Preventing & Troubleshooting Problems pt. III: Care During Installation

Preventing & Troubleshooting Problems pt. III: Care During Installation

Pre-Installation Prep. If you haven’t already looked at them, check out our tips on what to do when your flooring arrives and before installation. If bad planks get installed, or good ones go down wrongly, the warranty will be voided and you may be stuck with problems to solve on your own.
Measure. Take very exact measurements, especially factoring in anything that makes the room other than perfectly square, whether it’s a fireplace or the room itself not being perfectly square, but off a degree or so.
The Measuring Tape. Your friend.

Moisture Barriers. These are also called Vapor Barriers – essentially the same thing. When do you need them? To be very basic, over concrete always and over wood never. It primarily depends on your subfloor, and the specifics will be in your instructions.

If you don’t use a moisture barrier where it is needed, it is likely that your flooring will eventually expand, each plank pushing against the others. The planks may cup, or you may see gaps.

Crawl Spaces Under the New Floor. If you have a crawl space under the floor you’re installing, it will need to have a moisture barrier designed to go over ground, and the entire area must be covered. You will also need the space to have proper cross ventilation with no dead air spaces. A crawl space is a moisture trap, holding it under your new floor, where it can rise up and become a problem.

Padding. To avoid what’s often called a hollow sound, caused by bare laminate boards against a solid subfloor, most people use padding underneath it. How much padding can go under will be stated by your instructions.
The range is usually up to 5mm., with more being allowed under thicker floors. Padding can bring some extra insulation, dampen sound, and make the planks more comfortable to walk on. Foam is basic, felt is premium, and there are other materials as well.  

Note that a lot of floor padding includes the moisture barrier you’ll need with concrete, so look into that to make sure you don’t double this up. It won’t hurt your floor, but it would waste money. On the other hand, with a wood subfloor this would be a problem because you don’t want a moisture barrier at all. Check your manufacturer’s instructions to determine whether there is a proper kind of padding you should use when going over wood.

The Expansion Gap.

The Expansion Gap.

Expansion Gaps. We know that laminate flooring will respond to the environment, particularly moisture – even changes in humidity. This means that to a very small degree the flooring will expand and contract over time, to an amount the planks and locking mechanisms are designed to handle, but you still need to leave room for that. An ‘expansion gap’ is a small amount of space left around the floor, a separation between the floor and the walls, or fireplace, or any other permanent, vertical surface. The amount will be given in your instructions, but it will be close to 1/4″. The method is to use spacers as you install. The potential cosmetic destruction is remedied by trims and transition pieces.
These are installed to the walls, not secured to the subfloor, and they cover these gaps, allowing the floor to slide under and pull back as expansion and contraction happen. If you don’t leave these gaps and install right up to your walls, then expansion will cause the floor to buckle or tent. Basically these planks will push against each other until they have nowhere to go but up. If this doesn’t happen, you may instead see gaps form between planks as they pull back apart when they shrink back down to size. Again, this is a minimal amount of change –your floor won’t look like it’s breathing – but physics work here as everywhere, so this little bit must be accommodated.
Snug Seams. Make sure your planks lock together tightly. That much you probably could guess, so the real tip is to check back on previous planks as you go along. The jostling needed to move one plank into place or tap it down may unlock or even just loosen a previous plank. It’s easy to go back and re-tap everything together as you go along, and can save the hassles that could arise if you discover something four or five finished rows later.

Tapping Blocks. These are designed to prevent damage as you tap a board into place. Sometimes you need to tap here and there once all the sides have been locked to close any tiny gaps. The palm of your hand is going to get sore pretty fast if you don’t use tools, and if you do use them directly on the edges of your planks, you can damage them.
The Tapping Block fits over the edges to put the force where the plank can take it. The problem is that using them improperly can actually cause damage. Here’s a 3 minute video that will show you both proper and improper use of a tapping block.

Other Chipping. While a dropped object can chip a laminate floor, most chipping (verses ‘denting’ – the usual result of the drop) happens before or during installation. Check your planks as you install them, or make sure your installer does and closely inspect the work before signing off. Once a plank has been installed and the installation completed, the manufacturer will not accept responsibility for the damage. If you notice any as you go along, replace them before continuing.

Staggering. Most click-together floors need to have end joints from one row to the next to be at least 8” to 12” away from each other. Read your instructions for the number. This is because the sides of the neighboring planks keep the end planks in place. If you have end joints lining up, your planks could pull apart over time.

Cut pieces from one row can be used to start another.

Cut pieces from one row can be used to start another.

This is also aesthetic. If your end joints are always close, you’ll miss the random look most try to get with their flooring. You might instead have a sort of zig-zag of end joints, or a stair step look if they always shift in the same direction by the same amount. You can do these if you want those looks, but make sure that they are what you want, and don’t force them into your floor accidentally.
Door Jambs. These are the vertical structures of your doorway, and usually go right to the floor. Your laminate will need to be able to slide under them, just as it does with trims. To enable this, you will need to undercut the door jambs. It can be done by putting a saw over a scarp piece of your floor (as a vertical measurement) and cutting. Then your flooring can be installed such that it goes under the jamb, allowing expansion and contraction.
Necessary T-Molds and Transitions. There are two places where you would need to end part of an installation as if at a wall, and pick it up again with a small gap between as if starting on the other side of that wall. One is at a doorway, especially one under 4 feet wide, and the other is at a certain distance, in the neighborhood of 25 feet from your starting point (as always – check your instructions). You would install up to, and away from this particular line, leaving a gap where one section of floor ends and the other begins, and in that gap you would install a piece called the T-Mold. This trim piece covers the gap on both sides to allow expansion and contraction. The reason you do this for a long install is that at a certain point the weight of the whole floor could prevent the floor from expanding and contracting properly. It would have too much to push. If we divide it up, this problem goes away.


Other parts in this series (this is pt.3)
pt.1: Arrival and Inspection
pt.2: Preparation Before Installation
pt.4: Living with Your Floor


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David has written and made videos about flooring products and installation since 2011 at Floors To Your Home (.com), where he is also the PPC Manager, a Researcher, a Website & Marketing Strategy Team member, Videographer, Social Strategist, Photographer and all around Resource Jito. In my spare time I shoot and edit video, put together a podcast, explore film history, and mix music (as in ‘play with Beatles multi-tracks’). Connect with  W. David Lichty


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