A water-based wood floor finish may cost a bit more than an oil-based finish, but many contractors and homeowners prefer its clarity and ease of application. In terms of durability, the two are virtually identical; the same plastic resin ends up on your floor whether it's carried in a water- or petroleum-based solvent. The guidelines that apply to cleaning an oil-based hardwood floor finish also apply to water-based.
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A Polyurethane or Acrylic Coating
After you apply a water-based finish to a floor and the water evaporates, the film that remains is either polyurethane or acrylic, which are both plastics. After the film is hard, it typically cures over a period of several days; this is an irreversible chemical process in which the molecules cross link to form a surface resistant to all except the most acidic or corrosive solvents. The characteristics of a water-based finish aren't identical to those of an oil-based finish; for example, water-based finishes don't yellow, but when it's time to clean them, they are pretty much the same.
Wood and Water Don't Mix
The real danger involved in cleaning a hardwood floor is that the water you use for cleaning can affect the wood. Water can discolor wood or make it swell, and swelling causes the edges or centers of the boards to curl up. Polyurethane and acrylic both resist water, but they aren't completely impervious; standing water can seep through either material. Even if that doesn't happen, water can also seep between the boards. Consequently, hardwood flooring manufacturers unanimously advise against using excessive water to clean your floors, although you usually need a little bit.
Use the Right Cleaner
The proscription against excessive water means that you should never wet mop your hardwood floor, but wiping it with a damp cloth is safe, especially if you dry immediately afterwards with another cloth. Flooring manufacturers often recommend a solution of 1/2 cup of vinegar per gallon of water, which not only removes smudges and grime, but also lifts salt and lime deposits. You can also use a commercial waterless cleaner. Avoid using oil soap; it leaves a hazy vegetable-oil film. You should also avoid any products that contain silicone; it is very difficult to sand off the floor when it's time for refinishing, and it prevents a new finish from adhering.
A Cleaning Regimen
Your hardwood floor will stay clean if you vacuum it often, using a flat, scratch-proof attachment without a beater bar to prevent dirt and grime from getting ground into the finish. Eventually, you'll need to wipe down the wood with a cleaning solution, and the safest way to do this is to do it by hand with a rag. Work in sections, drying each section as soon as you clean it. If you prefer a mop, use a microfiber or sponge mop that you can wring out. If you like to keep your floor waxed, remove the wax with mineral spirits when it dulls, wash the floor, and apply a fresh coat.
Chris Deziel is a contractor, builder and general fix-it pro who has been active in the construction trades for 40 years. He has degrees in science and humanities and years of teaching experience. An avid craftsman and musician, Deziel began writing on home improvement topics in 2010. He worked as an expert consultant with eHow Now and Pro Referral -- a Home Depot site. A DIYer by nature, Deziel regularly shares tips and tricks for a better home and garden at Hunker and Family Handyman.