Floor Covering Systems

Best Practice Committee Recommendation
Adopted by the MIAQC Board of Directors on September 11, 2003

Choosing the right floor covering system for a given application is a complex decision involving several factors; not just comfort, appearance and installation cost. Floor coverings provide a potential source of unhealthy pollutant exposure in indoor environments. Decisions regarding the selection, maintenance, and removal of floor coverings should be based on the general guiding principles for achieving a healthy and productive indoor environment embodied in the Maine Indoor Air Quality Council’s (MIAQC’s) General (Policy) Statement on Indoor Air Quality: maintaining a clean, dry, well ventilated, and pollutant and pest free building space. In particular, primary attention should be placed on source control (i.e., employing principles of pollution prevention and on the minimal use of toxic or irritating substances), while ensuring adequate ventilation.

Since pollutant exposure risks are associated with any floor covering or floor covering system (note: a floor covering system refers to all the materials and layers associated with a given floor covering installation), the Council recommends an approach that compares the risks and benefits of flooring options, rather than one that endorses or discourages any specific option.

Source control efforts should encompass:

  • Pollutants associated with any installation:
    • Solvents, glues, etc.
  • Pollutants directly emitted from the floor covering system:
    • Volatile organic compounds like formaldehyde
  • Pollutants collected on the surface of the floor covering:
    • Dust, dander, etc.
  • Pollutants associated with water damage:
    • Mold and other microbiological contaminants
  • Pollutants associated with cleaning and maintenance practices:
    • Floor strippers, burnishing, finishes, etc.
  • Pollutants associated with removal:
    • Asbestos
  • Pollutants associated with unintended uses of the building space and the ability of building management to control these unintended uses:
    • Converting unventilated storage closets into small offices

The Council recommends that the decision making process be guided by the following:

1) Is the floor covering choice appropriate for the intended use of the building space?

2) Have you considered the health impact of your floor covering choice as it affects your business, productivity and/or the population it serves? (consideration of special needs for children; consideration of individuals with compromised health or allergic sensitivities; consideration of increased absenteeism or loss of productivity)

3) Did you consider the total life cycle cost implications (preparation, purchase, installation, maintenance, cleaning, frequency of replacement, appearance, disposal, environmental impact, energy use, performance, etc.) of the selected option to include lost time (absences/illnesses)?

4) Can you afford to (and will you be able to) follow the manufacturer’s specifications including installation, care and maintenance?

Since there are a wide variety of different floor covering options and varying levels of quality within each option, arriving at a decision that is right for you and the health of your building occupants will be a real challenge. Combining these options with a plethora of different spaces and building uses can become complicated very quickly. A decision matrix similar to the following could be very helpful.

Life Cycle Cost Table

Type of Application: _______________________________________

Floor Covering Prepar-ation Purch-ase Installa-tion Equip-ment Train-ing Mainten-ance Clean-ing Dispos-al Replace-ment Frequency Comments
Engineered wood
Solid wood

Using the Table: The type of application refers to the space and its function. There are a number of different types and levels of quality within the broad categories listed under floor coverings above so you might want to add them to your list before you fill-in the rest of the matrix. The life cycle cost of the carpet includes manufacturing (environmental impact), preparation, purchase, installation (also, an environmental impact), equipment, training, maintenance, cleaning, frequency of replacement, recycling, and/or disposal. The comments column is reserved for scoring, concerns or other intangibles worthy of consideration, most notably potential health impacts.



The selected floor covering system must be appropriate for the intended use of the space. For example, vinyl or other “hard” surface would be appropriate for wet/dirty spaces such as kitchens, restrooms/bathrooms, break rooms, industrial shops, science labs, art rooms, etc. and carpet or other “soft” surface would be appropriate where you know food products are restricted and noise control is desired such as libraries, elementary school classrooms, offices, etc. Purchases should be based on the quality of materials and life cycle cost not lower first cost and availability. The life cycle cost should consider environmental and productivity impacts associated with the product and its installation.


Before you install the selected product or material, you must prepare the existing surface to accept the product or material. This may involve removing subflooring, adhesives and/or any of the floor covering materials noted above. If the vinyl composition tile and/or linoleum contain asbestos or you find the same under “newer” carpet or tile, you will need to secure and restrict access to the impacted area. Then, hire a licensed asbestos abatement contractor to remove the product or material. If the subflooring or carpet is wet, you will likely encounter mold. Though there are no federal standards regarding mold exposure or remediation, you are strongly encouraged to follow the New York City guidelines and/or the EPA’s Mold Remediation in Schools and Commercial Buildings booklet to remove and dispose of the product or material. Given the extent of the damage and/or exposure risk, you should hire a qualified mold remediation contractor. If there is an underlying moisture problem, the situation should be corrected and/or impervious vapor barrier established before installing the new floor covering system. If you are removing paint, you should check for lead content and take appropriate actions, especially for spaces occupied by small children. In any and all cases, you should advise all building occupants regarding the proposed work, ensure workers wear appropriate personal protective equipment (goggles, respirator or dust mask as appropriate, gloves, footwear and other clothing appropriate for the task), and control dust and debris (for example, do not allow airborne particulates to enter other parts of the building and discard materials promptly). If you have any questions, the EPA, HUD and Maine DEP have guidelines (go to their web sites) on how to do lead removals safely.


The installation of the floor covering system may involve the use of adhesives and other chemicals that may contain toxic or irritating substances. Any potentially hazardous product or material should have a Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) available. The MSDS will clearly identify the product; its hazardous “ingredient(s)”; physical characteristics; fire, explosion and health hazard potential; reactivity concerns; spill or leak procedures; protection and precaution information; and other regulatory concerns. Review this information very carefully and take appropriate actions to ensure a safe and healthy indoor environment. In most cases, additional ventilation is strongly encouraged to dissipate volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and other pollutants and mitigate the risk to health and safety of building occupants. Additionally, follow the manufacturer’s specifications to secure warranty/guarantee arrangement. It may be helpful, as well as healthful, to have the carpet unrolled and aired out elsewhere prior to on-site delivery and subsequent installation.

Maintenance and Cleaning:

Every floor covering system should have a manufacturer’s recommended maintenance and cleaning plan. Before you purchase and install the selected floor covering system, you should have the resources (staff, time, materials, equipment and dollars) to properly care for the floor covering system. You should develop a schedule to execute the plan that has the least impact on building occupants. The maintenance and cleaning methods should minimize the amount of pollutant exposure (for example, dust from vacuuming and dry mopping; water extraction of carpets; and burnishing and waxing tiled surfaces) to both the workers and building occupants. In addition, this work should be done when occupancies are at their lowest (preferably vacant) and potential mold contamination can be easily controlled. Furthermore, there should be policies in place that assure wet building materials are dried promptly (within 24-48 hours of sustaining water damage) or removed.

Changes in Use:

When selecting the floor covering system that is right for you, always consider the potential long term uses of the space. Today’s playroom may be tomorrow’s third bedroom. Today’s third grade classroom could be tomorrow’s art room. And, today’s storage closet could be tomorrow’s office. You need to be concerned because designers look at these spaces very differently and you are making a 20-plus year investment when you buy quality floor covering systems and do not want to redo it in the near term. But, most importantly, you want to provide that clean, dry, well ventilated, pest and pollution free environment for all building occupants and a change in use could compromise the effectiveness of same.


Why is the selection of the right floor covering system so important? Floor covering systems constitute a large volume/mass of building material and, therefore, represent a significant potential source of pollutants. Due to gravity, dust and other contaminants generated in the course of building operations tend to settle to the floor. Some systems (i.e., tile) require various chemicals for proper cleaning and maintenance. Many of these chemicals are irritants which can aggravate asthma and cause discomfort in sensitive populations. In addition, floor covering systems can absorb moisture from spills, leaks, condensation, and capillary action. Obtaining the right material for the application will significantly improve the livability of the space and aid you in maintaining a clean, dry, well-ventilated, and pollution and pest free indoor environment.


  1. Maryland State Department of Education Technical Bulletin, Building Ecology & School Design, November 1995.
  2. New York City Department of Health & Mental Hygiene, Bureau of Environmental & Occupational Disease Epidemiology,Guidelines on Assessment and Remediation of Fungi in Indoor Environments, (April 2000) January 2002.
  3. United States Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Air and Radiation, Indoor Environments Division, Mold Remediation in Schools and Commercial Buildings, March 2001 (EPA 402-K-01-001).
  4. Maine Indoor Air Quality Council, Policy Statement: General Statement on Indoor Air Quality, February 6, 2003