Many houses built before the 1980s used vinyl tiles containing asbestos as flooring. While asbestos is a frightening word for homeowners, the durability of these tiles means the best way to handle them is to cover them with other flooring. You can paint intact tiles cheaply to give floors in your home a more modern look.
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Asbestos Tile Issues
From the 1950s to the 1980s, almost every vinyl floor tile sold contained between 2 percent and 10 percent asbestos. Asbestos is a toxic fibrous mineral that's heat- and fire-resistant and absorbs sound, making it a popular building material. However, it was discovered that inhaling asbestos fibers could cause serious illness, and the use of asbestos was drastically curtailed in homes and workplaces.
Most 9-inch vinyl tiles and many 12-inch tiles and the mastic adhesive that anchors them to the subfloor contain a level of asbestos. The good news is that the harmful fibers are securely embedded into the vinyl material, so under normal conditions the fibers aren't released into the air. But removing the tiles can disturb this trapped asbestos, so the best strategy is painting over asbestos tile or covering it with other flooring.
Preparing for Paint
Intact vinyl asbestos tiles are considered non-friable, which means they're unlikely to release asbestos fibers into the air. Friable asbestos materials are those that are easily crumbled, pulverized or turned to powder with the pressure of your hand. As long the tile remains non-friable, you can cover them safely on your own.
Inspect the floor for cracked, broken or heavily worn tiles or exposed adhesive that may contain asbestos. Have a qualified contractor remove or repair damaged flooring. Handling these damaged tiles yourself can release the fibers into the air and cause a potential health risk.
Prepare the floor for painting by removing any wax or polish. Never use sandpaper, abrasive pads, wire brushes or a power stripper on asbestos floor tiles. Instead, use chemical solvents such as trisodium phosphate or a mixture of one part rubbing alcohol to three parts water. Vacuum the floor to remove any remaining dust and dirt.
Painting Over Asbestos Tile
Use an oil-based primer to seal the floor and further encapsulate the asbestos fibers. Remove the baseboards or cover them with masking tape and use a brush or roller to evenly coat the floor, leaving an "escape route" so you won't be trapped until the paint dries.
After the floor is primed, use oil-based paint to cover the tiles as oil paint adheres and resists wear better than latex-based paint. If you expect your floor to receive heavy traffic, consider coating the paint with polyurethane. Let the paint cure for two or three days, then apply three coats of clear, water-based polyurethane. Plan to add a maintenance coat of polyurethane every two years.
You can also use an epoxy floor coating over asbestos tile. Epoxy paint designed for floors holds up well to regular foot traffic. Follow the instructions for your specific epoxy product to apply it to the floor.
Other Floor Covering Options
Painting is a quick option, but you can also install other flooring materials over asbestos tiles as long as they are intact. Covering the tiles cuts down on the wear and tear that can eventually cause fibers to be released.
Laying carpet over asbestos tiles is one option. You can also put to down vinyl or linoleum flooring over the asbestos tiles. If the floor is flat, with no bumps or depressions, you can install ceramic tile over the vinyl tile.
Based in Colorado, Erik Johnson has been writing professionally since 1996 and has worked in real estate, management and technical fields. Recipient of the 3M Richard G. Drew Recognition of Creativity, Johnson is the author of three books.