Alas, I see too many people who fail to heed the warnings then want to blame the retailer, manufacturer or the product itself for the failure when the facts, once we investigate, show that proper moisture conditions or barriers were not in place. The facts don’t lie, but people do, and by the time the flooring failure has gotten to my attention we usually find that the problems - and the huge costs and losses associated with them - could have been avoided.
This is a follow up post to my recent post on concrete moisture leading to flooring failures which got a lot of attention. I hope this post will help someone to avoid potential problems in the future.
There are three flooring materials affected most often by moisture issues: sheet vinyl, carpet and wood. The common denominator between these three products is that they are vulnerable to the affects of moisture in substrates, whether beneath or above grade or from the surrounding environment. Before you go off the deep end thinking that none of this material can be installed without the threat of a problem, let me explain.
Sheet vinyl flooring with welded seams
Sheet vinyl flooring with welded seams, used most frequently in hospitals, schools and health care facilities, is non-permeable which means it doesn’t breathe - that is moisture vapor or pressure beneath won’t pass through it. Moisture below it destabilizes the adhesive that holds the flooring in place and then eventually lifts the flooring material out of place. Sheet vinyl isn’t the only sheet goods susceptible to failure, however. Sheet linoleum and large vinyl or rubber tiles are equally at risk.
Oddly enough, if there is a VCT tile floor directly adjacent to the compromised sheet goods it may be unaffected. Why? Because the tile has a “seam” or gap all the way around it that allows anything beneath it to evaporate. Certainly if the moisture vapor emission rate gets high enough it will eventually overwhelm these tiles too - and lift them, but because they are “pieces” they have a better chance of survival.
Carpet with non-permeable backing - whether carpet tiles or wider width goods such as six foot products - can be as easily compromised as their vinyl flooring cousins because the non permeable backing will not allow moisture vapor to pass through. If there’s moisture in the concrete slab on which these products are installed there is strong likelihood of an installation failure.
In the future we will see more recycled content backings (often non permeable) for modular and six foot carpet goods so the potential for failure if proper installation conditions are not met will increase. This is not to cast aspersions on these types of products. It is meant to warn you of potential problems that can arise if the substrate is not tested to determine if it requires remediation before installation of flooring. The common denominator in these two products is the non permeable nature of the material.
Regular tufted carpet with a woven synthetic backing will allow moisture vapor to pass through it. This means the carpet won’t be affected but the adhesive holding it in place eventually will be. If the carpet is stretched in you may never know moisture is present.
Wood floors are most susceptible to moisture because, once having been a tree, they inherently absorb moisture and not just from the substrate but also from the air. Not controlling what’s above and beneath wood flooring will have you wishing you were marooned on an island where no one can find you. So the common denominator for wood floors is the fact that wood absorbs moisture.
Moisture is to flooring like toxic gas is to humans, to use an exaggerated comparison. You can’t see it but the effects are disastrous. Always assume moisture is present and deal with it accordingly. You have to test for it or have someone trained and certified by the International Concrete Repair Institute (ICRI) conduct the testing. You may even consider this certification yourselves as a profit center for your business.
When researching information about moisture issues in substrates be aware that there is a lot of misinformation out there. This subject is more complex than is readily apparent and “experts,” who really aren’t, are springing up all over. Remember, if you have a flooring complaint resulting from moisture the evidence never lies - if you know how to interpret the evidence it will point you to the cause every time.
If you want to know more about this subject and how to manage the potential threat you can contact us at LGM where we not only inspect and help manage these issues but teach others how to as well. And don’t forget, there is technology that will actually thwart the effects of moisture such as The EnviroStix™ and Freelay® systems.
Lew Migliore is President of LGM and Associates, a technical consulting firm specializing in all aspects of product and installation performance and education. He is also a consultant with the Floor Covering Institute.