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Cutting corners

The damage that can result from not using the correct specialists at a flooring installation is often costly, explains Richard Renouf.

TWENTY packs of rigid LVT flooring were breaking up and the homeowner complained to the shop where the flooring had been purchased. It was one outlet of a reasonably-sized chain and the manager was new. But she’d moved from another branch and, because of her previous experience, knew straightaway that the issue was unusual and needed expert assessment.

She emailed her head office and the complete thread came through to me. I was flattered, the only expert help she wanted was me because I’d helped with a previous complaint and it had been brought to a satisfactory conclusion.

I contacted the homeowner and went to visit. The property was believed to have been built in the early ‘80s and had been refurbished by the customer’s builders. They’d removed two walls to crate a large kitchen/dining area and had carried out a lot of other work. The finishing touch, or so it had been hoped, was to lay the vinyl as a floating floor in every room except the lounge and main bedroom which was to have carpet.

The homeowner welcomed me and took me straight to the kitchen. Here the joints of the flooring were cracked and breaking away. As we walked around I could feel the flooring dipping in various places – I had, as always, left my shoes at the door. The homeowner showed me where the walls had been and said that the builders had infilled the holes left in the subfloor, although he thought the finished surface wasn’t flat and hadn’t been done with much care.

‘The builder had to put some underlay under this bit,’ he said as he pressed his foot down repeatedly over a hollow in the subfloor.

I asked how many rooms had the flooring, so he took me round the whole bungalow. ‘Everywhere except this bedroom – but I can’t show you because the dog’s shut away in here – and this room.’ He opened the door to the lounge to reveal a dark brown, almost black, bare subfloor surface. Asphalt.

The edge of the room had nail holes where gripper had been taken up.

‘Was the gripper rusty?’ I asked. ‘Yes, very rusty.’ I also spotted screw holes where the door-bar had been drilled and plugged.

Asphalt is a moisture barrier and even when laid on the surface of a subfloor, it’s holding background moisture. It’s essential the barrier isn’t nailed or drilled as moisture can and will rise through the cracks and holes that result. Once this has happened, the asphalt must be repaired by a specialist contractor and it’s not cheap. I talked this through with the customer and advised him what to do before new carpets were laid, even though this wasn’t what I had come to look at. Then I set about finding out why the LVT was failing.

The asphalt in the lounge was well finished, with a slightly dimpled surface from the contractor’s roller. But it wasn’t flat and I could see it wouldn’t meet SR1 (3mm over 2m) which is the standard for flatness every floorlayer should be familiar with. A laser scan of the flooring surface in the fitted areas showed it was also not within the standard.

I’m often challenged as to how I can assess the regularity of a subfloor without taking up any flooring. The reality is a vinyl floorcovering will be soft enough to drape itself to the shape of the subfloor below, so this will show any undulations on the surface. A stiffer flooring product, whether it’s a rigid LVT, wood or laminate, will bridge from one high spot to another and this will mean the subfloor cannot be flatter than the flooring surface, so if the surface is out, so is the subfloor below. This has often been confirmed on jobs where flooring has subsequently been removed.

The most interesting discovery, however, came when I took off a plinth from the kitchen units where the flooring dipped. I shone a torch underneath the units. ‘Did you say the builder used underlay?’ I asked. Then I pulled at the small tab that was exposed at the edge of the flooring. It was a torn-off section of a box from the flooring, complete with the brand label. A quick root around found three more strips. And no real underlay. It was immaterial anyway as the flooring had a built-in underlay and no additional underlay was to be used.

I then looked at the exposed subfloor beyond the edge of the flooring. Asphalt to the left and to the right, but a big gap where the wall had been taken out and crudely daubed filler in part of the hole. I could see the black DPM underneath the asphalt on each side, but there was no moisture barrier ‘bridge’ across the filled in gap. My moisture meter confirmed that moisture was wicking up where there was nothing to stop it and the reading was off the scale.

The flooring had been laid by the builder, not a flooring contractor. It wasn’t possible for the floorlayer to blame someone else for the problem as he’d created it by cutting corners on his building work. But if you’d been called in to specify and/or lay the flooring, would you have identified the problem and would you have known what to do next?

The correct solution would have been to call in a suitable contractor to repair the asphalt throughout, the gripper pin holes, screw holes and other damage as well as the gaps owing to the removed walls.

Then a quick call to a subfloor preparation materials manufacturer to select the correct primer/smoothing compound combination to go over the asphalt to create a flat subfloor so the flooring could be re-laid – including replacing tiles with broken joints.

Some manufacturers may be able to specify an alternative solution that would be within the scope of a floorlayer, but take their advice; I’ll not try to deal with all the possible questions that need to be asked and the options that might be considered in this relatively brief article.
Richard Renouf is an independent
flooring consultant

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