Carpet tile offers an easy and inexpensive way to completely renovate the look of a room. Unlike wall-to-wall carpet, which requires special tools and is usually done by professional installers, carpet tile is easy for almost any DIYer to work with. The materials are generally low in price, ranging from $0.50 to $1.50 per square foot.
Carpet tiles come in a variety of colors, thicknesses, and threads, and are available online and from any retail home center or carpet dealer. Typical life expectancy is five to eight years, at which point the tiles may start to show wear or begin to come loose. At that point, removal should be relatively simple, allowing you to spot replace particularly bad pieces, or uninstall the flooring completely.
Carpet tiles come in two styles: peel-and-stick and full-spread mastic. Peel-and-stick tiles, now the most popular type, have a pre-applied adhesive on the backside that is covered with a protective paper or plastic backing, which you peel off when you want to apply the tile to the floor. Full-spread tiles require that you trowel on a liquid or paste adhesive onto the subfloor before you press the tile down into place. Some types of carpet tile can also be glued down with a spray adhesive. Make sure you choose an adhesive product appropriate for the material—the tile manufacturer will give specifications for which adhesive to use. Cover the area sparsely, a little at a time, stopping periodically to put tiles in place so that the adhesive doesn’t have a chance to dry.
If your carpet tiles require a troweled-on adhesive, be aware that these products contain varying levels of harmful chemicals and some will emit noxious fumes that can be dangerous. Always read the label carefully to see if there are any warnings, and follow the manufacturer’s instructions. Even with mild products, make sure that the space is well-ventilated with open windows and a fan going to circulate the air. Gloves should also be used to prevent skin contact.
Equipment / Tools
- Hammer (if needed for removing old fooring)
- Pry bars (if needed for removing old flooring)
- Floor scraper (if needed for removing old flooring)
- Sander (if needed)
- Putty knife
- Carpet knife
- Tape measure
- Shop vacuum
- Paint roller
- Metal tray
- Chalk line
- Concrete patch (for concrete subfloors wood putty
- Wood putty or floor leveler (for wood subfloors)
- Concrete sealer (for concrete subfloor) or polyurethane (for wood subfloor)
- Carpet tiles
- Flooring adhesive (if necessary)
Remove the Furniture
It's best to move all furniture out of the space before you begin. Large pieces can be placed in hallways or spare rooms. This will free up the area so that you can concentrate on the installation itself. It also has the added benefit of letting you start fresh with decoration and arrangement once the project is complete.
Remove the Old Flooring
It's almost always best to begin by removing any old flooring that is in place. This will allow you to get to the subfloor, which can then be properly prepared. However, in some cases carpet tiles can be installed directly over an existing floor that is smooth and flat, such as ceramic tile, hardwood, or vinyl. While this can save time and work, it does have some caveats, including the risk of the adhesive not bonding to the material. Another issue is that if the floor has dimensional features such as grout lines or textures, you will likely feel it underfoot through the carpet.
How you remove old flooring will depend on what it is made of. Removal can be a fairly labor-intensive job, requiring a pry bar or floor scraper. Flooring that was glued down with adhesives can be especially difficult to remove.
Fill Cracks and Fix Gaps
The subfloor and underlayment beneath carpet tiles must be completely flat, since any variations will be felt underfoot through the carpet tiles. Even relatively minor dips or peaks can pose a tripping hazard.
If you are working with a concrete subfloor, then use concrete patch to fill in any cracks, chips, or spalls that have developed over time. This eliminates unevenness and areas that may be be vulnerable to liquid penetration should something spill and seep through the carpet tiles. Allow the filler to dry overnight, and then use a putty knife to scrape away any excess until you achieve a smooth, flat surface.
With plywood subfloors, you can use wood putty or floor leveler to fill gaps and repair cracks. Floor leveler is applied with a trowel, then allowed to dry to a smooth hard surface. You can also sand the floor lightly to remove any splinters or other dimensional features that may exist on the surface of a wooden subfloor.
If the floor is uneven, a self-leveling compound can also be added to smooth things out.
Clean the Surface
Once the surface is flat, make sure that it is completely clean and free of any dirt, debris, or small particles. This is both for sanitary reasons and to ensure that carpet tile adhesive forms the strongest bond possible.
Start by thoroughly sweeping or vacuuming the entire area. If you used concrete patch, putty or floor leveler, or sanded the wooden subfloor, then you will probably have a lot of small particles that need to be removed. Be thorough, working the room over several times until you are no longer able to generate any dust.
Once you’ve completed this dry-clean routine, damp-mop the floor. This can be done with a Swiffer, or with any standard mop or sponge using clear, warm water. Soap solution is an option, but make sure to rinse the floor with plain water once mopping is complete.
Make sure not to use too much moisture for washing or rinsing. The floor will have to be completely dry before installation.
Seal the Subfloor
Concrete, wood, and most other subfloor materials are naturally porous, which makes them very susceptible to water. If the liquid can seep down into them, it can cause the growth of mold and mildew, while also warping and degrading the integrity of the structure. Unfortunately, carpet tiles are generally porous as well, and if a spill occurs, the moisture will quickly pass right through them, giving them a clear path to the surface below. That is why it is important to use a quality sealer to prevent damage.
The type of sealer that you use is determined by the type of subfloor. With concrete, use a sealer specifically designed for concrete. Wood is best sealed with a coat of polyurethane. Sealants can be applied using a paint roller and a metal tray, or concrete sealer can be sprayed on using a water bottle or aerosol can. Generally, one or two applications will be enough. When complete, wait at least an hour for the sealer to dry.
Always follow the manufacturer's instructions for application and dry time. Do not walk on the surface until it is completely dry. Make sure the room is well ventilated in case the sealer contains chemicals or has a harsh and irritating scent. Running fans can help ventilate the area and speed the drying process.
Mark the Center of the Room
It might seem logical to begin carpet tile installation along the longest wall and work your way outward. But unless your room size happens to a precisely right size, this can lead one side of the room requiring a strip of cut tiles while the other side uses full tiles. This can give the room a skewed look.
Instead, the installation should begin at the exact center of the room, with the floor divided into four quadrants radiating out from that point. This ensures that boundaries on the edges of the room will be uniform.
To find the exact center of the space, measure and mark the center of each wall, then snap chalk lines between the marks on facing walls. The point where the lines intersect is the center, and the quadrants created by the perpendicular lines will be your work zones.
Dry-Fit the Tiles
Although not always necessary, it is often a good idea to dry-fit the entire room with carpet tiles to see how the flooring will look when installed. This can be especially useful if the carpet tiles have a pattern, since it allows you to adjust the layout so that pattern interruptions at walls can be controlled. With tiles that have a notable thread orientation, dry-fitting the tiles gives you a chance to see how they look together. If necessary, you can adjust the centerpoint and layout lines to give you the most pleasing tile layout.
Begin your dry-fit at the center, working outward from the center point along the quadrant lines.
Install the Carpet Tiles
When installing carpet tiles, begin in the middle with one quadrant and work toward the walls. Tile boxes, tools, materials, and equipment can be stored in the area that contains the exit, as that will be the last one that installation takes place in.
Some carpet tiles will have a recommended orientation, indicated by arrow stickers on their surface. Following their guidelines will often result in the most pleasing look, but if you have an artistic eye you can also get creative.
Beginning at the center point of the room, apply adhesive to one quadrant (or, if using peel-and-stick tiles, remove the backing sheet). Press the tile into place on the floor, carefully aligning it with both guidelines. Continue laying additional tiles along one of the guidelines, all the way to the wall. (You won't install the cut tiles until all the full-size tiles are installed.)
Return to the centerpoint and install the second row of tiles butted up to the first row. Make sure the butt seams are very tight, with no gaps. Continue in this fashion until the entire first quadrant of full carpet tiles is installed.
Repeat this process with each quadrant, until all the full tiles have been installed over the entire room. You likely will have a perimeter area left uncovered, where you will need to cut carpet tiles to finish the job.
With peel-and-stick tiles, be very careful as you remove the backing. Try to peel it off in one piece, as the backing paper is prone to tearing. Don't let the tile touch anything once the backing paper is removed. Once exposed to air, the adhesive becomes very sticky and will bond tightly to whatever it touches. Keep a trash can or trash bag on hand to dispose of waste as the work proceeds.
Cut Carpet Tiles as Needed
In most cases, pieces of carpet tile will need to be cut to accommodate room edges, corners, door frames, and features such as pipes, corners, and cabinets. Carpet tile is a tough material, and it is important to have a quality carpet knife or utility knife with a good sharp blade to help ease the process.
At room edges, turn the carpet tile upside down and butt one edge up against the wall, so the remaining portion laps over onto the carpet tile already installed. Mark a line across the backing to indicate where the tile overlaps the previous tile.
Use a carpet knife guided by a straightedge to slice the tile across the marked line. It may take several passes of the knife to complete the cut. Make sure to place the tile on a scrap board or work surface to cut it.
Then, peel away the backing from the cut portion of tile, turn the piece right-side-up, and press it into place in the open floor space. The edge you just cut should fit against the wall, with the factory edge of the tile butted up against the adjacent tile.
Continue this process until the carpet tile installation is complete. If notches, holes, or other shapes need to be cut in a carpet tile, use the carpet knife in a similar fashion to make those cutouts.