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Hardwood Floor Articles:

Why Do My Floors Have Gaps in Winter?

During January and February every year, it’s very common for concerned homeowners to call their local wood flooring specialist with this very question, this year more so this than before. So what do the gaps in your floor have to do with this time of year? And what can you do about it?

Hardwood floor gaps
Gapping during winter in an old Douglas Fir floor

First of all, we should clarify that if you have an older wood floor, say 50-100 years old, your floor may have permanent gaps throughout, and those gaps are likely filled with years of dirt and debris. However, this information still applies to your older floors since, although they have permanent gaps, these gaps are likely to get more prominent during the winter months.

When wood loses moisture it contracts and shrinks... and you get gaps

The answer is simple, wood contracts when it loses moisture. In other words, when the humidity in your house drops, the air starts sucking moisture from the wood until they reach equilibrium (Equilibrium Moisture Content). The floor acclimates to the environment it is in. When the wood drys out, it shrinks. When it shrinks, you get gaps in your floors.

In Fargo, North Dakota, the humidity in the average house fluctuates between 38-55%. However, when we get cold snaps and our heating systems start working extra hard, the humidity starts to drop below “normal living conditions.” January and February are especially cold, and homes run their heating systems over time.

Wood floor gaps
Gapping in an old Maple floor from low humidity

So what’s the solution to minimizing gaps? Humidity!

So what’s the solution? Humidity! You wonder why you have been getting shocked 5 times a day and been waking up with a dry mouth. It’s too dry in your house! Keeping humidity between 38-55% is not just good for your wood floors. It’s also good for your trim work, cabinetry, wood furniture, and, of course, your comfort.

It’s time to get a humidifier! Unfortunately, the $35 Walmart special isn’t going to cut it. You can either invest in 1 or 2 multi-room humidifiers, but they can be noisy and need to be maintained by constantly adding water. The best solution is to attach a humidifying system to your HVAC system. These will run you about $600 installed and are worth every penny. You just set the humidity to what you want, and the system takes care of the rest. However, there is a catch.

Your 3 options:

If you have older or inefficient windows, you may find that keeping your humidity at “normal living conditions” during cold snaps creates a lot of condensation on your windows. If this is the case, you have three options.

Here they are from least expensive to most expensive:

  1. Set the humidity to the highest level the windows will allow, and you will have to live with some seasonal gaps in your floor.
  2. Plastic your windows. This will not only fix your condensation problem, but it will cut down on your heating bill.
  3. Get new windows.

There is one more solution for those that don’t yet have hardwood but are planning on having it installed in the future...

  1. Choose engineered hardwood flooring. Engineered wood flooring is designed to handle much higher moisture swings due to the way it is manufactured.

Just make sure you buy a high-quality engineered product, such as Owens Plank, RealWood Floors, or Ashawa Bay Hardwood Floors (5/8″ thick with a wear layer of at least 4mm), or you might find yourself with worse problems than seasonal gapping!

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