Laminate is one of the best flooring choices for your home. Made to mimic the natural stained look of hardwood flooring, laminate is more economical, doesn’t need refinishing, is easy to install and is completely eco-friendly.
While a lot of people choose laminate flooring for its looks, versatility and other benefits, they often miss the importance of selecting the right underlayment.
What Is Underlayment and Why Is It Necessary?
So, what is underlayment? It’s a soft layer of cushioning placed between the subfloor and floor covering, and is usually made from materials like fiber, felt, rubber or foam. It has several advantages like sound absorption, resistance to compression, heat insulation, providing comfort underfoot and covering up subfloor imperfections.
Unlike other flooring materials like hardwood or engineered wood, laminate flooring can’t be nailed or glued down. This means it needs some kind of padding between the subfloor and laminate to help it float easily. It works somewhat like a big jigsaw puzzle that expands and contracts with changes in temperature and humidity. Underlayment works as a smooth base for your laminate flooring and helps avoid any damage due to friction between the subfloor and floating floor. Hence, getting proper underlayment is a necessity, not a luxury.
Major Factors to Consider When Choosing Underlayment for Laminate Flooring
We admire the beauty, texture and luster of laminate floors because we can see it. What we can’t see is the floor’s underlayment, which is just as important and functional as the floor covering. Here are some key factors to consider when choosing an underlayment to best fit your needs.
Many people make the mistake of using carpet padding as an underlayment, thinking it will increase underfoot comfort when walking on laminate flooring. However, this will only make the floor flex to the extent that it can damage the joints.
The best kind of underlayment for laminate flooring are thin foam layers that give a slight cushioning effect underfoot but don’t allow noticeable movement of the floor. Standard foam is the most common type of underlayment and is often used when laying laminate over a plywood or OSB subfloor. Combination foam is the perfect choice for moisture-prone areas because it comes with a vapour barrier that protects the floor from moisture. Cork underlayment is known for its noise reduction and antimicrobial properties.
Tip: When using cork as underlayment in moisture-prone areas like bathrooms, basements and kitchens, consider placing it over a plastic sheet that works as the main moisture barrier.
Your choice of underlayment will also depend on the type of subfloor you’ll be working on. For example, if it’s made of regular concrete or plywood, moisture retention can be a major problem. Both materials allow water to seep in, which can loosen the adhesive and cause mould and mildew growth.
Certain materials are unsuitable as laminate subfloors. These include residential carpets, glued vinyl or any cushioned flooring. If your subfloor is made up of any one of these materials, you must replace it before installing laminate flooring. The best subfloor materials for laminate floors are ceramic, terrazzo, particle board, OSB board, wood not joined with concrete, vinyl not glued to a secondary subfloor and exterior grade plywood.
The heat conductivity of any material is its R-value. The higher the R-value of an underlayment, the more thermally resistant it is and, hence, the better its insulating properties. The lower its R-value, the less effective it is as a thermal insulator. Choosing an underlayment material with a high R-value will make your feet feel warmer and more comfortable in winter.
Noise reduction is one of the biggest benefits of underlayment, but some materials are better at it than others. Certain areas like bedrooms, classrooms, hospitals and offices need to be quiet and peaceful, at least most of the time. When installing laminate flooring, choose an underlayment material with sound absorption properties to help deaden noise transmission to rooms on the floor below.
Mould, mildew, dust and bacteria can lead to significant health issues, especially for those with dust allergies or other respiratory problems. If you have a similar concern for yourself or family members, choose an underlayment with antimicrobial properties. Some underlayment materials like Eco Cork Foam (ECF) are infused with antimicrobial protection that inhibits mould and mildew formation to ensure a healthy atmosphere.
Certain varieties of laminate flooring come with pre-attached underlayment on the backside of the planks or tiles, so you don’t need to install an additional one. Any extra padding will put pressure on the locking system and could even cause it to break. This doesn’t apply to concrete subfloors that need an extra vapour barrier for protection against moisture.
Tip: If your floor needs heat insulation and sound reduction, avoid laminate flooring with pre-attached underlayment. Instead, choose an underlayment of your preference and have it installed professionally.
Depending on your requirements and budget, you can choose cork, foam or a combination of both as your laminate flooring underlayment. While some ready-to-install laminate floors come with peel-and-stick underlayment, others don’t. If you’re in a hurry and don’t have much preference in terms of heat or noise insulation, readymade ones will do. However, if you live on the ground floor and need underlayment that can resist moisture, go for laminate floors with custom underlayment. Only an experienced flooring professional can guide you in picking the best underlayment for your floors.