This cork floating floor was installed as an “island” in a retail store, and finished off with a rubber reducer molding on the edges that was attached directly to the boards (not the substrate) so the entire floor still “floats.” Photo courtesy of Capri Cork.

I grew up in a retail flooring business and along the way I learned a lot about resilient flooring, carpet and glue-down hardwood, and just a little about the first floating floors that hit the North American market in the mid-1980s. Those were hardwood floors from Europe. My career took a turn and I wound up in the commercial resilient industry in the early 1990s so I was not in retail when laminate floors hit the market about 1994.

The popularity of laminate floors led to other products being designed for floating installation and floating floors are continuing to grow in popularity. Floating vinyl floors are now becoming popular as well, but for this column we are going to cover rigid products such as laminate, wood, bamboo, cork, linoleum, leather and other materials that feature a tongue-and-groove installation.

Although you often see terms like “easy to install” attached to the floating floor category, handling and installing any floor covering product can be done the right way or the wrong way. Because this product category is so popular with “do it yourselfers,” it is imperative that floor covering professionals know the right way and give the customer their money’s worth for assurance of a job well done. That’s what they are getting for hiring you to do the job instead of doing it themselves. Proper installation is critical to any successful flooring installation, and floating floors are no exception.

The first step is qualifying the customer and the planned use for the product. Not every product is good for every use. Certain floors should not be used in wet areas and residential grade products should not be used commercially. A lot of inexpensive residential grade laminates have been used commercially over the years because they go in quickly over a variety of substrates. However, “light duty” products wear out more quickly and that is one reason laminate floors have gotten a bad name in commercial use. Today, there are a lot of choices in commercial laminates so there is no excuse not to use the right material. The same goes for other floating products with a thin veneer top layer – they will not last as long in high traffic areas.

Just as important, not all floating floor products have the same installation requirements or methods. There are numerous installation systems on the market today including click together, “glueless” angled installations, flat (non-angled) glueless & glued, and other systems. Some products can be installed “glueless” residentially but require an adhesive in commercial use or in wet areas like bathrooms. Some products install from left to right, others from right to left, and some are non-directional. Time spent with the installation guide will go a long way to making you more knowledgeable and help to figure the job correctly.

Floating floors, like most floor coverings, are subject to expansion and contraction with changes in climate, so the building has to be climate controlled for at least a week before the floor goes in. If there is no heat or air conditioning, don’t do the job! Acclimation is another key. A carpet installer I knew used to say, “Acclimation is the foundation of a beautiful installation.” He found his material was easier to install if it sat on the job at least overnight before he installed it. In the case of floating floor products, this is an absolute requirement in most cases. This usually means delivering the product two or three days before installing and making sure you store it in the room where it is to be installed.

The molding on the left of this photo was fastened through the floating floor planks and into the substrate, so the plank could not move with the rest of the floor. The end joint opened up as a result because of the “pull” the rest of the floor exerted on this one board that would not move. Photo by Christopher Capobianco.

For someone with a bit more experience than mine, I spoke with Joseph Lester, Vice President of W Flooring, a floor covering distributor covering the Southeast US whom I came to know through our mutual involvement with the Kaindl brand of laminate floors. I asked about common installation mistakes on floating floors.

“There are several different situations that we see where there is not adequate expansion space provided for the floor to move,” he explained. “The typical mistake is simply not leaving adequate space at the perimeter. Other issues of inadequate expansion include not leaving enough space around door jambs, restricting the movement by nailing quarter round into the floor, and not using transition strips when needed.”

Because of the moldings you need to cover these expansion spaces, layout is key so you order the right moldings for the job. Most floating products require transition moldings in every doorway and at stair nosings or other places where the floor ends. Walls or other stationary objects need an expansion space, so make sure moldings are figured into the job so all of these areas are protected.

Preparation is important as well. Don’t assume that “floating floors can be installed over anything,” which many people do. Level and flat is a detail that often gets forgotten! Bring a large level to the job when you measure to check that the floor is level and flat within manufacturer’s tolerance. A floating floor may float downhill if you install it on a floor that’s not level!

High spots will not allow the new floor to sit correctly and dips in the substrate create hollow sounds and/or movement in the finished floor that can lead to gaps between the boards, broken tongues or worse. Prepare the substrate using a good quality patching or leveling compound to correct any deficiencies before the floor gets installed.

“The two problems that we see with the subfloor prep,” Mr. Lester warned, “are making sure the floor is level and that there are no moisture issues.” If you are on concrete, don’t assume because it doesn’t get glued down that a floating floor is resistant to moisture emissions from the concrete. If the substrate moisture reading is within the flooring manufacturer’s requirements, proceed with the installation. If not, address the moisture issue according to manufacturer’s guidelines. Some products like hardwood also require that you test the moisture content in a wood substrate and in the flooring material you are installing, so this is an important “before installation” task to know what is required and how to test for it.

I work with a lot of architects and designers these days and they often ask about using floating floors in large open areas or multiple rooms where the flooring all flows together. In such cases, most products require a break in a doorway or for an open area, maximum “run” of 30 to 40 feet, depending on the manufacturer. At such a point, a space is left in the floor and a “T-Molding” is installed to allow for movement. This may not be the aesthetic the designer or the owner wants, but that requirement can’t be ignored.

“When the flooring is installed it becomes one unit,” Lester explained, “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. Therefore, you can end up with the flooring buckling, just as if it was installed without expansion space.”

In most cases, today’s floating floors are installed “glueless” but there are still many products and situations that call for gluing the boards together, but not to the substrate. In other cases, floating floors may be glued to the substrate but not all products can be done that way so check with the manufacturer. Photo courtesy of FCICA, The Flooring Contractors Association.

I often get asked about gluing down floating floors so this issue can be avoided and the T-molding eliminated. I recently saw a “click” maple floor that had a floating or glue down option. The job I saw was glued down successfully, but Lester warned, “A floating laminate floor should never be glued down; it restricts the flooring from being able to react to the changes in temperature and humidity.” Again, different products a may have different requirements, so read up and determine where the breaks and moldings must be placed, or if a “glue down” installation is an option.

If the layout requires expansion moldings, it’s a good idea to make certain that your customer knows where the moldings will be placed before the installation begins. Check and double check the number of molding pieces you need so you can finish the job and get paid rather than having to order in a molding you forgot and having to schedule a return visit a week or two later.

The manufacturer’s guidelines such as recommended use and installation instructions are for the benefit of the customer and the installer should there ever be an issue with the floor. Some manufacturers and other organizations spend considerable time and resources by offering training for installers. I recommend that installers, estimators and salespeople avail themselves of these training opportunities to improve their knowledge, so they can give the customer the right product for the job and top-quality, professional installation they will love for years and tell everyone they know about it. Do it right and you’ll always have work!