Summary: Laminate flooring, due to its wood content, is not ideal for environments with moisture, such as bathrooms or basements. A subset of laminate flooring called waterproof laminate, made entirely of plastic, allows you to install this product in such places.
Waterproof laminate: it's one of mankind's greatest dreams, up there with landing on Mars and solving world hunger. We joke--but not it's not that much of a joke.
Moisture has long bedeviled the laminate flooring industry, and has been one of the major reasons why many homeowners choose not to install laminate in wet places.
The Core of Laminate Floor's Problem is the Core
The problem is not with the top layer, but with the core. Laminate flooring's core is little more than a dense type of fiberboard. If you've ever seen a sheet of particle board get rained on, you'll know how it bubbles up and crumbles like a wet soda cracker.
One little-known aspect of this moisture-and-laminate issue is that the moisture problem actually starts in the factory, not in the home. Flooring manufacturers have found that high moisture content in the fiberboard particles in the factory can result in poor adhesion of the top melamine wear layer.
Past Attempts to Develop Waterproof Laminate
The response by flooring manufacturers, to this point, has been to cover up and ignore the problem. Past responses have been to:
- Counsel homeowners not to install the product in moist places, such as basements or children's bathrooms.
- Develop stop-gap solutions such as tighter seams and better adhesion between the boards.
- Introduce more melamine resins in the fiberboard mix. So, rather than having a highly absorbent particle core that practically sucks water from the air, they now have a slightly less absorbent core.
Failed Attempt at Waterproof Laminate: Mannington ICOREIn 2003, Mannington Mills patented a new type of waterproof laminate that bypassed many of those previous solutions. Their product, dubbed ICORE, had some of these features:
- Thermoplastic Core, Not Fiberboard - The key aspect is that ICORE did away with the fiberboard and replaced it with a "plastic" core made of PVC. As you can imagine, PVC (which is also used for water pipes) is quite waterproof.
- Print Layer and Overlay - This is just like conventional laminate flooring. Separate layers are required for better print adhesion, rather than printing straight onto the thermoplastic core.
- Honeycombed "Cells" Inside - "Foot feel" is important with laminate flooring, because it is so thin. Walking on laminate flooring can be difficult because it has little "give." With waterproof laminate such as ICORE, interior channels or cells made for a springier feel.
Then, Mannington pulled the plug on iCORE, no reason given but presumably due to poor sales.
Aqua-Step: Only Viable Product on Market Now
Today, Parcolys NV, a Belgian company that is the parent of Aqua-Step, is the main manufacturer of waterproof laminate flooring. With 23 woods and 3 stones, Aqua-Step doesn't have the wide range of styles homeowners might expect.
But the good thing is that Aqua-Step is truly 100% waterproof--no need to lay down a moisture barrier. Planks join by way of a click-and-lock method. Conventional laminate needs expansion joints to allow for the product to expand and contract according to room humidity. Aqua-Step absorbs no water at all, so no need for expansion joints.
Dumaplast Dumafloor is another one, also from Belgium. Dumafloor has been in production since 2007.
Most of the waterproof laminate market has been siphoned off by an upstart called luxury vinyl flooring (LVF). It's thicker than ordinary vinyl flooring; has better texturing; and looks more like real stone or wood. LVF manufacturers have been pumping out tons of exciting wood species and stones, such as teak, bamboo, travertine, and bamboo.
It is 100% waterproof, too. You can drop LVF in a tub of water for day, and it will come out having absorbed no water.
Downside is that it isn't as thick as waterproof laminate. Aqua-Step clocks in at 8mm; for LVFs, 8mm would be considered very thick and very expensive. Average thickness for LVF runs around 3-5mm.