The story starts out with my son, Brent Reichow, giving my wife and I a trip to South Africa and a safari expedition in the Okavango Delta of northern Botswana. I was so excited to see all the animals in their natural habitat that we could not experience here it in the United States. However, I was not prepared for the 22-hour flight to Johannesburg, South Africa, then waking up the next morning to board a plane by 8 a.m. to Moan, Botswana, for another flight, this time on a small bush plane to the airstrip for Xaranna Okavango Delta Camp. When we arrived at the camp we were greeted by the lodge manager Ammie Taljaard with a big welcome, along with a team of staff grabbing our gear and hauling it to the guest common area.
When I arrived to the common area, I saw it was merely a tent with exotic wood decking wrapping the exposed perimeter and a 7-inch white oak engineered wood floor supplied by Bosco Flooring and Design inside the tent area. Of course, as a wood floor installer/inspector, my attention was immediately drawn to the wood floor! I was surprised to find the wood floor was a couple years old and basically in perfect condition. There was no cupping, no end-lifting, no weather checking and no discoloration on the flooring material. So, for the next four days, between the safari expeditions, I was on a mission to find out why this wood floor was performing so well in the middle of the Delta. As you can see in the photograph, there are no walls, no windows—just drop-down curtains in case it rains.
So the question is: Why are we experiencing so many problems with our wood floors here in the U.S.? We always hear we need to acclimate our wood flooring to perform best to "normal living conditions," and let's try to define normal? Or the instructions state wood floors must be kept between 35% to 55% relative humidity. As you can see, here in the Delta, open air would be considered normal living conditions. What about the Palace of Versailles, built in the late 1600s with a beautiful parquet wood floor and no humidity control?
Here on safari, the wood floor was performing outside the standard of controlled living conditions, so why does it work there, yet we have problems here at home? Well, the biggest mis-interpretation today is that one statement called "normal." At Versailles, they had no means of HVAC control like we have today, but most likely it was cool with little variation in temperature or humidity. This would hold true in the common area of the lodge in the Delta, because the temperature and relative humidity are reasonably constant there, too.
Let's take a look at their building practices. For example, the palace took decades to complete and the lodge in the Delta took up to a year to complete. In both cases, the wood flooring had a chance to acclimate/condition to the environment it was going to be placed in, even though in both cases the relative humidity would exceed today's manufacturing standards. The first thing we must understand is wood does not change its MC content in a few days. It may take weeks or months depending on the MC starting point and the current relative humidity conditions. Therefore, in order to shorten the acclimation time, we need to purchase the flooring material closer to the MC for its intended use. For example, buying a European oak at 9% MC may take 3 to 4 months to acclimate to be installed in Denver. It would be better to buy the wood flooring at 6% moisture content for the Denver area. This is where we get confused in the selection process—often focusing on the look but not considering what the requirements are for proper MC and installation.
Out in the bush on the safari I did not have a moisture meter with me to determine the MC of that engineered floor in the common area (yes, even I didn't carry a moisture meter on safari!). However, with the conditions the way they were, I would've guessed the MC would've been between 10–11%. I was told by Ammie that the flooring was sourced from Africa, which would suggest the flooring was manufactured around 9–10%, which means very little acclimation/conditioning time before installation.
So, what's different here in the U.S.? It's simple "fast-track construction" practices with moisture levels all over the board, either too high or too low. We place wood flooring into environmental extremes but expect the flooring to succeed. In both cases of too high or too low humidity—outside of "intended use" conditions for wood flooring—we see wood floor failure. Unlike the Botswana delta, where the conditions do not fluctuate much, our floors placed in environmental extremes will perform accordingly.
So, the simple rule of thumb is this: If you flirt with extremes during your acclimation/conditioning period and installation, you flirt with failure. If you acclimate/condition material to the intended use for the conditions intended by the manufacturer, you should have little to no issues with the wood flooring.