as thick as you need it to be and works well with most floating hardwood, tile, and laminate floors.

Rubber is often used as a moisture and sound barrier under flooring, and is also considered eco–friendly. Natural rubber is made of latex, or plant sap from the Para rubber tree. The sap is tapped directly from the tree without disturbing the tree's growth. Rubber underlays are available in rolls, are relatively easy to install and typically have low VOCs.

*VOCs (short for volatile organic compounds) are carbon–based chemical compounds that can be found in certain flooring materials, adhesives and cleaners.

Green Carpet Padding

Carpet padding helps to prolong the life of the carpet by reducing the wear against the subfloor. Facilitate healthier indoor air by choosing a carpet and carpet pad that are free from toxic matter. Environmentally friendly carpet pads generally contain lower amounts of VOCs than pads made from bonded and prime urethane.

Many manufacturers promote rubber and wool padding for their eco–friendliness, not to mention their antimicrobial properties. Wool is sustainable, recyclable, biodegradable and free from VOCs. Tests show that wool is also a natural absorber and can help filter indoor VOCs that are outgassed from other building materials.

Green Finishes and Sealers

A number of floors require the use of finishes and/or adhesives. In order to maintain a green standard of living, avoid floor finishes that contain ingredients that have been derived from fossil fuels. These tend to off–gas VOCs and harmful carcinogens such as benzene and formaldehyde. This plays a huge role in human health as most people spend at least 90% of their time indoors.

Fortunately there are many green floor finishes to choose from that contain few to no VOCs. Also, consider purchasing formaldehyde–free sealers and stains that are made using plant–based pigments.

Try to avoid any floor products that contain aqueous ammonia, an ingredient used in floor strippers to split metal cross–linking bonds. According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) high exposure to ammonia in gaseous form can lead to lung and eye damage, chronic kidney and central nervous damage, and even death.

Zinc, a metal component commonly used to make floor finishes harder, can be extremely toxic to aquatic ecosystems. Furthermore, it has a way of seeping into groundwater during the finishing process. Even low concentrations of zinc in waste water inhibit bacteria from breaking down sewage. As a result of these statistics, many U.S. states and the U.S. Green Building Council are demanding a reduction in the use of zinc–based products.

Other harmful VOCs include glycol ethers such as ethylene glycol methyl ether (EGME), ethylene glycol butyl ether (EGBE) and ethylene glycol ethyl ether (EGEE). These are known to cause skin and lung irritations, breakdown of red blood cells, and even lead to reproductive damage and birth defects. The U.S. EPA considers glycol ether to be a possible human carcinogen.

Tips for choosing a green floor finish:

  • Choose a finish that is free from metal ingredients and zinc.
  • Avoid floor products that contain alkylphenol ethoxylates.
  • Choose products that contain a safe level of VOCs.
  • Select a floor finish that is in a recyclable or biodegradable container.
  • Choose floor products that have a pH* no higher than 11.5.

*pH is the measure of the alkalinity (or acidity) of a certain solution.

Green Adhesives

Just like finishes, floor adhesives can contain a harmful level of VOCs that could negatively affect indoor air quality (IAQ). Make sure your floors are truly green by verifying that any adhesive used is environmentally friendly as well.

Most flooring types require some form of adhesive during manufacture or installation. You can save yourself the trouble of looking for a VOC–free floor adhesive by choosing a floating installation that doesn't require adhesive (i.e. floating hardwood; floating cork).

Note: The VOC content of all consumable products should be disclosed on the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS).

Green Cleaning Products

Make your existing floor surfaces greener by caring for them with eco–friendly cleaning products. A large amount of the pollution in your home is a direct result of the chemicals that can be found in everyday household cleaners. You're not just doing the environment a favor when you choose green cleaning products; you're also making a healthier choice for yourself and your family.

Many cleaners are made with petroleum, a nonrenewable and non–sustainable element. In order to be green, you need to make sure that all of the products you're using are made with non–toxic, biodegradable and renewable materials. You also want to make sure that the floor cleaner you choose is compatible with the type of floor you have. The wrong combination could result in floor damage and potentially expensive repairs and unnecessary floor waste.

Conventional cleaners packed with strong–smelling chemicals are not essential in getting your floors clean. Natural ingredients can be just as, if not more, effective than any chemical alternative. Unfortunately, distinguishing green cleaners from non–green cleaners can be difficult. Many manufacturers will fail to divulge certain ingredients or use false advertisement to make you think that a product is eco–friendly. If you're uncertain, refer to the product's Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) for complete information.

Here are some tips you can follow when green cleaning your floors:

  • Keep windows open as often as possible to allow air flow through your home. This can help maintain healthier indoor air quality.
  • Incorporate more plants into your home; they are great at filtering indoor air.
  • Place doormats at all entrances so as to reduce the amount of dirt that's tracked in. The less dirt on your floors, the less time you'll need to spend cleaning them.
  • Avoid wax cleaners or oil soaps that promise to make your floors shine. These tend to leave behind build–up that can make recoating a floor surface difficult.
  • Use non–toxic cleaning products to dissolve dirt and grime. Try to choose ones that will not dull the floor's finish.
  • Check the cleaning product's pH. You want to avoid anything that has a pH below 4 and higher than 10 (7 is the pH of water).