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When it comes to floors, there are plenty of appealing, healthy and green options for every room of your home. Refinishing existing floors instead of replacing them might be your most economical option. It's also one of the best environmental choices—it reduces demand for natural resources like wood and stone, and saves energy used to manufacture and ship new products. When refinishing wood floors, use water-based, low-VOC sealers. If ceramic or stone tiles are in good shape, consider cleaning and polishing them rather than replacing them.

While refinishing your existing floors is usually the greenest choice, if you're in the market for new floors, consider products that are reclaimed, FSC-certified, rapidly renewable or recycled. Whatever flooring material you choose, make sure it's a healthy one. Certain flooring products offgas volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that can pollute indoor air. Low-VOC alternatives exist for almost all flooring products.

The Green Product Directory highlights green options for six different kinds of flooring products: bamboo, carpet tile, cork, hardwood and natural linoleum. You can jump straight to those pages, or read on to learn about other green options for your floors, including sheet carpet and concrete, as well as healthy installation and finish methods.

Green carpet choices

If you plan to install new carpeting, there are many products that are healthier and more environmentally friendly than conventional carpeting. The Green Product Directory highlights carpet tile products that can be used as area rugs or as wall-to-wall carpeting. If you're in the market for broadloom carpet (sold in rolls for wall-to-wall installation), keep the following suggestions in mind.

Tips for healthier floor finishing and installation:

  • Low VOC carpet and carpet cushion. To limit chemical offgassing from carpet and carpet underlayment, choose products that carry the Carpet and Rug Institute's (CRI) Green Label Plus logo. These have been tested to meet standards for low-VOC emissions.
  • Recycled-content carpet. Recycled-content carpet is made from recycled plastic bottles, recycled nylon and wool, or recycled cotton. Recycled-content carpet helps provide a market for recyclable materials—approximately 40 two-liter soda bottles are recycled per square yard of carpeting. To reduce waste, choose a durable carpet with high recycled content. Recycled-content carpet can be used anywhere conventional carpet is used, and is comparable in appearance, performance and price to conventional synthetic carpet made from virgin materials. Recycled-content carpet is available in a rainbow of colors and has high stain resistance thanks to the plastic's natural stain-deterring properties.
  • Recycled-content carpet cushion. Depending on the kind of carpet used, carpet cushion (also called underlayment) may be needed. Carpet cushion can improve the carpet's insulating properties, reduce wear from foot traffic and furniture, and help keep it looking good longer. Carpet cushions made from bonded urethane, jute, synthetic fiber or rubber are often available with a high recycled content. Look for low-VOC carpet cushion with the CRI Green Label.
  • Natural fiber carpet and rugs. Also consider natural-fiber carpet, such as wool, cotton, jute, seagrass, sisal, linen or coir. These materials are biodegradable and made from rapidly renewable resources. Natural-fiber carpet tends to have much lower emissions than conventional synthetic carpet. However, these may be more expensive or less durable than synthetic carpets.

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If your home is built with slab-on-grade construction, the concrete slab can be polished, scored with joints in various patterns, or stained with pigments to make an attractive finish floor.

Using the existing concrete slab as a finish floor eliminates the need to use other flooring materials. This is easier and less expensive to do when the home is first being built than as a remodeling project. Concrete floors are especially appropriate for use with in-floor radiant heating systems (see our GreenPointer on Heating and Cooling) and passive solar designs (see our Additions and Major Remodeling Overview).

Usually, a low-VOC sealer is all that is required for sealing and waterproofing the concrete. Concrete floors are durable and easy to clean. Concrete may be less ideal in rooms where warmth or cushioning is desired, such as bedrooms and kitchens.

Healthier floor finishes and installation methods

A common source of indoor air pollution is volatile organic compounds (VOCs), a large class of chemicals that offgas from many building materials. Exposure to VOCs may cause a range of symptoms, from eye irritation and headaches to more severe effects. Many floor finishes, adhesives and sealants emit unhealthy VOCs.

Fortunately, the building products industry is responding to these indoor pollution problems by developing safer products, including low-VOC floor sealants and adhesives. These products are now commonly available from most major suppliers at costs comparable to conventional products.

Tips for healthier floor finishing and installation:

  • If possible, choose products with factory-applied stains and finishes to limit chemical offgassing in your home.
  • If onsite finishing is required, use water-based, low-VOC products. Avoid alkyd and oil-based stains and finishes.
  • Use caulks and construction adhesives with VOC concentrations of 70 grams per liter or less in place of standard caulks and adhesives for all interior applications such as installation of subfloors, finish flooring and trim.
  • Encourage installers to saw and sand outside of your home as much as possible.
  • To protect indoor air quality, choose carpet products that meet or exceed the Carpet and Rug Institute's (CRI) Green Label Plus requirements for VOC emissions. Conventional synthetic carpeting and carpet padding can offgas high levels of VOCs for many years after installation. Install carpet with carpet tacks rather than adhesives, or use low-VOC adhesives.
  • Ceramic tile does not offgas and has minimal indoor air quality impacts. However, some mastic glues and epoxy grouts used for tile installation can emit high levels of VOCs. To reduce offgassing, opt for setting the tile with portland cement–based thin-set mortar and grout rather than mastic glues and epoxy grouts.
  • Finish and maintain concrete floors with low- and no-VOC sealants and waxes.
  • Natural stone has no VOC emissions; however, if the stone will be sealed, choose a low-VOC sealant.

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More flooring tips

  • Buy local. When possible, choose products that are produced locally. In California, options include FSC-certified wood, ceramic tiles, and some recycled-content materials. Products fabricated locally from local materials offer many environmental, economic and social benefits such as helping keep jobs in your community and reducing transportation energy use.
  • Go shoeless. Up to two-thirds of dust and particulates in houses is tracked in on shoes. These tracked-in contaminants contain everything from soil and pesticides to abrasive sand, mold, road grime and bacteria. Once these particulates are inside the home, they can be difficult to get rid of. The most effective way to avoid tracking contaminants into the home is for people to remove their shoes upon entering. Provide features near entryways that encourage the removal and storage of outerwear and shoes, such as shelves, benches and coat hooks, or create a mudroom. For entryways, avoid carpet, and choose easily cleaned flooring with a hard surface, such as hardwood, bamboo, concrete, ceramic tile or natural linoleum. The home will be cleaner, with less dirt and other pollution tracked in. Also, vacuum flooring regularly to ensure good indoor air quality. Use vacuums with HEPA filters.
  • Don't cover up thermal mass floors. If your home was designed according to passive solar principles (see our Additions and Major Remodeling Overview), take care that any new flooring material you choose won't undermine the passive solar design. Use flooring materials that improve thermal mass, such as tile or concrete. Covering slab floors with carpet, wood, linoleum, a throw rug or similar materials is counterproductive to passive solar design. These materials insulate thermal mass from the effects of solar gain.
  • What's under the floor? If your remodeling project involves repairing or replacing the subfloor that supports the finish flooring material, take a look at our recommendations for Structural Improvements. Want to keep your toes warm in the winter? Find out about radiant underfloor heating systems in our GreenPointer on Heating and Cooling.


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