Saturday, August 7, 2010

Of Bug Bites and Flooring - Materials and Choices - sort of...

I'm dog sitting for a friend this week at their home.  Two lovable labs who want nothing more than to eat, go for 'walkies'...and shed. I can't say that I blame them on the latter.  It's hot during the summer in Reno. I can think of few things more miserable than having to endure the heat of the high desert with a fur coat on, so I sympathize.

Unfortunately, while I slept,  I was also apparently sharing the house with some other vicious and hungry creepy crawlies who decided my back was the local midnight buffet line.  Needless to say, I awoke to some very angry, red welts and swollen nymph nodes that I can only surmise are hives.  I'm guessing of course.  I don't have eyes in the back of my head to really get a good look - and having not experienced the joy of hives before,  this is a new experience for me. I will say this: I have never had such a severe reaction to a bug bite, which had me a bit concerned. It also got me quickly scanning the Internet for possible culprits and if they were life threatening.  After surmising that I wasn't in need of immediate medical attention, I set upon researching how best to make sure I wasn't on the menu for any subsequent entomological dinner plans.  Along with suggestions of completely stripping the bed linens and setting the wash cycle to 'nuke',  the articles also suggested clearing out any possible nesting places and doing a thorough cleaning to suck the little buggers up.

Now let me explain here. If Cleanliness is Next to Godliness, I wouldn't go as far as to say my friends do the opposite and spend every night dancing with the devil, but they certainly have dinner with him on occasion.  The dog fur and detritus on the floor could use some cleaning up, and attempts at eradicating it not only turned up a healthy dose of moths, but several radioactive sized spiders as well ( ALL were presumed guilty before proven innocent of the late night raid, and I handed out swift judgement and immediate death sentences.) My cleaning blitzkrieg even turned up a small scorpion!  YIKES!!!  I think my discomfort would have been infinitely more painful if he was the culprit, but he was executed anyway. Stay outside where you belong dammit. Anything as virulent looking as yourself enters my domain, you're just asking for slaughter.

Anyway, vacuuming up the place sounds easy enough, but Murphy's Law also reared its ugly head along with the critters, so it's been a start again, stop again scenario.  My friends own two large homes, and between the two of them, they also own several vacuum cleaners. Every single one of them - I kid you not- guaranteed to stop working within 10 minutes.   I think it's actually a selling point for them.

SALESPERSON:  Hello Madam, how may I help you today?

FRIEND: I need a new vacuum cleaner, but I really hate doing it.  Can you show me a vacuum that will crap out within 10 minutes so I have a legitimate excuse not to do it?

SALESPERSON:  Why yes Madam.  This model here, TheTotallyWorthless3000, has all sorts of swoopy features that are all guaranteed to stop working upon even the slightest salacious glance at, or the mere thought of using them.

FRIEND:  That's great. I also have two dogs who shed profusely and I can't bear to part with it. What model do you suggest?

SALESPERSON: This one madam is an excellent choice.  With absolutely no suction whatsoever, it will refuse to pick up a single hair and will merely billow it around until it unites into large, gloriously, tumbleweed-like formations...

...and so it goes.  Vacuum for 10 minutes, let the poor dear catch it's breath for an hour, vacuum for 10 minutes...let it rest again...

The amazing thing is, I don't usually buy expensive vacuum cleaners myself, and yet I still manage to find ones so capable, so studly in their suction capacity, that I've been known to vacuum up copious twigs, the charred remains of burnt offerings from the wood stove, and even large pine cone fragments. I'll bet it would easily suck up a small animal if given the opportunity.  My vacuum is so voracious, it regularly tries to inhale entire area rugs.

But anyway, the point I'm making is that this little episode got me thinking about the choices one has for flooring materials, and how those choices can either make for an easy care life style - or a constant battle with the elements such as the one I've just described.

Unfortunately, there is no such thing as perfection when it comes to most building and finishing materials, and that includes flooring. Any given material will do some things very, very well, and some things not so well.  The key is in choosing materials whose  imperfections are ones you can live with. Like finding a mate, there is no such thing as finding a perfect product, just finding a product that is perfect for you.

  As I've stated earlier, I live in mountain country.  The copious amounts of crud available to be readily traipsed into the house is astounding.  Pine needles, sap, snow, mud, pollen, twigs and 'nature' of every variety abounds here.  The bottom of my hiking boots regularly attests that, yes indeed, bears really DO in fact sh*t in the woods...along with a great many other creatures.  To say that I live in a 'dirt intensive' environment would be an understatement.

Given that, I'll cop right here, I'm not a big fan of wall to wall carpet.  Too much of a crud collector for my tastes. They say an average carpet is dirtier than a city street.  Believe it son. In fact, I'd say most city streets are cleaner.  They usually get a good steam clean and scour at least once a week, which is a lot more than can be said for your carpet. (Yeah, that's the  reason you keep getting those parking tickets because you left your car parked on the street on the appointed days)

But even if you don't live in a rural area, cleaning carpets after pets and kids can be equally as trying, if not more so. (My elderly cat, before she finally went to that big kitty litter box in the sky, had an unerring radar for cleaned carpets. It was her cue to ceremoniously christen it with a particularly large hairball - or barf up her dinner.)  You've got kids and pets?... and you still want wall to wall carpet?  Masochist.

Along with the filth attractant, carpets can also be the cause of other issues, including health ones.  Carpets can off-gas irritants and/or be an open invitation to other malevolent critters, such as fleas and dust well as whatever creature decided to have its way with me the other night.  If you're hyper sensitive to these issues or have allergies, seriously consider other flooring options.

If you really must do wall to wall, this site has some great 'quickee' information on what to look for:

 But let us explore some of your flooring options:

CARPET: Carpeting today comes in all price points, materials, quality, colors and textures.  So often carpeting is used merely because it is the cheapest flooring option. Cheap ain't always better though. The least expensive carpets tend to be made of Olefin, a petroleum based product that is essentially recycled plastic soda bottles. Now, I'm all for recycling, but this really isn't the best use for it in my opinion.  Like a cheap acrylic sweater, that carpet will look worn and tired within a few years with normal use.  Not a particularly good investment, especially if you have an eye towards green design and recycling.  It's a safe bet it will end up in a landfill within a decade anyway.  Keep that in mind when you're making selections.  We all want to save the planet, but part of green design is choosing materials that will last a good, long time for the money invested. Other choices are Nylons and Polyesters, and many blends thereof. Wool carpets are the most expensive as a rule, and they're so durable, they'll probably outlast you.

There are many other choices for flooring however, and like carpet, they come in a variety of price points.  Also as noted above, they'll do some things well, and some things not so well.

Tumbled Travertine

TILE: Not only is tile usually a more expensive material than carpet, but it costs more to install unless you do it yourself.  (and by the way, installing it yourself isn't rocket science. It's just time consuming.) The more involved the pattern, the more the expense.  You can buy anything from inexpensive saltillo for around a dollar per square foot to little decorative 4 x 4's that cost $100 or more each.  Mosaics,  glass tile, hand painted, metal and natural stone; the choices are endless, and the opportunity for creativity equally so.  A highly durable product, short of dropping an anvil on it, most of it can take quite a bit of abuse. That's the good news. 

The bad news:  While ceramic tile is stain impervious, the grout in between isn't, (that goes double for natural stone) - and I don't care how much sealer you put on it.  If it gets traffic, it's going to get dirty. For the grout issue, avoid light colored grouts.  Go as dark as you can stand, and then seal the heck out of it. Get anything that stains easily, like red wine, cleaned up immediately, or live with Barney purple grout. Natural stone imparts the beauty of antiquity to it, but if you're anal about dirt and staining, choose something else that's non porous and manufactured. If you're like me and you're not that anal, hey, if it's good enough to have lasted on the floors of the ancient Romans, it's good enough for me.  Tiles of glass, metal, high gloss ceramic and polished stone are great for decorative elements such as backsplashes, but unless you relish the ease of slip and fall hip fractures - and lawsuits soon to follow - avoid them on the floors, especially in areas that see some water.

Saltillo tiles

Tile can also be very fatiguing on your legs and back if you're standing on them for long periods of time. Unless you are putting those rubber restaurant mats down (and how ugly are those?) it's a point to take into consideration in any room you spend a lot of time standing in- like the kitchen.  And one more caveat.  If you've got a case of the 'dropsies' (meaning you're accident prone when it comes to dishware) realize that anything short of cast iron that hits the floor loses. You won't have a single dish or glass left standing by the end of the year. 

Another consideration if you're thinking about tile flooring is under tile heating elements.  While tile floors can feel cool and refreshing in summer months, in cold climates, stepping on them with bare feet can feel like you're walking on a block of ice. Add that into the costs of a tile floor too, unless you plan to perpetually wear slippers.

stained concrete

STAINED CONCRETE: I relatively new 'finished' flooring material, stained concrete has gained a lot of popularity in recent years, especially here on the west coast.  From the floors of your local Whole Foods, to residential applications, stained concrete is an inexpensive flooring option, especially if you already have a poured concrete subfloor.  There are a variety of stain colors to choose from, (or it can be acid washed) which any relatively dexterous homeowner can apply, and it can be highly polished, waxed or left au naturel.  While it's an easy care, no muss, no fuss application, concrete can- and does have a tendency to crack. Anything from hairline fissures to something that looks closer to a ravine.  Understandably, it's too casual to be every one's cup of tea, design wise.

I myself am a no muss, no fuss type of gal, so my future dream home has a stained concrete floor - preferably with a big ol' drain right smack in the middle of it. Yeah, I wanna be able to just hose the whole place down!

 ...and I'm only partially kidding...

Hickory hardwood flooring

WOOD FLOORS: There are few things that rival the sheer beauty of a wood floor. There are few things that rival the time necessary for the upkeep of a wood floor either.  Don't get me wrong, I love them. I wouldn't be ripping it out if it was in a house I owned.  Just know what you're getting into if you want them to remain looking lovely.

Wood floors take a much more limited amount of abuse. Dogs with long nails dashing through the house or dragging heavy furniture across it?... yes it will dent and scratch.  Some woods more than others. The darker the wood stain, the more noticeable the damage. It may be a dead tree, but it's still alive. It still breaths, it still will react to humidity and sun exposure, it can dry out, warp, expand and contract.You can't take a wet mop to it to clean it without destroying the finish. You can't leave dirt and crud to build up on them without doing same.  It won't tolerate much standing water, and don't even get me started on the aromatic effects that can ensue from a males' repeated lack of aim whilst...ahem...relieving his inner tensions, so think twice about putting it in a bathroom.   Eeewww. (The same goes for carpet in a bathroom...double eeewww).

That being said, if the flooring is solid wood, even the most abused vintage floor can be sanded down and brought back to its former glory.  If you're planning on a veneered engineered wood floor, realize you probably won't have that option. The veneers are rather thin, and only a pro could manage maybe one sanding without going clean through to the particle board underneath.  That's something to consider when you are weighing costs versus value. A solid wood floor costs more, but it can conceivably last for the lifespan of the house.

Laminate flooring

LAMINATE FLOORING:  One could make the argument that this material is a wood floors' bastard cousin. I will say the manufacturers of this product are making it more and more believable as the real deal every year.  It is usually installed as a 'floating floor', meaning it is not nailed or glued down. Trim moldings around the edges are used to keep it in place.  More tolerant of wet mopping than a wood floor, it's also harder to scratch and gouge. Once you have, however, it can't be repaired short of replacing the offending plank.  Like a laminate countertop, once you ding it, dent it, scratch it, burn it, trash it...that's it. It's a done deal.  Past that, it's a relatively easy care product.

Value? ....mmmm, well let's just say this. When you see the adds in the paper for  homes for sale, they usually tout as a plus 'genuine hardwood floors'. I've never, not once, seen an add that says 'genuine laminate floors'.  'nuff said.

Cork flooring

CORK:  A product that used to be popular many moons ago, it is now gaining in popularity once again.  It's a wonderful product that has been greatly overlooked.  Cork now comes in a variety of patterns, colors and sheen.  It's a sustainable resource that is easy on the legs, durable and easy to clean, which makes it a great choice for kitchens.  It can dent and ding however, (especially if you're dropping that cast iron pot on it) but most dents will expand back a certain percentage over time.

Marmoleum by Forbo

LINOLEUM AND VINYL. They're not the same thing.  Linoleum is a floor covering made of natural materials - linseed oil, cork, jute, resins, and natural pigments, which give it color. It's a much longer lasting product, with the color going all the way through the material. For the really boring stuff, think the flooring squares in a school or office building hallway. For more fun, see the Marmoleum photo above. Although more creative patterns exist for residential purposes, it's expense makes it much overlooked in favor of vinyl flooring.

Vinyl flooring. My landlord put this in my kitchen.  White? On the floor? Are you kidding me??? It doesn't matter how much you mop, it always looks filthy.

Vinyl flooring is made with synthetic materials (polyvinyl chloride and various types of plasticizers) and it is the stuff you usually see in a kitchens even though people mistakenly call it linoleum. Reasonably priced and sold most often as sheet goods, the color and pattern is only stamped on the surface. Once you penetrate that, it's a white field underneath. Relatively easy care and easy to clean, although it can also be somewhat easily damaged.  Vinyl flooring also looks...well, how should I say it?...ummm, eerrrr...'cheap'...because it is.  It certainly isn't something most of us would want in our living rooms.  It can be punctured and scratched, and sometimes the glue used to adhere it to the subfloor dries out and it will start to roll up. Except when you WANT it to come up, in which case it will refuse to budge without a huge scraper...or a flame thrower.  Also keep in mind when you're removing this stuff, that if it was put down before the 1980's, it probably has asbestos in it, and you should proceed with caution when removing it.

There are certainly more product out there that is used for flooring, and I could go on and on for days in depth on each of the products I have mentioned, but I'll bore you with those details another day. I'm happy to answer any questions if you would like to know more.

But for now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go take some more antihistamine for that bug bite...

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