Pet urine stains on a hardwood floor © Daniel FriedmanWood Floor Refinishing Advice
Safety recommendations for wood floor re-finishing projects

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Wood floor refinishing safety:

This article by Michael W. Litchfield offers safety suggestions for wood floor refinishing projects including advice about drum sander extension cords, avoiding volatile organic compounds in some floor finishing coatings, and watching out for lead and asbestos hazards during preparation for installing a new floor over an old one.

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Safety Recommendations for Re-Finishing Wood Floors

Scratched oak flooring © Daniel Friedman- Michael W. Litchfield

Refinishing floors is not inherently dangerous. Nonetheless, there are safety issues to consider.

But before beginning to grind away at a wood floor you might want to decide how aggressive the floor re-finishing project needs to be. Less is better in terms of time, cost, and safety.

[Click to enlarge any image]

Scratches may disappear with a bit of stain, light sanding, and re-finishing without aggressive drum-sanding. And a floor that has previously been sanded a time or two may be a bit thin to suffer that treatment again. Advice about these more gentle approaches is

But if you do need to sand down and re-finish a wood floor, check out these safety tips from Mike Litchfield.

Floor Re-Finishing Electrical Safety

Before renting a floor sander or edger, examine their electrical cords and plugs, rejecting any that are frayed, cut, cracked, or appear to have been sanded over.

Watch out: a drum sander used for floor re-finishing will typically come with its own long heavy-duty electrical cord. Do not try to extend the cord's reach using an under-sized extension cord: the risk is melted extension cord, electrical shock, even a fire. And do not cut off or modify the sander's electrical plug to try to fit into a different type of electrical outlet than the plug fits. User's manuals or labels on big floor sanders indicate the minimum cord specifications.

20-Amp electrical receptacle (C) Daniel Friedman The household circuit that will be used to power the floor sander must be adequately sized for the equipment:

110-volt sanders typically require 20-amp circuits. How do you know if the circuit you're using provides 20-Amps? Check the fuse or circuit breaker that powers the circuit.

You might also see a clue right on the electrical receptacle like the 20A receptacle shown at left - that T-slot indicates the receptacle was intended for a 20A circuit. .

220-volt drum sanders often require 30-amp circuits. In most cases, a drum sander's 30-amp plug will fit a home's 30-amp dryer receptacle.

An electrical tool that draws 15 Amps can be operated on a #14 gauge extension cord at lengths up to 50 feet. If you need a longer cord to get from your power source to the work area a 75 ft. or even 100 ft. #12-gauge extension cord can be used for a 15-Amp tool. If you don't have a heavy-duty extension cord, rent or buy one; lightweight household cords could overheat and start a fire. You won't be able to power a 30-Amp drum sander using a home extension cord.

Don't buy an extension cord that is much longer than you need: longer electrical cords create more electrical resistance and are more likely to overheat during heavy use.

Volatile Chemical Exposure during Wood Floor Refinishing

Finish manufacturers have reduced the volatility and strong odors of their products, but you should always limit your exposure to them by wearing an organic-vapor respirator, long sleeves, and gloves when sanding old finishes or applying new ones.

Even fumes from water-based polyurethane are unhealthful to breathe, so as soon as finishes are dry to the touch, open windows to let vapors disperse. And sleep elsewhere till they're completely dry.

Fire & Explosion Hazards during Wood Floor Refinishing

Sparks or open flames can ignite chemical fumes or dust. So before you start sanding or applying finish, turn off pilot lights for water heaters, ranges, and furnace.

Also tape light switches down so they can't generate a spark. Trash bags of moist sawdust or covered garbage cans full of oily rags can generate enough heat to combust spontaneously, so don't allow debris to collect on site. Empty sander bags often into a metal container safely away from the house and other combustibles.

See VOCs VOLATILE ORGANIC COMPOUNDS for a guide to common sources of indoor VOCs.

Lead Paint Hazards during Wood Floor Refinishing

Floors that were painted before 1978 may contain lead-based paints, so don't sand them till you've had the paint tested.

Lead paint hazards during a home renovation job include creating lead-containing dust by demolition or sanding. Keep in mind that if there is lead-based paint on building floors it is likely to be present on other surfaces such as door and window trim (a child hazard) and on painted cabinets, walls or other surfaces.
See REMODELING & LEAD HAZARDS - for details.

Asbestos Exposure Hazards during Wood Floor Refinishing

Asphalt asbestos flooring during home renovation (C) InspectApediaOld asphalt-asbestos or vinyl asbestos floors, including some sheet flooring installed up to about 1980 usually contains asbestos as both fibers and as a filler. In addition floor tiles or sheet flooring may have been adhered with an asbestos-containing mastic adhesive.

Asbestos exposure hazards from non-friable (hard) asbestos materials such as floor tiles or sheet flooring are low, possibly below the limits of detection in residential buildings provided the flooring is un-damaged and undisturbed.

Leaving such floors in place and installing flooring over them is the least hazardous approach and is recommended by the US EPA.

For approaches to leaving asbestos containing flooring in place

It would be smart to assume that asphalt or vinyl flooring installed up to 1978 (or even 1983 in some areas) contains asbestos.

Testing of floor samples may not be necessary if the floor is to be covered-over. Wash or damp-mop the floor surface before installing your rosin paper or other flooring underlayment for the new floor. Do not run grinders, sanders, steel wool pad buffers over asbestos-suspect floors. Details and photos used to identify asbestos-containing flooring are

Watch out: if asbestos-containing flooring is damaged, broken up or breaking up during your home renovation, professional remediation may be needed. To be safe, stop work in that case, and do not try to clean up dust that may contain asbestos by using an ordinary vacuum-cleaner such as the shop vac shown in our photograph above: you may actually increase the airborne asbestos level. If building plans or flooring condition mean it must be removed
see these articles:

To have a flooring sample tested for asbestos content

This article is adapted from Renovation 4th Edition [live link just below] by Michael Litchfield and used with permission. ©2014 & Michael Litchfield.


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