Flooring Forensices: LVT flooring failures and what to be on looking for when considering vinyl - Dec 2019
By Lew Migliore
Luxury vinyl tile and plank are the most popular floors on the market today. With their rapid growth, LGM & Associates is witnessing a wide range of failures, many of which are caused by shortcuts and quality control issues during the manufacturing process. So, to keep you on the up-and-up with the ever-evolving list of issues, here is a breakdown of what we’ve experienced and what to be on the lookout for when considering luxury vinyl products.
MIXED BAG OF ISSUES
One of the biggest problems we see are planar and dimensional issues. Shrinking and expanding are examples of dimensional issues. Cupping, curling, doming, edge and end lift fall under planar issues. Another issue is gapping at the sides or ends of the tile or plank, caused by the material being cut short or long as well as variations with the way the material is cut to form the tile or plank. We also see variations in the wearlayer thicknesses, and recently we encountered a case where the wearlayer extended just a hair over the edge of the material, which gave the illusion of gapping at the edge.
Direct sunlight on the product is a problem. This can create heat-related expansion as well as fading. We saw this recently in a multifamily building being built in the upper Midwest, where LVT was being installed in rooms that had floor-to-ceiling windows. This exposure to direct sunlight, particularly in the rooms with a southerly or southwesterly exposure, was causing the planks to curl. SPC flooring would be less susceptible to this condition, but you have to remember this is polymer-based vinyl flooring that is affected by the same influences that affect all vinyl and plastic materials; that is heat and cold and wet and dry.
Another concern is installing floating vinyl tile or plank floors over existing floors, especially those on grade with a concrete substrate. Installing over existing flooring that has no detectable moisture-related issues can give a false reading that the existing flooring is stable and safe to go over. However, installing a top layer of non-permeable floating vinyl tile or plank flooring over what appears to be uncompromised flooring actually creates a moisture vapor retarder on top of the existing floor. When this happens, the original flooring and the new flooring both blow off the substrate. We see this as a failure that is going to escalate with the growth of floating floors and the misguided belief that they are great for installing over existing floors. Physics and nature have other ideas that conflict with that thinking.
Floating floors, which engage with various fastening systems, cannot be used in facilities with rolling wheel traffic, as this tends to break the tongue-and-groove connection, causing an installation failure. Floating installations may be okay for use in a home but not in a space that uses rolling chairs, such as medical offices or any type or commercial office space. Again, we have had numerous failures with vinyl plank installed this way. And it doesn’t make any difference whether the flooring is WPC or SPC.
Here’s the issue with everyone selling LVT flooring and claiming that it’s waterproof. What does waterproof mean? Water won’t affect the surface of the material if it sits on top, but what about when it seeps between the joints? And what if it floods or if the moisture is coming from the substrate? When water gets trapped under an organic material for an extended period, the situation can get messy. It’s not my call, but it might have been more appropriate to say these floors are moisture-resistant rather than waterproof. The claims ratios would have been much easier to manage. Water can and will affect these types of vinyl floors in various ways, and the end-user is going to take you to task when that happens.
These materials will also scratch because they are vinyl. We’ve seen a number of issues with chairs rubbing back and forth on the floor, creating scratches and, in some cases, ripping the urethane wearlayer off the surface. This can occur and usually does shortly after the floor is installed. It is not something an end-user wants to experience, especially if the hard surface floor they owned before and used in the same manner, did not react this way.
Using a styrene butadiene rubber (SBR) pad under PVC vinyl is not a good idea. The two chemicals are not compatible and will react if they come into contact with each other. We’ve experienced a whole host of failures where this was the case. Any legitimate vinyl flooring manufacturer will tell you vinyl flooring releases plasticizers. Contact with SBR assures that this will happen. Avoid anyone selling you a rubber underlayment that tells you differently.
Another issue popping up recently is rigid core vinyl plank with an attached backing where a manufacturer’s specified adhesive won’t stick to the material. This is likely the result of a business decision made without consultation of experts who actually understand the chemicals being used. Worst of all is that the flooring installers are getting blamed for the failures. Remember, just because a manufacturer says something is so doesn’t mean that it is. There are few, if any, scientists working for the businesses selling these products.
Substrate preparation is an issue because more and more of these vinyl floors, regardless of their makeup, are floating. There is a tendency to believe the substrate does not require the same degree of prep with a floating floor as it does with other flooring materials, but that is not the case. When floating or glued direct, the substrate has to be flat and level. If not, hinky things are going to happen. If the flooring is rigid core, it can crack from vertical movement, or the connection system can break, or it can make noise, etc.
There are also failures related to variations in tile thickness. This situation can cause lippage, which means individual tiles may be higher than their neighbors. They may be cut out of square or have variations in the quality of cut. The wearlayer thickness may vary from what the specification says, or the vinyl plank may be advertised as a “nominal” 6”x48”. What is nominal anyway? Well, the closest meaning is “approximate,” so in this case, we can say, “not completely accurate or close.” So, “almost” would suffice. Can you install a flooring that is “almost” the size it’s supposed to be and not expect some issues? Well, you can-almost.
KEEPING UP WITH THE ISSUES
Now we come to the most prized sales tool in the flooring industry, and that’s price. The objective is always to be less expensive than the competition and to provide a product that is less expensive to the market, be it the dealer or the end user, who, by the way, knows nothing about what these products should cost. To be less expensive, you have to take something out, and that something usually plays a role in the quality and integrity of the product. Adding recycled content into the flooring, soft or hard, plays havoc with the product’s integrity. But the feeding frenzy, which can be compared to a school of attacking piranha, over LVT in the market is like nothing the industry has ever seen before. It’s a new product and a new era, and everyone involved in it is going to experience things they’ve never experienced before, including people selling the product who know very little about it.
If you don’t keep up with the myriad of variations in these vinyl flooring products and don’t understand how they’re made, it might be a bumpy ride. Fortunately, we keep up with all of this stuff in depth. If you have concerns or questions, you can ask us, and we’ll be happy to help you.
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