Alternatives for Flooring Underlayment

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If you’re working on a new flooring project in your home, you’ve probably put a lot of thought into the type of flooring material you want to install.
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If you're working on a new flooring project in your home, you've probably put a lot of thought into the type of flooring material you want to install. Another important consideration that sometimes gets overlooked, though, is which type of underlayment to use with your new flooring. Underlayment is a layer of material that serves as a buffer between the subfloor and the top floor covering. Choosing the best underlay for laminate flooring is a matter of knowing which options are best suited to your needs and the specific type of flooring you'll be installing.

Why Underlayment Is Necessary

You might be wondering if underlayment is a necessary component of new flooring installation. The simple answer is yes, it is. Underlayment covers minor imperfections in the subfloor, provides support for your new flooring and, depending on the type of underlay, can increase softness, reduce noise impact, resist moisture and increase the longevity of your flooring product.

Certain laminate flooring products come with an attached underlayment, so check if yours already has it before you purchase one. While a plywood subfloor won't usually require a vapor barrier or underlayment as thick as other subfloors need, it's still a good idea to use underlayment as a way of smoothing out any imperfections on the subfloor and increasing the durability of your new floors.

Laminate Flooring Underlayment Alternatives

When it comes to laminate flooring underlayment alternatives, there is no shortage of options. Deciding on the best underlay for laminate flooring requires that you first consider the type of subfloor you are working with and what underlay features are most important to you.

  • Standard foam underlayment is the most basic option and works best with subfloors that have few imperfections and don't need additional protection from moisture, like plywood or oriented strand board.
  • 2-in-1 vapor underlayment is a 3-millimeter polyethylene underlayment that combines a standard layer with a moisture barrier and works well for basic installations.
  • 3-in-1 vapor underlayment is ideal for thin floors because it is 2 millimeters thick and provides some leveling for the subfloor. This underlayment also includes a vapor barrier and some reduction of noise pollution.
  • Cork underlayment is a hypoallergenic underlayment made from natural cork material and designed to protect your flooring from moisture, repel mold and mildew and provide cushioning with thermal properties. Cork underlayment is suitable for installation with wood plastic composite vinyl, laminate or snap-in engineered hardwood flooring.

Best Underlay for Laminate Flooring

With so many laminate flooring underlayment alternatives to choose from, deciding on which one is right for you and your project can sometimes be a challenge. Since underlayment is designed to improve the stability and longevity of your flooring, it's important to choose the one that is best suited for your situation.

The first factor to take into consideration when trying to determine which is the most suitable underlayment for you is the type of subfloor on which you will install your new flooring. If your subfloor is plywood, you can opt for a thinner, more basic underlayment like the standard foam option because plywood generally does not need a moisture barrier. On the other hand, a concrete subfloor is more porous, which can hold moisture and therefore works best with an underlayment that includes a vapor barrier.

Another important consideration when choosing the best underlay for your laminate flooring is the location in which your new flooring will be installed. For instance, if you are installing your floors in a condo or apartment, especially one located above ground level, noise pollution is a bigger concern than if you were installing your floor on the bottom level of a single-family residence. Your HOA or lease agreement may even specify a sound rating requirement for flooring. Your best bet in this situation is to opt for a 3-in-1 underlayment with a good rating for isolating sound impact.

If you are like most budget-conscious homeowners, the cost of underlayment is something that will inevitably impact your final flooring budget. Flooring projects of any kind typically require a hefty investment, so choosing an underlayment that suits both your budget and your needs is an important consideration. Underlayment is sold by the roll or by the square foot. It's often more economical to opt for the rolls if your project is a sizable one. While prices do vary by features and brand, high quality underlayment is usually available for about 15 cents per square foot.

Considering Thermal Ratings

Homes with certain heating systems, like a radiant heat system, require that the flooring underlayment be able to conduct heat in an efficient manner. Some underlayment options come with a thermal rating, which is also known as an R-value. Higher R-values mean that less heat will run through the underlayment.

Underlayment for Vinyl Sheet Flooring

The best underlayment for vinyl sheet flooring is typically plywood, although particle board can also be used. Since sheet vinyl thickness is around 1/16 inch, it needs a thick underlayment that will help elevate it to match other types of flooring in the house. It also needs to be installed on a flat and smoother surface, which makes plywood or particle board the best underlayment for vinyl sheet flooring. Using 4 x 8-foot sheets of plywood or particle board can provide the ideal level surface for proper installation of vinyl flooring.

Final Considerations for Flooring Underlayment

Some homeowners struggle with the question of thickness options for underlayment. Most underlayment ranges from 2 to 3 millimeters thick, but some can be as thick as 6 millimeters. However, the thickness of underlayment is not as important of a consideration as the features. The type of underlayment, its sound ratings, thermal ratings and moisture resistance are what homeowners should be most focused on when choosing an underlayment.

You may also wonder if a moisture barrier is necessary for laminate flooring. The answer to that question depends on the type of subfloor. If you are installing your new floor on concrete, which is a porous surface, then a moisture barrier is necessary to prevent moisture from damaging your floors. If your laminate flooring comes with attached foam underlayment, or if you bought standard foam underlayment, you can use a vapor block film to prevent moisture and protect your flooring investment.

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Kristina Barroso

Kristina Barroso

Kristina Barroso is a public school teacher by day and home improvement enthusiast by night. She enjoys sharing her DIY experience and love of home improvement through the writing she has published on Hunker.com and Our Everyday Life.