Why do your wood floors gap in the winter?

Wood is a natural material and subject to the laws of nature. One such law: when wood loses moisture, it shrinks. In the winter, the relative humidity in the air drops; the air loses moisture. This causes the wood to also lose moisture, which causes it to shrink, resulting in gaps, or “cracks,” between boards.

Chances are good that as temperatures drop, customers will start picking up their phones to call about cracks and squeaking in their wood floors. You can reduce the number of these calls by educating your customers about the nature of wood and its relationship with humidity. First and foremost, they should understand that in choosing hardwood flooring, they are bringing a piece of nature into their homes. In very cold environments, wood floors will exhibit signs of gapping in the winter; set your customers’ expectations accordingly.

When choosing flooring material, you can help your customers understand that certain materials are better for certain environments. For example, wider boards are more prone to gapping than narrow boards. When using engineered flooring, check the manufacturer’s recommendations for relative humidity ranges; not every material is suitable for every environment. And some species of wood are more stable than others; hickory, for example, will shrink more than the same size board in red oak.

Be your customer’s hero – educate yourself about the species of woods you offer and be aware of which are more stable. This will allow you to advise your customers realistically about the flooring they are choosing and whether they can expect significant changes in low-humidity seasons.

Also, make sure your customers are aware that there are several ways to reduce this “cracking” effect in the winter.

The easiest thing to address is the levels of moisture in a home. This can be done by weather-proofing a home and reducing exposure to outdoor air (leaky windows, holes in ceilings and floors, poorly sealed doors). The more cold air is coming into the house and then being heated, the more moisture is sucked from the indoor environment.

Second, moisture can be added to the air through a humidifier. These can be stand-alone units or attached to a central furnace.

Homeowners must be careful not to add too much moisture to their environment, however; excess moisture in the air can lead to condensation, dampness, mold, and even wood rot. It’s important to strike the right balance between reducing ventilation and adding moisture. There are many inexpensive humidity-monitoring devices available that can help your customers maintain ideal conditions for their hardwood flooring.

The bottom line is that wood will behave as wood does. It will shrink in the winter, and a good flooring supplier will set his customers’ expectations accordingly and offer some actionable tips for mitigating these effects. Although the effect of moisteure on wood products can never be completely eliminated, wood flooring provides the charm of bringing the outside in; with the right maintenance, a hardwood floor can be a joy year-round.