Contractors apply stain to a hardwood floor. (Photo courtesy Dura Seal.)

The state of California has often led the way for setting environmental standards worldwide. As the world’s fifth largest economy, California established itself as a world leader when it formed the Climate Action Team and the Climate Action Initiative in 2005 to research and implement policies and reduce greenhouse gas emissions throughout the state. The program is far-reaching, and has established target dates through 2050, which signifies the state’s commitment to providing long-term solutions to current environmental concerns.

From its original roots in 1967, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) was established as a separate department of the California Environmental Protection Agency to monitor air quality within the state. Today, CARB continues to be tasked with gathering air quality data, ensuring the quality of the data gathered, designing and implementing models for air quality improvement, and setting ambient air quality standards.

As a result of their research, CARB has established stringent regulations regarding volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions, which impact many products used in the wood flooring industry. CARB is a first step toward reducing the level of potential exposure.

Stains, sealers and finishes are not the only products affected by CARB and VOC compliance, though. Engineered wood products are of special concern because of the adhesives used in the core construction process and formaldehyde emissions. These are subject to the same regulations and are changing constantly.

During the National Wood Flooring Association’s recent convention in Long Beach, Calif., a panel of experts presented a program on CARB and VOC compliance. The group demonstrated a startling fact: many common products found in a typical installation contractor’s vehicle could result in severe fines.

Their example listed the following products: 6 quarts of stain (VOC 550 g/L); 2 gallons of stain (VOC 550 g/L); 10 gallons of sealer (VOC 550 g/L); 10 gallons of OMU (oil modified urethane) poly (VOC 525 g/L); and 5-10 gallons of waterborne (VOC <350 g/L).

What’s in your van? With VOC regulations becoming more stringent from state to state, a simple pail of sealer or stain could prove to be costly. Stay informed. (Photo courtesy Dura Seal.)

For a contractor working in New Jersey, potential fines for noncompliant products could add up as follows:

• 6 quarts of stain -- No fine since this falls under the quart exemption ruling
• 2 gallons of stain -- $1,200 fine for being over the 250 VOC limit
• 10 gallons of sealer -- $10,000 for being over the 200 VOC limit
• 10 gallons of OMU poly --$6,000 for being over the 350 VOC limit
• 5-10 gallons of waterborne --No fine since all waterborne is under the 350 VOC limit

In this one example, this typical contractor in New Jersey could be facing fines of up to $17,200 for having products in his vehicle that are not VOC compliant. However, the fines are not limited to just the contractor. The distributor selling the product could be fined $4,000 for incorrect documentation, as well as an additional $17,200 (the same as the contractor’s fine) if the products in question are documented incorrectly. The manufacturer making the product is equally liable as well, and can be fined in exactly the same fashion and amount as the distributor -- $4,000 for incorrect documentation, and $17,200 for incorrectly documented products. So, in this one example, combined fines can reach $59,600.

Program panelist John Mayers, a business unit director with Dura Seal in Cedar Hill, Texas, indicates that most manufacturers are being forced at considerable expense to bring their products into compliance with these regulations. Manufacturers generally are working to meet the most stringent standards so the expense of product development will not need to take place again in a few years when more areas adopt programs similar to CARB.

In addition to the severe fines that can be incurred, Mayers also points out federal funding for schools and other public programs is lost when states do not comply with these regulations. Thus, the manufacturer has little choice but to make the financial commitment to bring its products into compliance. He further indicates these compliance expenses are impacting new product development and improvements, but he also concedes that California leads the market reform due to its smog issues, and the rest of the country will follow its lead.

Also, products must be in compliance for the area in which they are used, not for the area in which they are sold. As an example, in California, there are 27 different air districts and each district has different regulations. In some cases, the products you buy in one county cannot be used in the adjacent county, so it is the contractor’s responsibility to know what the requirements are in the area where the products will be used.

There is also a concern throughout the industry about products that have been manufactured prior to these new regulations. Generally speaking, manufacturers will have approximately 18 months from the regulation implementation dates to move their products, and contractors will be able to use them within this same time period.

Although many areas have not yet established VOC compliance legislation, implementation dates have been established through 2012 for many areas. A complete list of regulatory dates is available on the NWFA’s web site

Items affected by CARB and VOC regulations are far-reaching for the wood flooring industry. They can include, but are not limited to, stains, sealers, finishes, paint and adhesives. In general, CARB regulations are the most restrictive in the United States, and many manufacturers are altering their products to meet them. In other areas of the country, such as the Northeast, the Ozone Transport Commission (OTC) governs the regulations. The states subject to these regulations include Ohio, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine, parts of Virginia, and Washington, D.C.

Illinois and Rhode Island will implement OTC standards beginning next month, while Indiana will follow suit in 2010. Generally speaking, these regulations reduce the overall VOC emissions from products in an effort to reduce both environmental impact and human exposure.

As an example, substances classified as varnishes, which includes both oil-modified and water-based finishes, currently have a national VOC limit set at 450 grams per liter. States using the OTC standard place more stringent standards, establishing a ratio of 350 grams per liter; while CARB standards are even more stringent at 275 grams per liter. Other products used in wood flooring, such as conversion varnishes, tongue oil, stain, sealer and lacquer, have different regulations and different compliance ratios, so it is important to understand the laws governing the products you use.

The responsibility for compliance generally lands in the lap of the product manufacturer. They are required by law to manufacture their products to meet regulations and must clearly label their products to include required compliance information on the container. It is important to note, however, that while the bulk of the responsibility falls upon the manufacturer, ignorance of the regulations will not excuse a contractor from fines and repercussions, which can be severe.