Avoiding the pitfalls of floating floors

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February 29/March 7, 2016; Volume 30, Number 18

By Christopher Capobianco

A“floating floor” is not a specific type of product but rather an installation method for engineered tongue-and-groove flooring. Other types of floating floors include interlocking “puzzle” rubber tile and loose lay vinyl tile and sheet. For this discussion, I will cover the engineered click category.

Engineered floating floors arrived in North America from Europe, first in the mid-1980s with engineered wood floors followed by laminate floors in 1993. Today, floating engineered products with a fiberboard core may feature cork, vinyl, linoleum, leather and other materials on top. Engineered wood and bamboo also have a click format available. Solid vinyl tile/plank in a click format and WPC (wood-plastic/polymer-composition) products are the most recent additions to this category of flooring.

Despite their performance attributes, floating floors cannot go over just any substrate—that’s a common assumption and the cause of many complaints. Dips or high spots in the floor can cause excess movement which may cause joint damage. The substrate needs be flat and level to within about 3⁄16 of an inch in 10 feet. Installers should bring a level or a straight edge when they go out to measure a job.

Another common assumption is that acclimation is not a big deal. Note: wood, bamboo and other products with a fiberboard core (laminate, cork, etc.) need to be acclimated for 48 hours. Certain vinyl or WPC products claim “no acclimation is necessary,” but be careful in the deep of winter or heat of summer. There are limits to all products that have been stored in these conditions and get suddenly brought into normal room temperature. They can be hard to work with and may also expand or contract when they acclimate.

Claims of “waterproof” or “moisture-resistant” products need to be taken with a grain of salt as well. Getting wet may be OK, but moisture emissions from concrete can bring high pH and alkalinity conditions that can distort the product. In addition, trapped moisture beneath a floor can create issues such as mold and bacterial growth, so there can be issues even if the flooring itself is not affected.

Välinge and Unilin are the inventors of the two most common click locking mechanisms, and manufacturers have licensing agreements to use them. angle/snap, angle/angle or angle/fold down are common methods, and some products include plastic tabs or other spring-loaded locking devices. Some are joined together with a tool or tapping block while others just need the right angle and the specific technique for putting the pieces together. These products must be installed accordingly.

Expansion space is a key for many engineered products. A long run exceeding 30 or 40 feet or doorways in adjacent areas need a break and a T-molding to allow for the expansion. Heavy fixtures on top of a floating floor can prevent it from moving, so cabinets and other millwork need to be installed before the floor goes down. One alternative with these products in large areas may be to glue the floor down, but some products like laminate can’t be glued down so that’s not an option. Some of the synthetic products like vinyl and WPC claim that expansion joints for a long run and a large area aren’t needed, although space needs to be allowed against walls in some cases.

Bottom line: Don’t assume all products are the same. Take the time to check with the manufacturer as to the right installation, acclimation and preparation recommendation.


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