Floor Prep and Underlayments: Critical flooring performance attributes reside below the surface - Jan 2021
By Darius Helm
The layers between the subfloor and the floorcovering have grown increasingly technical in recent years, and they play an outsized role in the success of flooring installations. The field is competitive, and suppliers to this segment are constantly innovating, making products that are greener, cleaner and faster.
There’s no shortage of issues that these materials need to address: moisture mitigation, acoustical abatement, crack isolation, mold prevention, comfort underfoot and, of course, adhesion.
Providers of underlayments and floor prep materials have likewise gone through significant transformations in recent years. Most suppliers, which originally offered a narrow and specialized range of products, have now created even more specialized products or have expanded their range significantly. Some, like Healthier Choice, have even expanded into actual floorcoverings.
At the same time, the market has changed. Carpet used to dominate both residential and commercial markets. Hard surface has been trending for decades, and the ascent of rigid LVT products over the last five years has pushed that trend even further. The shift from soft surface to hard surface has created louder spaces, with sound bouncing off the floor and ricocheting around the interior, driving specifiers to mitigate the acoustics through wall and ceiling treatments or by designing quiet zones with rugs and the like to offset the cacophony in the rest of the space.
These hard floors are also escalating the transmission of sound between floors generated by impacts on the floor from foot traffic and moving or rolling objects that transfers down through the ceiling to the floor below. In the commercial market, this is a huge issue in sectors like corporate and hospitality, where people are occupying multiple levels and ceilings are lower. It’s not much of a problem in single-family houses, since the upper levels tend to be installed with carpet, but it’s a big problem in the multifamily market, where hard surface flooring is rapidly displacing carpet and tenants in apartment buildings are stacked on top of each other.
It’s in this area-transmission of sound between floors-where suppliers of underlayments and floor prep materials can really make a difference. Acoustical underlayments are in huge demand these days, and most flooring material suppliers offer a range. Some are unattached rolls or pads, while others are poured or pumped onto the subfloor.
The other dominant issue in the subfloor market is the issue of concrete and moisture. Tighter timelines have been putting pressure on the construction industry for several years, and too often it’s concrete curing that is forced to yield. The moisture and salts that wick off the concrete can easily undermine adhesives and wreck flooring installations. The industry has developed a range of solutions, from moisture barriers and sealants to shortened timelines for other elements of the job, like rapid-drying underlayments and adhesives and faster flooring installation systems.
Floor Focus spoke to several of the leading suppliers-there are many more-to get a sense of how they provide solutions in the residential and commercial flooring markets, the scope of their offerings and what they’re working on now. The suppliers profiled are loosely split into three groups: products that go directly under the floorcovering, like carpet cushion; radiant heat systems; and products that attach to the subfloor.
UNDERLAYMENT AND CUSHION
Leggett & Platt is a major manufacturer of underlayments, rubber padding and foam cushion, not just for the flooring industry but also for automotive, aerospace and bedding. It has several production facilities all across the country, with the flooring products division headquartered in Fort Worth, Texas. The bulk of its flooring business is in the residential market.
The biggest part of its flooring business is rebond carpet pad, which is made from reclaimed scraps of high-density urethane that are bonded together, and it also makes fiber and synthetic rubber padding for carpet, as well as densified urethane. However, the fastest-growing category right now is styrene butadiene (SB) rubber underlayments for hard surface flooring, like Whisper Step, which was introduced a couple of years ago. It’s an ultra-dense product that’s only 1.4mm thick but has a 22 Delta IIC (a measurement of decibel change with or without the product). Whisper Step can be single-glued, double-glued and loose laid, and works with all hard surface flooring with the exception of ceramic tile.
Leggett & Platt has another high-density rubber underlayment, ACI-125, that is designed for use under ceramic tile. The product protects against substrate cracks and also reduces sound transmission (Delta IIC 17). It also can be used under other types of hard surface flooring.
Foam Products, which was founded in 1978, has been producing material in Calhoun, Georgia for the last 12 years. The firm started out making insoles for the footwear business from SB foam rubber and around 1995 started using its foam as an attached pad for Pergo laminates. While the firm still makes synthetic rubber, it has transitioned to polyurethane because of its higher performance and compatibility with flooring materials. The firm started making unattached underlayments for hardwood and laminate around 2002 and added vinyl plank products about seven years ago.
About 75% of Foam Products’ business is in the flooring arena, serving both the residential and commercial markets at the higher end. The firm offers several underlayments for hard surface flooring along with two carpet cushions-Dynathane, a high-density polyurethane for double-glue or stretch-in commercial and hospitality applications, with a portion of the polyurethane derived from soy-based polyols, and Eco Endurance, a 100% recycled fiber carpet cushion.
On the hard surface side, its premium laminate and hardwood underlayments are Eco Ultimate Silencer and Eco Silencer HD FOF, and for all forms of luxury vinyl, it offers Silencer LVT. All are Greenguard Gold certified for low VOCs, and they are also warrantied for use “under planks with or without pre-attached pad.” The acoustical and moisture control benefits of its underlayments exceed those of most pre-attached pads.
Like most underlayment producers, Foam Products sells private label products, though the bulk of its business goes through distribution and to a few national accounts.
Future Foam, which is headquartered in Council Bluffs, Iowa, is also heavily focused on the higher end of the polyurethane foam business, along with rebond products and hard surface underlayments. The 60-year-old firm, which has more than 30 foaming facilities around the country, also serves the bedding and furniture industries-and it buys back from them scrap polyurethane foam, which it channels into its rebond division.
For Future Foam, the residential side of the business is much bigger, and that includes residential remodel and higher-end builder business, as well as major accounts with Home Depot and Menards. The firm used to go direct for a lot of its business but is increasingly shifting toward distribution.
In 2007, Future Foam, which at the time had one rebond facility at its Middleton, Wisconsin campus (which also includes foam pouring, foam fabrication and carpet cushion production), bought three rebond plants from Foamex. Its subsequent growth in that category drove the firm to build another facility in California, which, like Middleton, produces for all four product programs.
In 2020, the firm fared well. In March, it acquired three facilities for foam pouring and fabrication from FXI-Innocor. In terms of operations, only one of its facilities (in Pennsylvania) struggled due to state Covid restrictions, but it recovered well. The surge in home improvement drove gains last year. Big box business and higher-end residential remodel have both been robust, and this year should bring more of the same.
Like Future Foam, Healthier Choice has its roots in the polyurethane business. Carl Poteet started out by coating carpet in the mid 1970s with Custom Coating, which he
sold prior to founding Healthier Choice in 1994, driven by a desire to create a healthier rebond product (hence the name) using clean, high-quality polyurethanes with low VOCs. Its polyurethane is mechanically frothed through a proprietary, patented process and is Greenguard Gold certified. Carl Poteet passed away in 2015, and his son, Craig, is currently president of the firm.
Over the years, Healthier Choice has widened its offering. Not only does it produce carpet cushions and acoustical underlayments, but it also started offering hard surface floorcoverings in 2013. Its product line today comprises solid and engineered hardwood flooring, as well as rigid LVT.
On the soft surface side, Healthier Choice goes to the residential market with a memory foam line, while its Foundation commercial carpet cushion uses a denser polyurethane to meet performance requirements. The firm also offers VersaChoice, a 100% recycled fiber cushion. And in the works is a new Foundation cushion with a double scrim, top and bottom. And last year, it introduced Foundation commercial products for the full range of hard surface flooring, as well.
Healthier Choice is also in the process of launching an area rug cushion with anti-slip properties, called ComfortChoice Rug Cushion, and it anticipates strong demand out of the gate.
The firm’s acoustical underlayments, Sound Solution and OmniChoice, have Delta IIC ratings of about 21.
MP Global, which was originally founded in 1997 as Midwest Padding, makes pad and underlayment for both hard and soft surface products, and well as underfloor heating systems, with manufacturing from its facility in Norfolk, Nebraska. Flooring products make up the bulk of MP Global’s revenues, though it also produces insulated packaging, as well as ceiling and under-deck systems in a range of textures and neutral colors.
The firm is probably best known for its QuietWalk family of acoustical underlayments-QuietWalk, which has been out for several years for use under laminate, WPC 5mm or thicker and floating floors; QuietWalk Plus, introduced in 2018, which can also be used with glued and nailed hardwood products; and QuietWalk Luxury Vinyl, which came out about a year ago and works with thinner vinyls. QuietWalk’s content is over 90% recycled fibers.
MP Global’s products go to both the residential and commercial markets. Residential makes up the bulk of business, though commercial is gaining traction. One product that had a growth year in 2020 was QuietWarmth, which has been out for about seven years. QuietWarmth is a heated film system with versions for existing floors, floating floors and also ceramic tile, and it has turned out to be a popular option for homeowners investing in their homes during these times. The firm’s QuietWarmth business doubled from 2019 to 2020.
Warmly Yours, an electric flooring heating system manufacturer based in Lake Zurich, Illinois, reported a 221% gain in year-over-year sales of home office floor heating systems in the third quarter of 2020. Laundry rooms were second, up nearly 90%, followed by kitchens at 58%, rec rooms at 49% and sunrooms at 28%. The firm further reported that heating systems were up nearly 89% under engineered hardwood, 73% under laminate, 40% under LVT and 35% under nailed hardwood.
The firm, which was formed in 1999 and makes floor heating and snow melting systems, offers a range of underfloor heating systems, including cable products to run between sleepers in hardwood installations, a range of rolls and mats, and Slab Heat cables and mats that are installed 3” into concrete. Its bestselling line is TempZone, which goes under tile, stone and hardwood floors, and it comes in mats, flexible rolls and cable systems.
The firm also offers underlayments that work with its heating systems, including a cork product, a synthetic cork called CeraZorb, and an uncoupling membrane ideal for use with ceramic and porcelain in high-moisture areas.
For carpet, Warmly Yours has an adhesive-less heating system called Environ that comes in mats and rolls. The product can also be installed under any floating floor products. And it recently launched a line of higher-end thermostats in five patterns.
ThermoSoft, headquartered in Vernon Hills, Illinois, has been in the underfloor heating business since 1996. What’s unique about ThermoSoft is its patented FiberThermics heating elements, which, according to the firm, “conduct heat through their ultra-flexible, electroconductive filaments the same way fiber optics conducts light through fibers.” It’s the only technology that offers a Thermal Cut Off, which is a failsafe that protects from overheating across the length of the heating element. Also, the firm sources rather than manufactures the underlayments that its heating systems are embedded in.
ThermoSoft has a range of systems, including WarmStep mats, ThermoFloor mats and ThermoFilm mats for a variety of installations and flooring types. It also has ThermoSlab Cable for use in concrete, ThermoTile mats for ceramic and porcelain installations, and cables for use with decoupling membranes from producers like Schluter.
While ThermoFloor, an all-in-one underlayment using FloorMuffler’s Natura Elite, is for use with floorcovering designed to work with underlayments, WarmStep mats, at only 1/16” thick, work with products that don’t accommodate underlayments. And for floating floors, ThermoFilm is the recommended products.
One area with lots of room for potential growth is heating systems under hardwood. In 2019 the National Wood Flooring Association (NWFA) updated its guidelines for use of electric heating systems from a single-page appendix to a 19-page document covering a range of electric and hydronic underfloor heating systems.
Sergey Shlyapintokh, the firm’s sales manager, who was on the NWFA’s Radiant Heat Taskforce, contends that the NWFA guidelines give installers the tools to confidently incorporate these systems, which in turn will generate traction and growth. According to Shlyapintokh, ThermoSoft’s WarmStep is the only electric radiant heat system approved for use for nailed, glued and floating wood flooring installations. The firm is currently working with several prominent hardwood producers on WarmStep installations.
Schluter Systems also has radiant heat systems-Ditra-Heat and Ditra-Heat-Duo-which use the Ditra polyolefin uncoupling membrane (in a distinctive orange) that the firm introduced in 1987 to isolate tiles from subfloors as the industry shifted from mortar beds toward the direct bond of tile. Ditra-Heat-Duo additionally features an integrated bonding fleece that acts as a thermal break and also reduces sound transmission through the floor.
The firm was formed in 1966 by Werner Schluter, a German master tile setter, and his first product was a metal finishing profile designed to prevent edge chipping that gained rapid traction in the market. Other important innovations include drainage systems, the Ditra uncoupling membrane, the Kerdi bonded waterproofing membrane, the Kerdi-Drain integrated bonding flange, building panels, low profile linear floor drains and Ditra-Heat, which was introduced in 2014.
Schluter Systems North America, headquartered in Plattsburgh, New York, was launched in 1989 and is currently home to Schluter’s largest facility in North America. Today, the firm has over a dozen operations all around the world, including several in the U.S. and Canada.
In recent years, the firm has developed floor profiles for luxury vinyl, made mostly from extruded aluminum and stainless steel in various colors and finishes. In the U.S., the residential and commercial markets are about equivalent in size for Schulter, whose products are used in both remodeling and new construction.
FLOOR PREP AND ADHESIVES
Taylor Adhesives, a family-owned firm established in 1977 to serve the carpet market, was acquired by Meridian Adhesives Group, a private equity group, in 2018. These days, the firm, which is headquartered in Dalton, Georgia, produces a broad offering for most hard and soft surface flooring. It’s probably most under-represented in ceramic, where it has a single product. The firm goes through distribution to both the residential and commercial markets, and it also has a substantial OEM business.
Taylor has production facilities in Dalton, Georgia and Fontana, California. About four years ago, the firm began developing products for the two biggest concerns in the built environment, moisture mitigation and acoustical abatement.
One of Taylor’s biggest developments in 2020 was Taylor Time, an educational platform for the industry that includes monthly live events. The platform was developed in response to restricted travel during the pandemic, which limited the firm’s ability to get in front of clients and partners. However, Taylor Time does not sell or promote Taylor products. Instead, it’s about education. Last month’s live event on the installer shortage, hosted by Seth Gladden, Taylor’s director of marketing, featured Fuse Alliance’s Geoff Gordon, Scott Humphrey from the World Floor Covering Association, Certified Flooring Installers executive director Robert Varden.
The live events are archived on YouTube for those who can’t make it, and they’re also summarized in periodic newsletters.
Schönox HPS North America, headed up by Thomas Trissl, celebrates its ten-year anniversary this year. Prior to his current role, Trissl founded LVT producer Centiva (in 1996), which was acquired by Tarkett. Schönox offers a range of cutting-edge products designed to make subfloor prep and other endeavors faster and easier without sacrificing performance. For instance, AP Rapid, introduced in 2018, a self-leveling compound that also has sound insulation properties, dries in six to seven hours and does not require HVAC systems for curing. Instead, the product dries because of a chemical reaction, using air and moisture to do the curing.
Last August, Schönox developed and launched HS Sturdy, a repair and smoothing compound built on that same Hybrid Active-Dry technology. According to Trissl, the new technology combines the strength and high-performance characteristics of synthetic gypsum with the fast-drying benefits of cement.
While most of the firm’s business is on the commercial side, it’s also strong in residential, particularly multifamily, where the speed and performance of its products suits the fast turnover of apartment renovations. Trissl notes that the firm’s work in multifamily has led to enhanced acoustical mitigation products, with sound insulation barriers integrated into its self-leveling systems.
Multifamily renovation projects often unearth damaged subfloors when carpet and other old flooring is pulled up, and Schönox has seen a lot of demand of its products, which can be layered over these damaged substrates. The result is a solid and secure floor with a smooth tabletop finish, which is generally preferable to nailing plywood over it.
In the early days of the pandemic, the firm increased its focus on education, and it launched its Schönox Social Distance Learning platform with seminars, webinars and videos on a regular basis.
Laticrete, which is headquartered in Bethany, Connecticut, started out about 60 years ago with its original innovation, the industry’s first polymer-fortified thinset adhesive for the ceramic tile market, which over the years has become even thinner and its bonds even stronger. Another major category for the firm these days is membranes, from waterproofing to crack isolation to floor heat. Grouts and sealants are also big business for Laticrete. The firm has offered grouts for a long time, but it only entered the sealant market in 2007, and it has since grown into a huge category.
Another major program is its concrete remediation in the form of self-leveling underlayment and overlayment (like finished concrete) products. This category includes Supercap, a low-alkali, cementitious, self-leveling compound pumped from specialized trucks.
Also, Laticrete offers a surface care line that extends beyond its original focus on stone and tile to LVT and laminate. And it also offers resinous and decorative finishes with high chemical resistance that are poured over substrates.
In recent years, the firm has focused on innovation-its R&D team is twice the size it was five years ago-its rate of new introductions has increased. It used to come out with four new products a year; next month alone, it’s launching eight, and it will roll out more later in the year.
Laticrete’s NXT Level and Level Plus are self-leveling pumpable underlayments that can be applied over wood substrates, where flexion has always been a challenge. But perhaps its most interesting recent introduction is its Spartacote High Yield System with Lux Additive, which will officially launch next month. The additive, which is patent pending, essentially increases the reflectivity of the coating. The product, which targets the rapidly developing market for indoor grow facilities, helps offset the huge cost of artificial lighting by reflecting it back into the space, and the more complete exposure can also boost yields.
Mapei Group, an Italian firm that started off in 1937 producing paint and masonry repair products for the commercial market, is now a $3 billion global supplier. Its U.S. subsidiary, Mapei Corporation, was founded in 1983, and it supplies the market with underlayments, adhesives, grouts and much more.
Last year, the firm’s introductions included the Mapeheat line of radiant heat systems, including mats and cables with uncoupling membranes, as well as a line of thermostats. Mapei also came out with a faster-setting waterproof membrane, called Mapelastic Turbo.
Last year, the firm also launched a complete line of polymer-modified thinset mortars called Keraflex, and it got the word out through a small fleet of large leased vans wrapped in product images and info. The vans toured around the U.S. for three months, doing demonstrations outside of distributor locations. This year, the firm is purchasing the vans and will continue the campaign.
In October 2019, Mapei’s president Giorgio Squinzi died in Milan, Italy, followed the very next month by his wife, Adriana Spazzoli, who was the firm’s operational marketing and communication director. Squinzi’s father, Rodolfo, founded the company in Milan, Italy.
Another industry leader is Ardex, which originated in Germany in 1949. Ardex Americas was founded in 1978, introducing the market to its self-leveling cement underlayment, followed by Self-Drying technology that hugely cut cure times. In 2000, Ardex Americas purchased W.W. Henry, a leading flooring adhesives firm, from Armstrong World Industries. Today, the firm offers a full range of subfloor prep materials, uncoupling systems, mortars, grouts and waterproofing systems.
Recent introductions include Ardex K 40 Rapid, a self-leveling underlayment that is ready for floorcovering installation in as little as two hours, and Henry 647 PlumPro, a roller-applied adhesive that can receive floorcovering within ten minutes.
Most of Ardex Americas’ business is in the commercial market, but it has a strong residential presence as well, including for the Henry brand, which is sold at home centers. The firm has a range of products with Greenguard Gold certifications, as well as FloorScore certified adhesives.
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