What Is Commercial-Grade Laminate Flooring?

Commercial Laminate Floors
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Laminate flooring is an enormously popular flooring choice for home installation, 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 client-oriented business offices. But since these locations may experience higher foot traffic, the types of laminate flooring used in these locations is 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 a laminate material 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. It can take a variety of appearances depending on what material the flooring is trying to mimic. It can be printed to look like nearly anything, hardwood, stone, or even just random patterns. Above this is a heat-fused plastic laminate layer from which the material takes its name from. This wear layer is clear so the decorative surface can be seen, ​but it is also impervious to penetration by dirt or liquids, protecting the decorative layer and core of the laminate. It is mostly the thickness and quality of this wear layer that makes for the differences between commercial-grade and residential flooring products.

Fun Fact

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.

Commercial-Grade vs.Residential Grade Laminate Flooring

Laminate flooring products are categorized by AC 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. Laminate flooring rated AC1 or AC2 is better suited for residential applications, while AC4 or AC5 flooring have a slightly abrasive surface wear layer, making them better choices when choosing a laminate flooring for commercial areas. AC3 flooring will suffice for light commercial settings, and it is sometimes installed as an upgrade for residential applications where greater durability is required. 

  • AC1 is good for bedrooms, and low traffic residential areas, but is not recommended for commercial use.
  • AC2 is suited to public residential areas such as living rooms and dining rooms, but it is not suited for commercial use.
  • AC3 is good for all residential flooring needs and can be used in light-traffic commercial settings.
  • AC4 is manufactured specifically for light- to moderate-traffic commercial use. However, the abrasive wear layer does not make it comfortable for residential use.
  • AC is designed to handle moderate to high traffic commercial environments including department stores, offices, and shopping centers. But 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, but it also has some particular characteristics:

  • Because the wear layer of commercial-grade floorings are of such high quality, it is quite resistant to scratching and penetration. Since spills, dirts, and staining agents generally just rest on the surface of the material, regular maintenance simply requires that spills are wiped up and that dirt and grit are vacuumed or swept up.
  • Yellowing due to UV light exposure does not occur, thanks to the nature of the surface wear layer. This laminate flooring can be used without worries in open public areas where windows let in copious amounts of UV radiation.
  • As with residential-grade laminates, commercial grade laminate flooring cannot be refinished. The invisible wear layer over the surface is the only line of defense that you have. When deep scratches or wear begin to expose the decorative layer, you will have to replace the floor. Thus, it is important to purchase quality commercial laminates with a wear layer durable enough for your purposes.
  • Warranties on commercial-grade laminate flooring vary according to the quality (and price) of the product. The warranty is a good indication of how the flooring is most appropriately used. Most commercial laminate warranties will have numerous clauses outlining practices, environments, and errors that can void the guarantee. By reviewing these stipulations, you can determine whether a laminate floor is the right choice for a particular commercial location.

Design and Installation Options

There are numerous options available when choosing any laminate flooring. Because these materials can be printed to look like anything, you can find laminates that reproduce the look of natural materials such as exotic hardwoods, natural stone, bamboo, or even cork. This makes it easy to find a material that matches the aesthetic and mood you are trying to evoke. The design options may be slightly narrower than with residential flooring, but you will still have dozens, if not hundreds, of options to choose from.

The natural appearance of a laminate floor can be reinforced through the use of special underlayment installed beneath the flooring in order to reproduce the sound of hardwood floor when you walk upon it. Details like beveled edges can also add a decorative aesthetic appeal.

"Eco-friendly" choices are increasingly available. Laminate flooring is made from chemically produced plastic resins and adhesives, so it is not inherently a green building product. Neither will old laminate flooring be easily recyclable when it wears out. While the core material is usually a composite of wood materials that can theoretically be burned or recycled, the surface wear layer includes aluminum oxide, which can neither be burned or easily recycled. The reality is that most old laminate flooring is destined for traditional landfills.

But there are several ways in which manufacturers accommodate buyers who are interested in earth-friendly products. Sometimes the flooring is produced using a healthy percentage of recycled materials; such products are openly marketed as such. Laminate flooring that is installed by "click-lock" technology that floats over the underlayment is inherently safer than flooring that is glued down with petroleum-based adhesives, which off-gas VOC compounds. Any building material containing plastics has the potential for off-gassing some dangerous substances—specifically formaldehyde, and laminate flooring is no exception. Pay attention to the ratings information when you shop for laminate flooring: Laminates with lower levels of formaldehyde will carry an E1, E0 or CARB P2 label.

In some cases using laminate flooring can even be "green" enough to earn LEED credits, helping to brand your company as being ecologically aware.