In many parts of the home, choosing flooring mainly comes down to appearance. You want your living room, dining room, bedroom, or office flooring to look great; performance, while important, is second. With bathrooms, the playbook changes.
When choosing bathroom flooring, consider how it will perform under stress. And the stress event in this case involves water, lots of it. Water is so prevalent in bathrooms that it is an expectation, not an anomaly. Water is everywhere: on the walls, ceiling, and the floor. Moisture will quickly ruin the wrong flooring. To make matters even more difficult, you eventually have to pull those other factors into the dialogue. If moisture were the only factor, sheet vinyl or ceramic tile would likely win every time. But these additional factors, like durability, appearance, cost, and ease of installation, need to be considered, as well.
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Porcelain or Ceramic Tile
Porcelain tile is the best of all worlds for bathroom flooring, as it is waterproof, stylish, and cost-effective. Like stone, porcelain tile can achieve a rich, textured, solid feeling. Like vinyl, it is waterproof and is fairly inexpensive. Like wood flooring, tile looks great.
Should you choose porcelain or ceramic tile and is there a difference between the two? Porcelain is part of the general ceramic tile family with one slight difference: water absorption rate. The Porcelain Tile Certification Agency (PTCA) certifies types of tile as "porcelain" if these tiles have a water absorption rate of 0.5-percent or less. If this is a half bathroom or powder room, there is less of a need to purchase porcelain tiles because there are no bathing facilities.
Because there are so many different types of ceramic tiles, you can create the exact floor you want. You can even find ceramic tile that looks like wood or stone.
Individual tile comes in a wide variety of size and shapes, from square and rectangular to octagonal and hexagonal. Smaller mosaic tiles are pre-mounted on plastic mesh sheets, so you do not have to individually set each tile. With tinted grout, you can be even more creative.
Best of all, tile cleans up well and resists even standing pools of water. Like stone, tile is cold. However, radiant or heated tile can be laid under the tile. Wet tile is slippery. But texturing solves that problem. Smaller tiles are less slippery because more grout is used and the grout acts as a non-skid surface.
Pros and Cons
- Many style choices
- Good resale value
- Works well with radiant heating
- Cleans up well
- Cold under foot
- Hard under foot, so it is difficult to stand on for long periods
- Often sterile-looking
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Vinyl Flooring: Sheet, Plank, or Tile
Good-looking and supremely practical, vinyl has been a popular choice for bathroom flooring for decades. Sheet vinyl flooring is your best option if extreme amounts of water are expected, such as in children's bathrooms or laundry rooms. Because it comes in large sizes, sheet vinyl can be installed with as few as zero seams in a small bathroom. Luxury vinyl plank flooring, an increasingly popular choice, comes in widths of around 5 inches and lengths of around 48 inches. Most vinyl flooring is very much a do-it-yourself job. Because vinyl is so popular, there are thousands of style options available.
Pros and Cons
- 100-percent waterproof
- Plank seams are waterproof
- Tile and plank are easy for do-it-yourselfers to install
- Floating vinyl flooring is easy to replace
- Often has poor resale value
- Bumps and gaps on the underlayment or subfloor can telegraph to the vinyl surface
Natural stone is a good choice for bathroom, but only if you can afford it. There are few moisture problems with marble, granite, limestone, and the other stone flooring options. Natural stone is hard, durable, and aesthetically pleasing. Stone flooring returns excellent resale value. Stone flooring can be cold and slippery. Coldness can be solved by installing radiant heating. The slip factor can be mitigated by having the stone textured with sandblasting or by purchasing naturally textured stone, such as slate.
One issue that tends to pull this bathroom flooring option down is high cost. Real stone flooring is by far your most expensive flooring option.
Pros and Cons
- Excellent resale value
- Very durable
- Difficult for do-it-yourselfers to install
Engineered wood is better than solid wood under high moisture conditions due to its dimensional stability. Engineered wood has a plywood base that holds up well against moisture. Plus, engineered wood flooring looks authentically like wood because the top layer is real hardwood veneer. If you wish to have natural wood in a bathroom, engineered wood is the best choice. Any type of wood product, no matter how well protected, is prone to damage in bathrooms.
Pros and Cons
- Best flooring choice if you want to have real wood in the bathroom
- Dimensionally stable
- Authentic hardwood on the top
- Oversanding can wear through the veneer layer
- Moderate-to-high expensive
Surprisingly, laminate flooring is a better bathroom flooring choice than solid hardwood. Laminate flooring is essentially resin-impregnated paper atop a wood chip base. The surface of laminate plank is actually a photograph of oak, cherry, slate, marble, or any other wood or stone. On top is a clear coat called the wear layer. DuPont RealTouch, for instance, warrants the wear layer on its line of laminate flooring for 30 years.
Laminate can work in bathrooms if you take precautions to protect the wood base from moisture. With tight seams between the planks, it is difficult for moisture to work its way downward. Laminate is easy to clean, too. But laminate still has that wood chip base. Should it happen to have contact with moisture, it will expand and bubble, and the only way to fix it is to tear it out.
Truly waterproof laminate flooring is an idea that has not yet come to fruition even though several manufacturers have tried.
Pros and Cons
- Easy to install for do-it-yourselfers
- Water-damaged laminate flooring cannot be repaired
- Laminate flooring can collect static
Flooring to Avoid in the Bathroom
Because carpeting retains moisture for so long, it tends to dry out slowly within the confined spaces of bathrooms. This makes carpet a poor flooring choice for bathrooms. However, if you do wish to have carpet in the bathroom, make sure the pile is low and the material is 100-percent inorganic, such as olefin or nylon.
Except for its top coating, solid hardwood has no protection against moisture. Even the smallest amount of moisture that works its way into the wood will eventually rot it out. Only slightly better than carpet, solid hardwood looks great and feels warm under foot. If you absolutely do want solid hardwood in your bathroom, make certain it is perfectly installed, with zero gaps for moisture. This means hiring professional installers. It also means that site-finishing your hardwood flooring works better than installing pre-finished flooring. Site-finishing floods the seams between the boards with coating, effectively blocking moisture migration from the top side.