The winter months present heightened concern for homeowners with hardwood floors. Without proper care, slush, snow and salt can dull the varnished surface. Over time, this damage – along with exposure to shifting moisture levels – can lead to warping and gapping. While it’s impossible to avoid bringing some outside debris into your home, preventative care like using mats will help keep your wood floors in excellent condition.

Shrinking and Gapping

Even expertly installed hardwood floors tend to dry out and subtly shrink during the winter months. When this shrinking and shifting occurs, gaps between the boards can appear over time. This happens due to the wood’s response to moisture in the air or humidity. Dry winter air has a low moisture content, or low relative humidity (RH), causing wood to lose moisture. When wood loses moisture to the air, it shrinks. These changes in the wood can also increase squeaky areas of your floor.

Maintain the Proper Moisture Content in the Air

To combat winter-related shrinking and gapping, preventative measures must be taken. Using a humidifier is one way to reduce moisture loss from your flooring to the dry air of your home. Talk to a hardwood flooring professional to determine what the ideal RH level should be for your house depending on your climate. Humidifiers are typically only necessary if you live an area that has very cold, harsh winters, such as in the Midwestern or Northeastern U.S. Humidifiers can be stand-alone units, or be attached to a central air furnace, and both work by adding up to roughly six pints of water to the air per hour.

Avoid Debris with Floor Mats

Wood is considered a hygroscopic material because not only does is take in moisture, but it also retains it, meaning wood will expand when it comes in contact with water. Keeping the surface of your hardwood floor clean and dry will help it maintain its original size and prevent warping. Decorative floor mats help absorb water, snow and slush from pooling on your floor near doors. Better yet, plastic or rubber mats placed underneath woven rugs will further ensure that your floors stay dry. Using mats will also protect your floor’s varnished surface from scratches and cuts caused by abrasive winter materials, such as road salt and sand.

Follow Flooring Recommendations and Contact a Professional

The winter months present heightened risk of developing warped wood, gaps and other damage to your beautiful hardwood floors. Proper care will make a difference in the durability of your wood. To maintain your floors, take preventative measures, such as using rugs to limit the amount of winter debris that are tracked indoors, and use a humidifier to add moisture content to your air if necessary.

If you find your floors are showing signs of gapping or other damage, consult a hardwood flooring professional to help you repair and strengthen your floors.