If you’ve ever lived in an apartment complex and lost sleep at night because the upstairs neighbors were dropping bricks on the floor (or at least that’s what it sounded like), you understand the importance of underlayment.
Flooring underlayment is a thin layer of material that provides cushion, absorbs sound, adds insulation and prevents moisture from building up. Common underlayments are made of plywood, cement board, felt, rubber or foam, and each material serves a different purpose.
With so many underlayment options available, how do you choose the best material for your floor? We’ll help you navigate the important considerations — but first, let’s review the anatomy of the floor.
Basic floor structure
Typically, the floor of a residential home is made up of four layers:
- Joists: Joists provide the structural support for the entire floor. The wooden boards are evenly spaced and run parallel to one another, making up the skeleton of your floor’s framework. To walk across a floor with only joists in place, you’d better have great balance as you’d need to hop from beam to beam.
- Subfloor: The subfloor is a thick, flat surface that rests on the floor joists and serves as the foundation of the floor’s surface. A layer of plywood or another engineered wood is attached to the floor joists (usually with nails), which helps distribute the weight on your floors.
- Underlayment: The final layer before the visible floor, the underlayment provides a smooth and flat surface for the floor covering and can also act as a sound or moisture barrier. Although some modern flooring materials don’t require underlayment, most of the time the extra layer can add substantial benefits for a small cost.
- Floor coverings: The star of the show, the floor covering is the material you see and touch. Common materials include hardwood, carpet, tile, vinyl and laminate.
Underlayment: The hidden hero of flooring
Sometimes the saying rings true: It’s what is underneath that counts.
Many homeowners spend their energy (and their budgets) picking out the most stylish floor coverings. But that hardwood floor won’t seem so beautiful when it starts creaking not long after installation, and the carpet you loved may need to be ripped out when spills seep into the subfloor and cause a soft spot.
The right underlayment can extend the life of your floor while also adding some great perks.
Soundproofing is such an important purpose of underlayment that some building codes and condo associations require underlayments to provide a minimum level of sound reduction. The flooring industry uses two tests to measure how well an underlayment dampens sound: Impact Insulation Class (IIC) and Sound Transmission Class (STC). An IIC rating tells consumers how well the material blocks the noise of impacts, including objects falling on the floor or kids running around. The STC rating considers airborne sounds, including voices and television noise.
No one likes swinging their legs out of bed only to place their feet on a frigid floor in the winter, but an insulating underlayment like cork or felt can make a big difference. Underlayments are tested for R-value, which measures the resistance of heat flow through a flooring material.
A good underlayment can guard against moisture from either direction. Concrete subfloors are known for emitting moisture that can damage the flooring above it. Meanwhile, spills can leak through certain floor coverings like carpet or laminate and cause the subfloor (or worse, the joists) to rot.
An underlayment can transform the way your floor feels beneath your feet. While some floor coverings can be damaged if they flex too much, many floor coverings allow for cushion to be added beneath the surface through a soft underlayment. The right material can transform your carpet from soft to heavenly or take away the stiff and hollow feeling of walking across some vinyl or wood floors.
Perhaps the most important purpose of underlayment is to add a layer of protection that can extend the life of your floors. Depending on the material chosen, an underlayment can help better distribute weight or prevent dents or treads in areas of heavy traffic. Underlayment creates a smooth surface that allows for a better installation of floor covering.
How to choose the best underlayment for your floor
With at least a dozen different materials available for underlayment and hundreds of brands and models to choose from, finding the right underlayment for your floor can feel overwhelming. We can help.
Follow the manufacturer instructions
Sometimes picking the right underlayment is as simple (and important) as opening up the instructions the manufacturer sent with your floor covering. Many installation guides will give recommendations or requirements on what type of subfloor and underlayment works best. If you disregard those instructions, your warranty may not be valid if you ever need to file a claim.
Consider your floor type
Not all underlayments are created equal. The type of underlayment you need will depend on your floor covering. Common recommendations based on floor type are:
- Carpet: Foam or rubber are the go-to underlayment choices for carpet, as they can add padding and moisture protection simultaneously.
- Tile: Tile is a heavy flooring choice that requires an underlayment that is strong enough to support it but flexible enough that it won’t crack with weight. Cement backer board, which is adhered to the subfloor with a mortar, is the industry standard underlayment for tile floors.
- Hardwood: Felt is the most basic underlayment for hardwood floors, as it can reduce sound and block moisture. However, other materials including foam, cork and rubber are possibilities when sound reduction or insulation is a priority.
- Laminate: A thin layer of foam underlayment is the best bet for laminate flooring to reduce sound and level the subfloor. Many modern laminate floors come with underlayment padding already attached to the material, which means no additional underlayment is necessary.
- Vinyl: Thin foam or felt will also work as a vinyl underlayment to create a smooth floor that absorbs noise. Like laminate, many modern vinyl floors come with underlayment already adhered to the material.
Trust the experts
Making the right underlayment decision is important — in fact, sometimes your floor’s warranty depends on it — but you don’t need to make it on your own.
The professionals at Goshen Floor Mart have more than 25 years of experience in picking out underlayment, and they’re ready to share that knowledge with you. Call 574-642-4770 to talk with a flooring specialist today, or stop by the 22,000-square-foot showroom on U.S. 33 to see the difference an underlayment can make.