We have a guest blogger this week, Scott Avery, who is no stranger at all to blogging. He contributes to the Contractor Blog on this site, but I'm dragging him away for a minute to talk about "what is green" to a contractor.

Hey Scott, thanks for doing this. Can you tell me first about what you area(s) you work in most?  

Scott: My background is in remodel and pretty much 98% unfinished flooring. I never do my own hand-scraping by choice. We use mostly solid flooring and do a lot of refinishing.

Ok, so let's talk finishes first.  How do you sell a particular finish as green?

Scott: It is important to me to provide finish options for customers that are known for being durable and reliable in MY hands. I don't try to sell one finish just because it's 50 g/L lower in VOC if it has a reputation for being unreliable or I am not comfortable with using that finish. If a hot new finish has great VOC numbers yet has terrible workability, then risking reliability could be a death wish for any contractor in this industry.

Ultimately, longevity of a product matters most for the customer's dollars and also down the road for my reputation.  I don't want to get the call one year later that even though I sold someone on a finish because of VOC numbers that it needs a recoat or is wearing through. That makes me look bad and the industry as a whole.

Are there any site finishes you think aren't particularly green?

Scott: Probably the only finish that is way off the scale for being green in my opinion is moisture-cured urethane. But, then again the durability of that finish is unparalleled, so if you consider Life Cycle Analysis it may be greener than we give it credit. I just wouldn't want to breathe it on a regular basis because the xylene in it is nasty stuff.

That leads me to two questions-first, if something is that toxic, how do you handle that on the job site? Second, do you see any long-term risk for a customer? Does the xylene off gas quickly with no long term concerns? Remember, I don't know much about site finishes, so this is very educational, thank you.

Scott: As for moisture-cured urethane, I have only used it to finish a few small porches in Oregon, so the airspace wasn't as confined and a normal cartridge respirator was OK. The real issue with xylene is that it numbs your senses somewhat and you lose your sense of exposure if you inhale even a small amount. Having used MCU even a small amount I would say that I would choose not to use it at all before I would specify it on a job just because I dislike the vapors that much. I have little knowledge about the data for off gassing periods for MCU, so I cannot say what the threats are for a homeowner.

What do you think is the most important aspect of a finish being green? Is it low VOC's or durability/length of use or something else?

Scott: This is sort of a two-pronged answer because longevity is key for me, but also the ease of servicing a product is important. For example, factory finishes with aluminum oxide may be extremely durable, but later maintenance with a recoat just doesn't yield the same result as the original factory look. If you have ever tried to sand an aluminum oxide floor, the smell (even with dust collection and a mask) can be irritating to the eyes and lungs. In comparison hardwax oils, which are perceived as less durable than aluminum oxide, are extremely easy to service and age gracefully.

Ultimately, what we need to strive for in this industry if we are really being green is to provide customers with realistic expectations of each product scenario and deliver in accordance with what we promise. Sometimes customers see warranty numbers and truly expect perfect finish performance for the whole warranty period, which is unrealistic.

I agree completely that defining customers' expectations is the key to success.  They need to be able to make informed decisions.  Tell me, do you think any of these points are different between a remodel and new construction product? That is, should someone doing a remodel have different issues?

Scott: I think timing is a big difference between the type of job and that can have an interesting impact on how you present things as green.  

For example, in new construction you have a more relaxed work environment and more control, so timing can factor less in your choice of materials. On the other hand, I see a tendency in contractors to give up jobsite control in remodeling by selling with VOC. They'll tell a homeowner they can stay in the home while applying a final coat of low VOC finish.

Invariably those are the same homeowners who walk in during the final coat, open a door, letting in debris, etc…  That's why regardless of my finish system I always tell homeowners to leave overnight while I apply a final coat because I want total control of the job site and particularly the airflow.

By removing the issue of "stay in your home," it's not a factor in their choice of finishes.  I can present homeowners with pros and cons of all my preferred finishing systems and schedule accordingly.  

Thanks for that-let's take a break and next week talk about job-site green in general.

Elizabeth Baldwin has over 20 years of international wood sourcing experience. Very widely traveled, her résumé's "Special Skills" section includes "the ability to eat anything from raw horse to deep-fried scorpion." She serves as Metropolitan Hardwood Flooring's (metrofloors.com) ECO (Environmental Compliance Officer) and deals daily with the "green alphabet soup" of today's industry: FSC, CARB, LEED, and much more. She blogs for Hardwood Floors on all things green (and, as she says, " 'grey' and 'blue' and almost every color except 'black and white.' Nothing in this world is black and white, particularly not 'green issues.'")