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Cold Hardwood Floors? Start Here! (Causes and Fixes)

Ah, hardwood floors. They’re beautiful, they’re timeless, and they can add real value to your home. And while they may be nice and cool in the summer, they’re often downright cold in the winter.

If cold hardwoods have you feeling blue, read on to find some possible causes and solutions. And don’t worry, I’m not going to recommend that you rip up your floors and install radiant heating or an electric heating pad underneath. As the title says, we’re only interested in practical solutions here, many of which you can do yourself.

Will Hardwood Floors Make Your House Feel Cold?

No, hardwood floors will not make your house feel cold. If your house or your floors are cold, there is another underlying reason that needs to be addressed. This is typically due to poor insulation, drafts or a few other reasons.

In this article, we will explore some common causes of cold hardwood floors and practical ways to fix them:

Cold Hardwood Floor

 

What Makes Wood Floors Feel So Cold?

The first step in fixing cold hardwood floors is to determine what’s causing them to be cold in the first place. Let’s start with a few of the most common reasons for cold floors. Keep in mind that you be facing one or more of these, so you may have to attack this problem from multiple angles. I’d recommend starting with the easy repairs first to see if those help warm up the floors.

Poor Insulation

This probably goes without saying, but insulation is the first thing you should check, and it’s not just the obvious areas I’m talking about. First and foremost, check the obvious – your attic insulation. If you lack adequate insulation in the attic, you will lose heat and the house will feel cold, including the floors. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, R30 is the minimum insulation value you should have in your attic, and up to R60 is recommended for the coldest climates in the U.S.

Is it Worth Insulating Under the Floorboards?

Short answer, yes!  If your crawl space is uninsulated or if it’s damp, you’ve likely found one of the reasons for your cold floors.  However, there’s more to insulating under the floor than simply attaching fiberglass bats to the underside of your floor.  In fact, please don’t do that before considering the following points.

Rim Joists

One of the biggest sources of heat loss in a house is surprisingly the rim joists. In fact, uninsulated rim joists can let as much cold (or hot) air in as an open window. If you don’t know what rim joists are, these are the outer boards that the floor joists connect to.  If you’re under your house and see the floor joists, these meet the outside wall at the rim joist.

Insulating the rim joists is actually not too difficult or expensive to do as a DIY project.  Simply cut rigid insulation board slightly smaller, 1/4″ – 1/2″, than the size of the exposed rim joist between each joist. Then spray a line of expanding foam insulation across the bottom of the joist cavity, place the insulation against the rim joist, and seal the remaining edges with the foam spray. Now as I said, this isn’t terribly difficult or expensive, but it will be time-consuming as you’ll need to do this between each joist in the crawl space. Depending on your climate, you’ll probably want to use 2″ insulation board for this. Alternatively, you can hire a professional to use spray insulation to seal the rim joists.

Vapor Barrier

If you’re going to add insulation to the underside of the floor, you need to make sure the ground is covered with a vapor barrier.  This will prevent moisture from passing up into the insulation and causing issues with mold.  To do this yourself, you can lay 6 mil plastic across the entire crawlspace floor.  Make sure to overlap the pieces or tape the seams so the ground is completely covered. 

Insulate the Floor

To install insulation under the floor easily, use fiberglass batt insulation of R11 to R25 depending on your region. The colder the region, the higher the R-value required. With the paper side facing toward the floor, tightly fill the space between each joist and hold the insulation in place by attaching a support wire to the joists and running it across the insulation, or by using something like chicken wire fixed to the joists.

Seal the Vents 

If you have a vented crawl space, you can consider sealing the vents during the winter. This will prevent cold air from freely flowing through the vents. These can be sealed using a rigid foam insulation board, which is easy to cut to size.  However, it is important that you do not seal the vents if you have water leaks or other sources of moisture in the crawl space. Doing so will trap the moisture in and can lead to mold and mildew. It’s important that any leaks are fixed by a professional and that any sources of moisture, such as groundwater seepage are corrected first. 

Drafty floors

Drafty hardwood floors are caused by small gaps between the planks. This is mostly an issue for older floors, or if you’ve stripped your floors for some reason, but can also occur if the floors were installed before they were properly acclimated to your home.

Now please keep in mind that when I say it’s an “issue”, I mean gaps that don’t fluctuate with the weather. Meaning that if the gap appears in the winter and disappears in the summer, that’s perfectly normal (these gaps are typically no wider than a dime). Since hardwoods are made of natural wood (who would’ve guessed?!?), they shrink and expand based on the level of humidity in your home. In the winter when you’re running the heat, the air will dry out causing them to shrink.

How to fix drafty hardwoods

If you have gaps in your floors, even if they do come and go with the seasons, you should repair them to help prevent them from becoming cold in the winter. After all, you could make all of the other repairs I recommend but if you have cold air coming through floor gaps, you won’t get very far.

For small gaps across a limited area, an easy, yet temporary, fix is to use a wood filler or caulk. My previous house was nearing 100 years old and the hardwoods in my office were full of narrow gaps. I used the DAP Plastic Wood brand with great success, but you can use whichever product you can find. You’ll just want to pick a color as close to the color of your hardwoods as possible. Keep in mind that you can always mix two or more colors together or dye it if needed.

To fix cold floors with wood filler or caulk:

  1. Start by vacuuming the area really well to remove any excess dirt or debris from the gaps. This will help the filler from cracking again as quickly.  
  2. Put a small amount of the filler on the tip of your finger or a plastic putty knife and work it into the gap. You really want to make sure you’ve filled the gap as much as possible. I use my finger and work it into the gap using a circular motion first and then running my finger lengthwise along the gap.
  3. Allow the filler to dry per the instructions, but not for too long.  You don’t want to leave it sitting for hours. There will be excess filler on your floor but it will wipe off.
  4. Use a damp rag to wipe off the excess filler. Make sure you don’t use so much water or force that you remove it from the gap. You just want to remove the excess from the boards themselves.

As I mentioned above, this is (most likely) a temporary fix. As the planks expand and contract, the filler or putty may crack requiring you to reapply it. However, in a small area, this is a quick and easy solution to help alleviate cold floors. The only way I’d consider this a permanent fix is if you’ve stripped your hardwoods and you are going to refinishing them. Then the filler will get sealed in and should last a long, long time.

If you’re more of a visual learner, here’s a decent video that shows the process I outlined above:

If you need to fix larger gaps in your floors, things can be a bit more complicated and you may want to hire someone to help you. Now you could still use the method detailed above, but I don’t recommend it for a couple of reasons. First, it’s far more likely that you’ll have to repeat the repair over and over because the filler is almost certainly going to crack. Second, it will not look good.  

So what can you do about wide gaps in your hardwoods other than replacing the floor? There are a few options. You can fill the gaps with narrow pieces of wood or rope, using adhesive to hold them in place. Measure the wood or rope to fill the width and length of the gap and fill the gap.  You’ll then need to sand the area flat and, if using wood, stain it to match your hardwood floors.

Another important point to remember is that if you use pieces of wood or wood shims to do this, you will want to do it during the most humid time of year when the gaps are the smallest. Needless to say, this is a much more involved process, and one you may want to hire out, but it is more permanent and better looking than using a wood filler in wide gaps. 

Poor Heat Circulation 

Another reason you may experience cold hardwood floors is if you have poor heat circulation throughout or in parts of your home. This makes sense if you think about it since an area that simply isn’t getting enough heat is going to feel cold. Now obviously, more than just your floor will feel cold in this scenario, but since your bare feet touch the floor, it’s possible that’s what you really key in on.

If you notice that you only have cold hardwoods in isolated areas, perhaps just one room, then this very well could be the culprit.  start by checking the register (heat vent) in that room. Is it fully open? If so, does the airflow feel weak? If the airflow feels weak in one room but fine in others, you need to have your air ducts checked. They may have leaks, be unbalanced or they may just need to be cleaned. Note that this is also true if you notice that one area of hardwoods is much warmer than the rest of the house and should also be checked by a professional. Excessive hot spots under the floor could cause the floors to buckle or crown.

There are a few other things to try. If you haven’t done so in a while, change out the filter. You’d be amazed how much a clogged filter can affect your heating system’s airflow. Additionally, consider using air vent deflectors to force the heat to blow across the floor rather than straight up.  This assumes that you have floor vents rather than ceiling vents, of course.

Other Ways to Fix a Cold Hardwood Floor

In the section above we dove pretty deep into a few of the main causes your hardwoods may feel cold. But let’s talk about some other solutions.  So of which are much easier and make just get be good enough for you.

Rugs

This is a no-brainer, but rugs on a hardwood floor will help. Granted it’s not feasible to cover every square inch of flooring with rugs, in that case, you might as well have carpet, but you can cover your most common areas such as your living room and bedroom with a rug. This certainly won’t fix any underlying issue, but it will give you a more comfortable floor – at least everywhere you put a rug, anyway.

Check for Other Drafty Areas

We discussed drafty hardwood floors above, but what about other areas? Check around doors and windows for cold air coming in. If you feel air coming in around the window frame or door frame, a simple bead of caulk will likely fix the issue. If cold air is getting in under the door, it’s time to replace the weather stripping on the bottom of the door. 

A couple of other areas you may not have considered checking are around electrical outlets and switches and under your cabinets. If you feel a draft from the electrical outlets, you can get specially made insulation at any hardware store that you install behind the cover. Just be sure to turn the power off first!  To fix drafts under cabinets, use caulk, or if there’s a larger hole inside the cabinet, such as around a drain pipe, seal that with expanding spray insulation.

The last place  I recommend checking is around the baseboards (trim) on your walls.  If these aren’t properly caulked, you could get a draft. To fix this, simply run a bead of caulk along the edges and check to make sure the draft is gone.

Here’s a little pro tip for you.  An easy way to check for drafts around these areas is to use a stick of incense. Simply light it and hold it next to the outlet, cabinet, etc and see if a draft is blowing the smoke.  Just make sure you use a scent you can tolerate!

Ceiling Fans

Turning on the ceiling fan on the lowest setting, yes, even in the winter.  If you flip the switch that’s typically located right under the blades, the fan will spin in reverse. In this mode, the ceiling fan will produce an updraft and push the warm air that has risen to the ceiling back into the main area of the room. 

Energy Audit

If you still aren’t sure where to start, or if you’d rather just have a professional help you diagnose the issue, consider a home energy audit. This will likely set you back a couple of hundred dollars, but you’ll get a home energy report detailing your home’s deficiencies and ways to improve them.  This will allow you a more targeted approach to solving the issue of cold hardwoods.

 

Sources:

https://www.energy.gov/energysaver/weatherize/insulation/where-insulate-home

https://www.energystar.gov/campaign/seal_insulate/identify_problems_you_want_fix/diy_checks_inspections/insulation_r_values