Floating Floor Woes and What to Do About Them
Are you a homeowner trying to decide on new flooring in your kitchen or another part of your home? Or are you a flooring installer wanting to keep up with trends?
If you answered yes to either of those questions, you’ll want to learn more about floating floors.
A floating wood floor, sometimes called click-lock flooring, is a synthetic flooring material that mimics hardwood. But it doesn’t have to be nailed or glued down. Instead, it clicks into place and “floats” between the floor and the subfloor (substrate).
This type of floor, whether laminate, vinyl planks, or engineered wood flooring, is becoming more popular as an alternative to solid hardwood. It’s also a great DIY project.
Though it’s synthetic, however, it’s still affected by moisture like hardwood flooring is.
Here, we’ll discuss potential problems and the steps to prevent them so you can maximize your investment.
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Why choose a floating wood floor?
Floating wood floors have many similarities to hardwood—without the high price tag. They look and feel similar. And are perhaps even more comfortable to walk on because of the type of underlayment used for them.
They’re also well-insulated and not as noisy as typical hardwood floors.
And, for the DIYers out there, they’re easy to install and can go over any surface. If you need to replace a board, it’s not hard to pull it up since it isn’t glued or nailed down. Then, simply click a new board back into place.
But unfortunately, you may find yourself making more replacements because floating wood floors are not as durable as hardwood. They tend to show wear and tear more easily and can’t be refinished. When damage occurs, the best option is to replace them.
That’s why you’ll want to consider the common problems you could be up against and know how to prevent them.
5 common floating floor problems and what to do about them
Some of the following five problems are similar to hardwood floor problems, while others are unique to floating floors. And many of them are related to excess moisture. They are:
Let’s learn more and get ideas for solving them.
Peaking is a type of warping that occurs when the floating floorboards don’t have enough space to expand. As a result, the ends push against each other, causing the boards to lift—or peak—at the seams.
The NWFA’s booklet Moisture and Wood says the following about this problem:
“End-lift occurs when the ends of wood flooring boards appear raised. This is very common with engineered flooring that has experienced an increase in moisture, where the lamina running perpendicular to the face of the board swells at a different rate and in a different direction than the adjoining layers, forcing the ends of the material to lift.”1
It’s a problem that isn’t as common with solid hardwood flooring, which tends to expand at its sides rather than its ends.
Peaking often occurs due to drastic changes in the climate or moisture content of the wood. Having proper expansion gaps, which we’ll discuss below, can help prevent this issue.
To fix peaking, you have to remove the baseboards and molding in the room to see where the floor has expanded. Then, trim the floorboard to provide that expansion gap and make more room.2
The next problem is closely connected to peaking.
When a floating floor expands due to changes in moisture, it can lead to noise when you walk on the floor. If a thin line of glue was used around the joints of the floor, this glue could break when the floor expands, causing squeaky noises.3
Sometimes, the solution is as simple as sprinkling some talc, or baby powder, on the floor. The talc goes into the gaps between the floors and helps decrease friction, stopping squeaks.4
But if the issue is expansion, the solution to the problem is the same as the one for peaking. Trim the boards to allow more room for floor movement.
An improper underlayment could also be the culprit, so be sure you’ve used an underlayment specified by the flooring manufacturer.5
Gaps can appear between floorboards due to seasonal climate changes. Usually, they happen because the floor had too high of a moisture content at the time of installation. As the floorboard dries, it shrinks, leaving ugly spaces between the boards.
However, as Moisture and Wood points out, this is a rarer occurrence in engineered flooring:
“Seasonal gaps between boards are more prominent with solid wood flooring products than with engineered wood flooring products. The structural composition of engineered wood flooring allows it to be more dimensionally stable than solid wood flooring.”6
Typically, engineered flooring can handle more. But it’s still important to ensure your floating floor has acclimated to the right moisture content before installation.
Otherwise, you may have to replace the shrunken floorboards with ones that have acclimated properly.
Buckling is another moisture-related issue. It can occur due to water spills on the floor’s surface, changes in climate, or a lack of expansion gaps. Another cause is a lack of a moisture barrier, resulting in moisture coming up from the subfloor. What happens is that the moisture causes the boards to completely lift from the subfloor as they push against one another.
Again, solving the problem will involve trimming the boards to allow for expansion. Or replacing them completely if they have been damaged by water.
The various types of floating floors—laminate, vinyl, or engineered wood—have a pretty strong surface that can withstand damage.
But chips and scratches can still happen:
Your guest walks all over the floor with sharp high heels. Your dog sneaks into the house when you aren’t paying attention. You drop a mug on the floor.
What do you do?
If the spot is fairly minor, you may be able to color it in with a repair marker that matches your flooring.
But for larger issues, the only option is to replace the board. Floating floors can’t be refinished.
Prevention is the best way to keep them unblemished. And that’s the topic we’re heading to next.
How to prevent floating floor problems
Since moisture is a common culprit of floating floor problems, many of the best practices for floating floor installation and maintenance center around moisture control.
Make sure jobsite conditions are stable
NALFA, the North American Laminate Floor Association, provides guidelines for installing laminate floorboards. One of the first steps is to make sure that the jobsite has the proper temperature and relative humidity before the flooring is delivered.7
This means the HVAC system should be running—usually for at least five days.8
Check moisture content
Use a wood moisture meter to check the moisture content (MC) of both the subfloor and floor material. NALFA recommends testing 20 boards per 1,000 sq. ft. of laminate flooring. And the same could apply to other types of floating floors. The goal is to get a representative picture of the floorboards’ moisture condition.
Remember, you’ll want the floor’s MC to match the installation environment. For guidance on figuring out what this number should be, see our article on EMC.
The subfloor, in turn, should be within 2–4% of the floor’s MC.
If either one doesn’t match, acclimation may be your next action item.
Acclimate flooring (if needed)
Not all types of floating floors need acclimation, so be sure to check the manufacturer’s instructions.
In general, though, stack the material with the boxes unopened and allow them to sit at their destination for about 48 hours.9
But acclimating for a certain amount of time is not enough. It’s crucial to use a moisture meter to check the MC of the floor.
Use a moisture barrier
A moisture barrier between the subfloor and floor prevents moisture from coming up and damaging the floor.
Especially if your subfloor is a concrete slab, NALFA recommends always using one.10
Don’t glue the floor down
As mentioned earlier, most floating floors don’t require glue. And gluing them may actually contribute to damage because the flooring won’t be able to shift with changes in the climate.11
So don’t glue your floor down unless the manufacturer specifically instructs you to do so.
Allow for expansion space
Changes in climate can cause the size of the floating floorboards to fluctuate; they will typically expand, so they need some room to do so.
Ron Call, the owner of Harmony Flooring Business, points out in an article for Wood Floor Business that flooring installers need to have a “proper expansion gap around the perimeter of the floor and around any vertical obstruction (kitchen islands, pillars, etc.) to allow for expansion and contraction.”12
In most cases, this gap should be about 5/16 to 3/8 of an inch.13
And thankfully, you won’t see that gap since “laminate floors offer a wide variety of coordinating moldings and transition pieces to cover the 1/4″ space at walls, doorways and transitions to other flooring.”14
T-molding is a plastic strip that matches the flooring and creates a transition in the flooring between rooms or at doorways. Otherwise, the floor will all run together, and a problem or a seasonal shift in one room could impact the other room.
Joseph Lester, vice president of W Flooring, explains what happens:
“When the flooring is installed it becomes one unit, and if you run the laminate over the extended length, the unit becomes too heavy so this restricts the flooring from being able to freely react to changes in temperature and humidity.”15
The result can be some of the problems we mentioned above.
Keep the environment consistent
Avoid letting the temperature and relative humidity of your home fluctuate a lot during the year. Aim to keep these numbers stable based on the EMC of your region. Usually, they should be somewhere in the range of 60–80° F in temperature and 30–50% relative humidity.
Depending on your climate, you may need a humidifier or dehumidifier at certain times of the year to maintain this consistency.
Protect the floor
Once the floor is installed, it’s up to the homeowner to make sure it stays blemish free. This involves cleaning it properly and protecting it from moisture and other damage.
Because moisture poses serious issues for floating floors, be careful how much water you use to clean your floor.
Read: No sopping wet mops.
Check manufacturer recommendations for the types of cleaning products you should use. And if a spill does occur on your floor, wipe it up and dry it as quickly as you can to prevent buckling.
To avoid scratches or chipping, put cushions on the feet of your furniture and remove your shoes before stepping on the floor. Place a rug in areas with a lot of traffic. Small measures can go a long way in keeping the floor beautiful for years to come.
Manage moisture to protect your floating floor
Floating floors are a great way to enjoy the look of a hardwood floor without the cost. And they’ll serve you well as long as you follow the installation and maintenance guidelines mentioned here and provided by the manufacturer.
As we’ve seen, many floating floor issues boil down to moisture and a failure to use a moisture meter.
But that won’t be you because you understand the importance of a moisture meter.
If you don’t already have one, we have resources to help you find the one that’s right for you.
- Moisture and Wood, NWFA, p. 31. (↑)
- Call, Ron, “Take Steps to Avoid Noise Complaints with Floating Floors,” Wood Floor Business, January 28, 2013. (↑)
- Ibid. (↑)
- Ibid. (↑)
- Chmielecki, Michael, “Choosing Cushioning Underlayment for Carpet and Floating Floors,” Floor Covering Installer, September 22, 2017. (↑)
- Moisture and Wood, p. 31. (↑)
- Laminate Flooring Installation Guidelines and Methods, NALFA, p. 5. [↑)
- Ibid., p. 7. (↑)
- Ibid., p. 8. (↑)
- Ibid., p. 11. (↑)
- Capobianco, Christopher, “Floating World: ‘Easy to Install’ Floating Floors Still Need to Be Done Right,” Floor Covering Installer, July 6, 2012. (↑)
- Call, “Take Steps to Avoid Noise Complaints in Floating Floors.” (↑)
- Laminate Flooring Installation Guidelines and Methods, p. 12. (↑)
- Ibid. (↑)
- Capobianco, “Floating World: ‘Easy to Install’ Floating Floors Still Need to Be Done Right.” (↑)