Question: In 2002 we installed a quick-lock laminate floor in our kitchen, which has a lifetime warranty. When we renovated the kitchen in 2012, I told the contractor we were keeping the flooring, as it was in good condition. It still looks good except two boards have separated beside the sink. Did the floor shift? What do you think has happened and can it be fixed?
Thanks, Barb P.
Answer: The spaces between the laminate flooring sections in your kitchen may be due to movement, but are more likely due to moisture damage. Physically moving them together may work, but otherwise replacement is the only solution, if they have been damaged by water from the sink or other kitchen plumbing.
Laminate flooring is a durable product, which is typically made up of an impact-resistant surface on top of a fibreboard core. The durability is one of the main attributes, but the ease of installation may be the biggest benefit of choosing this type of flooring for your home. The short, individual planks have specially designed edges and ends that easily connect together. Often referred to as being clicked together, this dense flooring material may be laid down with only a hammer or rubber mallet and a small block or wood. Because of the interlocking structure, laminate is normally installed without any fasteners or adhesives. That allows it to "float" over other existing flooring or subfloors, which will allow for expansion and contraction due to environmental changes.
The lack of securing also allows laminate flooring to be easily removed, if desired, and reused in another location. It was originally designed with this in mind for apartment dwellers, who may frequently move. Upon leaving a rented space, the occupant simply disconnected the individual planks, boxed them up, and reinstalled them in their next apartment. This created great additional value to this budget-priced floor covering. The hard fibreboard core and the tough finish allows for simple removal and reinstallation, with minimal damage to the appearance, even after several uses.
The main negative aspect of this type of floor covering is the limited moisture resistance of the fibreboard core. While the surfaces vary in color, gloss, patterns, and hardness, most are quite resistant to impacts and surface moisture. This makes laminates ideal for homeowners with pets, children, and other factors that can scratch typical wood finishes. Unfortunately, the fibreboard core is not nearly as resistant to moisture, and can easily become damaged or swollen if subjected to standing water. For this reason, I would not recommend it be used in kitchens, bathrooms, or other areas prone to water accumulations.
Because of the interlocking nature of the planks, it is very uncommon to see gaps along the sides of the individual pieces, but not at the ends. If the separations you mention are at the ends of the planks, this may be due to simple movement. Because they are not fastened, single pieces can move apart due to various forces. Laminates are supposed to be installed with a small gap at the walls, often hidden by baseboards, to allow for expansion and contraction. This can lead to occasional gaps at the ends, as the flooring may move slightly from foot traffic or other lateral forces. The solution to that is to carefully tap the planks back together with a hammer and block of wood, or by kicking the surface laterally with soft-soled shoes.
If the gaps are at the sides, along the length of the planks, there is likely one of two possibilities for the cause. The first cause may be an isolated bump in the subfloor, beneath. Laminate floors should have a foam cushion underneath, either integral or installed as an underlay, which will bridge small unevenness in the subfloor. This will usually prevent upward movement pulling the planks apart, unless there is larger upheaval. That could be caused by telegraphing of the seams between sheets of plywood subflooring, or other isolated causes. Floor joists pushing upward from beams and teleposts below, or improperly constructed basement walls, are two of the most common causes. Inspecting the floor structure directly below the area may yield an answer, if it is visible. If that is found to be the issue, careful telepost adjustment, or trimming the basement partition walls, may close the gaps.
The second cause, and likeliest suspect, is damage to the fibreboard core from water. Especially because the only affected area is near the sink, it is probably swelling of the fibreboard from wetting. The water may have come from spilled water from the sink or counter. If that sits for long enough on the grooves between the planks, it can seep through to the core. If that has happened multiple times, it will eventually soak the fibreboard and cause it to swell. If you have been extremely diligent in quickly wiping up any water, the moisture source could be elsewhere.
Sweating or dripping water supply pipes may go unnoticed in the cabinet under the sink. A slow leak in the dishwasher supply, drain or tub can also be insidious. Check to make sure nothing is leaking, and fix it immediately if found. The only solution to that problem is to replace the damaged planks. If you have any extra flooring left over from the initial installation, it should be a relatively simple repair. Otherwise, live with the defect or upgrade the flooring in that area to something more moisture resistant.
It is possible that the spaces between your laminate flooring planks are caused by movement, but that should be easily diagnosed and rectified. Alternatively, if it is caused by water from the kitchen plumbing, which I suspect, the only remediation is replacement of the moisture damaged flooring.
Ari Marantz is the owner of Trained Eye Home Inspection Ltd. and the past president of the Canadian Association of Home & Property Inspectors — Manitoba (cahpi.mb.ca). Questions can be emailed to the address below. Ari can be reached at 204-291-5358 or check out his website at trainedeye.ca.