Being proactive about subfloor preparation and customer communication will drastically increase the chances of customers being happy with their floating wood floor. (Photo courtesy Ron Call)I started installing floors in 1979 and have seen our industry change over the years. When I bought my first set of tools from a guy who was retiring, my toolbox contained needle and thread for sewing carpet seams. Fortunately, it also came with a 3-inch seam iron. I only had occasion a couple times in my career where the needle and thread came in handy on a few sets of stairs. The last 15 years of my contracting career I have focused my business on hardwood installation and sanding and refinishing. There have been many changes here as well, such as the switch in the glues we use from high VOCs to water-based and urethanes. The primary method of installation has changed as well. Only 10 years ago, 90 percent of my business was glue-down prefinished hardwood. The occasional floating floor I did was usually an edge-glued laminate.

Today it has totally flipped, and now 90 percent of the floors I install are floating wood floors and laminates. Very seldom do I get to play in glue anymore, which is the good news, since the jobs go a little faster and my jeans look good longer. The drawback is that they can cost you money if you aren't careful. The biggest problem I have found is some of the floors are a little noisy underfoot when you walk on them. And the planks, once installed, can sometimes move and create gaps. Fortunately these problems can usually be avoided; here are what I have found to be the primary causes of these issues and how to prevent them.

Moisture & Movement

Edge-glued floating floors are typically engineered floors that are assembled with a bead of glue between the tongue and groove around the perimeter of each board. They are assembled over a 6-mil moisture barrier and a cushioned pad to reduce noise. These floors become one monolithic floor (basically, the entire floor becomes one piece). If you have an edge-glued floating floor that is making a lot of noise, chances are the issue is either floor prep or moisture. Let's take a look at each one.

 

 

Moisture testing your subfloor is key so you don't install a floating floor where it will absorb too much moisture, expand and make noise. Photo courtesy Ron Call.

We all know that we are supposed to leave expansion space when installing any wood floor, but, because of their monolithic nature, this is especially critical when installing floating floors. Due to potential changes in the environment, either in temperature or humidity, you must leave a proper expansion gap around the perimeter of the floor and around any vertical obstruction (kitchen islands, pillars, etc.) to allow for expansion and contraction. Because the floor acts as one large piece, T-moldings are required to separate adjacent areas. This is because each room must be able to expand or contract without affecting other rooms. If a floating floor installed throughout an entire home were interconnected without T-moldings, what happened in the kitchen would affect what happened to the floor in the back bedrooms.

RELATED: Understanding How to Measure Moisture Can Avert Job-Site Disasters


If your glued-edge floating floor is making noise, one potential cause is that, due to moisture, the floor has expanded the maximum it can based on the expansion gap left during installation. At this point, the floor is locked in, hitting the walls or door jambs around the perimeter. You may notice that the floor seems a little softer or bouncier compared to what is was right after installation. This is because the floor is still trying to expand and now has no place to go but up. What you are hearing is the bond between the glued boards breaking as you walk across the floor. If you don't repair this quickly, the floor may begin to show separation and gaps between the boards. If that happens, the floor may not be able to be repaired, and replacement may be necessary.

If a subfloor like this one isn't flattened and cleaned, the resulting movement can break the bonds between the boards.Before the floor gets that far gone, the good news is that repair is possible. You'll need to remove the baseboards and moldings to find where the floor is hitting the walls or moldings and is locked in. You will need to use a toekick saw to cut the floor back to allow for proper expansion. Once you have made the cuts, the floor should drop back down almost immediately and should be fine.

Note that when this happens, it's possible that the floor wasn't acclimated properly prior to installation. Or, it's possible the floor was acclimated properly but the temperature and moisture changed too much after installation. Be sure you educate customers about the importance of maintaining fairly consistent temperature and moisture in the home, and the fact that they should never completely turn off their heating or air-conditioning if they are leaving their home for extended periods of time. If they go on vacation or if it is a second home, they must maintain a minimum range to avoid drastic changes in temperature and humidity.

If debris like this is left on the floor, it can cause excess movement and noise when walked on.If the floor was acclimated properly and the conditions in the home have been fairly consistent since installation, it's possible there is another source of moisture. This could be something like a slab leak or external water up against the slab during the rainy season that is wicking into the slab under the floor. Raised garden beds right up against the home or sprinklers pointed in the wrong direction can cause the same problem. Always make sure the property is properly sloped so that water drains away from the home when it rains.

Floor Prep Problems

If you have a noisy floating floor and you have removed all your moldings and baseboards and find there are still proper expansion gaps, you may have a floor prep issue. Floating wood floors typically require that the substrate, or subfloor, be flat to within a certain tolerance. This should be included in the directions that came with the product; NWFA Installation Guidelines say most manufacturers recommend a flatness tolerance of 1/8 inch in a 6-foot radius or 3/16 inch in a 10-foot radius. Making sure the subfloor is relatively flat minimizes vertical movement of the floor when people walk on it. Note, though, that with a floating floor you will always have a certain amount of movement, as it is installed over a pad. When you walk, the pad compresses and the floor will move. But too much movement-such as when the floorboards are spanning too big of a dip in the subfloor-can cause the floor to flex so much that the bond of the glue between boards will weaken. Over time, the bond can break, causing the floor to fail. If this is the case, you may be hearing loose boards beginning to rub against each other.


RELATED: Step by Step: How to Get a Concrete Slab Ready for Wood Floors


Even if the subfloor was properly flattened prior to installation, there is another floor prep issue that can cause noisy floating floors: There may be loose debris under the floor crunching as you walk. In either of these cases, whether the problem is an uneven subfloor or a dirty subfloor, there is not much you can do to fix the floor except pull it up and start over, making sure that the floor prep is done properly and the subfloor is clean of all loose dirt and debris.

Glueless Interlocking Issues

If the floor at issue is one of the newer glueless floating hardwood floors that lock together without adhesive, the cause of the noise may very well be the ones I discussed above: moisture or floor prep. But it's possible that the noise may also be inherent in the design of the locking mechanism of the floor itself. Let me be clear: That is certainly not true for every glueless floating floor. But over the last several years, as glueless floating floors have flooded the market, some manufacturers have rushed to keep up with others to secure their market share. As a consequence, I have found that some glueless floors will make noise no matter what you do.

As a contractor, I have seen my installation business change to where almost all the floating floors I install now are glueless-type installs. Some of these floors are easy to install and perform well, while others can be a nightmare. When I say "nightmare," what I mean is that it's all about customer expectations. I have personally installed thousands of square feet of these new products manufactured by almost every company in the business. If a customer is told at the point of sale that these floors tend to be a little noisier than glued floors, there is usually no problem. If they're not informed of that fact, the floor may not meet their expectations.

From my experience, in general, the wider the plank, the quieter the floor. I have found that a 3-inch wide board made by Manufacturer X sounded like walking on Rice Krispies, while the same floor from the same manufacturer in 5-inch was fairly quiet. What is causing the noise in some of these products is the fact that although the manufacturing tolerances of these products lock the boards together, there is some movement between boards, so they can squeak and make noise when walked upon.


RELATED: Engineered 101: Understand the Fundamentals of Engineered Wood Flooring


A couple years back I did an experiment on a job where I was installing 2,500 square feet of 3-inch-wide Product X. After installing the first room (approximately 250 square feet), every step was creaking and popping. The floor was properly acclimated and the floor was flattened and prepped to meet the manufacturer's requirements. At this point I had the homeowner walk on the floor, and he was not happy with the performance/noise the floor made when he walked on it. I pulled the floor completely up and re-flattened the subfloor so that it was completely flat, exceeding the manufacturer's requirements. I took photos and video of the subfloor prep and perfect flatness (just to protect myself) and then reinstalled the floor. Guess what? The floor sounded exactly the same-no change whatsoever.

Now, don't get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with these floors. They can be a great value for the money, and easier to install. They can just tend to be noisier than a glued or nailed-down hardwood floor. So, what can you do? In the example/experiment I mentioned above, I returned all the underlayment and kept the flooring but switched the customer over to a glue-down installation. This did not affect the warranty, as this particular floor could be floated or glued down directly to the slab. Once glued down, the floor had no movement and made no noise at all. It cost the customer the extra expense of adhesive and a little more in labor costs, but in the end he was happy with the installation and the floor looked great.

If you are looking at an installed floor with this problem, there are two things you can try to help minimize the noise:

1) If the problem is localized to a small area, a traditional fix is to try sprinkling a little talcum baby powder between the boards. Then gently tap the floor with a rubber mallet so as to not damage the wood. This will create vibrations, and the powder will migrate down between the boards. The powder will act as a lubricant and may solve the problem. Note that you should check with the manufacturer to make sure they approve this fix.

2) The nice thing about these floors is they can be disassembled and put back together at least three times, so if the problem is throughout the floor, you can pull it up and glue it down, or pull it up and edge-glue it. This will generally solve the problem, but it may affect the warranty, so check on this first. I would call the technical services department of the manufacturer and see if this can be done; ask them to send you an email verifying you can do this. If you don't get it in writing, you're leaving yourself open to a costly replacement.

Creeping Gaps

Something else I've noticed the last few years regarding floating floors is that sometimes they move due to foot traffic.

Something else I've noticed the last few years regarding floating floors is that sometimes they move due to foot traffic, exposing the expansion gaps. I have seen this most often at the pivot point of a hallway. For example, if the floor is installed in a hallway crossways (like the ties of a railroad track), each board is at most 3 to 4 feet wide. When the floor was first installed with a proper expansion gap on both sides of the hall and the gap was covered with baseboard or shoe moldings, it all looked great. Now there may be a board or two that is showing a gap between the edge of the floor and the molding. This happens very gradually and may not appear until several months after installation. The reason is that as the homeowner walks and turns to go down the hallway, the slight sideways pressure exerted by the pivoting foot creates a gap. The board(s) is moving a very slight amount each time, and eventually a small gap begins to appear.


RELATED: Why Flooring Straps Make My Life as an Installer Easier


This can be fixed a couple of different ways. The first is very simple-it may or may not work and is only temporary. Put on a pair of good sneakers that grip the floor and try kicking the boards back in place. If this does work, you may have to do it on occasion, as the problem will most likely reappear later. If you cannot get the gapping boards to move back into place using your foot, remove the baseboard on the wall opposite the gap, take a pry bar and gently pry the boards back to their original location. Again, this will most likely be only a temporary fix. To prevent the gaps from reoccurring, it will be necessary to disassemble the hallway back to the affected area and use some flooring glue (the type you would use on a glued-edge floating floor) between the tongue and groove and then reassemble. The glued boards will be able to withstand the sideways pivot pressure that caused the problem and this will be a permanent fix. Now remember, doing this may affect the warranty, so check first.

What Can You Do?

To prevent these issues from costing you headaches and money, there are a few things you can do. First make sure you have done the proper moisture testing recommended by the wood flooring manufacturer and have documented your testing. Never cheat on floor prep or acclimation, since most failures in our industry are related to either moisture or improper floor prep. If you pull up the existing floor and discover extensive prep is required but the customer is not willing to pay for repairs, do not do the install. Even if they tell you something like, "I don't care if the floor fails later-I'm just trying to sell the place," etc., do not do the job. If you install it, you own it. Even if you get it in writing that the customer was OK with you installing it that way, if you get sued later, you will lose in court. The judge will rule you were the professional and you should have known better. Plus, your name is on it, and you don't want your name out there associated with bad work.

Once you begin your floating install, check it after you have installed the first several rows. Walk on it back and forth, and if it's quiet, you're good to go. If it's noisy, stop and have the customer walk on it. Explain to them that they chose a great floor but that some floating floors are a little noisier than glued-down floors, and are they OK with the creaking? Some people will tell you that it's fine, because the old hardwood floors that they grew up with made noise and they expect it. If that's the case, keep going. If they tell you they were not expecting the floor to creak and they don't like it, stop and call the person who sold the floor. Most salespeople don't even know that noise with floating installs is a potential issue. If you don't stop but instead finish the install and your customer ends up being unhappy, he or she will call you or the retailer. The retailer will call the manufacturer, and they will send out a company inspector. Best to avoid this scenario entirely by making the customer happy up-front.

As technology changes, you've got to keep up. Try to attend as many manufacturer training classes as you possibly can when they are in your area. Make sure you schedule time to bring everyone in your crew as well; they need first-hand training as much as you do. Also be sure your subscription to Hardwood Floors is up to date. Make sure you know about all the latest changes that may affect your business as the industry moves forward.



See more on this topic: Basic Wood Floor Installation


Ron Call is owner at Harmony Flooring in San Diego, Calif., and Cleveland, Ohio.
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Thanks Ron. I have a customer that wants the floating floor because another company told them it was cheaper than the glue down engineered floor that I quoted them on. Your article just reinforced what I know about these floating floors. I quoted them a price on a floating floor and that is what they want. I explained that the floating floors are nosier than a glue down floor but the other company said that wasn't true. Not sure if we will do the floor. I may just walk away from it or do as you suggest and let them walk on a bit of it to see what they think.
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Great Info Ron....one thing left out is the amount of wax put between seems in a floating floor with a locking system. From my understanding most manufacturers put a wax in the seems to help prevent squeaks and separation from happening. Also most manufacturer's now stipulate that it is the contractors or installers responsibility to determine if the wax provided is sufficient. Squeaks are now considered and installation issue and not manufacturing. Sometimes you cant win...I make sure our guys are diligent of this fact and we now add wax to floors that seem to be lacking noticeable wax. How much is sufficient, who knows?
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Not many people out there address the bowed planks set in the floor causing the squeeks as well. Will the bowed planks settle down? Maybe yes, maybe no. Then therer is the flatness standard, that 3/16 in 10 feet is not perfectly flat by any means. So you will have some movement ragardless. That equals squeeks and disengagement of end joints mostly. As I've installed thousands of floaters, the underlayment in rolls also can get bunched up under the floor. No, it does not always lay perfectly flat, neither does 6 mil. Combine a bunch of bowed planks, a 3/16 inch drop and a bunched up underlayment and you have squeeks. It is not a perfect system and any inspector who knows his stuff would be tolerant of this in his report.
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Michele Simas-Carli Saturday, 02 March 2013
We continue to install over 95% of our engineered hardwood floor in the direct glue-down method. Many of our customers who have already been been shopping at other stores and have been talked into the floating method are not given the information necessary to make an informed decision regarding installation. In our retail showroom we have a floating floor and a direct glue-down floor installed so that the customer can walk on each one and hear and feel the difference in the installation methods. I understand that in some cases such as concern over moisture issues and when installing bamboo floor there are positive aspects in floating a floor, but I have yet to discover the virtues of a floating hardwood floor as a general installation method.
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What type of subfloor must you have in order to do the glue-down method for engineered hardwood floor? Can it be pressed wood / particle board or does it have to be osb or plywood?
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We are a small floor covering store established in 1947. We have found lack of wax applied to the tongue on several different bamboo products, different manufacturers. We had the national rep come out to Calif to check the complaint out. Sure enough, he said that in the process of making the boards, the Chinese plant left out one step, applying the wax. The boards had a crackle/pop sound when walking on them. The customer refused the product, and we got paid by the manufacture to tear out the product. We lost the job, as our customer was so unhappy, they went to Costco for the new floor. More info, my customer was my dentist, whom I have been seeing for 30 years and I went to school with him. You think they would have given us another chance. We offered to glue it down or nail it instead, but they didn't want that. They were on a wood foundation. We had the same issue with a customer who had bought his wood at Home Depot, but asked us to install it. We installed 3 rows and then check it out. It had the same crackling/popping noise. After talking to Home Depot, we applied wax to the tongue and continued installing the product.
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Can you glue down a laminate flooring with a rubber back attached? We have two rooms of squeaky floors.
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All Floors Inc. Tuesday, 03 June 2014
Before you install laminate flooring, you must allow the planks or the laminates to get acclimatized with the roof. The laminates or planks can expand or contract, if you suddenly pull in the laminates and start installing them, then they can react to the heat, cold or humidity in the room. Get them acclimatized with the ambiance inside and your installation process would be smoother. Article Source: EzineArticles.com/8494548
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This is an interesting article. I purchased Universal Versa Strip Hardwood flooring from Home Depot some years ago, and it it has cracked and popped horribly since I bought it. It was installed by a local reputable installer who informed me afterwards that the flooring was at fault. But, Home Depot would not take any responsibility, and blamed the installer, even 'though they admitted the flooring was junk. My conclusion is that no one should use floating flooring. I used it because I have radiant heat and concrete floors, but the areas of my home that have glued-down parquet flooring are much better.....no noise and no movement. I wish now I had installed parquet everywhere, as the floating flooring is just an unsolvable pain. I guess one day I will tear it all up.
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Drop Lock systems. It's the up and down nature of the fastest and most popular locking system out there. The end click mechanism of each board accepts the tongue from the next board in a vertical vs horizontal fashion . The next plank end tongue faces down and falls/clicks in to a pocket to close the mechanism at the end joint. If there is a big enough pothole in the subfloor below the point where those two pieces meet, the pocketed side can be pushed down by stepping on the first board, effectively unlocking the mechanism a bit. When you step across the seam of both boards again or just on the one with tongue facing down, you'll click it back together. Hence the noise (snap crackle pop sound). I've seen it more in laminate and hdf core engineered products than in pure ply core or filleted core engineered floors, but the same things apply. I would also add that I have yet to see a noise complaint on a drop click type floor that didn't have more than one red flag. No bloody t-moldings separating rooms because the home owner hates the bumps! Zero humidity control, no expansion space or a sub floor that was like a skateboard park to begin with. Usually a combination of those issues. Then the comments..."how do you expect me to get the sub floor flat within 3/16 over ten feet?, it's impossible!" We all know it isn't. Too expensive at times perhaps, but not impossible. This system is wicked fast, do it yourself friendly and the speed outweighs the challenges in my opinion, but it amplifies the need for as flat a subfloor as possible! The same rules apply for all floors but in this case there is just less forgiveness. Horizontal click systems separated at the ends due to foot traffic and other issues. This click system solves that issue quite well. Again, education before the sale and education of installers. "Mr. Customer, your subfloor needs to be flattened before I can install this properly".