Engineered flooring

How Environmental is it?

Due to the seemingly often held view that only engineered flooring can be laid over underfloor heating (which is untrue see under-floor heating article elsewhere on this site) I started thinking further about that product, and as so often I was in for a surprise.

First – What is it?

The term ‘engineered flooring’ technically refers to a huge array of quite different products, with quite different prices, quite different specifications and quite different performances. As the market also includes Laminated Flooring we ought to separate that out so the term ‘laminated’ means there isn’t a real timber top surface but rather a photo imaged surface on whatever the top is made of.

Now for engineered flooring which covers all other products where it is made of 3 or more ‘layers’. It has a solid timber top wearing layer which may be anything from ½mm thick to 6mm or more, and the total thickness may be anything from around 6mm to 22mm (or more). These products are often sold as ‘environmental’ or ‘green’, but does this description hold up under examination?

What is it made from?

Essentially there are two primary options for the materials underneath the wearing layer – HDF (a harder version of MDF), or ‘wood’. The moment fibreboard (HDF) is involved the product will not stand wetting, so beware any excess water on it and you shouldn’t wash such a floor to clean it. If the manufacturer says you can wipe it – that is exactly what is meant.

If the layers below the top are timber rather than HDF (which is still made from timber) – we then have to ask what timber and where from? Many engineered products, especially those considered the better ones, use plywood as at least the major centre layer but where does that timber come from? The ply veneers can be from a number of species, but the predominant ones are from rainforest hardwoods! If the colour is a red then it is almost certainly from these trees which are always used to make the water resistant ply boards normally called WBP (Water Boil Proof) and often called ‘Far Eastern Ply’. The message is in the name!

Once we have a plywood layer – itself made of 3 to 5 veneer layers – if it is the rainforest hardwood then a great deal of the engineered floor is rainforest timber, but not straight rainforest timber as it has additionally gone through the processes above. So for an 18mm floor with 3mm top surface and a 3mm bottom one, 12mm of it may be rainforest timber. That is 2/3 of the product, so if the final floor product is chosen because it ISN’T a rainforest timber (for example European Oak top surface), the buyer accidentally bought mostly rainforest timber without knowing it. If we took into account the energy and products used through the production processes, we are doing more damage to our planet than if we bought solid rainforest timber in the first place! Of course if the customer wants to be green, they could not accept a rainforest hardwood floor, yet that is much of what they would have under their feet even if people cannot see it and they might have been more friendly to the environment had they bought a solid rainforest floor than buying the engineered option. Hardly what the buyer was thinking.

If on the other hand the central core is HDF, that product is questionable and you don’t have a waterproof floor. But yet again there is a lot of production involved.

How is it made?

First the individual layers have to be manufactured, with the top being milled from logs then finished ready for gluing into the final product.

Plywood is wood that has gone through some complex operations to produce the veneers, followed by a manufacturing process involving gluing cross grain veneers together using adhesives, heat and a lot of energy. In many production units the heat is provided by – you guessed it – burning even more wood.

HDF is made by shredding wood and then gluing the particles together using a lot of adhesive, pressure and heat, and in this case the adhesive is almost certainly a high formaldehyde product which is not good for the environment.

Clearly there are a number of manufacturing processes involved in making the layers, from making the veneers through making the ply, making the HDF, and making the top layer, but the final product still has to be made.

Next the end product has to be glued together – more adhesives and energy – and then the finishes have to be applied which involves yet another production process.

Most solid floors are not supplied finished (ours aren’t) but all engineered products are. It constantly amazes me just how many ways for example an Oak floor can be finished; just how many products come from one species, but the raw floors probably need pre-finishing to present them well. The trouble is firstly that pre-finishing uses yet more energy (compared with elbow grease with hand application) and secondly it produces homogeneous product – it all looks the same so any marks really show. We were asked some time ago if we could make what is called ‘smoked’ product, so I discovered what is involved. The manufactured boards are passed through a hot oven staying long enough to start to char the top surface – and that is the smoky effect. Difficult to think of anything that is a greater waste of energy than this or less environmental, and that is after all the other problems above. Given we are focussed on providing the best product at the lowest price producing the least possible carbon; naturally we wouldn’t produce such a product.

That is a lot of processes, many of which will probably be done in China or other countries in that region, all of which have high carbon electricity, and countless transport journeys cumulatively covering huge distances. If the top surface is Oak it will certainly not be British Oak so will be American White Oak or European Oak. The former is a different species, paler and particularly un-featured, while the latter is half way between the British Oak and the American. So either the plywood is shipped to Europe for final manufacturing (and the American Oak shipped in as well) or very much more likely the Oak is shipped to China where it is made into the final product which is then shipped back.

An interesting miss-representation

Trawling through the web I found an engineered flooring site that concerned me, and while I work hard not to challenge a particular company but rather only generic products, as they have put up an extremely misleading video I think they should be challenged. On Green Apple flooring (an environmental sounding name but no apple wood or green products seemingly used) they explain the product and give the reasons for buying it, but maybe they don’t give the complete picture?

Having said the surface layer can be from 1mm to 6mm thick, and that the two layers beneath it are ply or one of them can be HDF, they then ‘explain’ why it is so environmental. They show one of their boards with a very thin top layer and compare it with 18mm solid flooring pointing out that their top layer uses much less forest that the solid product! So they call theirs ‘Forest Friendly’. They happily ignore all the timber below the wearing layer which, strangely enough, comes from the forests, and if the ply is the usual product, as we already know that is probably from rainforest trees so there would actually be much less damage to the planet if the floor was solid rainforest. But if only the comparisons stopped there!

Life expectancy

Solid flooring should be there for a lifetime whereas engineered products are almost certainly not going to be. It is partly a fashion product and fashions change, so another house owner may change it whereas solid floors are seldom replaced unless they are beyond repair. We encourage recovery even though that will lose us a sale and we help explain how best to do that.

Unfortunately we are already supplying our flooring to be laid in place of engineered which is being removed – some after only 5 years of use – mostly because people are fed up with it. That is environmentally dreadful as the forest is being ransacked twice for what? We have many comments from customers that they don’t want their floors to bounce around which click and fit floors can do or floors floated (but not properly floated) – that is not fixed to a reasonable substrate, another reason for them being replaced. But there is at least one more issue.

The timber floor alternatives

There are only the two – engineered or solid – and if a timber floor is wanted it is difficult not to make a comparison between the engineered and our product. Ours has only 12mm of British timber and maybe 50 transport miles to be ready for despatch. It is as if the two products come from different planets but of course the arguments above support all solid flooring no matter who makes them though the source trees matter hugely. We here fight hard to make sure honestly sustainable timber is used whoever makes the flooring.

I acknowledge we are making and selling solid British timber flooring which gives us a vested interest, but we are doing this for core environmental reasons. The business was set up to avoid as much rainforest destruction and unsustainable timber extraction as possible, so I feel bringing this information to everybody’s attention is justified.

The Planet v what we might like

At the end of the day each of us has to take decisions on the things we buy, and with almost everything there is an environmental cost of the options. Unquestionably THE most difficult thing is to understand what those are, and without a reasonable estimate of the environmental impacts we are a bit stuck. Unfortunately there are some commonly held views of the better options which are often incorrect, and sometimes badly so which further confuses and might annoy – when we have done what we thought was good only to find later it was not.

drawing of the environmental balance

In the case of timber flooring, the less manufactured, the more home produced and the lower the distance travelled the better. The more manufacturing processes involved and the more rainforest timbers used the greater the environmental cost.

While we value what we would like above the environmental impact of that choice, the planet will go backwards. Even choosing the best options isn’t the final solution, but doing that is way better than the alternatives.

Summary

As I have so often said, most people have an enormous task sorting out what really does help planet earth and what doesn’t as companies selling products almost never give the correct information. They are hugely selective so are either ignorant of the facts or they knowingly mislead. It has to be one or the other.

When Domestic Wind Turbines were launched it was instantly obvious here they were of no use to the planet or consumers. I calculated at that time from real data that the payback was optimistically 50 years and could be well over 1,000 years without any exaggeration. David Cameron’s would have been in the well over 1,000 year category. Yet a lot of people bought them thinking they were investing wisely and helping the planet. Over a few years the truth came out; they were found to be useless, and gradually faded from the market. But during that time many businesses set up making or selling them, wasting everybody’s capital and the purchasers’ cash.

Ground Source Heat Pumps were also fundamentally flawed (see ground source seat pumps article on the Tranquility library site and as the public began to realise they also didn’t work, the industry tried to switch to Air Source Heat Pumps which are hugely worse. Unfortunately those who have invested in them have spent really large amounts of money and again the industry is finally disappearing. What a waste.

Solar PV is another product and industry fundamentally flawed for use in the UK (see Solar PV article on the Tranquility library site). Every installation costs all of us more and achieves nothing – they don’t help the planet when installed here – yet just as the Prime Minister installed a wind turbine round his chimney, so government simply doesn’t get to grips with renewable energy reality.

There has also been a fad for Wood Chip Power (there is a substantive Paper on the Tranquility library web site explaining why that is also worse than useless) which is also fading or has faded but not after many National health authorities have invested in them.

Engineered Flooring: I am sure the same will be true of this product partly as it is so often used over underfloor heating which is itself an ineffective means of heating a building but also because it simply isn’t remotely environmental. It does of course heat the house, and it is comfortable, but the annual cost of energy is almost always considerably higher than using conventional systems. Neither our pockets nor the planet’s resources will support such heating systems either now or certainly in the future.

Note

There is normally a great inconsistency of advice on the web, and I did find the following guidance for using underfloor heating under engineered floors. “Engineered flooring is suitable for underfloor heating systems which are becoming more popular; however care must be taken not to overheat the floor. When the seasons change the heating temperatures must only be adjusted at a maximum of 2° per day to avoid excessive shrinkage or swelling until the optimum temperature is reached”.

This would mean the heating should be turned on really slowly over many many days in the autumn, gradually building up the flow temperature until the normal operating level is reached, then never turned off until Spring as that 2° would instantly be exceeded if it was. This would also mean it should not be turned off when not needed and there would not be the possibility of changing the temperature during the day/night. Again in Spring many days would be required to turn it off. Doesn’t sound very practical but anyway the daily temperature can change hugely more than that during the period the central heating is not in use.