Summer is a good time for many education institutions to install or replace flooring materials. Facilities are more likely to be empty, or lightly used, so workers can carry out their tasks with minimal conflicts. In addition, several weeks of sparsely filled buildings provide enough time for schools to let the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and odors emitted from new flooring to dissipate and not worsen indoor air quality.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says flooring materials—carpets, carpet padding, floor tiles—as well as sealants and adhesives used to install the flooring, may “off-gas” potentially hazardous chemicals into learning spaces. Exposure to these substances may threaten the health of students and staff.
So schools and universities should be vigilant about minimizing exposure to VOCs by selecting low-VOC products and by making sure they air out facilities sufficiently after flooring has been installed.
“It is important to select products whose emissions are low and the least hazardous or offensive,” the EPA’s Tools for Schools program states.
But selecting low VOC-emitting materials is not enough to ward off contamination from flooring. Facility managers should make sure that the installation schedule includes enough time to air out the spaces where carpets or floors have been laid.
“VOC emissions are generally highest immediately after a new product is installed or a finish is applied, but emissions may continue for days, weeks, or months,” says the U.S. Department of Energy’s Best Practices Manual for High Performance Schools.
The EPA recommends airing out spaces where carpet or resilient flooring has been installed for a minimum of 72 hours. Carpet installation should take place only when the facility is not in use, except for a small installation where the space can be exhausted directly to the outdoors.
If a school facility does not have the time and space to sufficiently air out a carpet, facility managers might consider asking the supplier to unroll and air out carpet in a clean, dry warehouse before bringing it into a building for installation.
The Best Practices manual, noting that emission rates are affected by ventilation conditions, indoor temperature and humidity says schools should consider even lengthier airing-out periods.
“The length of the required venting period depends on the amount of surface covered, as well as the volatility and toxicity of the finish,” the manual states.
The manual recommends that prior to completion of a school construction project, it should be “flushed out with 100 percent outside air for about 15 calendar days, or as long as possible, to remove any remaining odor and VOCs.”
VOCs may contaminate not only the air in a school facility, but chemicals and odors emitted from flooring may contaminate other materials in a school. The Best Practices Manual urges schools should take steps during facility upgrades to protect fleecy and absorbent surfaces, such as carpets, wall coverings, window coverings, and ceiling tiles, from VOC emission.
“Even better,” the manual recommends, “construction work should be sequenced so that soft and/or porous materials are installed after VOC-emitting materials, finishes, or sealants have had a chance to ‘off-gas.’ Otherwise, emitted chemicals will be absorbed by porous surfaces, increasing the time required to clear the chemicals from the building.”
After flooring material has been installed, schools still should be on guard against introducing VOCs or other contaminants into a learning space. That means supplies chosen to clean and maintain floor surfaces should have minimal VOC emissions.
Mike Kennedy is the staff writer for American School & University.