Floor plan

Tips for choosing laminate flooring

  • When comparing products, consider the backing material and the density of the material used for the core. Also consider flooring with a water-resistant backing.
  • Read the manufacturer’s recommendations. Don’t install flooring in an area like a bathroom unless the manufacturer recommends it.
  • Buy the manufacturer’s best grade. Most manufacturers make three grades, and the cost difference is about 15 to 20 cents per square foot.
  • Compare the decorative patterns on various brands. The quality of the photographic reproduction varies.
  • If possible, see what the flooring looks like installed, perhaps in a display on a showroom floor. Walk on it to get a sense of the feel and sound of it underfoot.

    Sandy Hillsdale, a manager at Abbey Carpet in New Brighton, likes her home’s laminate flooring — a material that resembles hardwood, but isn’t — because it never needs polishing, waxing or refinishing. You can’t beat the convenience of laminate flooring, she says.

    Paul Zambory, co-owner of KZ Hardwood Floors in Anoka, thinks his home’s Australian cypress hardwood floors are amazing, floors “wild with knots,” giving the house the look of a hunting lodge in Montana. You can’t beat the charm of hardwood, he says.

    Hardwood might have charm, but laminate flooring — a long-established trend in Europe — has become a phenomenon since its introduction to the United States in 1993. In Minnesota, many consumers choose it when replacing carpet, and more builders are using it in new home construction.

    “The laminate industry is an $800 million industry in manufacturing sales, and it’s estimated to grow to over $1 billion next year,” says Steve Bunch, vice president of marketing and sales with Alloc, a Wisconsin company that is one of about 40 laminate-floor manufacturers in North America. “In floor coverings, there has never been a segment to grow this quickly. It’s revolutionary.”

    If you’re considering laminate, here’s a primer:

    What it is

    When you see hardwood, you might picture trees. But when you see laminate, think of Formica kitchen countertops — only made a bit tougher, for all that foot traffic.

    “I like to say that Pergo (a brand of laminate floor) is a picture of hardwood on a Formica countertop,” Zambory says.

    And that is what it is — literally, a photograph of wood (oak, knotty pine, cherry, maple, etc.), stone, ceramic tile, marble, slate or other flooring materials. Alloc Flooring says the design layer of its flooring features high-definition digital photography, “which creates a crisp, clear image of a real hardwood or stone finish.”

    High-pressure laminate is not new, says Wilsonart Flooring. It’s the same durable surface that has covered millions of kitchen and bathroom countertops for the past 50 years, the same surface that is used on most bowling alleys in the country.

    Invented in Sweden, laminates were introduced in the United States seven years ago by Perstop Flooring, which makes Pergo. Although laminates represent a small portion of the floor-covering industry — 3 percent, by one estimate — sales are growing by about 35 to 38 percent a year, says E.C. “Bill” Dearing, president of the North American Laminate Flooring Association.

    Laminate flooring essentially consists of a computer-generated photograph of flooring material — such as hardwood — on top of a core material that’s usually a wood-based product, such as particleboard. A backing gives it stability and helps prevent problems like warping.

    The photo layer is covered by a transparent plastic laminate that’s 10 times thicker than the coating on laminate counter tops.

    That hefty laminate helps the flooring stand up to wear. The flooring typically is warranteed for 10 to 15 years against wearing out, fading from sunlight and staining. Although it is possible to scratch or dent laminate flooring, it is difficult to do.

    Laminate can also go where hardwood can’t — notably in the bathroom. Although some brands aren’t recommend for use there, others can be used successfully there if installed properly.

    How to care for it

    You can skateboard and roller skate on laminate floors and not damage them. Nail polish, juice, ink, crayons, grease and red wine won’t damage the floors, either.

    Laminate also resists dents from furniture and high heels (although manufacturers still recommend caution, such as using felt protectors on furniture legs, and lifting heavy furniture, not sliding it, when moving it around the room).

    The floors need no waxing, polishing or refinishing. Just sweep or vacuum them, or mop with vinegar and water or a no-rinse cleaner. Marks and stains usually can be removed with warm water, acetone or denatured alcohol (check with individual manufacturer).

    When testing a Pergo and an Armstrong floor, Consumer Reports magazine reported in September 1998 that both products held up very well in wear tests, except for abrasion resistance. Both sustained slight burn marks from cigarettes but not matches. Both were more slippery than most when wet. The wear layers were marred in the magazine’s puncture test.

    But most say laminate floors are very difficult to damage.

    “Pergo is indestructible,” Zambory says. “When it first came out, I got a sample of it and took it to our warehouse and took an ax to it, just to see what the thing would do. I wanted to know what I was up against. Oh, you could beat the devil out of it. It would be excellent in a dentist’s office, or the waiting room where you get your oil changed.”

    Hardwood vs. laminate

    But for a home, Zambory still believes that hardwood is the best investment.

    “Laminate is too perfect. It does not have the warmth and charm and unique quality of a (hardwood) floor,” he says.

    Zambory also says that when nicks and scratches and normal wear and tear occur, it’s easier to repair a hardwood floor than a laminate floor.

    Generally, laminate is cheaper to install than wood. At area stores, laminate floor prices range from about $1.99 to $5.99 per square foot, sometimes bumped up to about $4.99 to $9.99 per square foot with professional installation costs.

    Including installation costs, hardwood may cost between $10.50 to $11.50 per square foot, perhaps less or more, depending on the quality of the wood. Laminates take less time to install than hardwood.

    Laminate does have its drawbacks. Chief among them is the quality of the photo reproduction, which varies among products. Some flooring is a dead ringer for the real thing; others are pretty obvious fakes. Also, the flooring is installed in pieces, and the seams may be noticeable if the sun shines on them.

    What’s new?

    Laminate flooring is called a “floating” floor because it’s not attached to the surface beneath it, instead adjusting itself according to temperature and humidity levels.

    When installing, a layer of foam or some other material is laid over the existing floor to serve as a moisture barrier and sound deadener, and sections of laminate flooring are placed on top of the underlayment. Usually the sections are glued together, but one brand, Alloc, uses a locking system that eliminates the glue and special tools.

    The company says the locking mechanism features built-in alignment accuracy, making it impossible to install incorrectly. You also can move the floor from room to room or house to house — something that, unfortunately, Zambory will not be able to do with his beloved Australian cypress hardwood floors; he’s sold his house and plans to retire and sail around the Caribbean.

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