Flooring Installation Troubleshooting: Problems, Causes and Cures
Installation is a complicated process with loads of instructions and lots of steps. Occasionally floors may fail due to an unforeseen issue, but most of the time it’s the result of human error, either through missing a step in the installation instructions (such as forgetting to prep the subfloor) or through plain old application mistakes. We spoke with installers, contractors and instructors to find out some of the basic installation problems that appear in the field every day, and more importantly, how to correct them.
Moisture issues. Peter Craig, a concrete floor specialist with more than 41 years of experience, said moisture-related flooring failures remain an all-too-common and costly problem in the construction and flooring industry. “I’ve seen too many people lose too much money or even their businesses over this problem. There have been numerous types of systems developed that can help mitigate unacceptably high moisture conditions. By my last count there were over 60 such products in the marketplace.”
He said recently the concrete industry has developed its own solution to slab moisture problems in the form of Aridus Rapid-Drying Concrete. “It’s not a topical treatment, but a proprietary concrete mixture that consumes free water in the mix internally as it dries. Ready-Mix licensees who provide this special concrete mixture have had it specifically engineered and tested for the raw materials used at their plant. The result is a very consistent, workable concrete mixture that dries quickly and significantly reduces drying shrinkage and slab curl.”
Craig recommends moisture testing be completed by an International Concrete Repair Institute (ICRI) certified third party working directly for the owner, project manager or general contractor. While he believes many flooring installers are “very capable” of performing moisture testing, Craig said it is not in their best interest to assume the role.
He also recommends performing both calcium chloride and in-situ moisture tests. “It is important to understand that the information obtained from a calcium chloride moisture vapor emission rate (MVER) test alone is insufficient information upon which to base a flooring installation. MVER test results are greatly affected by ambient conditions and are only an indication of moisture present in the near surface region of the slab. One must measure the concrete internally [through an in-situ test] to predict what the moisture level will be throughout the slab once the floor is covered.” He stressed that for any moisture test to be reliable, an effective low-permeance vapor retarder must be in direct contact with the underside of the slab.
Craig noted he would like to see the surface of new slabs not burnished or polished during the final finishing operations. ”While it is important to have a smooth finish free of trowel ridges, polishing a slab not only delays the drying time but makes the surface less capable of absorbing free water from adhesive applications. This is a particularly important issue with the installation of sheet goods where, if free water remaining in the adhesive cannot be absorbed into the surface of the concrete, the adhesive may never completely set.”
Contracting on commercial jobs. Del Church, president of Chicago area Vortex Commercial Flooring, said an issue he has seen in the commercial arena is not using the proper materials for the job. “People love green products, but a lot of the soy- and citrus-based emulsifiers used for abatement projects are not good for adhesives. I’ve seen a floor that failed because a soy-based emulsifier had soaked into the concrete. We had to work Saturdays and Sundays to grind it off and got everything done about the same time the teachers were supposed to get back.”
He said that water-based adhesives used under school district carpets can also present problems over time. “Those carpets need a lot of cleaning and take on a lot of moisture, and it only takes a couple of years before that glue begins to break down.” To avoid these types of situations, “talk to the head of the [school’s] maintenance department. They are going to keep using what they’ve been using, and so they need a product they can clean properly without having to change the equipment or the chemistry. The key is low water, low water, low water.”
Soft and hard surfaces. According to Ken Downey, owner of Flooring Consultants and Inspection Training Service (FCITS), several problems often crop up with inexperienced installers. For carpet, it’s a combination of poor stretching procedures (such as using a knee kicker to stretch the carpet), and not using seam sealers. “With poor stretching procedures you end up with lots of wrinkling and buckling. If you don’t seal the seam, you can get edge delamination.”
With resilient, the main issue is poor subfloor preparation. “The other problem we’re seeing with sheet vinyl is the installer not rolling the product with a roller – that creates bubbles and doesn’t guarantee a 100 percent transfer of adhesive to the back of the product. You end up seeing a lot of trowel marks through the product itself. As for LVT, we’re also seeing a lack of floor prep. The subfloor has to be really flat for any kind of floating system.”
Turning his attention to laminate, he said both this category and ceramic tile share a similar problem: “Inexperienced installers are not giving these products any expansion space. The way laminate is designed, it needs room to expand or you’re going to end up with a lot of edge crush. Expansion space is also a definite necessity for ceramic tile and stone.”
Another mistake with ceramic tile and stone installation is poor adhesive coverage on the back of the tile. “When an installer is using a 1/2” square-notch trowel, he’s only getting about 50 percent coverage because between the ridges there is nothing there. You need to set the tile into the thin-set, push it forward and slide it back. That sweeps the thin-set and thins out the ridges so you can get 100 percent coverage.”
Hardwood flooring. Wayne Lee, Middle Tennessee Lumber technical advisor, said one of the biggest obstacles facing a proper hardwood flooring installation is not allowing the wood to acclimate. “Acclimation is about more than just having the HVAC going. It’s about checking the crawl space, the subfloor, cross ventilation, and any wet work going on from other trades. Only after the house is absolutely ready for the hardwood flooring is it time to bring it in.”
Another major issue is moisture. “Once you have the hardwood flooring installed, you have to factor in what it’s going to take to not change the conditions of the environment. That means not shutting the HVAC down, not opening the doors or windows, not having a guy come in to do touch-ups on the paint. These change conditions are something that a flooring guy doesn’t have much control over, but you do have to establish what you think is going to happen on the job site so you can manage these conditions as they come up.”
Leonard Hall, president of Endurance Floor Co. in West Park, Fla., said one major problem is hardwood flooring contractors often do not do any self-leveling. “Some contractors don’t level because they’re not trained in it; others are afraid to lose a job if they ask the customer for more money. But if you don’t level, it can lead to other issues like floors with hollow spots in a glue-down, or squeaking boards in a nail-down.”
He said installers and contractors should always seek to better themselves by attending training schools. “Yes, the upfront cost of training can be expensive, but it pays off in the end. Now, if you’re a company with ten in-house installers, I wouldn’t say that everyone needs to be trained. But at the very least make one guy the master trainer guy, send him to every possible school, and he can teach the rest of the installers what he knows.”
Hall added: “Contractors also need to get out of the mindset of ‘I’m just here to put the floor down; anything other than that is not part of my job.’ I was talking with someone who had close to 2,000 sq. ft. of engineered plank and I told him if I were you I’d open these boxes up, spread them out and have the owner look at them to make sure they’re okay. He said, ‘That’s not what I’m getting paid for.’ Guess what? He ended up having to stop the job and tear out the rooms because the material wasn’t even the right color from the manufacturer. If he had just laid out the boards and had the homeowner see it before he started, he would have saved everyone a lot of hassle.”
Chris Zizza, president of C&R Flooring in Westwood, Mass., shared tips on making hardwood repairs, adapted from a “Repair with Flair” presentation he gave at one of the recent National Wood Flooring Association (NWFA) conventions. Tools he uses include the EZ Pro Injector, the Wood Doctor Repair Kit from Taylor Tools and Mohawk Finishing Products soft-rub wax sticks.
“The EZ Pro Injector is great for filling hollow spots and fixing loose floors,” he said. “This is to fix a glue-down floor that’s popping up for any number of reasons, including moisture in the slab, an improper slab, or maybe you let the glue sit too long. The technique with this tool is to drill a surgical hole in the floor and inject adhesive under the floor while saving the floor from replacement.”
For cosmetic damage he recommends repair kits, burn-in sticks and graining pens. The Wood Doctor Repair Kit includes a metal scraper, butane hot knife, thermo-plastic polymer bars in a range of colors, edge preparation pens and a finishing planer. The technique for this kit, according to Zizza, is to first prepare the damaged area with the scraper as needed, then pre-color the edges of the area with the pens.
“Light the hot knife and set it for a medium temperature. Select the colors to be used by finding two to three that closely match the lightest, mid-tone and darkest areas of the finish. Melt small amounts of each color, beginning with the lightest.” Then apply the tip of the hot knife into the damaged area and start stirring the melting materials into all the voids. While these materials are still soft, place the scraper flat on the surface and press.
Remove excess polymer with the scraper, then remove any excess material with the planer. Blend by rubbing the area with Scotch-Brite, then use a sharp point to cut a grain pattern into the area. Melt a small amount of polymer into the grain pattern. Once again, remove any excess material with the finish planer. The other option is to use an edge preparation pen to carefully draw the grain on the repaired area. Blend again by rubbing the finished area with Scotch-Brite.
For gouge marks he uses Mohawk soft-rub wax sticks. “Prepare the area, run the stick over the gouge until it’s full, lightly sand and remove dust using liquid sand paper, add grain with a graining pen and apply a urethane finish with a matching sheen.” Other products he uses for gouges include Cal-Flor Accessory Systems’ FloorFix Mix 2 Match and Scratch Away.
Laminate flooring. Ron Starkey, North American Laminate Floor Association (NALFA) trainer, said two problems he often sees when inspecting laminate jobs are poor subfloor preparation and improper installation for the expansion space. “A lot of guys out there have the misconception that since laminate is floating, subfloor preparation isn’t important. Actually, it’s critical. If you ever try to install laminate over a crown or a dip in the floor, you are going to have problems.”
Regarding expansion space, he said that even when installers know to allow for it, they often destroy the expansion space when adding the finishing touches. “They remove the room for expansion when they put in the quarter round and drive the nails in. They shoot the nails in at such an angle that it hits the edge of the laminate. When the floor tries to expand, it can’t. The way to fix this is to lay the air nailer flat and shoot it straight into the wall or the base. They can’t go in at an angle, because it’s going to hit the edge of the laminate and cause problems.”
Resilient flooring. Christopher Capobianco, Ecore commercial floor covering specialist and FCI columnist, said one of the biggest issues in the resilient category – aside from those related to concrete moisture problems – is installers not understanding the difference between the variety of resilient products. “A lot of installers will look at something and say, ‘Oh, this is something I’ve already installed.’ Meanwhile it looks like a vinyl plank product but it turns out to be a non-vinyl plank, and the installer ends up using the wrong glue.”
He said the only way to avoid this problem is to be diligent, study the spec sheets and ask questions if there are any concerns. “Knowing exactly what you have in your hands is more challenging than ever these days. Resilient used to be vinyl, rubber and linoleum, and that was it. Now you have all these synthetic materials, non-PVC products, and all kinds of different products that are marketed under the term of LVT. Using the right glue and the right sundries becomes a big problem.”
He advocates the practice of having the contractor or whoever is hiring the installer supply the proper adhesives and trowels themselves. “That way there is no chance of error,” Capobianco noted. “I know a common way of cutting corners is by expecting the installer to supply all the adhesive and sundries, but that’s also where mistakes can happen.”
Ceramic tile. Scott Heron of Precision Tile Co. in West Columbia, S.C., said an error he sees often is improper shower preparation. “A lot of them don’t how to do a proper pre-slope. When they get to the walls they’re just putting up cement board and putting tile on top of it. They’re not using the right setting materials, not troweling correctly and not using a barrier.”
He added, “I tell customers, if your shower is installed correctly, you should be able to use your shower without any tile at all. After all, tile is just a covering. Everything has to be waterproof underneath first. If I’m in a bid situation and priced higher than someone else, 95 percent of the time they’ll come to me and say, ‘The other guy disagreed. He said you can’t just use a shower if there’s no tile in it first.’ I’ll respond, ‘Then you’ve got a problem. He’s obviously not doing something correctly.’”
He also said any contractor that is consistently being beat out on price needs to improve their selling skills. “They’re probably not selling themselves and the quality of what they can produce. If you’re just going after customers who go on price only, you’re going to lose. But you need to show them what you can do. Installing tile is one thing, but if you’re going to run a business you need to be the lead salesman also.”
James Woelfel, vice president of Artcraft Granite, Marble and Tile in Mesa, Ariz., believes in the importance of certification and training, including the Ceramic Tile Education Foundation’s (CTEF) Certified Tile Installer (CTI) program and the industry-wide Advanced Certifications for Tile Installers (ACT) program.
“We’re seeing a lot of bad installations out there. The subfloor prep is terrible. The concrete has issues. We’re also seeing a lot of framing issues where the walls aren’t flat either. The talent out there is just not where it needs to be. That’s why I have my guys certified. They can tell me if the walls or the floors are not up to standard, and they can communicate it to me, the general contractor or the superintendent. It makes it easier for me because I don’t have to babysit every job.”
He said being knowledgeable about industry standards and specifications is essential in the tile contracting industry. “Most of the time people know how things should go, but the 10 percent of the time I have that fight, it’s better to be armed and know what you’re talking about. You can say to them, ‘This floor is supposed to be 1/8” in 10’. Either you fix it or I fix it.’ Problems usually go away when you’re intelligent about the standards and can articulate that.”
Scott Carothers, CTEF director of certification and training, said one of the most basic and important things an installer should know when working with ceramic tile is to always have expansion joints in place. “If expansion joints are not part of the installation, it could be a 50 sq. ft. failure or a 5,000 sq. ft. failure. I was recently called out to look over a failure in a public building. A sub to a sub to a sub put the tile in, and he did not put any expansion joints in place. In two places the tile was tented to the point where I could put my hands one on top of the other underneath them. All he had to do was maintain the perimeter with expansion joints.”
He added, “You have to allow for expansion, whether residential or commercial. Expansion joints are not discriminatory – they are a requirement. They’re a very simple thing to do, so just do it.”