Once installed mainly as a type of economy flooring, laminate flooring still firmly holds its place as an inexpensive, functional flooring. But it has evolved, moving into higher-end homes where once nothing but solid hardwood or engineered wood flooring would have installed. Laminate flooring looks better, performs better, and feels better underfoot than ever before. All of this may beg the question: what is laminate flooring in the first place?
Basics of Laminate Flooring
Laminate flooring is a hybrid consisting of a particleboard wood base topped by an image layer and a transparent wear layer. Laminate floors are popular for homes’ living areas, kitchens, dining areas, bedrooms, hallways, and other areas that are not subject to excessive moisture.
Pros and Cons
- Easy to clean
- Good for homes with pets and children
- Inexpensive relative to other types of floor coverings
- Moisture can swell the laminate floor base
- Chips easily
- Not suitable for bathrooms or laundry rooms
Laminate Flooring Materials
Aggregated wood particles are subjected to high pressure to form sheets. These sheets have a photorealistic image of wood or stone added to the top, and this image is covered with a wear layer. The wear layer, a durable, thin, clear plastic sheet, protects the delicate lower layers from exterior elements such as moisture, UV rays, and scratching.
Wear Layer: Laminate flooring is a surface layer of two thin sheets of paper impregnated with melamine. This top-most surface layer is a hard, transparent plastic sheet that is impervious to dogs, chairs, high heels, and other common damaging elements.
Image Layer: Even when viewed close-up laminate flooring can look realistic. This is due to the photographic-quality image of real wood underneath the wear layer.
Base Layer (Core): Under the wood-grain photograph is about a half-inch of wood-chip composite. Any type of wood chip product is inherently susceptible to water damage. Laminate flooring’s base is considered to be dimensionally stable, but only to a certain degree. It will stand up against some water, but only if this water is quickly removed.
Laminate flooring is always installed as a floating floor. With this method, floor boards connect to each other but not to the subfloor. Laminate flooring is very easy for the do-it-yourselfer to install with only basic tools. You first roll out inexpensive foam underlayment, and then lay out the laminate planks. Because the planks are joined from one piece to the next piece and form a seriously heavy single unit, it cannot slide around. Also, this click-lock joining mechanism serves to bring the two boards imperceptibly closer, tightening the bond, and preventing water migration.
Subfloor and Underlayment
Like all floor coverings, laminate flooring needs a good, solid subfloor. Foam or felt underlayment is installed between the subfloor and laminate, detaching the two surfaces and providing for a softer footfall.
The durability of laminate flooring is indicated by the Abrasion Class, or the AC Rating. The AC Rating system has become the standard rating system for laminate flooring products worldwide. It is a good gauge as to how well a laminate floor will perform in your residential or commercial setting, so it’s a good idea when you’re browsing through laminate floor options to know what the AC Rating for each is.
How is a Laminate Floor Rated?
Laminate flooring will receive an AC Rating based on its performance under a multitude of key stress points: staining, impact, heat, moisture, scratches and scuffs. How well a particular laminate floor performs under each test will determine its ultimate AC Rating. If a laminate floor should fail any of these durability tests, it automatically becomes uncertifiable and is then labeled as “unrated.” If a laminate flooring product you’re looking at is listed as being “unrated,” it’s safe to say that this particular floor isn’t going to hold up well.
What are the AC Ratings?
AC Ratings for laminate flooring are labelled as AC1, AC2, AC3, AC4 or AC5.
- AC1: suitable for residential use with moderate traffic – think mature bedrooms or guest rooms.
- AC2: suitable for residential use with general traffic – think living rooms or dining rooms.
- AC3: suitable for residential use with heavy traffic but they are also suitable for commercial settings with moderate traffic. This pretty much means the laminate floor will work well in any area of your home as well as in commercial settings like hotel rooms or small offices.
- AC4: suitable for commercial use with general traffic – think busy offices, cafes or salons.
- AC5: suitable for commercial use with heavy traffic – think public buildings, department stores or showrooms.
Generally, laminate flooring rated at AC1 through AC4 is created using Direct Pressure Laminate, while AC5 is created using High Pressure Laminate. While there are huge durability benefits to using a higher rated laminate floor, there are also benefits to using an AC3 or AC4 rated laminate floor over an AC5 heavy commercial laminate. AC5 laminate floors, meant for heavy commercial situations, tend to have surface textures which are a bit rougher than laminates made specifically for residential settings. These rough surfaces work wonders when standing up to heavy commercial traffic, but can sometimes be a bit abrasive in household situations.
Additionally, flooring made with Direct Pressure Laminate may have a lower AC Rating but are apt to look more realistic than some of the laminate floors available at the higher AC Ratings made with High Pressure Laminate.