What Is Commercial-Grade Laminate Flooring?

Commercial Laminate Floors
 kevin miller/Getty Images

Laminate flooring is an enormously popular flooring choice for home installations thanks to its durability and versatility. Made from a layer of decorative plastic laminate bonded to a core material and covered with a protective wear layer, laminate flooring can be made to look like a wide variety of materials, including hardwoods, stone, ceramic tile, and even metal. And it is relatively easy to install, making it a favorite among DIYers.

The same virtues that make laminate flooring popular in homes make it a popular choice for commercial applications, such as retail stores and other businesses. But since these locations may experience higher foot traffic than homes, the types of laminate flooring used in these locations are a different form, often known as "commercial-grade," or "high-traffic" laminate flooring.

While it is not as sturdy as some other flooring materials, such as ceramic tile, this form of laminate is an excellent choice for businesses seeking a low-cost, low-maintenance flooring for moderate-traffic locations. However, it is important to understand the properties and the rating of this laminate material, and also why it may not be ideal for home use, before making a final decision.

The Structure of Laminate Flooring

Laminate flooring of all types generally consists of four layers. The majority of the material (about 85 percent) is a high-density fiberboard filler, which sometimes consists of a significant percentage of recycled materials. Below this is a backing, or balancing layer, which comes in direct contact with the underlayment or subfloor.

On top of the filler middle is a decorative print layer that provides the surface appearance of the floor, which can be printed in a design or to mimic natural materials, such as hardwood. Above this is a heat-fused clear plastic laminate layer which is impervious to penetration by dirt or liquids and protects the decorative layer and core of the laminate. The thickness and quality of this wear layer is the key difference between commercial-grade and residential flooring products.

Origin of Laminate Flooring

Laminate flooring originated in Scandinavia in the early 1980s as an offshoot of melamine laminate countertops. However, the reinforced laminate used on floors is about 10 times stronger than countertop laminate.

Differences Between Grades of Laminate Flooring

Laminate flooring products are categorized by AC (abrasion criteria) ratings that indicate the durability levels of the product and its ability to resist abrasion, impact, burns, and stains. The rating system ranks the flooring on a scale ranging from AC1 to AC5:

  • AC1 is suited for bedrooms, and low traffic residential areas, but is not recommended for commercial use.
  • AC2 is suited to higher traffic residential areas such as living rooms and dining rooms, but it is not suited for commercial use.
  • AC3 is good for all residential flooring, especially where greater durability is required, and can be used in light-traffic commercial settings.
  • AC4 is manufactured specifically for light- to moderate-traffic commercial use; the abrasive wear layer does not make it comfortable for residential use.
  • AC5 is designed to handle moderate to high traffic commercial environments including department stores, offices, and shopping centers, and it is too abrasive for residential use.

Maintenance of Commercial-Grade Laminate Flooring

Commercial-grade laminate flooring shares some of the same maintenance virtues and qualities as residential laminates, such as both cannot be refinished. But commercial-grade laminate also has some particular characteristics:

  • The surface wear layer is quite a bit more resistant to scratching and penetration than residential laminate.
  • The surface wear layer eliminates any yellowing due to UV light exposure so it is fine to use in public areas near windows.
  • Most commercial laminate warranties will have more clauses than residential warranties outlining practices, environments, and errors that can void the guarantee.

Design and Installation Options

There are numerous design options available when choosing any laminate flooring. Today's laminates can even mimic the look of bamboo and cork. However, the design options for commercial laminate may be slightly narrower than with residential flooring.

Laminate flooring is not an inherently eco-friendly material due to how it's chemically produced and recycled. But in some cases using laminate flooring can be "green" enough to earn LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) credits, helping to brand a company as being ecologically aware. Sometimes the flooring is produced using a healthy percentage of recycled materials or click-lock laminate installation can eliminate adhesives which off-gas VOCs (volatile organic compounds).

Laminate With Lower VOCs

Pay attention to the rating information when shopping for laminate flooring. Laminates with lower levels of formaldehyde will carry an E1, E0, or CARB P2 label.