Linoleum for Basement Floors

Linoleum Flooring

 blahedo / WikiMedia Commons

Linoleum was the original "resilient" flooring, and it was in extensive use well into the 1950s as flooring for high-traffic areas and rooms where moisture is an issue until sheet vinyl products began to supersede linoleum as a favorite building material. Vinyl flooring was often mistakenly called linoleum for quite some time, even though the products are very different. Linoleum is created by impregnating solidified linseed oil with natural plant materials and forming it into sheets, while vinyl is a purely synthetic material made of refined chemicals. 

In recent years, though, linoleum is making a comeback due to consumer preference for natural "green" materials over chemical products. Linoleum is a naturally renewable material that does not pollute, and, unlike vinyl, it breaks down over time when discarded in landfills.

Linoleum is a relatively good choice for flooring in below-grade basement locations. While it is all-natural, it has many of the virtues of man-made vinyl, with decent resistance to moisture and humidity. Be aware, though, that flooding can ruin a linoleum installation, and in locations prone to dampness you may run into problems due to weak adhesive bonding. 

Linoleum Products

Linoleum comes in either small, discrete tiles, or long rolls of sheet material which can be stretched across the basement floor. While tiles are much easier to install, the seams between the tiles are weak points that can be susceptible to penetration by moisture and staining agents. By contrast, sheet linoleum will stretch seamlessly across the floor, creating one, solid, unbroken surface that will be impervious to water from above or below.

A relatively recent development from Marmoleum company and other manufacturers is a rigid click-together plank with a linoleum wear layer laminated to the top of the plank. Like plastic laminate flooring products, Marmoleum floors "float" over an underlayment sheet. While these floors get high marks for other applications, they are not the best choice for basements and other damp areas, due to the many seams between planks. 

Below-Grade Flooding Concerns

One of the biggest challenges that basement floors face is the threat of occasional flooding. This can occur when the water table in your area rises above the level of the basement, causing the liquid to seep up, and in—through both the walls and the cement slab subfloor. Water lines are also often found running through the basement, along with plumbed appliances such as washers and water heaters—all of which can flood if there is a malfunction.

While the surface of linoleum is for the most part impervious to moisture penetration, a flood will cause water to seep down into seams between tiles and along the walls. This will then curl the material, warp it, and cause the adhesive to weaken and wash away. Mold can then take hold beneath the floor and in the subfloor concrete. While the material itself may survive a flood, the installation will generally be ruined.

Humidity in Basements

Because they are below ground level, basements can experience drastic changes in humidity over the seasons and even over the day. If the air becomes very moist, it can cause the adhesive holding the linoleum in place to weaken. This can combine with curling tiles or sheet edges to create a floor that loosens in may spots.

Individual tiles can be replaced, and adhesive can be reapplied, although it will be a continual process if your basement suffers from these issues. The use of a dehumidifier left running constantly in the basement may also help keep your linoleum floor intact.

Comparative Costs

Linoleum is not commonly sold in the big box home improvement centers, where vinyl products dominate. At specialty flooring or building supply stores, though, linoleum flooring generally costs $2 to $4 per square foot, which is comparable to the costs of vinyl. Sheet linoleum is slightly less expensive than tiles. Linoleum is considerably less expensive than ceramic tile—another good choice for installation over concrete slabs. Ceramic tile costs are typically between $5 and $10 per square foot—at least twice what linoleum costs—but can last much longer than the 10- to 20-year expected lifespan of a linoleum floor.

Installation Overview

LInoleum isn't hard to install, but it does require some special preparation steps. Linoleum cannot be installed directly on the concrete subfloor slab in a basement because concrete is a porous material and the subfloor slab is in direct contact with the soil that surrounds the house. Over time, moisture can seep from the surrounding soil into the concrete, making it impossible for adhesives to set on its surface.

To install linoleum, a plywood subfloor first must be installed over the concrete, with a water barrier placed between the plywood and the concrete to prevent water from warping and damaging it. Typically the plywood subfloor is anchored to the concrete with masonry nails, then the linoleum sheet or tile is laid over this.

Linoleum in a Finished Basement

A finished basement is usually an extension of the home, intending to turn a naturally dark and dingy area into a room that can be enjoyed by all. These spaces tend to be dry, with precautions taken to direct water and moisture away from the basement. Because of this, you are not quite as restricted by the flooring that you choose.

In a finished basement, ceramic tile may feel too hard and cold, while carpeting can be prone to mold—even the most carefully finished basement tends to be humid. Linoleum flooring is a great compromise choice for the basement, providing durability and resistance to moisture while still being soft, comfortable, and inviting.