Compared to hardwood, ceramic tiles and even linoleum, vinyl flooring doesn't have a long history, but it has been around long enough to rival all other flooring types in popularity in the contemporary flooring market. Invented almost by accident in the 1930s, the raw material for vinyl flooring, polyvinyl chloride, quickly became incorporated in sheet flooring and glue-down tiles that were installed in homes during the construction boom of the 1950s. The quality of these products steadily improved as manufacturers introduced vinyl plank flooring in the 1970s and luxury vinyl tile (LVT) soon afterward.
Unlike glue-down vinyl tile or vinyl composition tile (VCT), which has a single layer made from a composite of vinyl and other materials, luxury vinyl tile, like all luxury vinyl flooring (LVF), is constructed with several layers, and the individual pieces snap or glue together to make a floating floor. LVT is related to luxury vinyl plank (LVP), but the tiles are square, not rectangular, and they typically display a stone or tile pattern rather than wood.
Why Choose Vinyl Flooring?
Gone are the days of cheap vinyl sheeting that fades and cracks and gives your kitchen an industrial look that the average '50s homemaker would appreciate. Contemporary vinyl flooring has all the durability and water resistance of its predecessors and much more in the way of style. Luxury vinyl flooring comes in patterns that resemble granite, marble, slate and any tile flooring pattern you could get using actual ceramic tiles — but it costs a fraction of what you'd pay for the real thing and requires less maintenance.
Among the reasons people choose luxury vinyl flooring for kitchens, bathrooms and recreation rooms are the following:
- It's water-resistant, so it won't warp or disintegrate in high-humidity conditions. If you choose a product with a rigid core, it's actually waterproof, and you can spill liquids on it with abandon. Even so, it's best not to make a habit of spilling liquids on any flooring, including vinyl.
- It's soft and cushiony, not hard like stone or tile. Your children and pets will love that.
- It's low maintenance, and you have more leeway in the cleaning solution you use. When the floor gets grimy or sustains scuffs, you can clean it with a steam mop and cleaning agents that would ruin a laminate or hardwood floor in short order.
Vinyl composite tile isn't as elegant as luxury vinyl, and it takes more effort to install. VCT is more suitable for a utility room or a basement than it is for a kitchen or bathroom, and few people would choose it for a living room.
What Makes a Vinyl Tile?
The idea behind VCT is that combining vinyl with a mineral makes a rigid, durable tile that can look like travertine, stone mosaic, marble or granite. In the early days of vinyl flooring before 1980, manufacturers often incorporated asbestos into the manufacturing process, but since the dangers of this mineral have come to be understood, this practice has been discontinued, and most manufacturers use limestone.
For its part, luxury vinyl tile may also contain potentially harmful substances such as phthalates but nothing as dangerous as asbestos. (Luxury vinyl didn't come on the market until after asbestos was banned.) Instead of a single layer of vinyl composite, luxury vinyl has four distinct layers that together give it body, extra thickness and its designation as luxury flooring. Each tile has a cork or foam backing, a core, a pattern layer and a wear layer. The core, which is often a wood/plastic composite (WPC), confers rigidity, waterproofing and insulation.
Some Key Differences Between LVT and VCT
You can choose between luxury vinyl tile and glue-down vinyl floor tile for your home improvement project, but the products aren't equivalent in appearance, comfort or ease of installation. When it comes to cost, the difference isn't that great, but luxury tiles are more DIY-friendly, which reduces upfront costs for anyone with the skill set necessary to install them. This, together with the facts that it is waterproof and doesn't require glue, makes luxury vinyl suitable for more situations than VCT.
Some of the ways luxury vinyl differs from VCT include:
- Durability: Luxury vinyl tile is durable, but it can dent, and the surface layer is vulnerable to punctures. VCT that has been properly installed on a level and rigid subfloor, on the other hand, is practically indestructible.
- Comfort: Luxury vinyl is compressible, which gives it some cushion underfoot. VCT, on the other hand, is rigid, and it doesn't mitigate the hardness of the subfloor. Walking on a concrete floor covered with vinyl composition tile feels like walking on concrete.
- Adaptability: Because you install it as a floating floor, luxury vinyl tile is more adaptable than VCT. You can install it over an imperfect subfloor or even an existing floor covering, but if you choose VCT, you have to make sure the subfloor is perfectly flat and dry, or the tiles can crack or lift.
Vinyl Tile Materials and Installation Cost
The two factors affecting the cost of a vinyl tile flooring installation are the cost of the tile itself and that of installation. The prices to install VCT, as listed by Armstrong Flooring, start around $2 and top out at $6 per square foot, while those for luxury vinyl tile range from $3.25 to $7 per square foot. Other outlets list Armstrong VCT starting at 80 cents per square foot, installation not included, and Smartcore Pro luxury tile, a comparable brand, for $3.69 per square foot uninstalled.
You'll spend less to purchase VCT, but installation involves more subfloor preparation and is generally a more involved procedure, so it costs more for VCT than for luxury tile. Fixr quotes an average nationwide price between 75 cents and $3 per square foot for vinyl installation in general, and VCT installation is bound to be at the top end of the scale. If you choose VCT, you'll probably spend the money you save purchasing the tiles on installation.
All in all, luxury vinyl is a better choice than VCT for the DIY enthusiast. You'll have to spend less time and energy getting the subfloor ready, and you won't have to do any messy gluing. You can use the money you save on installation to upgrade to a better product with a rigid WPC core that will last longer and look better than a less-expensive one and look and feel better than VCT.
What's Involved With Installation?
When you install VCT, each floor tile must be firmly glued to the subfloor, which has to be clean, dry and completely level. Any high spots or dips will cause the semirigid tiles to crack, so some sanding may be needed for a plywood subfloor, and some grinding and filling may be needed for a concrete one. Let new concrete cure for at least 120 days before installing the tiles, and check the moisture content with a moisture meter to be sure it's within the limits specified by the manufacturer.
The installation procedure for VCT is similar to that for installing ceramic floor tiles: spreading adhesive with a notched trowel and laying the tiles in the adhesive. You don't apply grout, however, so the tiles must butt together perfectly, and the process can be messy if you catch adhesive on the edge of a tile before setting it in place. It's important to keep a damp rag handy to wipe excess adhesive off the tile surfaces as you go.
Luxury vinyl tile, on the other hand, requires no glue, and the installation procedure is similar to that for installing laminate flooring, which is certifiably easy. The subfloor must be clean, dry and level, but some irregularities are acceptable, and even better, you can install luxury floor tiles over old flooring. Because you can cut vinyl by scoring it with a knife, you don't even need to know how to use power tools.
Problems and Solutions
No floor covering is perfect, and while vinyl tile is durable, it isn't as durable as hardwood or ceramic tile, and it won't last as long. While the wear layer on top-quality luxury vinyl tile is designed for the heaviest foot traffic, it wears over time, and that's not all. Vinyl fades, so the parts of the floor in direct sunlight will eventually turn a lighter color than the rest of the floor.
You can prevent fading by keeping curtains closed during the day and moving furniture periodically to prevent shadows from forming underneath it. When moving furniture, it's a good idea to place cardboard or plywood on the floor to prevent scratches. Keep in mind that luxury vinyl tile dents easily, so fit all your furniture legs with protective "feet" that help distribute the weight over a larger area.
How to Replace Individual Tiles
Despite your best efforts, however, you may find that part of the floor fades or wears more quickly than the rest. Fortunately, you can replace individual tiles rather than redoing the entire floor. To replace a VCT floor tile that is damaged or faded, you warm it with a heat gun to soften the adhesive, pry up the tile, clean the adhesive off the floor with mineral spirits, apply new adhesive and set a new tile.
To replace a luxury vinyl tile, make two triangular cuts on either end and a long cut in the middle of the tile using a utility knife and then pry the tile out of the floor. After cutting the tongues from the side and end of the replacement tile, you set double-sided tape on the subfloor underlapping the existing tiles and spread seam-sealing adhesive on the grooves of those tiles. Lock the remaining grooves of the replacement tile onto the adjacent tiles, lower it, wipe off the excess sealer and roll the tile to seat it on the tape.
Maintenance Requirements for Vinyl Tile
VCT and luxury vinyl tile are low-maintenance, not no-maintenance, flooring materials. Like any type of flooring, they will suffer scuffs and lose their luster over time. You can remove scuffs by mopping and, if necessary, scrubbing. A regular sweeping and vacuuming is necessary if you want to keep the floor free of dirt.
If your vinyl flooring has lost its luster, check the manufacturer's recommendations before attempting to restore it with floor wax or polish. Most contemporary vinyl tile comes with a no-wax finish, which means just that: Don't use wax. If you do, the wax won't adhere well, and it will eventually turn dull and make the floor look worse until you strip it off. Instead, use a polish or sealant designed for no-wax floors.
The best cleaning solution is one recommended for no-wax vinyl floors, but you can also use warm water and detergent. When mopping, it's best to keep the mop damp but not wet unless you need extra help to remove a stubborn scuff mark. Don't let water stand, especially on VCT tiles, because it can seep through the cracks and weaken the adhesive, and the tiles will lift.