Subfloor Systems: Eliminate Building a Subfloor From Scratch

Installing Wood Flooring
Subfloor systems work well under laminate and wood flooring.

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Some basement floor coverings such as vinyl or ceramic tile can be installed straight on concrete. When installed in this fashion, they are hard and cold and are meant for utilitarian basements devoted to storage or for a quick game of billiards. But to make your basement comfortable and welcoming for longer term occupancy, you need a proper subfloor under your floor covering.

The traditional solution is to build your own subfloor from scratch, layer by layer, from plywood, plastic, and wood sleepers. While this is still a perfectly acceptable route, a newer and easier solution is the subfloor system. Subfloor systems translate the basics of the homemade subfloor into smaller tiles that are dry and insulated, faster to lay down, and require less construction know-how.

What Are Subfloor Systems?

Subfloor systems are often composed of individual tiles, each approximately 24 inches by 24 inches. Each tile is a sandwich consisting of a moisture barrier at the bottom, an elevating surface in the middle (usually no more than an inch high), and a composite wood top, usually OSB board. Some subfloor system brands eliminate the OSB top altogether and are composed entirely of plastic. Finally, other subfloor systems are flexible and come in rolls, similar to carpeting or underlayment.

It is important to note that subfloor systems are not the same as subfloors that are built on top of wood joists. Subfloor systems are less a structural device and are more like an underlayment which must be built on top of another, more stable base, typically concrete.

Where Are Subfloor Systems Used?

Due to moisture, elevated subfloors in basements are vitally important. Subfloor system tiles ensure moisture protection and do not require you to learn construction techniques. Because subfloor tiles are shock absorbent, they are ideal for home gyms and yoga or dance studios.

Cost of Subfloor Systems

When priced against subfloors that are hand-built from scratch, subfloor systems tend to be four or five times more expensive. While subfloor systems are an excellent and fast way to create a smooth underlayment for your floor covering, the steep cost is often an obstacle for many homeowners. Your local home center will nearly always stock subfloor systems, but quantities of tiles may be limited. To obtain enough for a full-scale project, you usually need to special order from the store or purchase tiles online and have them shipped to your house.

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    DRIcore Subfloor System

    The DRIcore subfloor system was developed by a former home contractor who had frustrating experiences with the classic hand-built basement subflooring system of two-by-fours and poly plastic vapor barriers. 

    Each DRIcore tile is a raised high-density polyethylene moisture barrier base that is bonded to an engineered core. This allows air to flow underneath the subfloor system. The airflow inhibits mold and mildew and helps keep the floor covering warmer and drier. In fact, DRIcore system tiles will help raise the temperature of the floor covering by at least 6 degrees F.

    Each DRIcore tile is 7/8-inch thick and measures 2 feet by 2 feet. Tiles attach to each other with a tongue-and-groove system. The top of DRIcore is OSB and the bottom is a cleated, raised design. 

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    Barricade Subfloor System

    Barricade has two separate subfloor systems. Both systems have OSB tops and outer dimensions of 24 inches by 24 inches. The chief difference lies in airflow properties of the base.

    The first system, the Barricade Insulated Subfloor Panel, has a smooth base, while the other system, the Barricade Subfloor AirPlus, has an elevated, grooved x-pattern base. While this difference may seem inconsequential, it makes a big difference in terms of temperature: the AirPlus has about half of the R-value of the other system. Both work equally well for laminate, solid hardwood, engineered wood, carpeting, ceramic tile, and resilient (or vinyl) flooring.

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    Delta-FL Subfloor System

    Produced by the German company Dorken, Delta-FL is a hybrid subfloor system: a combination of a traditional underlayment (similar to the type used under laminate flooring) and a solid, wood-based subfloor tile.

    Delta-FL is a roll-out polymer that is 5/16-inch high with a dimpled pattern to promote airflow. Since each roll is 5 feet wide by 65 1/2 feet long, installation is fast. If your finish flooring is a hard surface, such as laminate, you can install it directly on top of Delta FL.

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    SpringStep Subfloor System

    SpringStep represents a sharp departure from other subfloor tile products. For one, it is primarily intended for dance studios and stages. For another, it uses a unique base system of foam cubes. Even though it is often used in commercial operations, SpringStep can also be used in general areas of the home. 

    The main difference is that SpringStep is much higher than other subfloor systems: either 2 3/4 inches or 1 1/2 inches high. It is built out of two layers of up to 100 half-inch foam cubes or blocks. SpringStep is a do-it-yourself product. Even though it is a niche item, its price is competitive with that of other subfloor systems.