How Basement Subfloor Panels Work

Basement subfloor
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Whenever you want to finish a basement or install an apartment in a basement, the most important priority is to keep the basement floor dry. Being located below-grade, basements tend to collect moisture from all directions

This is no simple matter, even in a basement that appears to be dry. It doesn't even take catastrophic flooding to ruin the floor: Concrete basement floors can wick moisture up to anything that happens to be touching it. Laying down a basement subfloor is the most effective way to isolate the living area from moisture below.

Basement Subfloor Panels Pros and Cons

Pros
  • Easy to install

  • Predetermined thickness

  • Materials already put together for you

  • Fast installation

Cons
  • High cost: about twice the amount of a plywood subfloor system

  • OSB board is often used as the top material

What Basement Subfloor Panels Are

As long as there have been basements, homeowners and contractors have been experimenting with ways to keep basement flooring dry. Some methods work better than others.

Sandwiching plastic vapor retarder, two-by-four sleeper boards, and a layer of plywood is one such method. This method does work well, plus it's cost-effective and the materials are easy to obtain and can be found stocked at any home center.

One downside of building your own subfloor system is that it reduces your basement ceiling height. Rigid form insulation with plywood screwed on top is another method that works with some success. But again, height is an issue.

Basement subfloor panels are an all-in-one solution: a ready-made sandwich of materials instead of making your own from scratch. One company, Barricade, offers a product that is 2-foot by 2-foot by 1.25 inches high. Each piece is a tile with OSB wood on top and closed-cell polystyrene insulation.

These panels have very little R-value: 1.4. But it's possible to upgrade to an insulated Barricade subfloor panel with a 3.2 R-value.

Panels fit side-to-side, much like tongue-and-groove flooring. They do not need to be glued down or attached in any way to the concrete basement floor.

Advantages

Basement subfloor panels are easy to install. Very little cutting is required: just at the walls and around obstructions.

Another advantage is that subfloor panels are thinner than plywood sleeper systems. Most basements are starved for ceiling space, so every little bit helps.

Basement subfloor panels also remove the guesswork from the installation. The panels are already built for you, and all you have to do is install them. This can be a great time-saver on whole-basement installation.

Disadvantages

Cost is the main obstacle to purchasing basement subfloor panels. A product similar to Barricade, Dricore, currently prices out at $7.65 per panel, or $3.83 per square foot, uninstalled. For a 1,000 square foot basement, that's $3,830, excluding sales tax and delivery. After purchasing the subfloor panels, you'll still need to purchase the floor covering itself.

One chief advantage of the plywood sleeper system is that those long two-by-fours can bridge some pretty significant cracks and depressions. By contrast, subfloor panels are much smaller and thinner and can bridge only minor cracks and holes in the floor. Grinding down high spots and bringing up low spots (with a liquid self-leveling floor level product) is necessary before using subfloor panels.

For many users, too, using OSB board for the top level vs. plywood can be problematic. Though OSB can stand up to some moisture, plywood is considered to be the better of the two. Because alternating layers in the plywood run 90 degrees, the product is considered to be dimensionally stable.

Cost of Subfloor Panels vs. Plywood System

Basement subfloor panels win for convenience. But looking at panels vs. plywood in terms of cost, the plywood system clearly wins. Estimating with an 800 square foot basement:

Plywood System

All of the materials, including the two-by-four sleepers, 4-foot by 8-foot pieces of plywood, plastic sheeting, and hardware will cost under $1,000. Add 10-percent wastage, an estimated 10-percent sales tax, and delivery charges, and the total is still less than $1,500.

Subfloor Panel System

At a cost of $7.65 per panel, the cost of an 800 square foot installation would be about $3,060 for the panels alone. After adding 10-percent wastage and another 10-percent for tax, the total price would be $3,672.

So, using subfloor panels would be just about twice as much as doing the job by yourself.