How to Avoid Laminate Flooring Mistakes

Laminate flooring

Laminate flooring is one of the most popular flooring choices around, and with good reason. Laminate is attractive, durable and fairly easy to install. It gives the look of wood or stone, two beautiful and traditional but expensive flooring materials at a much lower cost.

Although the packaging and some home improvement store employees would have you think that laminate flooring practically installs itself, this is not the case. Laminate is simple when compared to installing a solid hardwood floor, but there are still plenty of details which must be given the proper attention. Failing to pay attention to these smaller considerations can quickly add up to a warped, sagging, discolored floor.

Here, we'll review some of the most common mistakes made when installing laminate flooring, whether you're tackling the job on a DIY basis or hiring the pros. We'll also give you a quick refresher on what laminate flooring actually is.

What is Laminate?

The process of making laminate flooring is simple. Several layers of wood, resin or another similar material are fused together by heat and pressure to form a single strong piece of flooring. The upper layer is a photographic print of wood or stone. Clear sealant is then applied over the photographic print to provide shine and durability.

Laminate flooring is traditionally available in planks and large square tiles for easy installation. These pieces can be cut to fit in irregularly shaped areas. Laminate flooring "floats" over the sub-floor on a layer of foam or plastic, which insulates against temperature, sound and moisture penetration.

Common Laminate Mistakes

A mistake during the installation of any floor can be disastrous. Not only does it detract from the overall appearance of the room, but it can also be a safety hazard. The following are some of the most common issues with laminate flooring, as well as how to avoid these costly mistakes.

Purchasing Poor Quality Materials

A floor is, quite literally, the basis of any room in your home. It simply doesn't make sense to cut corners when it comes to something so fundamental. Not only is extremely cheap laminate flooring much more likely to be defective right out of the package, but it's also more likely to warp, buckle and absorb stains. If you're working with a contractor for your flooring installation, ask for their opinion regarding quality brands. If you're installing your own floor, try giving a trusted contractor a call. If you don't know of any, get the opinions of experienced workers in the flooring industry, home center employees, or experienced DIY handymen. You'll receive a wide range of suggestions, many of which will be moderately priced. There's no need to buy the most expensive product on the market, but keep in mind that you do get what you pay for.

Another aspect of flooring quality is the health of your home. In the past, many types of laminate flooring were manufactured using melamine resin, a material which releases formaldehyde fumes after installation. Manufacturers, following the earth-friendly trend, have turned out many products which do not release any toxic fumes into your home. Be sure to buy only products which have been manufactured without the use of harmful chemicals.

Improper Insulation

Installing the wrong underlayment, or installing it improperly, can lead to a host of potential problems for your floor down the road.

Underlayments perform several functions. They protect the flooring from moisture which often accumulates and is emitted from sub-floors, especially if the sub-floor is made of concrete. Like any product made of wood, most laminate flooring products will absorb moisture and expand. This expansion needs to be minimized, although it can never be prevented completely. Installing the right type of underlayment will help ensure that your floor doesn't absorb too much moisture, which can lead to buckling and warping.

In addition to moisture protection, underlayments insulate against excess noise and also keep your home at a comfortable temperature. Laminate is rather thin, and if it's installed on the ground floor or over an unheated garage, the floor will likely feel extremely cold. Proper underlayment materials can prevent this. They will also ensure that there is no excess noise when the floor is walked on, which is common with such a thin flooring material.

Failure to Leave Room for Expansion

As we've mentioned, laminate flooring expands and contracts. This is unavoidable, since the materials are naturally porous. Due to this issue, laminate flooring must be given a small amount of expansion clearance around the edges of the room. If this essential step is ignored, you will end up with a floor which is buckled, warped and possibly cracked in a very short amount of time.

For smaller rooms, experts agree that 1/4 to 1/2 an inch of clearance is sufficient. For rooms with a circumference of forty feet or more, experts recommend at least 1/2 an inch. Leaving 3/4 of an inch isn't unheard of, although this amount of space is usually needed only in very humid climates. Check with a local expert to determine just how much expansion space your laminate floor requires.

Installing Cold Flooring

Expansion truly wreaks havoc with improperly installed laminate flooring, and the issue of cold flooring is a great example. Most homeowners would think nothing of installing flooring which had, for example, been sitting in a cold truck or warehouse. However, those homeowners would be sorry.

Cold flooring is fully contracted. Once the flooring is brought inside and allowed to warm to room temperature, it expands. This warming process occurs gradually. Imagine the problems which could arise if you install a few feet of cold flooring, take a break, then come back and install the rest of the flooring once it has warmed up. That first section of cold flooring will have expanded, putting pressure on the rest of the floor. Over time, this leads to big problems. Many homeowners have watched in slow horror as their new floor gradually developed a "hump." This mistake is easily avoided: just bring your flooring inside and let it warm up overnight before installing.

Failure to Address Gaps

Let's start off by saying that quality laminate flooring is manufactured with specialized grooves and other features which lock the pieces together, avoiding the issues of gaps altogether. However, if you choose to purchase less expensive laminate, you may not have this useful feature.

Over time, a laminate floor which is not locked together will gradually drift apart. You'll notice these gaps as dark lines in the floor which, upon close inspection, are actually very small open expanses. A blunt rubber mallet or other tool must be used to tap the pieces back together. Failure to do this allows debris to fall in between the pieces of laminate, making it difficult or impossible to fit them tightly back together. Check your floor monthly, and address any gaps as you find them. Check with the manufacturer or a knowledgeable home center employee for the best tool to use; you'll need something strong enough to move the laminate but blunt enough so that the shiny surface won't be harmed.

Ignoring a Damaged Sub-Floor

A sub-floor is the structure upon which all the floors in your home are anchored. On the ground floor, depending on the construction of your home, the sub-floor may be cement or concrete. These sub-floors are less prone to damage, but they are also rarer than wooden sub-floors.

Over time, wooden sub-floors, like any wooden structure, are subject to damage. Water damage, termites, mold and dry rot can all weaken a wooden structure, making it uneven and more likely to break.

Installing a new floor atop a damaged or compromised sub-floor simply doesn't make sense. Before you install your new laminate, pull up whatever flooring you have in place and inspect the sub-floor. If you're not sure what to look for, call in a professional. If the sub-floor is damaged, strongly consider replacing it before you install a new floor. You wouldn't put an expensive custom paint job on a rusted-out car, would you? Of course not. The same principle applies to flooring.

DIY Without the Proper Skills

As with any home improvement project, the desire to save money by tackling the job yourself is strong. This is especially true in today's uncertain economy. A job like the installation of laminate flooring is especially tricky, since many brands market themselves as being extremely simple to install.

Take an honest evaluation of your own skills before taking on any DIY project, especially one as fundamental to your home as flooring. If you don't have the skills, the free time or the patience to do the job right, don't hesitate to call in a professional. A job such as installing a laminate floor is relatively simple for a pro who works with flooring on a regular basis. This experience translates into a reliable job, as well as a quicker one. Most DIY jobs take longer than professional ones because they have to be worked around your schedule. A pro can come in and devote their full attention to the job, freeing up your time and getting your household back to normal. Be sure to hire a professional with relevant experience, and ensure that they are properly insured before letting them work on your home.

Choosing and installing a new laminate floor can be a headache, but it doesn't have to be. With a little knowledge, you can successfully avoid the most common and costly mistakes.

Posted by: Diane Sheppard
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