Today’s laminate floors offer realistic looking hardwoods, stones and other patterns and colors with accurate surface textures that are practically indistinguishable from the real thing.
But before you open your checkbook or slide that credit card through, here’s what you need to know to make a smart buying decision.
There isn’t a whole lot of price difference between laminates. A dark hardwood laminate may cost just about the same as a marble laminate. The reason is that the manufacturing process is basically the same, regardless of style, color or type. It’s a photograph that provides the decorative surface.
What does increase cost is the addition of texture to a laminate, as well as more natural looking surfaces that require a greater number of screens. These higher end laminates may cost more, but they’re also more durable and often come with longer warranties.
Laminate floors are installed by using a “floating floor” system. What that means is that a padded underlayment lies between the laminate planks and the subfloor. The planks are not anchored to the subfloor, only to the edges of other planks. The result can produce a hollow sound when walked upon — and have the feeling of a slight give.
Some minor ridging or peaking where planks are joined may also occur.
Some laminate floors lock together without adhesive on the sides of the planks. These glueless laminate floors have planks that simply interlock together, which makes for easy repair if and when necessary.
“Cost per square foot” is just one component of the overall price tag for laminate flooring. Ask your retailer to calculate the total cost of your floor covering project. Here’s what he or she may include beyond the cost of the laminate, itself:
- Furniture removal/replacement
- Some retailers or installers may charge to remove (and then replace) furniture in the installation space.
- Demolition/disposal of old floor covering
- Unless your home is brand new, there’s probably an old floor covering that is going to need to be removed and properly disposed of. If you’re fortunate, it may be possible to float the new laminate floor over your existing floor..
- Sub-floor preparation
- Depending on its condition (after removal of the old floor covering), your subfloor may need to be prepped for laminate installation.
- Product delivery
- Delivering your laminate flooring may not be included in the “cost per square foot” price.
- There will most likely be a “cost per square foot” to install your new laminate flooring.
- Materials required to complete the installation
- Additional materials may be required to properly install your laminate flooring, such as trim pieces or transitions.
- Many retailers offer financing as an option of payment. Be sure to check the interest rate, minimum payment due and any finance charges if you choose to pay your purchase off over time.
- Ask your retailer and/or consult the manufacturer’s warranty and care guide for directions on cleaning and maintenance for your new laminate floor.
From stone to wood to ceramic tile, today’s laminate floors can emulate almost any surface, making them a high demand, low cost option to the real things. Laminate floors are easy to install, easy to maintain and offer terrific resistance to stains and wear. But how do you choose which one is right for you?
What’s your style?
Like the universe itself, there is no limit to the colors, textures, and finishes of laminate floors. The look and feel of rare exotic hardwoods or rich stones can be achieved thanks to a highly detailed photographic process.
A laminate floor can be used in almost any room of your home. It can be sensitive to excessive moisture, though, so a bathroom or covered patio is probably not such a good idea for this otherwise very versatile product.
Laminate is its own flooring category and possesses its own features, performance benefits and styling. You can get a laminate hardwood floor with an oil finish or hand-scraped look; long, short, wide or narrow planks; sixteen-inch square tiles or stones; bricks; even photographs that you shot yourself (should you be so inclined).
How will you install it?
Installing a new laminate floor is fast, easy and not as messy as you’d imagine. Laminate is typically floated over a level subfloor. No nails, staples, glue or tape are required. You simply leave a fraction of an inch around the perimeter of the room and click your laminate together. It locks fast and tight with almost no gaps between the pieces.
Of course, the most important component of laminate is the underlayment. Like a carpet cushion, this is the soft subfloor that acts as a moisture barrier, absorbs sound and keeps the floating floor in place.
Some newer underlayments feature antimicrobial properties to keep mold from growing, should it ever get wet under there. Some laminates come pre-attached to an underlayment padding.
The European Producers of Laminate Flooring (EPLF) developed the Abrasion Ration System. They rate every laminate based on a series of tests, including Tabor Abrasion Test, impact resistance, stain resistance, burn resistance and swelling resistance. Each product is assigned an AC number. Here’s what they mean:
AC1: Moderate Residential
Suitable for moderate residential use, including bedrooms and closets.
AC2: General Residential
Suitable for normal residential applications like living and dining rooms.
AC3: Heavy Residential & Moderate Commercial
Suitable for all residential applications, plus light commercial use, including hotel rooms and small offices.
AC4: General Commercial
Suitable for all residential plus general commercial applications, including offices, boutiques and cafes.
AC5: Heavy Commercial
Suitable for all residential applications plus heavy commercial applications, such as public buildings, department stores, etc.
Not all laminate flooring manufacturers go by these ratings, but most of the best ones do use the AC ratings. Look on the back of the sample boards for the AC ratings.
Homeowners who want the look of popular high-end flooring – but not the costs, are finding that laminate flooring can be a great option. But if you are among the skeptics who hear the word “laminate” and immediately think of hollow-sounding, imitation flooring that is easily discernible from the real thing, you may be surprised. Today’s high-end laminates include authentic-looking textures, beautiful design options, and impressive realism that can make these durable floors hard to tell from the real thing.
Far more affordable than many other hard flooring surfaces, laminate flooring features an abundance of look-alike design options that can impressively replicate some of the most sought-after flooring. Styles include the looks of popular domestic and exotic wood species, as well as ceramic tile and natural stones including porcelain, travertine, and slate. Laminates can range from narrow boards to wide planks in varying lengths, and tiles come in an impressive selection of designer looks.
But in addition to creating great-looking floors, today’s laminate offers far more durability. Laminate’s highly durable wear layer makes floors extremely resistant to daily wear, moisture, staining, and the possible fading caused by direct sunlight. And these floors are easier and often less expensive to maintain than other flooring types. Installation is also easier, as most floors can float over a variety of subfloors, including concrete and rooms below-grade level. Many laminates can even be installed over radiant heating systems, which is not generally an option with solid hardwood flooring. The latest click-and-lock technology makes DIY installations literally a snap, further reducing installation costs.
There are many laminate flooring products on the market today that run the gamut of quality. To determine a high-quality laminate, it first helps to understand how a typical laminate plank is constructed. Most products are comprised of 4 basic layers:
- Bottom backing layer – Also know as the balancing layer or stabilizing layer, this layer’s main function is to create a stable and level support for the plank.
- Core layer – Comprised of a high-density fiberboard, this layer generally contains a melamine resin for durability and water resistance.
- Image layer – This thin (often paper) layer is printed or embossed with a digitally enhanced image of a specific wood grain or stone finish, replicating the look and feel of the natural surface.
- Top wear layer – This layer provides laminate’s superior protection against stains, fading, scratches, and scuffs. For added durability and moisture protection, many manufacturers include aluminum oxide particles and melamine resin in this top layer.
These layers are combined under an incredibly high-pressure heat process that results in a resilient sheet, which is then milled into planks – often with added click-and-lock systems.
In comparing laminate flooring, following are a few things to consider.
High-Pressure Laminate vs. Direct-Pressure Laminate
When shopping for laminate flooring, you may come across the terms DPL or HPL. This refers to the type of pressure construction used to produce the laminate planks.
Direct-pressure laminate (DPL) generally uses 300 to 500 pounds per square inch (PSI) of pressure, which allows for more flexible melamine to be pressed into each sheet. Most manufacturers use a direct-pressure laminate process, as its flexibility helps in the creation of more realistic-looking patterns.
High-pressure laminate (HPL) floors are made using more than 1,300 PSI, resulting in a thicker decorative layer. HPL construction offers superior impact and heat resistance, as well as better sound reduction, and overall stability. This maximum durability makes HPL most suitable for commercial use.
Overall Plank Thickness
Laminate flooring is typically available in planks that range from 7 millimeters to 12 millimeters in thicknesses. While thickness doesn’t necessarily determine dent resistance, a thicker laminate will help prevent bends in the floor that can occur if the subfloor is not completely level. Thicker laminate products can also help reduce noise.
The durability of a particular laminate can be determined by the floor’s Abrasion Class rating, more commonly referred to as AC Rating. This rating system, which was originally created by the Association of European Producers of Laminate Flooring (ELPF), is currently the worldwide industry standard for gauging the durability of laminate flooring products. Ratings are assigned to products based on extensive testing requirements, which include staining and impact testing, testing the effects of small burns, checking for water absorption and swelling, and determining potential abrasion from furniture legs and castors. If a floor meets or exceeds the basic requirements in all of these areas, it is granted an AC rating between 1 and 5. The higher the AC rating, the more durable the laminate. Here’s a brief description of what each rating means:
AC 1: Designed for home use with minimal foot traffic (for example, guest rooms).
AC 2: Designed for home use with medium foot traffic (for example, dining rooms and living rooms).
AC 3: Designed for home use with all levels of foot traffic, including high traffic (for example, entryways, kitchens, busy family rooms, and playrooms).
AC 4: Designed for home use in all traffic areas and can meet some commercial standards (for example, office buildings and salons).
AC 5: Can withstand heavy commercial traffic (for example, hotels and department stores).
Laminate floors that fail any of the durability tests are not AC certifiable and are thus labeled "Unrated." Typically, “Unrated,” products will not hold up well under long-term use.
Evolving technologies have allowed laminate manufacturers to produce products that look amazingly real. Digitally enhanced images of natural materials are commonly embossed into the image layer. With embossed in register (EIR) techniques, an embossing die pushes the paper surface forward, producing a raised image that adds improved depth and texture to the laminate surface. Laminates can also be pressed to replicate distressing techniques such as wire-brushing and handscraping.
Liquid laminate technology is also making its entrance into the laminate market. This technique, which originated in Europe, adheres the wear layer to the backing layer with liquid melamine, eliminating the need for the top paper. Without the top paper, the transparency of the surface is improved, enhancing the flooring’s overall look.
Don’t Forget a Quality Underlayment
To get the full warranty coverage, many manufacturers require installing a quality subfloor, also referred to as the underlayment. A smooth, even underlayment will protect floors from damage and will cushion the flooring, making it softer and more resilient underfoot and also helping to reduce the clicking sound often associated with laminate.
For floating installations, underlayments should also include a moisture barrier. This is especially important for below-grade installations such as in basements, installations over concrete, or in rooms with high humidity or moisture. Many underlayments come with an attached moisture barrier. But if one is not attached, adding a separate 6mil plastic sheet as a moisture barrier is recommended.
Laminate flooring warranties for residential use range from 5 years to lifetime. Generally, the better the warranty, the more likely the product will hold up to daily wear. For full warranty coverage, some manufacturers require a professional installation and the installation of a specific underlayment. As with any flooring product, it’s always important to understand the terms of the manufacturer’s warranty before making your purchase.
Find Out More
Want to find out more about laminate flooring from a flooring expert? Find your local laminate flooring stores.
Laminate flooring is incredibly durable, but like any floor, it requires care to maintain its beauty. Taking proper care of your laminate floors will reward you and your home for years to come. Here’s some advice to keep your laminate floors looking their very best:
Sweeping & Mopping
Dust and dirt act as an abrasive on a laminate’s surface and seriously dull its appearance. This fact of life can be avoided by regular sweeping, dust mopping or vacuuming to remove loose dirt and grime. Either a broom or a vacuum cleaner without a beater bar will do the trick. Vacuum cleaner attachments are useful to capture dust and dirt between planks or along edges.
An occasional damp mopping is also recommended. But be careful — laminate flooring can expand when it comes in contact with excessive water. After a damp mopping, a clean cloth should be used to wipe the floor dry.
Placing doormats at each entryway is also a good idea to collect excessive moisture and dirt before they enter your home.
Dos and Don’ts
Do use glides or floor protectors on the bottom of furniture will prevent scratching or abrasion.
Don’t use soap-based detergents or “mop-and-shine” products.
Do lift heavy furniture instead of dragging or pulling it to avoid scratching and abrasion.
Don’t use abrasive cleaners, steel wool or scouring powder.
Do use carpet fragments face down under heavy objects when moving them across a laminate floor.
Don’t flood your floor with water or cleaner. For information on steam cleaning laminate flooring, see our blog post on Floor Talk.
Do your spot cleaning and occasional complete cleaning using the manufacturer’s recommended products.
Don’t try to refinish or sand your laminate floor. Banish this thought from your mind.
While it’s not a good idea to drag sharp items or walk across laminate floors with stiletto heels, it’s nice to know that replacement products are available. Replacement laminates may be a slightly different dye lot and/or texture than your original installation. With time and usage, however, the replacement product will blend in with the rest of your floor.
With proper care and regular maintenance, laminate flooring will provide you and your home with many years of beauty, warmth and durability.