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A Comparison of Engineered Hardwood and Solid Hardwood Floors

Until recently, homeowners who longed for the natural glow of wood floors had to install solid wood planks. Today, however, there’s a new player on the hardwood flooring scene: engineered hardwood. Below, we consider the construction, limitations and advantages of these two varieties of hardwood floors. If you’re remodeling your current home or researching flooring options for a new dream home, this information will help you figure out whether solid hardwood floors or engineered hardwood floors would be best for your situation.

Introduction to Traditional Hardwood Floors

Solid hardwood floors are generally considered a good investment, partially because they can be restored time and time again, often across generations. Traditional hardwood flooring is made of solid planks milled to a 3/4-inch thickness. This thickness allows solid hardwood floors to be sanded down and refinished without threatening the floor’s structural integrity.

Pair this quality with the universally appealing beauty of natural wood, and you begin to appreciate why homes with hardwood floors sell faster and often at a higher price than homes with carpeting or other flooring options. Durability is another reason for hardwood flooring’s popularity. If properly maintained, hardwood floors can last fifty years or more.

Swelling and shrinking. One downside to hardwood flooring is that it expands and contracts with temperature and humidity levels. Wood naturally swells in hot, moist conditions and shrinks in cold, dry environs. To compensate for this quality, contractors must leave a 5/8-inch to 3/4-inch gap where the walls meet the flooring. Base molding is often installed to hide these extension gaps.

Potential for health problems. Water is hardwood flooring’s enemy in another way, as well. Moisture that invades wood planks can sustain fungi, mildew and mold. Not only do these life forms destroy wood; they can also cause health problems for humans, including allergic reactions, asthma and fungal respiratory infections.

Installation complications. Because water is so threatening to traditional hardwood floors, it is generally not recommended that they be installed “below grade” – i.e. in a basement. Although some designers are willing to put thinner 5/16-inch planks in subterranean rooms, it’s not common. Likewise, it’s generally not advisable to place solid hardwood floors in bathrooms or kitchens. Installing wood floors in such moisture-rich rooms is just asking for trouble down the road. Finally, hardwood floors cannot be installed directly on concrete, which transmits water. Plywood or OSB subflooring must be installed to separate hardwood flooring from underlying concrete slabs.

Introduction to Engineered Hardwood Flooring

Engineered hardwood floors are constructed somewhat like plywood: wood chips, sawdust and shavings are glued together under heat and pressure. Just like traditional hardwood flooring, engineered hardwood floors are often formed into planks with tongue-and-groove connections. Some manufacturers even offer engineered floating wood flooring; this variety requires no adhesive or special installation tools.

Structural stability. The major advantage of engineered hardwood flooring is its stability. Due to the construction process described above, engineered wood does not shrink or expand with conditions nearly as much as traditional wood planks do. This structural stability allows engineered floors to be installed in kitchens, bathrooms and even dry basements. Likewise, engineered hardwood floors can be installed over a concrete floor, assuming vapor transmission tests are favorable. Finally, because they tolerate moisture, engineered hardwood floors can be installed above a radiant heating system.

Limited refinishing capability.However, the very qualities that make engineered wood so versatile also cause certain drawbacks. For instance, engineered hardwood flooring cannot be refinished more than once or twice, so it is harder to repair deep scratches and dents. Engineered hardwood floors are much easier to install which is why they are so popular. However, they don’t have quite the lifespan of traditional wood floors.

Environmental concerns. Those who aim to select eco-friendly flooring would be interested to learn that solid hardwood floors are typically considered better for the earth, as long as they are sustainability harvested. However, there are several brands of engineered hardwood floors that are environmentally sound and meet sustainability standards.