The potential pitfalls of luxury vinyl flooring: Flooring Forensics - Aug/Sep 16

By Lew Migliore

Luxury vinyl tile (LVT) is the hottest product on the market today, and it’s also the product that’s generating the most number of complaints and claims in the flooring industry. So it’s worth it to take a closer look at LVT’s popularity and problems.

Luxury vinyl tile is not a new product. I started in the industry in 1971 in retail and remember selling a lot of beautiful Amtico tiles that looked like high-end marble and stone. We also sold a lot of stone-look peel-and-stick 12”x12” tiles. The difference now is that the category has gone mainstream with a large number of producers, new installation systems and improved digital imaging, allowing producers to emulate virtually any material. 

You know the saying, “What goes around, comes around.” Well, we’ve come around to luxury vinyl tile again, and it’s taking the market by storm. In fact, the storm is actually a tsunami, because the market is being flooded with product from all over. But while there’s a lot of high quality LVT out there, some of it, to put it plainly, ain’t that great. 

Not all LVT is created equal, and with production coming from all over the world, it’s difficult to know whether you’re getting high quality product or a cheap piece of plastic. Also, be aware that even some of the biggest brands in the industry source LVT from multiple suppliers, so they don’t make everything they sell. 

In lesser quality LVT, the finish or wearlayer may create problems. If it’s too glossy, it will show scuff marks, and if the surface texture is too coarse, it can produce white marks. We’ve seen products in the field where the wood patterned surface has actually worn down to the white back. We’ve also found where there are different runs mixed in a box, resulting in variations in sheen, texture and shade. As a sample it might look good, and the sales story told about it might be great, but the product may actually be incapable of performing. You have to be very careful when choosing sourced material, and, again, many flooring producers sell LVT that they don’t necessarily make themselves.

Another issue can be dimensional stability. We get all kinds of calls due to LVT shrinking. This can be an inherent problem with a product that is not annealed or not annealed properly—annealing is the process of heating and then slowly cooling to bind the layers, making the product strong and stable. The edges of the product might also curl, or the product might dome (lift in the middle) so when walked on, it may make noise. The product may also delaminate, the top layer coming off, usually starting at a corner. In some cases, if you grasp the little lifted edge, you can actually peel the face off the material. These dimensional changes often get blamed on the installer, when, in fact, they are due to an imbalance in the product itself.

LVT will also react to environmental conditions of hot and cold and even humidity. Just because it’s vinyl doesn’t mean that it won’t react to the same conditions as other flooring materials. Heat can make the material grow and expand; cold can make it contract and get brittle; and moisture in the air or from the substrate can cause the product to become unstable. 

In addition to varying levels of product quality, another possible pitfall is sound transfer. While LVT doesn’t have the same issues as laminate flooring, or even ceramic and hardwood, it’s still louder than carpet—and LVT is often installed in areas traditionally covered with carpet. When installed in an apartment complex, the sound from an occupant moving around on a floor above can reverberate through the floor, down to the ceiling of the occupant below. To minimize this noise, an underlayment can be placed beneath the LVT, but that can impact performance—when furniture is placed on the flooring, it indents. So you’ve minimized the sound, but now have indented the vinyl permanently. The owner may have trouble renting the space if a potential tenant sees the dents and balks at the damaged flooring, but replacement after every move-out gets very expensive. 

We’ve tested flooring that’s been subjected to these conditions with and without the underlayment. By itself, the vinyl flooring often passes the indentation test, but with the underlayment, it most often fails. This creates a dilemma. You need a flooring material with inherent sound-deadening characteristics, but there aren’t many, and most cost more than an apartment owner wants to pay. So what’s the alternative? There are loose-lay products that do have acoustical properties with some cushioning that can be used in these situations. 

Abatement chemicals used to remediate the removal of vinyl asbestos tile and cut-back adhesive can also adversely affect LVT. The solvent used in this process is typically a citrus-based chemical, or in some cases people may be crazy enough to use an aliphatic solvent—mineral spirits, naphtha, turpentine or a paint thinner. These solvents, aside from penetrating the concrete and perhaps never coming out, will soften vinyl flooring material and literally destroy it. To remove the solvents used in an abatement process, whether citrus based or aliphatic, an abatement company will use a surfactant or soapy solution. 

Between the solvent and the surfactant, you’ve got yourself a combination that will compromise the installation. With the porosity of the concrete and the moisture vapor in it driving these chemicals back up to the surface along with the residual chemicals that were supposedly removed, you have a recipe for disaster. Not only will the LVT be ruined and the installation destroyed, but to get the substrate back to a condition for a new installation involves completely reprofiling the concrete after taking core samples to determine how far down the chemicals went so they can be removed. You may wind up taking more than a quarter inch off the concrete surface and then putting a blotter system down. This is not a problem, it’s a catastrophe! 

Another concern with LVT is slipping on a wet surface or one that is contaminated with something like ice melt pellets (calcium chloride)—yup, the same stuff used to do moisture vapor emission tests. If this substance is deposited on the surface, the residue will attract moisture and emulsify, which is like putting 3-in-One oil on the floor. One other area of concern would be direct sunlight on the floor, like in a high-rise building of apartments with floor to ceiling windows. Even with a UV inhibitor on the glass, over time the sun can damage the material. 

To add one more concern, be mindful of PVC-free LVT. This product can be very brittle and crack. It may be unstable, possess no drape (pliability) and may require a special adhesive for installation. You might want to do a small mock-up installation with this material to test its stability and ability to bond to the substrate. 

Now that I’ve made you paranoid about LVT, I will tell you that although there are potential pitfalls, the key word is “potential.” Like any flooring product or material from carpet to concrete, there are always potential pitfalls. This article is meant to inform you of what to look for when choosing products to sell or specify. The goal is to help you identify quality products that will actually perform in the attended applications. Armed with this information, you’ll avoid claims, complaints and a lot of headaches. And remember the saying, “You get what you pay for.” If you have any questions, please feel free to ask. We’re here to help you stay out of trouble.

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