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Types of Underlayment for Hardwood Flooring

types of underlayment for hardwood floorsUsing an underlayment is a requirement whenever installing a hardwood floor. During the past decade, manufacturers have made it a little more challenging to choose an underlayment since they have introduced several different types, all possessing varying features.

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The installation of hardwood floors employs a technique called a free-float method. This means that the underlayment is not exactly attached to the subfloor, but the boards are attached.

Once created, the underlayment is laid down upon the subfloor. Then the hardwood floor lies on top of this underlayment, attached through a variety of different methods such as nailing, stapling, or even gluing it down. There are many benefits to using an underlayment, and it is recommended by flooring professionals with the National Wood Flooring Association.

The Function of the Underlayment

The underlayment design corrects and absorbs many of the small imperfections found in any subfloor. It also helps to deaden any sound produced when people walk on the floor since it is attached to this subfloor. It also helps to soften the actual sensation that a person experiences when walking across it.

Do not confuse the choice of underlayment for padding used for carpeted floors. You cannot buy a thicker underlayment in order to produce a softer touch when walking on the floor. This is crucial because there are salespeople in this industry that use this as a selling technique when trying to get customers to choose a more expensive underlayment. They all work at the same performance level.

There is one key factor to consider before continuing with this discussion of underlayments. Consumers must use an underlayment approved by the hardwood floor manufacturer, or any warranties may be voided.

types of underlayment for your hardwood flooringThere are essentially four types of underlayments:

  • Standard – this is usually a 1/8-inch thick foam absent of any attached moisture barrier.
  • Combination Film and Foam – usually referred to as a combo underlayment. It is identical to the standard choice except that the moisture barrier has been attached to its bottom.
  • Modified – these are underlayments available in different densities and thicknesses. This underlayment construction uses higher density rubber foam or other type of materials.
  • Cork – this underlayment should be used when requirements call for maximum sound reduction. Installers use cork where local rules and regulations specifically call for such sound reduction–for example, it is widely used in the construction of condo buildings.

Standard Underlayment Is the Most Common

Selection of the standard foam underlayment is the most common choice for hardwood flooring installations. Manufacturers will assign a specific branding name to this underlayment even though this is one component created equally throughout the industry.

Foam underlayment is simply a thin foam padding that is made no thicker than 1/8 inch.

Manufacturers will offer different size rolls of this underlayment, as well as vary the price. Consumers can find rolls as short as 100 square feet or as large as 1,300 square feet.

The longer rolls are priced slightly less per square foot since this is a bulk purchase, allowing greater savings when conducting larger installation projects. This underlayment offers an adequate performance level for all areas, such as subfloor creation, walking comfort, and sound reduction.

some types of underlayment for hardwood floorsSince the standard underlayment does not have a moisture barrier, installers use it in locations where there exists no possibility for moisture coming up from the subfloor. It can be found consistently used laid down over a plywood subfloor, but there are some instances where it could be used over concrete.

An example of use over concrete might be in a high-rise building where each floor has a concrete subfloor. Whenever installing hardwood flooring on the second floor or higher, there is no need for a moisture barrier. This makes the standard underlayment choice quite acceptable.

Summarizing the use of a standard foam underlayment, it is the choice when there is no great need for a moisture barrier. It is also good to use when there is no specific need for a greater amount of sound reduction. Often, when there is a slight need for moisture protection, the standard foam underlayment can be combined with a six-millimeter-thick plastic moisture barrier.

Combination Underlayment Is Essentially the Same

The difference between the combination, or combo, underlayment and the standard is that this one has a moisture barrier attached to it. This barrier prevents moisture from rising from underneath, potentially damaging the hardwood flooring installed. For more information on the importance of moisture barriers in underlayments, read this article from Hardwood Floor Magazine.

types of underlayment for your hardwood floorsAgain, each manufacturer will assign a specific brand name, but the quality of each product typically remains the same. Also, manufacturers will create different size rolls, allowing installers to take advantage of purchasing these larger rolls at reduced pricing.

This combination of foam and film underlayment is what installers use anywhere there is a possibility for moisture coming up from the subfloor. It calls for installation on the ground floor, especially when laid over a concrete subfloor. Additionally, buildings with a crawl space under the subfloor should be equipped with a combo underlayment for moisture protection.

Keep in mind that some manufacturers do not offer the choice of a combo underlayment. Therefore, any time an installation requires extra moisture protection but there is no recommended or available combination foam and film underlayment, installing a six-millimeter plastic moisture barrier is usually acceptable to meet all manufacturers’ requirements for maintaining a warranty.

Then the installer simply uses a standard foam underlayment over this. Always check with the manufacturer first if this is the method that you plan to use.

Modified Underlayments Are Usually Thicker

some types of underlayment for hardwood flooringConstruction of this underlayment includes use of denser foam, rubber, fiber, or even closed-cell foam. Use it when there is a greater need for sound reduction than can be supplied by other types of underlayments. Do not be fooled into believing that the choice of this underlayment will increase the comfort people experience when walking across it.

One misconception that needs to be erased is that use of this underlayment will dramatically reduce noise when walking across a ground floor. The purpose of the underlayment is to reduce the walking noise heard from floors above.

Unlike the other underlayments discussed, this category will reveal a number of different products all possessing a manufacturer’s branded name. Designation choices include the underlayment’s degree of thickness, construction type, and announced sound level reduction capabilities, as well as overall quality. Additionally, many of these types of underlayments are available with moisture barriers.

Hardwood floor installers use a modified underlayment on a building’s second floor and any floors above that. Many high-rise buildings throughout the United States have requirements for hardwood installation. On second floors or above, use of an underlayment that reduces any sound that could travel down to the floor below is required. Also use this type of underlayment for installation projects on the second floor of a home.

Install this underlayment where there is a possibility for a great deal of hard-heeled traffic across the floor. Following these considerations is a necessary tool when making the decision for choosing a specific underlayment.

Consider its thickness and purported sound reduction properties. Be wary of manufacturers claiming this underlayment produces a greater level of comfort. It does not.

Cork Underlayment Is Expensive

As the name implies, construction of this next underlayment uses cork. Typically, construction employs 1/4-inch thick cork. However, this thickness can vary from one manufacturer to another.

types of underlayment for hardwood flooringUse cork underlayment only when it is a construction requirement, because it is much more expensive than any other underlayment. It also must be glued down to the subfloor.

The cost for cork will vary and could range anywhere from $.75 to $1.50 per square foot. There will be additional labor installation costs. Although there is no significant increase in the comfort level using cork, the material does provide exceptionally high sound-deadening levels.

Many condo associations throughout the world choose to use cork as their required hardwood floor underlayment. It is considered to be the best material to use for reducing sound traveling below a floor. As mentioned earlier, cork installation uses the gluing process and then a heavy roller applies needed pressure for proper adherence.

Make Your Own Decision

some types of underlayment for hardwood floorsConsumers should take the time to gain a greater understanding of what hardwood flooring and underlayments are, as well as their varying uses. This will help to make an informed decision when it comes to a hardwood flooring installation.

The decision for selection of a specific underlayment versus another will be a personal choice. However, some construction requirements will dictate the type of underlayment that must be used.

Another misconception about reducing noise using an underlayment that is thicker is not necessarily true. Common sense reveals the fact that, the farther away the floor is from the subfloor, the greater an opportunity sound has to get trapped within a larger space provided.

In fact, use of a thicker underlayment may produce a greater hollow sound due to the large gap created between the hardwood floor and the subfloor.

The best advice is to take the time to decide which underlayment will meet your specific construction and personal requirements. It could take you a long time visiting flooring showcase stores, where you receive mostly biased opinions from salespeople seeking to steer you toward big-money purchases.

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