How to Use Laminate Flooring in the Kitchen

Kitchen with laminate flooring
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Should you install laminate flooring in the kitchen? Some kitchen flooring decisions are clear-cut: ceramic tile and all types of vinyl flooring, for example, work well in the kitchen. It is also clear-cut that certain other types of flooring—solid hardwood, for one—are not recommended for kitchens.

But the issue of installing laminate flooring in the kitchen is more of a gray area. Unlike some materials that are perfect for kitchens, laminate flooring walks a fine line. On one hand, laminate flooring is sensitive to moisture, and moisture in all forms is a fact of life in kitchens. On the other hand, laminate flooring has other attributes—easy cleanability, for one—that make it well-suited for kitchens.

So, should you use laminate flooring in the kitchen and what's the best way to protect it?

  Issue Solution
Moisture Water from the sink, dishwasher, refrigerator, and cooking areas can swell laminate flooring beyond repair. Install the laminate flooring with tight seams. Make sure that the edges are sealed with silicone caulk. Use quarter-round to help the baseboards adapt to the contours of the flooring. Install laminate flooring with a waterproof core.
Wear Laminate flooring can wear poorly when subjected to heavy stress. Keep the floor clean to avoid fine scratches. Use felt pads on furniture legs. Use mats or gel pads around heavily trafficked areas.
Maintenance Static electricity can plague laminate. Static is controllable by keeping the floor clean. 
Cleanliness Laminate flooring cannot be wet-mopped. Sweep or use damp mops on laminate flooring.

Water Damage to Laminate Flooring

Water is the enemy of most floors. Even ceramic and porcelain tiles, as water-resistant as they are, have water absorption limits. If water sits on ceramic tile long enough, the tile will absorb water through seams. Grout is a far more porous substance than the surface of fired tile. Grout sealing is an imperfect business, and if water infiltrates tile, its avenue will be through the grout.

One water-impermeable kitchen floor is sheet resilient flooring (or, sheet vinyl flooring) because the vinyl itself is non-porous. As long as the water stays away from sheet vinyl's extremely limited number of seams, water will remain pooled on the surface until it is mopped up or it evaporates.

With those considerations, laminate flooring lands mid-point in the list of floor coverings that are suitable for the kitchen: better than hardwood flooring but not as good as tile or vinyl.

As long as you address the overriding concern of moisture, you can install laminate flooring in the kitchen. If you want to eliminate worries about moisture, install sheet vinyl or luxury vinyl plank (LVP). In terms of appearance, LVP is a close contender with laminate and it is 100-percent waterproof.

Water Topical vs. Casualty Events

When properly sealed, water cannot reach the core, at least in theory. In practice, water usually will find its water into the laminate core, given enough time. So, most laminate flooring manufacturers distinguish between topical and casualty water.

Topical spills are when you slosh water out of the pasta pan onto the floor and quickly mop it up. Another topical spill is when you unload the dishwasher and water spills on the laminate, but again, it's cleaned up within 15 or 20 minutes. Nearly every laminate floor is rated for a topical water spill.

A casualty event means that the dishwasher supply line leaks and leaks onto the floor, where it remains pooled for a day or two. Pergo's 20-year warranty describes laminate casualty events as

flooding, acts of God, plumbing accidents or leaking appliances (icemakers, dishwashers, clothes washers, etc.). These and other casualty events are not considered topical spills.

Sealing Laminate's Edges

If the laminate flooring has a weak area, it is the edges. While the top is sealed with the wear layer and the bottom is coated, laminate floorboard's edges are raw and thus prone to soaking up water. 

A properly installed laminate floor has seams on the top that are so tight that they are practically invisible. Feeling adjacent laminate boards click or pop into place during installation is usually a good indicator that the top will remain waterproof.

The perimeter is covered with trim materials such as baseboards or quarter-round, neither of which are waterproof seals. To make this trim-to-flooring junction waterproof, manufacturers and installers recommend using foam backer rod to fill in large gaps, followed by silicone caulk. Smaller gaps require only silicone caulk. Silicone caulk allows the baseboards and the flooring to expand and contract at different rates yet remain sealed.

Laminate's Core: Limited Water Resistance

One criticism leveled at laminate is that it is pressed board, not unprocessed natural wood like solid hardwood. Yet the fact that laminate flooring's core is processed wood can be a strength.

These lignocellulosic fibers (or, dried wood pulp) are combined with synthetic resin as a bonding agent. The addition of these non-organic resins helps promote dimensional stability.

To some degree, these additives help the laminate core maintain its shape when subjected to water—but only a limited amount of water. Laminate flooring has only moderate resistance to water. Time is always of the essence when laminate flooring is subjected to water. Aim to mop up pooled water immediately, or it will eventually work through the seams and down to the core.

Laminate Flooring Scratch Resistance

Laminate flooring is a sandwich composed of the core substrate, the image layer, and the wear layer. This clear melamine wear layer protects the more fragile image layer from abuse.

Wearability is measured by the Association of European Producers of Laminate Flooring's (EPLF) AC rating system. Most laminate floors for residential use have an AC-3 rating. A sample of the laminate is run through a Taber testing machine that revolves the sample against a piece of sandpaper. To achieve an AC-3 rating, the sample's wear layer must stand up to 2,000 revolutions.

If durability is a major concern for you, you can even find laminate rated for AC-4 levels. AC-4, formerly just for commercial use, is now permeating the residential market.

Laminate Flooring Lifespan

One of the best things about laminate is that sections can easily be replaced. As laminate flooring is a floating floor, it is not connected to the substrate and usually, boards are not permanently joined to each other.

Your biggest concern would be where to find replacement boards. Unless you had the foresight to purchase an additional carton or two, you may not be able to find the laminate on the market any longer.

With natural solid red oak hardwood flooring, this is a product that is perennially available. With slight variations, red oak is red oak and knotty pine is knotty pine. While it is true that runs of natural wood will vary, it is still possible to find a close match. Even if a close match cannot be made, staining the wood can help bring two different floors into close alignment.

But since laminate is a branded, artificial product, it has a color and texture that is all its own. Once you buy a certain brand of laminate flooring, the only acceptable replacement is from the same product line. Laminate flooring cannot be stained or otherwise altered to align it with the appearance of another type of laminate flooring.