Luxury vinyl installation comes with unique challenges: Flooring Forensics - Feb 2016

By Lew Migliore

Luxury vinyl tile and plank floorcoverings (LVT) are among the hottest flooring products in the market today, and their use is growing exponentially in the commercial, hospitality and residential markets. These products are cannibalizing marketshare from within the vinyl category, making gains at the expense of sheet vinyl and VCT, and they’re also taking share from other hard surface floorcoverings, like hardwood and ceramic, as well as from broadloom and carpet tile.

There’s no question that luxury vinyl products make a beautiful floor, but there are some things people need to know about them to ensure that no problems arise.

Several factors make LVT products unique. For one, they are very realistic looking, with embossed or textured surfaces generating looks that are almost indistinguishable from the real thing. Also, LVT is typically thicker than traditional vinyl flooring materials, like sheet vinyl, and it comes in various shapes and sizes, with the plank format being the most popular.

A lot of the LVT on the market incorporates installation systems that hook, snap or lock together, or they have self-adhesive systems—or they are glued directly to the subfloor. Some have stabilizers and some don’t, and some feature special backing materials for various performance attributes.

SUBSTRATE CHALLENGES
Substrate preparation is eminently important for a successful flooring installation of any kind, but it’s even more critical for a vinyl flooring installation that includes luxury vinyl tile and plank. Of primary concern is how level and flat the substrate is. Since vinyl flooring materials have “drape,” they will conform to the surface they are applied to and irregularities will telegraph through. If the floor is not level and smooth, any unevenness can cause the material to “run off” when installed—that is, the unevenness or undulations in the substrate will distort the levelness of the material, which could create gaps, poor fitting or an uneven appearance, particularly with plank formats and light colors. 

Having said that, LVT most often has a pattern, such as wood, stone, metal, etc., and because of the pattern the flooring may better hide irregularities from beneath. But it’s not just about the appearance. Beyond the problems with uneven subfloors already mentioned, other issues can also cause installation failures. When not installed on a level surface, a luxury vinyl plank floor can shorten in length when it rides over high and low areas, and it can also lift on edges or ends where a substrate irregularity exists. Substrate issues can also cause gaps on edges and potentially in the width. These small effects can impact fitting issues overall and even compromise click or lock systems. 

The next consideration is moisture in the substrate. When installing vinyl flooring materials, it’s important to remember that all concrete substrates, especially those on or below grade, contain moisture, despite readings from moisture testing. The older the slab, the greater the chance of moisture, and moisture can and will affect vinyl flooring materials. 

The substrate must also be clean and free of any old adhesives, bond breakers, contaminants, chemicals, paint, oil, grease, markings on the floor from anything other than pencil, abatement chemicals, and any other residual agents or chemicals that could compromise the installation and vinyl flooring material itself. Luxury vinyl is particularly sensitive to the influence of abatement chemicals, which will wreak havoc on all vinyl flooring materials, not to mention creating numerous other issues. 

For luxury vinyl plank there are also a variety of click or lock systems to install them. These floors are more susceptible to lifting edges when the material has planar stability issues. 

Gluing the flooring down should help keep the material flat, but if there are any stability issues with a product, it will eventually manifest on the floor. It’s worth noting that adhesive does not prevent or correct curling. 

Appearance issues are vitally important for vinyl flooring because vinyl is vulnerable to indentations, scratching and gouging. You have to be keenly aware of the use and traffic the vinyl flooring is going to receive. To make sure the flooring performs up to expectations, it’s essential to increase its high performance characteristics for environments with higher traffic and heavier loads. Just because you think something will work, or someone sold it to you and said it would, doesn’t mean it actually will. Remember, words don’t change the laws of physics. So if you think that the argument of “you said this flooring wouldn’t do this” actually has merit relative to what the floor can or cannot do, you are mistaken, because the floor wins every time. Also remember that the flooring color, pattern, maintenance, contaminating foot traffic and finish will have a great deal of influence on how the floor looks and performs. 

POTENTIAL FLOORING FAILURES
It is possible for moisture to affect vinyl flooring, especially over concrete that is emitting moisture, as moisture and alkalinity can affect plasticizers in vinyl, creating changes in the material. There can also be stress on the luxury vinyl that can cause curling, cupping, lifted edges and dimensional instabilities, especially if the material is not properly annealed, has recycled content or has no stabilizing material. These problems are extremely common and generate large numbers of claims. 

Another very important factor is the space where the flooring is installed. Vinyl flooring can be greatly influenced by heat and cold, and it will expand and contract, so the environment where the flooring is installed must be controlled constantly. 

With more and more luxury vinyl tile and plank being used, especially luxury vinyl plank, we are seeing more issues such as curling and lifting edges, some delamination of surface layers, scratching and shrinking. A looming issue is the proposed—or actual—use of underlayments beneath vinyl flooring material to deaden sound. Underlayments could compromise the performance of the product because the vinyl flooring is made to lie firmly against the substrate. A soft underlayment could cause the flooring material to flex and indent, which in turn causes instability in the material. 

Putting soft underlayments beneath vinyl flooring material is typically not a good idea. In principle it may sound like something that will solve one concern, but in reality soft underlayments can cause problems. To deaden sound beneath vinyl flooring, a good way is to incorporate a sleeper-type system that won’t compromise the integrity of the flooring material. This system is essentially a thin substrate under the flooring, with sound deadening material installed underneath. Sleeper systems have been used over concrete for sports flooring and wood flooring for years, and they can be an ideal system for use for sound deadening and insulation with vinyl flooring as well. The drawback is that they add height to the flooring that you’ll have to deal with; this can be no small obstacle in many cases. 

Vinyl flooring is not indestructible. Like any other flooring, you have to put the right product in the right place, and this involves a learning curve. It’s important to know the products, who makes them and how strong the warranties are. We’ve seen a lot of wear issues on low quality luxury vinyl plank, where abrasion wears through a very thin wearlayer and abrades the pattern off the material. Another problem we see is the surface pattern peeling off, particularly at the ends of planks. 

With the click or mechanical systems, we see edges breaking and the material coming apart when subjected to heavy rolling traffic, which can be exacerbated by unlevel substrates. It’s unfortunate that people selling flooring get so excited about new products that they forget the element of common sense and then get themselves into trouble. It’s better to think things through, and sell and install luxury vinyl from seasoned flooring manufacturers that have long track records of success, stellar reputations and technical back up.

Copyright 2016 Floor Focus


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