Flooring Forensics: Simple steps to a successful luxury vinyl installation – March 2022
By Don Styka
I think we can agree that luxury vinyl tile and plank (LVT and LVP) have become extremely popular and the resilient flooring of choice in all commercial sectors: retail, hospitality, healthcare, workplace and education. As popular as it has become, the industry is still seeing significant and continued growth in the luxury vinyl category due to improvements in design, performance and ease of installation.
Luxury vinyl flooring has become one of the favorite resilient flooring choices of the installer, if not the favorite, because it doesn’t require the same level of skill compared to several other flooring types, and the increased amount of square footage that can be installed daily increases productivity and earnings. However, there are still many costly, frustrating, and disruptive claims related to LVT installations that could have been easily avoided had the installer addressed basic requirements necessary on all resilient flooring projects.
Let’s dissect the process and identify what is required to successfully install and maintain LVT to avoid claims, meet the customers’ expectations and provide them a new floor that will give them many years of serviceable life and a better return on their investment.
SELECT THE RIGHT PRODUCT
As with any successful flooring project, selecting the appropriate materials for the intended use of the space is the critical first step. Often, we focus on creating the visual design element of the space for the client; however, attention should also focus on whether the flooring will withstand the traffic in the environment where it will be installed.
When it comes to luxury vinyl, which is a heterogeneous or layered product, the thickness and quality of the wearlayer is extremely important. While an LVT product with a 6 mil to 12 mil wearlayer is suitable for residential applications, you want a minimum of a 20 mil wearlayer for commercial applications. This is important as the wearlayer “protects” the luxury vinyl design, can keep the appearance of the floor looking good longer and will hold-up better to the various types and amount of traffic typically present in commercial environments.
CONSULT INSTALLATION GUIDELINES
Most flooring manufacturer’s reference ASTM F710, “Standard Practice for Preparing Concrete Floors to Receive Resilient Flooring,” in their installation instructions. While the manufacturers might have their own, possibly stricter requirements, if you are bidding on work or part of the installation team, you should be familiar with the F710 standard because you will be held accountable to meet the requirements identified in the standard. Claim situations always revert back to the manufacturer’s instructions and recommendations as part of the evaluation process. Don’t let the title of F710 fool you. While ASTM F710 includes general guidelines that you would expect related to the concrete being dry, clean, smooth and structurally sound, it also addresses cracks, joints and smoothness, as well as other critical components required for successful installation, including acclimation, moisture and pH testing, temperature and humidity, and the use of a permanent HVAC system or other source to provide proper control.
CONTROL THE JOBSITE
Controlling the jobsite temperature and humidity is critical on any project, as it can impact moisture testing, material acclimation, working characteristics of the adhesive and even placement of the flooring. If the HVAC system isn’t operational, it is important that a plan be developed using temporary resources to maintain the temperature and humidity of the jobsite between the flooring manufacturer’s recommended range before, during and after installation.
Moisture and pH testing should be performed on every flooring installation, whether new or existing concrete, to provide a snapshot of the current slab conditions. Determining if there is a potential moisture problem prior to installation can help the responsible parties make informed decisions and avoid costly repairs or flooring replacement after the installation is completed and the space is occupied.
If moisture testing provides results above the manufacturers’ recommendations-this includes the patching compound, flooring and adhesive-consult the manufacturer(s) for recommendations on how to proceed. Many manufacturers recommend a moisture system that complies with ASTM F3010 Standard Practice for Two-Component Resin Based Membrane-Forming Moisture Mitigation Systems for Use Under Resilient Floor Coverings.
MAINTAIN YOUR MATERIALS
Shipping, proper storage and acclimation of the flooring, adhesives, wall base and accessories are all important, but shortcuts are often taken. Pallets of materials should not be double stacked. Single stacking will prevent the damage that can occur from the weight and footprint of upper pallets on lower pallets. In addition, most manufacturers require 48 to 72 hours of acclimation time. While this might appear to be easily accomplished, we often see there is not enough space on-site for materials to be delivered early enough for proper acclimation or the area designated for acclimation of the materials is not maintained at temperature or humidity levels consistent with the manufacturer’s acceptable ranges. During certain times of the year, when temperatures are extremely high or low, additional time might be required to ensure the materials are completely acclimated prior to installation. Breaking down the pallets to access the cartons on the inside of the pallet will help accelerate this process; however, the manufacturer’s acclimation times must still be followed as a minimum timeline.
SECURE THE SUBFLOOR
Starting my flooring career as an installer, I’ve always approached installation with the mindset that you are only as “good as what you go over.” Basically, you are only as good as your substrate or foundation will allow you to be. Preparing a subfloor that is clean, dry and smooth will provide you with a foundation for a successful installation. Substrate irregularities that are not addressed can, and most likely will, telegraph through flooring materials, including LVT, and create complaints from the customer. These undulations can also contribute to uneven wear from chairs, carts and maintenance equipment that can potentially damage the flooring. When installing with adhesive, uneven substrates can create issues during installation, such as gapping or run-off. When working with click and floating LVT options, these problems can also include tile and plank separation from broken locking systems.
Prior to applying patching or self-leveling products, existing adhesive residue, paint, drywall compound, and other contaminants that can interfere with the bonding of the patching materials or create conditions that might increase the risk of staining or discoloration of the flooring material must be removed. This is the time to evaluate the slab for excessive cracking or potential problems created by other trades, such as the presence of cutting oil from the plumbers. While covering contaminants with a patching compound or self-leveling material makes visibly disappear, they are still present, and this doesn’t eliminate them from causing problems during or after installation.
I always recommend the use of the flooring manufacturer’s adhesive when installing their material. This ensures compatibility with the flooring and long-term performance given the flooring manufacturer has fully tested a number of variables related to the flooring and adhesive working together as a system. While there are adhesives designed for the installation of LVT and are generically recommended for tiles and planks in this category, not all flooring products are created the same. There are similarities, but there are also vast variations in the construction, raw materials, recycled content and manufacturing processes that could require different adhesive characteristics to bond the flooring, which is why it’s important to follow the flooring manufacturer’s recommendations when selecting the proper adhesive to use on your project.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention selecting the recommended flooring manufacturer’s adhesive and not switching in anticipation of a moisture problem. It isn’t uncommon for a general contractor to set a requirement for a high-moisture-limit adhesive to be used prior to moisture testing being conducted. This could lead to the adhesive being selected on the basis of only moisture limit of the adhesive and not the compatibility with the flooring material or the performance characteristics of the adhesive to provide long-term results. This can be a costly decision if a problem later develops that is related to switching the adhesives based on moisture limits.
All installations should begin with squaring the room and dropping reference lines to ensure a straight and accurate installation. If there are multiple colors, patterns, sizes or inserts, it’s important to have a drawing or print to detail the layout. Don’t leave this to chance or the installer’s imagination-it might not match what the customer had intended. Also, when installing a more complicated layout with a company or school logo or any inset of some type, it might be more efficient to have the material pre-cut prior to the job site. This allows for a faster and more time-efficient installation in most cases. This is very helpful if the project timeline is already behind schedule, and the flooring contractor is being forced to make-up some of that time. I suggest you contact your flooring manufacturer as many of them provide a cutting service.
KNOW YOUR MATERIAL
While tiles and planks come in several common flooring types and in a variety of sizes, there are slight variations in the installation method between the flooring types. For example, you should not force rubber tiles together in the same manner that you would install VCT (vinyl composition tile); instead, you should avoid compressing the more flexible rubber and creating a peaking problem. Installing luxury vinyl requires a similar method, butting the tiles and planks together without forcing them to avoid peaking. This is a critical component to proper installation of luxury vinyl, and one that is often overlooked because the installer’s tile experience is related to VCT. This is a problem that can easily be corrected with proper training.
DON’T RUSH THE PROCESS
When the installation is complete, it’s important to restrict all traffic for a minimum of 24 hours to let the adhesive dry. Normally, 72 hours is required for rolling traffic, furniture placement and initial maintenance to be performed. These time can vary in accordance with manufacturer guidelines when installing with rollable or spray adhesive, or working with a click system. Always consult the manufacturer for specific requirements related to their flooring and adhesive materials.
Floor protection is another important aspect of successful installations. The application of an appropriate floor protection material can help eliminate damage caused by other trades that are working on top of each other, furniture moving and equipment placement. This also keeps repair and replacement items off the punch list; these can eat into attic stock material or create bigger issues if different batch numbers must be used for repairs.
Last but certainty not least: have a qualified company and individual perform the initial maintenance in accordance with the flooring manufacturer’s instructions. This will ensure that the dirt, grit and soil associated with the construction or remodel process is completely removed, and the customer receives a new and clean floor. Having someone with a mop and wringer bucket won’t meet the requirements of an initial cleaning and often lead to a claim situation because the customer is not happy with the appearance of their new floor. Pulling everyone back on site to addressing proper cleaning and maintenance isn’t the best use of time and doesn’t reflect well on the overall installation process. This time and effort can be spent more constructively and in a better way up front if the initial maintenance is part of the flooring plan.
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