The Homeowner’s Guide to Floating Floors

Installing Laminate Floating Floor
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Until roughly 25 years ago, wood floors were directly attached—utilizing screws, nails or adhesive—to the substrate or subfloor underneath. However, a viable alternative to this method known as the “floating floor” was introduced to the consumer market by a Swedish flooring company.

As the name implies, the floating floor isn’t permanently anchored to the substrate beneath. On the other hand, it’s not actually “floating,” either, and is still very dependent on an intact substrate for optimum results.

In the years since the floating floor concept hit the worldwide flooring market, it has rapidly claimed a large market share as an easier, more efficient method of installing new flooring at less cost.

Nailed Vs. Floated

Nailing Hardwood Parquet Flooring Down
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The traditional method of installing wood floors with nails or screws was very labor-intensive and time-consuming. In addition, the subfloor to which these planks were attached had to be carefully finished to an accuracy nearly equivalent to the finished flooring material itself. Any defects had to be resolved to a high standard before permanently nailing the planks.

The process of nailing down each and every plank individually was also protracted and required great precision in cutting and fitting. A conventional wood floor was therefore a major household project that could generally be handled only by professionals at substantial expense to the homeowner.

Floating floors are not attached to the subfloor. Rather, they are laid on top of it, with only a foam or cork underlayment between the new floor and the existing surface beneath. Each flooring plank connects to the next without hard fasteners like nails or screws as the floor is quickly assembled, plank-to-plank, sort of like a not particularly challenging jigsaw puzzle.

What’s underneath a new floating floor may be a concrete slab, a rough plywood sub-floor or simply the old flooring material you’re tired of and wish to forget about (but don’t want to bother with the trouble and expense of ripping it all up.)

Material Matters

Laminate Flooring Planks Being Installed
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The individual planks or elements of a floating floor may be any number of different materials. Generally, the individual strip components of a floating floor are laid successively and snap together in a tongue-and-groove connection that may also be glued to add extra stability.

  • Hardwood planks are pure strips of solid hardwood available in many of the popular hardwood varieties. Other natural wood flooring materials such as bamboo and even cork are available in a floating configuration, as well.
  • Engineered floating floors are composed of a sandwiched plank consisting of three layers: a thin bottom veneer, a middle layer that runs perpendicular to the bottom for stability and strength and a top layer of finished hardwood that is generally 1/8-inch to 3/16-inch thick. Over 95% of floating floors installed in residences are engineered wood.
  • Laminate strips are pressure-formed sandwiched layers much like engineered wood with one major difference: the top layer of flooring that is exposed is actually a plastic laminate usually finished with an artificial grain and colorant to simulate natural wood.

What Keeps It Down?

Tongue and Groove Flooring Being Locked Together
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The word “floating” suggests that the floor might be somewhat insecure beneath your feet. So, what keeps a floating floor in place? Several factors work together to ensure that the floor won’t float beneath your feet.

  • Weight. Gravity takes care of a lot of it. While the planks of a floating floor aren’t as thick and heavy as a conventional hardwood floor, for example, the sheer cumulative weight of the entire floor when all planks are firmly locked together is several hundred pounds in a single room. This weight is substantial enough to make certain that the floor rests firmly in place atop the underlayment.
  • Friction. The foam or cork underlayment is in full contact with the underside of the floating floor and designed to apply a friction effect that prevents lateral movement or shifting.
  • Joints. The tongue-and-groove snap construction is very secure and locks each individual strip to its neighbor, producing a solid, unified floor. Glue applied to each tongue-and-groove connection lends even greater structural integrity.

General Pros and Cons of a Floating Floor

Pros

  • Expansion and contraction to adjust to humidity and temperature fluctuations. Because the floor isn’t permanently attached and expansion joints are integrated around the perimeter, a floating floor as a unit can express dimensional changes due to humidity and temperature changes without either buckling or gaps forming between strips.
  • Usually no need for expense and labor to remove existing flooring unless you want to.
  • Installation process is faster, less complex and less disruptive to your daily household routine versus installation of conventional hardwood floor.
  • A snap-together floating floor is generally ready for use and weight-bearing as soon as it is installed. No need to wait for adhesives to dry.
  • A glue-free snap-together floating floor can also be easily taken up again should the need arise. If pipes or wiring are routed beneath the floor planks, for example, they can be easily accessed. Also, any damaged or stained planks can be taken out of the floor and replaced with a new length. And yes, some homeowners even opt to take their floating floor with them when they move to a new residence.

Cons

  • Strips of a wood floating floor are thinner than the thick, hefty hardwood in a conventional nailed wood floor. The floor may therefore feel slightly less substantial and have a certain amount of “give” that is not detectable in heavy-duty conventional flooring permanently attached to the substrate. (Floating floors are often standard in ballet and dance studios for that reason—the slight give that occurs as the floor compresses the foam underlayment beneath is easier on jumping dancer’s joints.)
  • Not every room in every residence is appropriate for a floating floor. Certain cases—for example, a room where heavy furniture on rollers are moved around frequently—might not be the best application for a floating floor. Wheels concentrate large weight and mass into a very small point and may be damaging to the thinner planks of a floating floor. Flooring that is directly in contact with the substrate and glued or nailed in place, such as tile or solid wood, may be a better option in a case like that.
  • A floating floor is less expensive both in materials and installation. Thus, it tends to add less resale value to the home than a conventional hardwood floor.
  • Unfortunately, the marketplace at large includes some cheap floating floors that don’t really enhance the decor of your home. Materials utilized in cut-rate laminated floating floors, for example, typically don’t approach the realistic look, feel or aesthetic appeal of a conventional hardwood floor. Shop around to avoid these inferior products.

Special Considerations

Hardwood floating floors can last 40 years or more, depending on the type of wood, upkeep and proper installation. Here are some basic tenets about floating floor installation that distinguish it from laying conventional flooring:

A floating floor should never be considered as a cosmetic addition to hide a severely damaged or deteriorating subfloor or slab underneath. While floating floors can be laid atop almost any existing substrate that is in good condition, good preparation is necessary.

Bumps or severely rough patches of the substrate should be smoothed out or skimmed over—a substrate with noticeable “peaks and valleys” will degrade the integrity of the connection between individual floating floor planks and/or cause uneven wear patterns. Holes or other defects should be filled or patched.

Also, the surface needs to be acceptably level: In general, a slope in the substrate exceeding 1 inch in 10 feet is unacceptable and should be corrected by application of self-leveling cement or other compound before laying a floating floor atop it. The flatter the substrate, the better.

If carpeting is present on the existing floor, it should be removed before adding the floating floor. If you’re installing a floating floor atop a bare concrete slab (or a basement or garage floor) a plastic sheet or other approved material should be placed on the floor first to act as a moisture barrier against wetness that may exude from the concrete.

Floating floors need expansion gaps of 1/4-inch to 1/2-inch along each wall to allow slight dimensional changes due to temperature and humidity. A floating hardwood floor in a controlled atmosphere of 70 degrees Fahrenheit and 35% relative humidity will remain basically stable.

However, more or less humid and/or hotter or colder conditions may cause expansion or contraction. Also, it’s not only the flooring materials that expand or contract: even though a floating floor isn’t nailed or screwed to the plywood subfloor or concrete slab beneath it, dimensional changes in the substrate can affect the integrity of the floor, too.

In rooms with large square footage, an expansion gap running down the center of the floor may also be recommended.  Expansion gaps also allow airflow to penetrate beneath the floor and dry moisture that may wick upwards from the subfloor.

Because a new floating floor will usually be slightly higher than the previous flooring, you will need to plane the bottoms of all doors in the room so they will fit over the new floor without binding. The gap between the bottom of the door and the new floor should be at least 1/8-inch.

Installation Basics

Worker Installing Floating Floor Plank
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Usually, you’ll need to remove the existing molding or baseboard in the room to accommodate the new floor. Pry it off carefully and you’ll usually be able to reuse it without buying new stock.

Step 1

Decide what orientation looks best for the individual planks. In most cases, flooring planks are most aesthetic when they run parallel to the longest wall. In a perfectly square room, the decision is up to you and your decor preferences.

Step 2

Now measure the width of the room carefully. Remember to include an allowance for an expansion gap at both ends. Divide that result by the width of the flooring strips you’ve chosen to install to determine the number of strips (known as “courses”) that will be required to cover the floor.

The final course adjacent to the opposite wall will almost certainly need to be ripped—cut lengthwise in a saw—in order to be the right width to finish the floor and also leave the appropriate expansion gap.

Step 3

Vacuum the old existing flooring or the subfloor to remove all dirt and foreign objects. Roll out the foam underlayment in segments with the seams butted together, covering the entire floor with the material. Trim the underlayment to fit on all sides, then seal the seams with duct tape.

Step 4

Place spacers along the lengthwise wall as well as walls to both sides to create the expansion gaps. Align the long side of the first plank up snug against the spacer on the long side with the grooved edge facing the wall and the tongued edge facing out toward the room.

Step 5

Place the next piece end-to-end with the first piece and snap the tongue-and-groove joint together. It may be helpful to put a wood block against the end of the second piece and tap it with a hammer to secure the connection. Measure the distance to the side wall—making allowance for the expansion gap in that direction, too—and cut another plank to that length. Join it end-to-end with the previous segment and you have finished the first row.

Step 6

Now join the grooved joint of the first length of the second row to the tongue of the first row and snap the lengths together. Add additional lengths end-to-end to extend that row to the side wall spacer. A simple tool called a pull bar will often come in handy to install that final segment in each row where the end extends so close to the wall that you don’t have enough room to tap it into the end joint of the preceding segment.

Step 7

Continue in this manner, row after row. However, cut the individual planks that make up each end-to-end segment at different lengths in order to stagger the end joints between each row, making the joints less visually conspicuous.

Step 8

When you reach the last lengthwise segment in the room, rip the required segments to the correct width including allowance for the expansion joint on the side.

Step 9

Remove all spacers. Tack shoe molding or baseboard on the wall around the perimeter of the flooring to cover the expansion gap. Do not tack or otherwise attach the molding or baseboard to the floor planks, only to the wall.

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