Since the introduction of the first "click-and-lock" laminate flooring products during the 1990s, homeowners have been looking for types of laminates that are suitable for wet locations, such as bathrooms and basements. Laminate floors have become a favorite of DIYers thanks to their relatively low cost, attractive look, and easy installation, but laminate flooring products earned a reputation for being problematic wet locations. Even those forms marketed as "water-resistant" or "suitable for damp locations" are not nearly as well suited for bathrooms and similar locations as vinyl flooring or ceramic tile. Homeowners who install plastic laminate floors in busy family bathrooms often come to regret the choice.
Generally speaking, the best that manufacturers can do is offer products marketed as "water-resistant," but even these claims are disputable, as the entire manufacturing process works against using laminate flooring in moist locations.
Why Laminate Flooring Isn't Waterproof
The reason moisture is such a problem for laminate flooring has to do with its construction—in particular, its seams and its fiberboard core.
The problem that water creates for laminate flooring is not with the top layer, but with the core, which is little more than a dense type of fiberboard—an engineered product made from wood fibers. If you've ever seen a sheet of particleboard in the rain, you'll know how it bubbles up and crumbles like a wet soda cracker. Complicating the issue is the click-and-lock joining system used in laminate flooring, which makes it difficult to create perfectly tight seams. Seam gaps plus a fiberboard core equals a flooring that will swell and delaminate when water seeps past the surface layer.
One little-known aspect of this moisture-and-laminate issue is that the moisture problem actually starts in the factory, not in the home. Flooring manufacturers have found that high moisture content in the fiberboard particles in the factory can result in poor adhesion of the top melamine wear layer.
Click Play to Learn the Pros and Cons of Waterproof Laminate Flooring
Attempts at Solutions
For most of the time that laminate flooring products have been marketed for residential use, the industry advice has been to avoid installing them in moist locations, such as basements or children's bathrooms. Even the better products that have thick surface layers and are engineered to have close-fitting seams will almost always carry warnings regarding water, such as Armstrong's typical warranty caution, which notes that the flooring "[w]ill resist topical water damage, meaning that planks or tiles will not swell, delaminate or peak at the seams due to topical spills, provided that the liquid is wiped up and the floor is allowed to dry."
In other words, laminate flooring loses its warranty coverage if routine spills—or even melting snow or rainwater from shoes and boots—aren't wiped dry immediately. And this is no long-shot scenario. The most common cause of problems with laminate flooring is when moisture penetrates the seams and causes swelling of the fiberboard core and delamination of the surface layer.
With anything beyond a topical surface spill, such as a spilled glass of water or water dripping off your legs when stepping out of the shower, a laminate floor is in serious trouble. An overflowing washing machine, a leak on a refrigerator water line, even condensation dripping from the tank on your toilet, can cause the serious failure of a traditional laminate floor.
In an effort to expand the market, manufacturers have tried to develop true "waterproof" versions. These usually involve factory application of a thick waterproof coating to the tops and sometimes the edges of the planks. But generally speaking, the warranties on most of these products make it clear that they are by no means "waterproof," and at best can be described as "water-resistant." The warranties have many restrictions, such as cautioning against installing the flooring in humid conditions, placing heavy objects such as refrigerators or kitchen islands on it, or leaving water puddling on the floor for more than 24 hours.
Other companies have altered the formulation of the fiberboard core, introducing more resins into the fiberboard in an effort to make it less susceptible to swelling and delamination. But virtually all of these products come with significant limitations and warranty clauses that make it clear they fall well short of being truly waterproof. The products can be made more water-resistant, but no laminate floor that utilizes a fiberboard core can ever be said to be truly waterproof.
There are, however, a few companies that offer products that have a more legitimate claim. For a truly waterproof floor, the flooring material must be engineered with a different type of construction that eliminates the fiberboard core altogether. A few manufacturers offer laminate flooring products made entirely of PVC plastic, and these products are completely suitable for basements, family bathrooms, and other wet locations. However, compared to the hundreds of styles available in fiber-core laminates, selections are severely limited when it comes to truly waterproof laminate flooring.
More resistant to moisture than standard laminate flooring
Resists scratches better than vinyl
Easy DIY installation
Usually not truly waterproof
Style and color choices are limited
Considerably more expensive than standard laminate flooring
Waterproof Laminate Cost
Waterproof laminate floor generally costs $3 to $5 per square foot, with an industry average of about $4.50 per square foot. Standard laminate flooring, by comparison, averages about $2.50 per square foot. You will pay a premium for a laminate floor that calls itself waterproof. Luxury vinyl flooring planks average about $3 per square foot.
Maintenance and Repair
Waterproof laminate flooring is maintained the same way as standard laminate. Simple sweeping and dust-mopping should be done regularly, and deeper cleaning should be done with a damp mop or cloth moistened with an approved laminate cleaning product. Never wet-mop any laminate floor, nor should you ever use a steam cleaner.
Repairs are somewhat difficult with any laminate floor. Repairing severe damage involves disassembling the floor to replace damaged boards.
Patterns and colors for waterproof laminate flooring are quite limited when compared to standard laminates. There are only a few dozen variations when it comes genuinely waterproof laminate flooring, compared to hundreds for standard laminate flooring or luxury vinyl planks.
Waterproof Laminate Installation
Waterproof laminate uses the same click-lock installation method as used with standard laminates. Beginning at one wall, planks are laid down across the floor one at a time, with edges joined by the interlocking edges together using a click-lock motion. This is a floating floor that is laid without a glue bond. Most products require a thin foam underlayment be first laid over the subfloor, but some products have a preattached foam backing on the planks.
This flooring is fairly easy for DIYers to install, but be aware that manufacturers may challenge warranties unless the installation directions are followed precisely.
Comfort and Convenience
Waterproof laminate flooring, to the degree that it is genuinely waterproof, offers advantages over standard laminate flooring, since spills and stains are less likely to ruin the floor. Other than this, this flooring has the same profile as any laminate flooring. It can be rather hard underfoot, as well as noisy. But its easy installation makes it attractive to DIYers.
Waterproof Laminate vs. Luxury Vinyl Flooring
One reason that manufacturers have not put more effort into developing broad lines of waterproof laminate is that luxury vinyl flooring, available in planks (LVP) or tiles (LVT) has largely taken over the market for a truly waterproof floor that has easy click-lock installation. Luxury vinyl flooring is made from synthetic materials through-and-through, and there is no wood-based fiberboard core that can swell or develop mold. While luxury vinyl is more expensive than standard laminate flooring, it is more affordable than most truly waterproof laminates.
To its credit, waterproof laminate has a harder surface layer than luxury vinyl, and it is more resistant to scratching. And traditionally, laminate flooring is more realistic at mimicking wood grains. However, luxury vinyl is getting better all the time, to the point that many people can no longer see the difference.
Is Waterproof Laminate Right for You?
The short answer is that waterproof laminate is probably not the best choice if you need a flooring material that is genuinely waterproof. Luxury vinyl plank flooring offers all of the benefits of laminate flooring and can legitimately be called waterproof. Luxury vinyl is now available in many, many options, and it has the same easy installation methods as laminate flooring. However, in heavy use situations, laminate's harder surface may offer some advantages over luxury vinyl.