Home & Garden

Navigating the Flooring Maze

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Flooring is an important visual element that ties together a home. Learn how new technology and material are enabling cozy new looks in our homes.

When it comes to flooring, luxury vinyl plank is wildly popular due to its good looks, easy maintenance, durability and cost competitiveness. Shown here is Adura Seaport Sandpiper by Mannington. (Photos provided by Benson Stone Co.)

When it comes to flooring, luxury vinyl plank is wildly popular due to its good looks, easy maintenance, durability and cost competitiveness. Shown here is Adura Seaport Sandpiper by Mannington. (Photos provided by Benson Stone Co.)

When we stop and think about it, flooring has a huge impact on the way our homes look, feel and function. It’s the last thing we feel before climbing into bed at night and the first thing we touch when we arise. But we don’t think about flooring very often because we go years at a time before replacement is needed for this big-ticket item.

When we finally step inside a flooring showroom, we discover that the industry has been very busy evolving while we weren’t looking. We wander the aisles like strangers in a foreign land, running our hands over fuzzy fibers and glossy grooves, trying to make sense of confusing terms and branding messages that may as well be written in another language. We’re desperately in need of a translator.

“The word ‘overwhelming’ is probably the word I hear most often from customers,” says Bruce Swanson, longtime owner of Swanson Floor Covering, 4400 Maray Drive, Rockford. He’s seen too many people flounder in confusion when it could have been avoided.

“A good salesperson tries to keep it simple by asking the right questions,” says Swanson. “For example, do you want something that will endure over time? Or are you planning to sell the house soon and just want to make it look presentable? What do you expect out of the product? We know our products, so if you can tell us what your needs are, we can simplify your search.”

The best “translators” are found in locally owned flooring stores that have been around for a long time. They play for the long game, believing happy customers are repeat customers. Their salespeople are paid to have actual knowledge about flooring products – they’re not paid on straight commission. So don’t be afraid to ask them questions, says Kevin Rose, owner of Carpetland, 326 N. Alpine Road, Rockford. And even more importantly, don’t be afraid to answer their questions.

“When I get answers to some key questions about what people are looking for, I can direct them to products that make the most sense for them,” says Rose. “How many people live in your home? Are there children? Pets? Is the new flooring for a high-traffic family room? A low-traffic spare bedroom? A room where moisture is an issue? My four salespeople have more than 100 years of flooring experience among them. They know their products and keep up with changes by meeting frequently with industry reps. Take advantage of that.”

A Nice Surprise

Finding the right fit between customer and product should be the goal of all reputable retailers, regardless of a product’s price point, says Andy Benson, owner of Benson Stone Co., 1100 11th St., Rockford.

“Sometimes we have people come in and tell us, ‘We’d like to install a travertine stone shower,’” says Benson. “We tell them, ‘no you wouldn’t’ because we know there are a lot of disadvantages to maintaining natural travertine. You can get the same look by using a material that doesn’t have those disadvantages and costs far less. We show them those options.

“The same thing holds true with stone flooring,” Benson adds. “Speaking as someone who has been a stone guy most of my life, I can tell you there’s not much reason to install a natural stone floor anymore. Because of the great things that have happened in the evolution of flooring technology, luxury vinyl tile (LVT) or porcelain tile that looks like natural stone is just as good – better in many respects – than natural stone flooring. And it’s a lot less expensive.”

LVT: The Rising Star

So what has the flooring industry been up to since you last encountered it? The big news, in recent years, is the rise of LVT (or LVP if the luxury vinyl is shaped like a wood plank rather than a stone/ceramic tile). It marries the benefits of a man-made product with the high-end look of natural materials like wood or stone. Although man-made products haven’t always been great at mimicking nature, today’s LVT, which is in the “resilient flooring” category, is a very different story.

“Most people are hard-pressed to tell the difference between real wood or stone and LVT that looks like wood or stone,” says Benson. “Not only is the digital printing of the surface very realistic, but now the texture is, too. You not only see a knothole, you can feel that knothole. There’s nothing shiny or plastic-looking about it. The coloring and embossing are amazing.”

Benson was as surprised as anyone to find he prefers LVT to real wood.

“I always swore by wood floors but now it’s LVT all the way – I love it,” he says. “People immediately touch it when they see it, to see if it’s real wood or stone. It’s that convincing.”

LVT is the fastest-growing segment of the flooring industry; sales more than doubled between 2013 and 2016, according to Floor Covering News (FCN). A star in both form and function, it first gained popularity in kitchens and laundry rooms before migrating to larger living spaces.

“I’m seeing people do their entire home in LVT – living rooms, bedrooms, bathrooms, everything,” says Swanson. “They like the fact that it’s good looking, durable and easy to clean, especially if they have pets.”

Tracey Humphrey, a sales associate at Benson Stone Co., recently installed LVT throughout her home.

“Women make most of the purchase decisions and they want attractive, family-friendly flooring,” says Humphrey. “They want their children to be able to run their little cars around on it without worrying about scratches. LVT is a great problem solver. I’ve installed it in car dealerships – it can take the weight of the cars with no problem. I’ve also installed it in several church sanctuaries. It’s quiet, not hollow-sounding like laminate can be.”

“Laminate is dying,” says Benson.

For good reason. The core of laminate flooring is made with fiberboard, which falls apart in moisture. By contrast, LVT is made with layers of (mostly) PVC vinyl. It’s a far more stable product, and waterproof.

“We install it in homes of every price point,” says Humphrey. “Another benefit of LVT, especially in a four-season climate like ours, is that it’s impervious to changes in humidity. It won’t expand and contract the way solid wood does, but it looks just like wood. From a style standpoint, the wood look is what everyone wants right now.”

Humphrey notes that LVT designers wisely are offering many shades of grey-tone LVT that incorporate wood tones. “That way, it blends well with other features of your home such as wood-tone cabinets or furniture.”

Flooring retailers often install LVT in commercial settings like stores, hospitals and restaurants. “It can take the heavy foot traffic,” says Swanson.

LVT also compares favorably in price to real-wood counterparts, says Humphrey. A good quality LVT averages $3 to $5 per square foot (not including installation). Hardwood flooring averages $4 to $10 per square foot.

LVT is long on strengths and short on drawbacks. Its installation and removal are relatively easy, since it’s laid either as a floating floor or glued. It’s more comfortable to stand on than stone or tile, warmer, and easy to maintain. Like all flooring, it will wear better if it’s kept clean.

A growing sub-category of LVT is called WPC – wood plastic composite. It’s made in part with thermoplastics and is much more rigid. This means less sub-floor preparation is required before installation, since it hides sub-floor imperfections better than more flexible forms of LVT.

Another LVT sub-category is Rigid Core, sometimes simply branded as “enhanced LVT.” It’s said to resist indentation better than other LVTs. Shaw Floors describes Floorté as an “enhanced vinyl plank with an improved formulation that gives it greater density than WPC.” Adura Max, by Mannington, is an “enhanced vinyl plank” touted for its quietness.

Confused yet? Flooring professionals can help you navigate the many good options.

What to Know About LVT

While flooring experts love LVT, they don’t love all of it equally, says Rose.

There’s no question that the 99-cent (per square foot) kind found at big-box stores is inferior to the $3 to $6 product, he says.

“It’s like everything else – you get what you pay for,” says Rose. “Poorer quality LVT probably won’t look as good or have good embossing (texture). It may not be as thick and the finish will likely be inferior. For both hardwood and LVT, the finish is extremely important because it’s what protects the flooring over time. More money really does buy a more durable product.”

Manufacturers aren’t required to list the materials they use in LVT flooring, so it’s especially important to buy from reputable companies. LVT is made by fusing five layers of material under heat and pressure – a polyurethane top coating, a wear layer, a print film layer, a (PVC) vinyl core and a vinyl backing.

Recycled material is often used in the process, which makes a product appear to be more sustainable, but also introduces an element of mystery, since manufacturers aren’t required to reveal the materials they use. PVC is a petroleum product. Consumers concerned about indoor air quality can watch for FloorScore product ratings, which are assigned by independent testers in conjunction with the Resilient Floor Covering Institute (RFCI), rfci.com.

Most companies produce various quality grades of LVT.

“Quality LVT is produced in many places, but I have more confidence that industry regulations are upheld in the U.S.,” Rose says.

It’s not uncommon for cut-rate manufacturers of all hard-surface flooring types to shirk regulations, which is why consumers are wise to consider more than price when choosing flooring. For example, Lumber Liquidator recently settled a $36 million class-action lawsuit for importing laminate flooring made in China that contained hazardous amounts of formaldehyde.

Another consideration when buying LVT is the quality and thickness of the wear layer, which protects the floor from scrapes. In general, more mils is better. A 6-mil layer is for residential use only. A 12-mil layer is stronger and suitable for light commercial use. Schools, hospitals and hotels are likely to require 28-mil wear layers.

Soft, Warm Carpet & Rugs

Although it’s losing ground to hard surface flooring, carpet remains by far the largest category of flooring sold, at 58.7 percent by volume. That means it accounted for $.8.7 billion of the $19 billion industry in 2016, reports FCN.

As you might expect, area rug sales have grown substantially as consumers look for something soft to top off their hard floors. But wall-to-wall carpet isn’t going away anytime soon, either, especially in parts of the U.S. with cold winters like ours.

“Personally, I will never have a home without some carpet in it,” says Rose. “I like wall-to-wall carpet in the family room and in the bedroom. I want to wake up to something warm and soft underfoot. In my family room, I like to grab a pillow and lay on the floor in front of the fireplace. I wouldn’t do that on a hardwood floor.”

Nearly all carpet is manufactured in the U.S.; its story of continual improvement is an impressive one. Carpet has never been softer, easier to clean or more stain resistant than it is today.

“Today the pores of carpet fiber are either filled with a clear chemical solution or there aren’t any pores to begin with,” says Rose. This makes it nearly impossible for stains to penetrate the fiber.

Many of today’s carpets also boast pet-proof backings that prevent urine from soaking into padding and subfloors, making it possible to clean them thoroughly with no lasting odor. There is also pet-proof carpet padding.

Flooring retailers offer a dizzying array of carpet colors and styles, such as cut pile (plush, frieze, Saxony etc.) and loop pile (Berber, cut and loop etc.). Nearly all carpet fiber is made from nylon, polyester, olefin, acrylic, wool or a blend. It’s a good idea to ask a flooring associate to explain what makes a carpet more durable because there are many factors to consider and many misconceptions. Weight, fiber construction and density all play a role. The style and color of a carpet make a difference in how it will look over time, too.

While no one carpet style dominates the market right now, one fresh trend is the use of texture or color to create subtle patterns.

“Patterned carpet is definitely making a comeback,” says Humphrey.

Carpet maintains a steady presence in commercial uses, too.

“If you have a large office where many people are using telephones, for example, you want carpet because it reduces the noise level,” says Rose.

Swanson says nearly all commercial carpet is laid in carpet squares rather than wall-to-wall these days.

“It’s much easier to fit around furniture and fixtures and you can easily replace portions of it that wear out,” he explains.

Timeless Tile

Although LVT is prized for its many great qualities, there are still situations in which real tile set into mortar and sealed with grout just can’t be beat. Bathrooms are one of those places, especially if flooring seamlessly integrates with a walk-in shower.

Tile is also the flooring of choice in basements prone to flooding. The mortar-set tile provides no space for water to creep beneath the flooring surface and grow mold. Aside from plain cement, no flooring choice is as waterproof.

“Technically, you could pick up an LVT floor, dry it out, dry out the floor below it and re-install it after a flood,” says Swanson. “The flooring itself is not going to be ruined by water like laminate would be. But tile would be a much better bet.”

Tile installation is labor-intensive, as is tile removal, which adds to expense. It’s not a convenient choice if you like to replace flooring often. But tile is uniquely beautiful and comes in an infinite array of looks, lengths and shapes. Large-format and rectangle-shaped tiles are popular today.

Most tile is sold in two types: ceramic or porcelain, both of which are made of clay. Ceramic tile is durable but cracks more easily than porcelain tile. Porcelain tile is made from a more refined clay and is fired at a higher temperature to make it stronger.

“Through-body porcelain” refers to pigment that runs throughout the tile rather than being applied only to the surface. If it chips, there’s no color disparity between the surface and the tile interior.

Tile is the third-largest flooring segment after carpet and resilient; it held 12 percent of the market in 2016. Domestic tile production has increased in recent years. Dal-Tile recently opened a $180 million production facility in Dickson, Tenn., for example, a sign that tile is here to stay.

Wall tile also continues to be popular in bathrooms and kitchen backsplashes, and can be coordinated with floor tile.

“Herringbone and marble mosaic patterns are popular,” says Humphrey. “So are traditional subway tiles that are either larger, set in herringbone patterns, or are made to have a rustic, hand-hewn look.”

Wood Lovers

Wood and wood-look floors are by far the most popular trend in flooring. And as great as LVT is, “There are some people who just really want solid wood and we still sell a lot of that, as well as a lot of engineered wood,” says Benson. Solid wood is typically sold in ¾-inch planks and comes in a wide variety of species and stains.

According to the World Floorcovering Association, the most common types of wood used in hardwood flooring are American oak (white and red), cherry, pecan, hickory and white ash. Unlike most engineered wood floors, solid hardwood can be sanded and refinished many times.

The most popular wood finishes today are shades of grey, taupe and chocolate brown, says Humphrey. Reddish-hue wood tones are “out.”

Engineered wood has a surface of real wood laid over tightly compressed layers of high-density fiberboard or plywood. The layers are staggered so that the wood grain alternates directions with each layer. In this way, the wood expands and contracts evenly with fluctuations in moisture.

A recent innovation is engineered wood sold in ¾-inch planks with a thicker surface layer of real wood that can be sanded and refinished several times. Most of today’s wood floors come with a factory-applied and UV-dried finish that helps resist wear.

Final Thoughts

Nearly all of today’s flooring products come with generous warrantees. Read the fine print. Some require professional installation and regular professional cleanings.

“Carpet warrantees are up to 25 years now when they used to be seven,” says Humphrey.

Swanson urges customers to learn how to properly care for their floors. “A floor might come with a 50-year warranty but after five years it looks terrible if you don’t take care of it,” he says. “Low-maintenance doesn’t mean never sweep or vacuum.”

Grit acts like sandpaper to wear down finishes and fibers.

“Every box of flooring comes with a maintenance brochure, but most people just toss it,” he adds.

But if you’re not concerned with flooring longevity, that’s Okay with Swanson, too.

“People are very mobile these days and don’t stay in one place as long,” says Swanson. “They also tend to view things as much more disposable and replaceable than did earlier generations. There are a lot of ways to go about furnishing your home and it’s not for me to say what’s right or wrong for you. Just tell a good salesperson what your needs are and they’ll get you through the maze.”

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