Simran's hardwood floors
I'm an Indian immigrant with brilliant, loving parents who encouraged me to study a lot and made me rake the yard each fall (the activity I least look forward to in my new house). We were not the kind of family known for DIY projects. My father spent many of his days with his head stuck under a microscope; he did not chop wood or carry water. So I guess it's not surprising that when the gentleman who came to look at my floors said, "Your first floor is oak and your second floor is maple," it meant nothing to me. In my head wood was wood, covered by bark. Different trees had different leaves, grains and hues, but I was under the impression that any wood could be stained any color. And I was wrong.

The primary lesson I have learned in my first two weeks of home ownership is to let go of expectations. My friend Carol said, "Your house is like a living being. There is only so much you can change." I learned that late Friday night when the heavily scratched, damaged and shellacked floors that had been one consistent color were now three colors (it turns out the stairs were a third type of wood—yellow pine).

The floors are now becoming beautiful. (Lesson 2: Nothing is ever really done right the first time.) And they turned out differently than I expected (see Lesson 1).

Let me rewind and explain how I got here. I met Andy Martin, a floor specialist focusing on historical restoration. He was one of three floor people I met. (Lesson 3: Get multiple bids to understand the range of costs and then go with your gut). I went with Andy because he gave me the best offer and I could see how much he loved the wood. He shoehorned my project into his schedule before heading on holiday, and there is still more to be done but we are well on our way.(Lesson 4: Do not shoehorn. Always leave room for the unknown: a broken sander, poor lighting or bad weather.)

I told Andy using low-impact materials was a must for me and he agreed to share his thoughts on what he used and loved, as well as being open to trying new products that I never had the chance to use, but wanted to try.

The products I sought had limited volatile organic compounds, orVOCs, which are in everything from solvents to cleaning products, paints to varnishes, and dry cleaning to permanent markers. Depending on their concentration and your sensitivities, they can cause headaches and nausea, trigger allergies or damage the liver, kidneys and central nervous system. VOCs such as formaldehyde are known carcinogens, and the Environmental Protection Agency(EPA) says, "Studies have found that levels of several organics average two to five times higher indoors than outdoors. During and for several hours immediately after certain activities, such as paint stripping, levels may be 1,000 times background outdoor levels."

So why is this stuff in our most common household products? It's puzzling. EPA regulates some VOCs in industrial settings as part of the Clean Air Act, but there is no oversight within our homes. The Food and Drug Administration requires a warning label if substances are toxic but does not require any labeling of what's actually in the product.

Lesson 5: Caveat emptor, or "Let the buyer beware."

I am here to help in whatever ways I can (take a look at my post on our chemical body burden). But also know there are many resources on the Web that will help you limit the number of toxins in your life. I dig the Healthy House Institute and am a huge fan of the findings from Environmental Working Group and the new database on toxic chemicals in everyday products from Michigan's Ecology Center.

Okay, back to the floors. For those of you who are as familiar (ahem!) with the refinishing process as I was, it starts with sanding and lots of sawdust infiltrating every cranny of your house. It was clear that we would be staining the downstairs because of all the water damage and markings on the dull floors, so next came the stain. As much as I wanted to use something water-based, Andy recommended an oil-based stain because of its durability. I pouted. He assured me it was just one coat and would get sandwiched between many more layers of stuff. (I think he explained the refinishing process to me about five times. Lesson 6: Patience is a virtue for all involved.)

Andy added a coat of BonaKemi DriFast Sealer—a low-VOC product. Bona is a family-owned company that was founded right around the time my house was born (in 1918) and its products are GreenGuard-certified for Indoor Air Quality and the organization's more stringent Children and Schools program. Andy and John Fitzgerald (another terrific floor guy I spoke with) both use and love this product, which is oil-modified (meaning it is still petroleum-based).

I suggested to Andy that we give one more product a shot—an AFM Safecoat finish of Polyureseal BP, which is a water-based clear gloss. AFM Safecoat products are marketed as ideal for people with chemical sensitivities, and they have gotten props for this including Scientific Certification Systems' Indoor Advantage Gold certification and qualification for LEED green building standards.

Certifications are frustrating because there are so many of them, but some oversight is better than none. And, in that same vein, some improvement is better than none. Both the BonaKemi and AFM Safecoat products emit odors for which I was unprepared. Jay Watts, the vice president of AFM, explained to me in an e-mail, "Clear-urethane-type coatings traditionally have stronger application and curing emissions than other coatings. They actually harden or cure over a seven- to 10-day period. During the first days after the install, the fumes are at their zenith. With good ventilation, the air quality can be successfully monitored and the curing kept on track. Typically the odors will dissipate dramatically after 36 to 48 hours with low declining emissions through that hardening process."

That was true. Within two days the air felt clearer. He went on to say, "One other factor that weighs on the emissions/cure cycle is the dry time allowed between coats, the thickness of those coats and the conditions under which the product is being applied. In situations where re-coats are too quickly done, heavy coat application and poor ventilation or high humidity are present, then the whole process will be retarded."

I like the fact that the AFM product can be thinned with water. We used less than we thought, which means I have some leftover for the hardwood floors lurking under the torn linoleum in my kitchen. The floors need another coat of gloss but are so much prettier than they were a week ago.

And now for my final lesson of the week: Know thyself. Could I have used wax and wood oils and perhaps achieved a similar effect? Maybe. Was I prepared to buff my floors every year? Not a chance. (But I will clean my floors in the most eco-friendly way possible.) I looked for products that would be significantly healthier for my loved ones and me—and would allow me to have a life. (I would love to be the person who bakes bread, knits scarves, chops wood and carries water but I think we've established that isn't exactly part of my DNA…yet.)

Every step of this process is emotional and personal. And every step gets me closer to a cleaner, greener home. Follow my journey here and on Twitter.

All my best,

More from Simran Sethi
Simran Sethi is an award-winning journalist and associate professor at the University of Kansas School of Journalism and Mass Communications. For more information on Sethi, visit


Next Story