Types of Vinyl Flooring Materials: Tile, Sheet Vinyl, and Luxury Vinyl

View past shower to sink and toilet in sunny bathroom
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Vinyl flooring has been around for more than 100 years, invented initially to replace the original resilient flooring material, linoleum. In the 1940s, vinyl flooring became very popular for areas where resilience, durability, and water-resistance was important. Bathrooms and kitchens have always been the prime areas where vinyl flooring products are used. While vinyl flooring is not completely impervious to the rigors of these rooms, it is very resistant to water and easy to clean and maintain, making it a low-cost, low-hassle flooring choice.

The Composition of Vinyl Flooring

Vinyl flooring became a truly viable flooring material with the introduction of PVC (poly-vinyl chloride), a synthetic plastic containing carbon, hydrogen and chlorine. In traditional sheet vinyl or vinyl tiles, the flooring material is a composite product, with a layer of PVC bonded to a fibrous core, and covered over with a printed design layer and a tough, clear wear layer. The distinction between high quality and low quality lies in the thickness of the products and the toughness of the wear layer.

Vinyl flooring today can take several forms, including sheet flooring, vinyl composite tiles, and a newer product, known as luxury vinyl tiles or planks (known as either LVT or LVF). Whatever type of vinyl flooring you choose, vinyl has several distinct advantages:

  • Durability. Vinyl flooring is a surprisingly tough material, even though it is slightly soft underfoot.
  • Water resistance. The main reason that vinyl flooring is popular in bathrooms and kitchens is because it is resistant to moisture, steam, and humidity. Water is largely unable to penetrate the surface of this material to do damage to the subfloor, although it can be slightly vulnerable at the seams.
  • Easy maintenance. Vinyl flooring is very easy to clean. It is resistant to dirt, stains, scratches, and punctures, although it can be pierced if heavy furniture legs are not outfitted with protective pads. It may also yellow slightly if it is exposed to constant direct sunlight (although high-quality products have UV protection). Be aware that rugs containing rubber backing may cause a chemical reaction that can stain vinyl.

Vinyl Composite Tile

Vinyl composite tile (VCT) is a mixture of natural pulverized limestone, filler materials, thermoplastic binders, and color pigments. It is made by fusing these materials into solid sheets, then cutting them into tiles. VCT generally requires surface polishing to protect its porous surface, and thus it is not as low-maintenance as sheet vinyl, which requires only routine sweeping and mopping. This was the first widely popular form of vinyl flooring, but it is now much less popular than sheet vinyl or luxury vinyl.

High maintenance costs can cause the lifetime cost of a VCT installation to exceed that of other forms of vinyl flooring. And while VCT comes in a variety of colors and patterns, it doesn’t meet the same level of texture and design versatility available in other types of vinyl flooring. The prevalence of many seams between tiles means that this floor will not be as moisture-resistant as sheet vinyl. Water seeping through the seams can cause the base layer to loosen.

Vinyl tile is generally glued down to an underlayment, with either a towel-on adhesive or a peel-and-stick adhesive. This is the most economical form of vinyl flooring. And it is quite easy for a DIYer to install since the individual pieces are very manageable.

Sheet Vinyl

Sheet vinyl flooring consists of a continuous sheet of polymer materials manufactured in widths of about 6 to 16 feet. It is manufactured with a digital graphics "film" layer of PVC that gives the flooring its pattern and color, which is then bonded to a base layer of felt or fibrous material. Over the top, there is a protective outerwear layer to protect the PVC layer.

Because it comes in large rolls, sheet vinyl has few seams and is much better at repelling water. Smaller rooms may require no seams at all to cover the space with completely impermeable flooring material.

There are a number of ways sheet vinyl can be installed, including full glue-down application, bonding it at the perimeter, or even "floating" it over the underlayment. Installing sheet vinyl can be a clumsy operation, and thus is not a popular DIY project.

Vinyl sheet flooring generally costs slightly more than tile. It is still quite popular but is being gradually replaced by luxury vinyl flooring (LVF).

Luxury Vinyl Flooring (LVF)

Luxury vinyl flooring (LVF) is sometimes known as luxury vinyl tile (LVT) or luxury vinyl planks (LFP) when the flooring is in the form of tiles or long planks. It is made of limestone-based material mixed with PVC composites. There is no felt of fiber layer, making this a solid material throughout its thickness. Although it is still somewhat flexible, it is considerably more rigid than sheet vinyl or vinyl tiles, a quality that allows it to be installed with a modified tongue and groove system by which the individual tiles or planked are "clicked" together. Over the composite material there is a digital graphic film layer, which can create just about any look desired, covered with a very tough wear layer.

Although luxury vinyl is the most expensive of the three type of vinyl flooring, its long durability and easy maintenance can make it a more cost-effective choice over the long term. The graphic process is much superior to that used for sheet vinyl, which means that this flooring can remarkably effective at mimicking wood, stone, ceramics, or even metal.

Luxury vinyl comes in several forms, ranging from square tiles about 1 x 1 foot in size, to long 5-foot planks that resemble laminate or wood flooring planks. For this reason, combined with its imperviousness to water, luxury vinyl is quickly overtaking plastic laminates as a better choice for bathrooms, kitchens, and other areas susceptible to moisture. Plastic laminate flooring, for example, can be a questionable choice on below-grade or concrete floors, while luxury vinyl works very well. Luxury vinyl tiles and planks are also quite easy to install, and this, combined with its superior appearance and performance, is quickly making luxury vinyl the flooring of choice for many locations in the home.

Cost Considerations

Another final advantage to choosing vinyl for a bathroom floor is that it can be quite economical. Low-end vinyl can cost as little as fifty cents to one dollar per square foot. However, cheap vinyl materials will not be as durable, low maintenance, or resistant to stains and wear as are higher quality products. More expensive, durable, high-end vinyl will cost anywhere from $2 to 10 per square foot, installed. You can cut this cost in half by installing the flooring yourself.