Tips to eliminating polyurethane wood floor smell and toxicity?
December 13, 2019 9:56 PM   Subscribe

Any chance to reduce the odor, fumes and to make our house more tolerable or know it's safe? Never heard of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) until we choose to sand and polish the hardwood. It was 350 VOC for what that indicates.

Appreciate any sort of help if possible. Our wood floors were treated via polyurethane 3d ago. They put the furniture on the floor again but wow...the stink...and it's noxious -- gives headache and chest tightness -- the symptoms you google (which is not great for home improvement btw). For some the stink can last months!(per google again) -- hoping it does not get to that for us. TIA.
posted by skepticallypleased to Home & Garden (11 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
A floor remodel made me move out of my house, initially to an extended-stay hotel. Hope it doesn't come to that for you. Now I seem to be living in Chicago instead of North Carolina, so it was ultimately kind of an adventure.

Looking back, I probably could (should?) have just rented or bought the very expensive VOC air purifier I found - this is probably it.
posted by amtho at 10:42 PM on December 13, 2019 [1 favorite]

The odor will go down exponentially with time in the case of polyurethanes, I've heard, but the real danger is that one or more of you will become sensitized and start reacting to other relatively benign chemicals at lower and lower concentrations as a positive feedback loop involving the immune system kicks in.

I think you need to get out of your house for a week or so and buy an air purifier as amtho suggests, but the critical stat for a VOC air purifier is activated carbon along with a high air throughput, and I believe EL Foust sells one with 7 pounds of activated carbon (get coconut shell carbon with "purapel" for formaldehyde, and a cloth filter instead of the standard fiberglass because the fiberglass filter uses a small amount of phenol formaldehyde resin as a binder) for ~$400. You really should have one for every room you refinished. Under ordinary circumstances you would replace the filter every six to nine months, but for floor refinishing I wouldn't wait more than four for the first replacement.
posted by jamjam at 1:29 AM on December 14, 2019 [2 favorites]

For the sake of other people finding their way in here, this consideration among others is exactly why we chose to use a tung oil finish with a citrus oil thinner on our hardwood floors after removing the old carpeting that came with the house.

Old-school tung or linseed oil based floor finishes still emit VOC as they dry and cure but nowhere near as horrible a selection of them as polyurethane; and an oil finish also has the distinct advantage that when it starts to show signs of wear, you can just apply a touch-up coat to the worn zone without needing to sand back and refinish the whole floor. Ours went down eighteen years ago now and we're completely happy with the way it's been performing.
posted by flabdablet at 3:51 AM on December 14, 2019 [7 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for responses so far wish the guy we hired would have told us about what to expect. Smell definitely there and uncomfortable and it’s D5 despite ventilation
posted by skepticallypleased at 5:44 AM on December 14, 2019

As a painting contractor I am not sure we have used a product with that high a VOC count on interior surfaces. It may be little consolation but when it comes to durability higher VOCs are going to give you better performance over time than something with low numbers.

Without further details its hard to determine what the off gassing time will be. When my own floors were done they used a two-part catalyzed finish. This sped up the drying process and the smell lingering.

Also not sure where you are located but if opening up the windows and renting some ventilation fans are an option then that would move some of the air.

If you are in a colder climate turn the heat up and get some fans to circulate the air. If this is an oil or oil-modified polyurethane it will not necessarily get rid of the smell but it will speed the curing process.

You should have moved out of a period of time while the work and some time to allow for drying. I wouldn't blame the guy who did the work because i would have wanted the most durable finish he could apply, not one that would be a bother for a few days.

With regards to an air purifier it would not be able to handle that large amount of air contamination. If you can imagine the entire floor surface is off gassing so you would need an industrial size unit to even scratch the surface, no pun intended.
posted by ashtray elvis at 6:50 AM on December 14, 2019 [3 favorites]

I think the place I shopped said I might need two big ones -- they might be industrial sized. I think they were $900 each or something.
posted by amtho at 8:46 AM on December 14, 2019

I've used many wood finishes, some of them hideously smelly and noxious and/or slow-curing. How fast polyurethane outgasses and cures depends on temperature and air movement, which is different from ventilation. If you turn up the heat and set up some fans, your house will become livable somewhat sooner. Since I've always worked on furniture, I don't know how long it takes for floors.
posted by wryly at 12:19 PM on December 14, 2019

Response by poster: Thanks ashtray -- We are in the Northeast and it's been relatively warm.

Hoping the thread helps other people -- Ask about VOCs, ask about realistic "off-gassing" and whether even furniture needs to be out of the house or not. I might be sensitive but it's just not livable and I'm not going to let my young kids play around in there.

Did buy some activated charcoal based HEPA filters from Honeywell and it didn't help too much -- you're right. Might need a real industrial one.

Again thanks mefi -- not as active as used to be -- but it's nice to know it's still the place for quality advice.
posted by skepticallypleased at 1:38 PM on December 14, 2019 [2 favorites]

Honeywell filters have very, very little activated carbon and a low throughput; they are useless for VOCs
posted by jamjam at 1:53 PM on December 14, 2019 [2 favorites]

Yeah, HEPA doesn't matter here, I think - the VOC filtration is totally separate.

One possibly positive thought: if it's outgassing a lot right now, it might be outgassing fairly quickly, so your problem might end sooner than otherwise.
posted by amtho at 7:22 PM on December 14, 2019 [2 favorites]

One feature your house might have that you can definitely take advantage of while working out what else to do is the exhaust fans in the bathrooms. Temporarily remove any floor-level sealing flaps from external doors, close all your external doors and windows, open all your interior doors, and run all your bathroom exhaust fans 24x7. Rooms with no external doors can have their windows cracked open just a smidge.

The idea is to run your interior at negative pressure with respect to the outside, and make the incoming equalizing draught blow along the floors in a laminar stream to the greatest extent possible. You can also establish a respite zone near an open window this way, since most of what you're breathing will have only just been pulled in from outside.
posted by flabdablet at 5:25 AM on December 16, 2019

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