What is LVP Flooring? Who’s Manufacturing it?
Having just returned from a special buying event that was presented by one of the largest manufacturers of flooring in the world, and was once again reminded that LVP, or vinyl plank, is the fastest-growing flooring category in the US today. If that’s the case, why don’t we know more about it? Well, pull up a seat, and I will tell you what I know about luxury vinyl plank flooring.
First off I will ramble about the LVP market. Almost all of it comes from China. And I hate that. The only things that I want to buy from China are tea and fireworks. But having talked to some really smart people in the LVP business, I can offer a valid explanation. And it’s not because they can make it cheaper.
Luxury Vinyl Plank Likes to Change
LVP product offerings seem to change monthly. Three years ago we only saw the floppy LVP, then the layer stuff with the foam core. Then more rigid offerings with a stone-composition core. Glue down; then we got click together. Smooth, then textured. How about micro bevels? Bigger bevels? Painted bevels? And it would be premature to expect no more changes. The fact is that we can make LVP cheaper and better in the USA, but we have to make it on a colossal scale. Think of manufacturing lines that are a quarter of a mile long. And warehouses that cover 50 football fields. Factories that produce as much as 250,000 sq ft each day. Wow! The downside is that it takes 18-24 months to build one of these behemoths, and another year to get it running smoothly. During those 3 years, the market has changed so much that your investment of $100 million or more has lost its luster.
China Owns the Luxury Vinyl Market
So how do the Chinese make it work? They build smaller plants that utilize labor instead of mechanics, allowing them to respond to market changes much more quickly. It doesn’t hurt that the owners of the plants don’t have to worry about OSHA, the EPA, or any other acronym that could shorten a workday.
So what does this mean to us?
Expect 75% of the LVP sold in the US to be imported for at least another 10 years.
Luxury Vinyl Glue-Down vs. Click?
Now let’s talk about the product. One of the first decisions the consumer will have to make is whether to use glue down or click material. As a general rule, glue down goes in commercial or large multi-family, while single-family and small retail use the click. This is mainly because of installation issues, but price and product selection also come into play. The glue-down, commonly referred to as dry back, will be cheaper, but offer far fewer looks and upgraded specifications.
Are Luxury Vinyl Products Completely Waterproof?
We also hear about LVP being waterproof. Let’s quantify that. No, water will not hurt LVP. Floors, broken water lines, precious princes and princesses running in from the pool….no problem for your LVP. However, waterproof does not mean it is impervious to water. If you leave water on top of even the best floor, there is the possibility of some moisture getting through the joints. And what about water going around the perimeter and under your baseboards? Yeah, there’s that. With a concrete subfloor, it really won’t matter, but to a wooden subfloor, it would be a much bigger issue. Note to self….clean up water in a reasonable amount of time. Or call my insurance adjuster.
Do I Need Padding?
Padding is another question. Is it attached back or no? It depends on the type of LVP you buy, but a pad is never necessary. With the lower-end, more flexible floors, attached-backs are seldom used, as the flooring contours to the floor and is much less likely to have dead air underneath. It is the space underneath that causes the sound that begs us for a sound-deadening backing of some sort. However, with the more rigid SPC and WPC floors, more air spaces are left underneath the floor, causing it to be louder. This is where an attached-back is nice. Like most sellers, we offer both.
Now we have the boring part behind us, and we can explore the more interesting aspects of LVP products.
How are Luxury Vinyl Plank Floors Made?
First, an explanation of how a LVP product is made:
In the graphic, you see first the wear layer and coating. This graphic shows them separately, but they are together. The inclusion of additives into the wear layer can significantly increase the lifetime of your floor. More on that later!
Next is the printed décor layer. In Murphy, NC, we call this a picture.
Then we get into the core material. This is another essential part of the core construction that determines how hard the overall product is. Think dents and dings.
The base layer is just hanging out in the rear, offering a nice place to attach the pad. There is probably another reason for its existence, but I have no idea what it would be.
I know you are all excited about the wear layer so I will cover that first.
Luxury Vinyl Wear Layers
The wear layer is what you step on. It is a transparent coating covering the top of your floor’s visual or “pretty picture” as I like to call it. This is typically made from a urethane-based protective coating. Some vinyl plank products like Shaw’s Floorte Pro or USFLoors COREtec’s higher-end products have an aluminum oxide finish that is better in every way. We can talk about that later. In 100 years of use, the picture, core, and the misunderstood stuff on the back will be fine. No scratches or tears. The wear layer will be a different story. How much wear and abuse that it will exhibit will depend on a couple of factors.
The most talked about, but the less important factor is the thickness of the wear layer. Standard thicknesses include 6, 12, or 20 mil wear layers. A mil is 1/1000th of an inch so you can see that a 20 mil wear layer is more than 3 times thicker than a 6 mil. That should last 3 times longer, right?
Is a Thicker Wear Layer Better?
Easy, Tiger! If you consider wear-through the measurement of a product’s lifetime, then that would be correct. I, however, in my ultimate wisdom, find the change in appearance to be the harbinger of durability. Let me explain….if your floor looks different in the traffic patterns than it does in front of the fireplace, does that mean it is time to replace it? It is this change of gloss level that is typically the determining factor, not wear-through. Change of gloss is caused by abrasive wear. If you had spent more time shopping for a quality finish, instead of falling for that thicker finish story, you wouldn’t be in this mess! Sorry….I tend to get excited. The absolute best part of my job, besides lunch, is helping a customer find the exact floor they need. Sometimes it is the floor they came to see, but more often it is something different. Let’s make certain you will be as happy with your floor in 10 years as you are the day it is installed.
Can You Increase LVP Hardness?
So how do we make the wear layer harder, and more resistant to scratches? Additives! This is where we are benefited by buying from larger companies. There are hundreds of companies importing LVP. Unfortunately, the most sought after characteristic is low price. Don’t get me wrong….I started ReallyCheapFloors.com. No one is more price-conscious than Ol’ Ted. The only thing better than buying something cheap is buying something awesome at a bargain! (If anyone wants to quote that, please use Theodore, instead of Ted. Thank you.)
For the generically labeled products being sold in the US, price is the only specification that matters when that floor is being constructed. Since there is no name recognition, they don’t have to worry about how you like your floor 10 years from now. That is why we love Shaw and Mohawk!
What is a Quality Luxury Vinyl Wear Layer?
Shaw and Mohawk spend millions of dollars each year, promoting their brands. Do you think they are going to put a cheap 6 mil on the market that scratches the first day you walk on it? Not likely!
Currently, we are in an extensive LVP program with Shaw, so I am more familiar with their products and will talk about them.
All LVP surfaces are made of polyurethane. Polyurethane is absolutely wonderful! It cleans well, performs great with water, and maintains its clarity for years and years. The downside? It is susceptible to scratches. Or abrasive wear. How do we get around that? With those additives, I mentioned earlier.
Shaw utilizes one of 2 different topical finishes on all of their products that we sell: Armour-Bead on the less expensive floors and ScufResist on their higher-end products.
The Armor-Bead adds ceramic particles to the polyurethane. This makes the poly much harder, and resistant to scratches. Shaw’s 6 mil Impress product will last longer than a box store 12 with polyurethane.
The ScufResist featured on products like our 6 and 7 is even harder because of the inclusion of Aluminum Oxide. Aluminum Oxide is used in the finish of almost all hardwood flooring and multiplies the lifetime of a floor due to its hardness. Change in gloss level due to abrasive wear is not a problem with Aluminum Oxide.
2 LVP Cores You Should Know
Now we can talk about the different cores. Originally LVPs were solid vinyl products. While they are still sold today with that construction, the biggest downside was that they telegraphed. If your subfloor has cracks or holes in it, a vinyl LVP will show them to you. Forever. Who wants that?
Next, we saw the layered products introduced. Different companies tried different approaches, but their goal was the same: to make a more rigid product that was environmental-friendly, a good value, and that didn’t telegraph. Over the last few years, we have seen many improvements in this construction, and have 2 choices for our upgraded floors, WPC and SPC. The improvements made to LVP’s construction created a bigger buzz and more people were asking “what’s up with this vinyl plank flooring?” because all of a sudden it could compete with our flooring solutions.
Wood Plastic Composite – WPC
We will start with WPC. While it originally meant Wood Plastic Composite, industry people now refer to it as Waterproof Polymer Core. As you can see in the photo below this product has a, well, polymer core. It may contain wood flour, or plasticizers, or Jimmy Hoffa. Who knows? Every manufacturer thinks their recipe is the best. I am going to go with Shaw on this one, as their subsidiary US Floors invented the first plastic core product under the Coretech label. Coretech, under the Shaw umbrella, continues to be a leader in LVP innovation.
Stone Polymer Core – SPC
Stone Polymer Core….is made using compositions of calcium carbonate. SPC floors tend to be harder and more resistant to denting than WPC. One of the biggest problems in the LVT market is the inability to compare floors between manufacturers. Or even from the same manufacturer. How do we know which floor will dent the least? Last the longest? We don’t. Warranties mean nothing, only that the floor won’t have manufacturing defects. Gee, thanks. If you want a floor that performs, be diligent. Feel the product. In LVP, weight matters. Weight is somewhat relative to how hard the core is. Harder cores last longer.
Lastly, we will talk about the visuals. Visuals are where we have seen (pun intended) the most advances recently. Where LVP floors started with smooth joints, now we can get a micro-beveled floor or even floors with painted bevels!
Another significant improvement is the use of HD printed décor layers (pictures!) in LVPs. Shaw is a leader in this technology, and the continuing improvements in detail are pretty amazing. You will find the HD prints featured in our Shaw Floorte Pro 7 series and other high-end vinyl floors.
All LVP floors come with a textured surface to make them more realistic, as well as to keep you from slipping and busting your bum. Another advancement, and probably my favorite, is the ER surface or Embossed in Register. What this means is that the embossing, or texture, matches the photo, er, printed décor layer. If you see a knot in the floor, the texture will have a knot. If you see the grain, the texture will have a grain. If you see a worm, pick it up. The texture will not have worms. But you get the idea. ER doesn’t sound like much, but when you see it on the floor, or in a sample, it is impressive. Only the most expensive floors will include this feature. Duh!
And this will conclude today’s lesson in LVP. Not because we are out of time, but because that is all I know. And my pointer fingers are tired.
At ReallyCheapFloors.com we would be happy to help you select the floor that you want and need. Give us a call, but be prepared to answer questions! Our staff has been at this a long time, and know what it takes to make happy customers!