Inspection Safari: A Laminate Flooring Installation Gone Wrong

laminate flooring installation | carpet expert Glenn Revere

When you have a new floor installed in your home, whether carpet, wood, or laminate, you expect that floor to lay flat for as long as you keep the floor. But, sometimes floors will buckle or lift in spite of your expectations. Buckling, also called tenting or bridging, is always installation related.

I recently inspected a buckled laminate floor at the homeowners request that could be the poster child for improper installation.

There are general guidelines for installing laminate flooring. Each manufacturer varies the guidelines according to what will create the best installation for their product. The important thing is to read the installation requirements. They are always included in the box with the flooring. In fact, the instructions are the first thing you’ll see when you open the box.

In this case, the homeowner hired an installer from a newspaper ad. He did not ask the installer for references, either. Here’s what happened.

First, some background regarding laminate installations. All subfloors, whether concrete or wood, must be flat to specifications, usually 3/16” over a 10’ span, length and width, in each room. If the floor has dips or high areas, they must be leveled using approved methods before the installation begins. Moisture, in vapor form, comes up from any subfloor. That moisture level must be checked. If it is found to be higher than allowed by the manufacturer, corrective steps must be taken by the installer to bring the moisture level down to an acceptable level. All laminates must have a plastic sheet placed between the subfloor and the laminate to help control this moisture. Most people add some type of underlayment. Some laminates have an attached pad or underlayment. Otherwise, a separate underlayment is used. Some of these have a built-in moisture barrier.

Laminate floors are installed so that they “float”; they are not glued or nailed down. They are made to “move” — to expand and contract as atmospheric conditions change in the home. Nothing can constrict this movement. All floating laminate floors must have perimeter gaps around the walls and at any vertical obstructions like pipes or door jambs. The gap is usually equal to the thickness of the laminate. If the floor is pinched or “locked in” ANYWHERE it will buckle when it expands.

Laminates are also limited by the overall room size in which they are installed. Installations in large rooms must have “breaks” or gaps (like a perimeter gap) after so many feet to prevent excessive expansion. Each manufacturer has their own requirements. Some want breaks if the length is greater than 40 feet and the width is greater than 23 feet. Others allow rooms up to 60 feet by 60 feet without a break. It is the installer’s responsibility to know the requirements. They use a transition molding (or “T” molding) to cover this gap. T moldings are also placed in doorways, usually narrower than 48”. Again, this requirement varies by manufacturer.

In the case of this particular inspection, 840 square feet of laminate was installed in the living, dining, and family rooms, plus the kitchen and the hall, a year earlier over a concrete subfloor in this home. It buckled after just a few months. The installer claimed the buckling was due to bad material. He told the homeowner that he would replace the bad flooring at no charge, but the homeowner had to buy replacement materials. He had pulled up the flooring in the kitchen and family room by the time I arrived for the inspection.

To make a long story short, I could tell right away that the laminate was OK. But I also knew that the installer had not read the installation instructions.

The subfloor was not level. Not only had he used the wrong material to level the concrete, he had skipped areas that still needed leveling. To his credit, he did use an underlayment with a built-in moisture barrier. So moisture was not an issue. But the sections of underlayment are supposed to lie flat next to each other with tape over the seams. He overlapped the underlayment in places and did not tape any seams.

The flooring had buckled in the living room near the kitchen entry. It also buckled in the dining room near the family room doorway. The floor was so unstable in this doorway that a small table actually shook when someone walked by!

I found that he had “locked in” the flooring by caulking between the laminate and the bottoms of several door jambs. The laminate was also touching against the front door threshold.

To make matters worse, he hadn’t used any “T” moldings at all. There were none in the hall or kitchen doorways. And this manufacturer has the “23 feet wide” requirement. The total width of connecting rooms was 34 feet without a break. He should have put “T” moldings between the “L” shaped living and dining rooms, and in the 10’ doorway between the dining and family rooms.

So the installer is responsible for the buckling problem. He should supply new laminate in addition to his labor.

After I explained the details to the homeowner, he decided to cut his losses. He realized that the person he hired is an “installer” in name only. He did not allow this individual back in his home. He has since reordered the laminate. He checked the qualifications of several installers and hired someone who is a certified laminate installer.



Who is Glenn Revere?

Glenn Revere has been a carpet expert since 1973. He’s a certified flooring inspector and the author of All About Carpets, the only book written to protect and inform you about your carpet choices, from carpet buying and carpet warranties to carpet care and maintenance. You can find him on Facebook, Google+ and Twitter.


Photo: Glenn Revere

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3 Responses to “Inspection Safari: A Laminate Flooring Installation Gone Wrong”

  1. Dick Katz says:

    Had one recently exactly like this. No T-moldings and width wise unbroken span was 35′ where 25′ is maximum tolerance.

    I guess laminate, like vinyl; is more than “SSU”! Shiny Side Up!
    Carpet is obviously “FSU” fuzzy side up!

  2. Mary Ruggirello says:

    I do agree you are probably right that the installer was at fault in this particular case. But I do have a few issues with your article.
    1. You said “Buckling, tenting or bridging is ALWAYS installation related.” I have to disagree with this generality. If an expansion gap was left as per manufacturers specs and the customer has a water issue, such as; a flood due to a hurricane, a pipe bursting, and even excessive humidity. Excessive moisture will cause buckling, tenting or bridging. The expansion gap is for normal moisture coming from the subfloor, not excessive moisture.
    2. You also said “All laminate must have plastic sheets placed between the subfloor and the laminate to help control moisture.” I again must disagree with this statement. All laminate installed over CONCRETE have a moisture barrier installed. A moisture barrier is not to be used over a wood subfloor. You can say that all laminate must have padding installed over the subfloor, or have padding attached to the laminate, that is true.
    It is the customers responsibility to keep the area within the manufacturers specs for heat and humidity.
    Inspectors that go into an inspection thinking that a particular issue is ALWAYS installation related is not interested in actually finding the cause of the problem. Maybe these statements were an oversite on your part and you were generalizing but it is important to give accurate information especially if you are an inspector.

    • Glenn says:

      Dear Mary,
      Thank you for your well thought out comments.
      1. You are correct, I should have written that buckling, tenting, or bridging is “almost” always installation related. These conditions are always moisture related in some way, even due to excessive humidity.
      2. I omitted “concrete”. This job was installed over concrete. I had the word concrete in my brain but it did not translate to the page!
      FYI, I do not go into an inspection with any pre-conceived ideas. Sometimes consumers send photos with their claim. I do not look at these photos so that I will have an open mind when I see the job site. I do not like it when installers are needlessly blamed for a flooring failure, either. I run through the necessary tests, then look at the manufacturer’s requirements and any industry specifications before I make my conclusion.
      PS- You sound like a professional. Are you in the flooring industry?