Bamboo: A Quality Hardwood Substitute, In Some Cases

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Woven into clothes, used to build shelters, or prepared for dinner, bamboo is a tool of survival anywhere it grows indigenously.

It seems natural that a plant that has been part of human life for so long is finding its place in the future as we become more environmentally responsible. It should be stated that this bamboo flooring is not designed to be used when building a runway at an airport, or even an airport lobby. It could even be made with irresponsible adhesives containing high amounts of formaldehyde. However, if you buy from a reputable dealer and place it in a room receiving medium to high foot traffic in a residence or medium to low foot traffic in an commercial building, it’s the right choice for the job. Here are some facts and tips to help you find the good stuff when investing in bamboo flooring.

How It’s Made

The most common type of bamboo used is from Southeast Asia. In Japan this species is named Moso bamboo. It is a very large plant that belongs to the grass family. This woody grass can reach heights of 70 to 90 feet. The time it takes to grow from a young shoot to a mature culm that is ready to harvest is about six years.

It is first cut down to strips, dried out, and then steam pressed together. This creates the flat plank shape. Depending on the desired color of the batch it is either left its natural color or carbonized. This process weakens the products overall strength because the bamboo is literally burned to achieve a darker color. The flooring slats are then treated with an adhesive to further bond them together. The last step is milling, where this product is given its groove and tooth, allowing the planks to link together at installation.

What Am I Up Against?

In many cases the adhesive used to secure the strips of bamboo together contains a high amount of Formaldehyde, which is a volatile organic compound (VOC) that is not good to be exposed to at any level. The formaldehyde is in the adhesive acts as a preservative, and is a less expensive option for the manufacturers.

China, the largest producer of bamboo products, including bamboo flooring, follows policies on manufacturing the pretty planks of bamboo that are not always consistent. This means that even though the formaldehyde levels in their adhesives are below the maximum allowance, that level was not set very low to begin with. The number of times the product changes hands from the time it’s created, to the moment it hits shelves in a home improvement store near you can be numerous. This makes it hard to track where that very load you are about to purchase came from, and the quality control levels that where followed.

Another issue is the strength and endurance of the boards themselves. During the planking process there is a stage where the different quality of bamboo flooring is separated and bundled in grades of quality. That doesn’t mean that the poor quality pieces aren’t sent to market, just that they don’t fetch the highest price. You may want to purchase bargain price bamboo flooring saving yourself a dollar or two a square foot. Be warned though, you might be getting a low quality product that will not last five years of washing and walking on it. A quality bamboo floor should be able to last thirty years.

How Green is Bamboo?

Bamboo flooring is enjoying a popularity boost as it rides the coattails of the green movement. One of its qualifications as a “green” product is based on the large grass’s ability to regenerate in about six years, compared to hardwoods that take anywhere from 50 to 200 years to grow back. The plant does not require fertilizers or pesticides, which can be harmful to the people who are exposed to them, as well as the wildlife and soil in the area. Another key point is that fuel emissions the ocean liners are producing are comparable to the amount of exhaust created by semi trucks carting hardwoods from other parts of the world.

It is so popular a crop however, that many farmlands and acres of wild forests are being replaced with bamboo stands. This alters the balance of diversity in land use. If the product is being constructed with adhesives containing large amounts of formaldehyde as mentioned previously in this article, it is a unhealthy for any land, water, workers, or the end consumer to be around.

How Do I Make Sure I’m Getting the Good Stuff?

Some say that it wears out much faster than hardwood, but the label on case says bamboo flooring exceeds the strength of its predecessor. The answer to this problem is to vote with your dollar. Support companies that do their duty to supply you with flooring from a source following responsible practices. The manufacturing practices and the level of quality in the adhesives used make all the difference. Companies like EcoTimber and Greenovate offer many options, including VOC free bamboo flooring in multiple colors and finishes.

In a store or on the web:

  • Don’t think twice to ask questions; if the sales representative you are working with can’t answer them, don’t be afraid to keep shopping.
  • Ask if they know what area of the world the bamboo was sourced from and if those workers are fairly treated.
  • Go with a option that offers at least a 30 year warranty; a quality bamboo floor should last that long at least when properly cared for.
  • Ask for a chemical test to ensure your selection does not contain formaldehyde.
  • Be honest about the location of the flooring. Talk with your sales representative about the high or low foot traffic of the designated installation area. Make sure that bamboo is the right product for the job.

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