Looks matter when selecting new hard-surface flooring for offices, lobbies, and other interior spaces in commercial buildings. But so does the choice of underlayment.
Underlayment, at its most basic, is roll-out or fold-out padding that is installed between the subfloor and the finished flooring. Typically, underlayment is made from fiber, film, foam, cork, rubber or combinations thereof. In general, foam products are less expensive than fiber products, which, in turn, are less costly than cork or rubber padding.
An underlayment positioned as premium padding will usually be denser and more durable than an entry-level alternative, and will offer more value-added attributes that enhance the performance of a finished floor.
Installation of underlayment under hardwood, ceramic or porcelain tile, stone, luxury vinyl tile, laminate and engineered wood can improve the long-term performance of the flooring.
Attributes of underlayment options differ not only among manufacturers, but also within a maker’s product line. A facility manager should consider the following objectives when choosing underlayment:
1. Matching flooring type
Some underlayment options offer specific advantages geared to a particular type of flooring. Underlayment engineered for use under laminate flooring can help the flooring sound more like real wood. Underlayment formulated for installation under ceramic tile can help smooth out imperfections in substrates prior to the laying of the tile, and minimize the chance of lateral cracks in a concrete subfloor from telegraphing through to the tile or grout above.
2. Sound deadening
When evaluating floor underlayment, acoustical consultants and building departments frequently rely on tests of the performance of a floor/ceiling assembly to measure how well they insulate against noise created by impact and airborne vibrations. Sound ratings of underlayment should at least meet the local building code requirements.
3. Creating thermal resistance
Some underlayment adds an R-value, which is a measure of thermal resistance (the higher, the better). The R-value enables the padding to act as a thermal break, helping make the floor warmer in winter and cooler in summer.
4. Protecting against moisture
Some underlayment is engineered to protect against subfloor moisture that could impact the finished floor. When properly installed, this type of underlayment has the ability to wick subfloor or incidental perimeter moisture and disperse it, enabling moderate amounts of moisture to dissipate through evaporation over time — provided the source of water is stopped.
5. Making eco-friendly and healthy choices
Some underlayment is odorless, VOC-free, certified as non-allergenic and tested by a third party. In addition, some VOC-free or low-VOC underlayment is made entirely or in part from post-industrial, pre-consumer flocked recycled cotton fibers.
6. Contributing to LEED
LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) compliant underlayments made with recycled content can contribute to the overall percentage of pre-consumer content for LEED certification in the Materials and Resources category. If the underlayment also meets LEED standards for low emissions, it can also contribute to the overall project total in the Indoor Environmental Quality category.
7. Remodeling applications
Some underlayments are formulated so that, in a remodel, they can be glued directly to old vinyl composition tile or non-cushioned sheet vinyl, as long as the floor covering is still tightly affixed to a level, even and structurally sound solid subfloor. This eliminates the time-consuming and potentially hazardous task of tearing out old flooring, and reduces the chance of exposing the installers or occupants to harmful asbestos elements.
Duane Reimer is the technical director at MP Global Products, a manufacturer of recycled fiber acoustic underlayments for hard-surface flooring. He can be reached at 888-379-9695.