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Blog/Opinion: Paint and floors - teaching an old house new green tricks

I am 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 am least looking forward to in my new house). We were not the kind of family known for DIY projects. My father spent many of his days peering into 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. Different trees had different 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).

Gorgeous Floors

The floors are now becoming beautiful. (Lesson: Nothing is ever really done right the first time.) And they turned out differently than I expected.
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: 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, and there is still more to be done—but we are well on our way. (Lesson: Do not shoehorn. Always leave room for the unknown: a broken sander, poor lighting, or bad weather.)

I told Andy that 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. 


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‚?®The products I sought had limited volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, 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. The 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: 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.


‚?®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: 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 @simransethi.‚?®‚?®


All my best,



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Paint and floors - teaching an old house new green tricks:  Created on February 5th, 2010.  Last Modified on May 14th, 2013

About Simran Sethi

Simran Sethi

Simran Sethi is the founding host/writer of Sundance Channel's environmental programming The Green and the creator of the Sundance Web series The Good Fight, highlighting global environmental justice efforts and grassroots activism. She is also an award-winning journalist and associate professor at the University of Kansas School of Journalism and Mass Communications, where she teaches courses on sustainability and environmental communications. She is currently writing a book on psychological barriers to environmental engagement. Simran is the contributing author of Ethical Markets: Growing the Green Economy, winner of the bronze 2008 Axiom Award for Best Business Ethics book.

Named one of the top ten eco-heroes of the planet by the UK’s Independent and lauded as the “environmental messenger” by Vanity Fair, Simran has contributed numerous segments to Nightly News with Brian Williams, CNBC, the Oprah Winfrey Show, Today Show, Ellen DeGeneres Show, Martha Stewart Show and History Channel. She is committed to a redefinition of environmentalism that includes voices from the prairie, the inner city and the global community.

Simran blogs about sustainability and life cycle analysis for The Huffington Post and Alternet and is currently writing a year-long series about making her first home more resource efficient for Oprah Winfrey’s Web site She has been a featured guest on NPR and is the host of the Emmy-award winning PBS documentary, “A School in the Woods.” She has lectured at institutions ranging from the Commonwealth Club to Cornell University; keynoted conferences including Bioneers by the Bay, the Green Business Conference and the North American Association For Environmental Education; and moderated panels for the Clinton Global Initiative University, Demos and the Climate Group.

Simran is an associate fellow at the Asia Society and serves on the Sustainability Advisory Board for the city of Lawrence, Kansas.  She holds an M.B.A. in sustainable business from the Presidio Graduate School and graduated cum laude with a B.A. in Sociology and Women’s Studies from Smith College.  She is the 2009 recipient of the Smith College Medal, awarded to alumnae demonstrating extraordinary professional achievements and outstanding service to their communities and the 2009 recipient of the University of Kansas award for Leadership in Sustainability.


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