The term vinyl flooring refers to a resilient flooring material made of synthetic materials, such as PVC vinyl, fiberglass, and various chemical plasticizers. 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 spaces where resilience, durability, and water resistance were 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. But modern vinyl flooring products with improved design and manufacturing of products are now a viable option even for spaces once dominated by ceramic or porcelain tile or hardwood. Read on to learn more about the three types of vinyl flooring: vinyl composite tile (VCT), sheet vinyl, and luxury vinyl flooring (LVF).
The Composition of Vinyl Flooring
Vinyl flooring became a truly viable flooring material with the introduction of PVC (polyvinyl 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 vinyl flooring lies in the thickness of the products, the toughness of the wear layer, and the kind of backing it has.
The vinyl flooring sold today can take several forms, including sheet flooring, vinyl composite tiles (VCT), and a newer product, luxury vinyl tiles or planks (known as either LVT or LVP). 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 that 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. Be aware that rugs containing rubber backing may cause a chemical reaction that can stain vinyl. And vinyl flooring may yellow slightly if it is exposed to constant direct sunlight (although high-quality products have UV protection).
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Vinyl Composite Tile (VCT)
- Best for: Economical flooring, DIY installation
Modern vinyl flooring tiles are generally known as vinyl composite tiles (VCT) and are constructed with a mixture of natural pulverized limestone, filler materials, thermoplastic binders, and color pigments. The flooring is made by fusing these materials into solid sheets, then cutting them into tiles. This was the first widely popular form of vinyl flooring, but it is now much less popular than sheet vinyl or luxury vinyl. 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.
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. 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.
Vinyl tile is generally glued down to an underlayment, with either a towel-on adhesive or a peel-and-stick adhesive. It is quite easy for DIYers to install since individual pieces are easy to cut and fit into irregular spaces. Repairs are equally simple since you can always remove and replace damaged tiles.
Vinyl tile is a relatively inexpensive flooring option, especially if you install it yourself. One national survey shows that materials alone range from $2 to $5 per square foot. If installed by professionals, you can expect to pay $3 to $9 per square foot.
DIY installation is easy
Repairs are easy; individual tiles are easily replaced
Has seams that can allow water penetration
Fewer design options than other flooring types
Shorter lifespan than other forms of vinyl flooring
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- Best for: Inexpensive option for spaces where floors need to be fully waterproof
Sheet vinyl flooring consists of a continuous sheet of polymer materials manufactured in widths of about 6 to 16 feet. The products sold in home improvement centers are most likely to come in 8- and 12-foot-wide rolls. Because it comes in wide 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 a completely impermeable flooring material. Sheet vinyl is still quite popular, but it is gradually being replaced by luxury vinyl flooring.
Sheet vinyl flooring 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. There are many ways sheet vinyl can be installed, including full glue-down application, bonding it at the perimeter, or even "floating" it over the underlayment.
Sheet vinyl is comparable to vinyl composite tile in price, with national averages of $2 to $5 per square foot. You can quite readily find bargain sheet vinyl flooring at big box home improvement centers for about $1 per square foot. But DIY installation can be tricky, as the large sheets are cumbersome to cut, fit, and glue. If installed professionally, expect to pay $3 to $7 per square foot.
Best for fully waterproof installation
Professional installation is quick and affordable
Not easy for DIYers
Repairs are difficult
Design options are diminishing as LVF grows more popular
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Luxury Vinyl Flooring (LVF)
- Best for: High-end look for floors that need to be waterproof
Luxury vinyl flooring (LVF) is sometimes also called luxury vinyl tile (LVT) or luxury vinyl planks (LVP); the difference in the name depends on the shape of the pieces. It is made of limestone-based mineral material mixed with PVC composites. There is no felt or fiber layer, making this a solid material throughout its thickness.
Although it is still somewhat flexible, LVF 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 planks "click" 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 types 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 be 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 longer 5-foot-long 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 fairly easy to install for DIYers with moderate skills. Individual planks and tiles snap together easily and simply "float" over the underlayment. Where fitting is necessary, individual pieces are easily cut to fit. DIY friendliness, combined with its superior appearance and performance, is quickly making luxury vinyl the flooring of choice for many locations in the home.
While there are now some types of luxury vinyl flooring that are comparable in cost to vinyl composite tiles and sheet vinyl, most products will be notably more expensive—though not prohibitively so. Materials alone generally run from $1.50 to $6 per square foot. If installed by professionals, expect to pay $3 to $16 per square foot. For good-quality stone-look or wood-look luxury vinyl flooring, it's common to pay around $5 per square foot if buying from a major home improvement center.
Choosing a Vinyl Flooring Material
Vinyl flooring of any type has many advantages over other flooring materials in some applications. It is generally much cheaper than hardwood, and it performs far better in situations where moisture is an issue (bathrooms, kitchens, entryways, basements), and it's considered pet-friendly. And while vinyl was once considered somewhat lacking in elegance, that's no longer true with the advent of luxury vinyl flooring, which is often nearly indistinguishable from wood flooring or ceramic/porcelain tile.
Within the three types of vinyl flooring, luxury vinyl flooring (LVF) has many virtues and is often the best choice, as the higher cost is more than offset by superior appearance and performance. But sheet vinyl is still a good choice where a seamless, waterproof surface is essential (such as in a children's bathroom). And vinyl composite tile remains a favorite among homeowners on a budget who like to DIY.
Each type of vinyl flooring comes in a wide range of styles and quality categories, not to mention different types of flooring installation needs. Some characteristics to keep in mind:
- Product thickness: Whatever type of vinyl flooring you are considering, compare the overall thickness of each product. Thicker vinyl sheets, tiles, or planks will generally be best in terms of offering more comfortable underfoot and are likely to be more durable.
- Wear layer: Most vinyl flooring products consist of several layers for strength, and the surface wear layer should always be the thickest. Look for a wear layer with a thickness of at least 5mm.
- Printed vs. Inlaid design: The surface design of a vinyl flooring product can be made in different ways. The cheapest is a simple printed design layer, while more expensive and more durable products will have an inlaid design that extends down into the thickness of the vinyl. This will make for a more durable flooring product.
- Surface texture: If slipperiness is a concern, make sure to look for a flooring product that has a texture that gives some grip underfoot. Luxury vinyl or vinyl composite tiles are generally better in this regard; sheet vinyl tends to be the most slippery when wet.
- Backing: The various types of vinyl flooring can have different backings that may require different installation methods. Some backings are self-adhesive while others are not. Backings include cushioned or hard and the type and quality of the backing will impact the performance and price of the product. Cushioned (synthetic or cork) backings are quieter, warmer on the feet, and more insulating.