Many factors go into choosing a laminate floor, and the information on floors can be difficult to find. However, with an investment in your home that is such a large factor, it is vital that you find out as much information as you can about the options for laminate flooring, in order to make a good decision. So many people choose a floor based on appearance or price (or both) alone, and then they end up unhappy because of some factor they did not consider when they made their choice. Here are some factors besides appearance that will figure into your satisfaction with your laminate floor.
Wear and Durability -- Laminate floors have a rating for wear, which in the United States is coded as AC with a number after it. The rating goes from AC 1 to AC 5, with AC 5 being the most durable. The most common rating is AC 3, and you should never choose anything below this level, unless it is in an area that gets very light wear indeed, as you will be very unhappy with the wear that your laminate floor will begin to show after just a few years.
Repeat pattern -- Some brands of laminate repeat after only a few boards; with a distinctive pattern, you may find yourself thinking, "Oh, there's that board again." More subtle patterns will look more like real wood, and will prevent guests with sharp eyes from noticing the repeats. Ask about the repeat and make sure that it is no more than one board in ten.
Toxins -- Laminate floors are made of wood dust (sawdust) and glue, with a photo of wood, and a clear wear layer on top. Some wear layers are made of melamine, which is usually safe unless you have a specific allergy to it. Others are aluminum oxide, which sounds scary but aluminum oxide is the fourth most common material on the planet. If you can touch a piece of sandpaper without ill effects, aluminum oxide is safe for your floor. (However, installation is a very different matter and you must take extreme care not to breathe either wood dust or aluminum oxide dust when the boards are being cut!) So the most important factor in toxicity is possible formaldehyde used in the glue. If you ask for the Material Safety Data Sheet in the United States (usually abbreviated to MSDS), this will show the amount of formaldehyde outgassing that is likely to occur. Remember that extreme heat will cause the formaldehyde to outgas faster, so if you are worried, you might set your heat very high and leave for a few days, then come back and air out your house thoroughly by opening a few windows and allowing the gases to escape.
Susceptibility to fading -- unless you live in a cave, you will receive sunlight on your floor. By checking the rating for protection from UV light, you can rest assured that your laminate floor will not have faded patches where the sun shines into your house.
Suitability of laminate for the area -- areas which receive a lot of moisture, such as conservatories, kitchens, or bathrooms, pose special problems for laminate floors. Because the laminate is made of wood dust and glue, too much moisture can easily warp the boards (as I found out when my water heater broke). Areas where a lot of traffic comes in from outside will need a rug or other floor to protect the laminate from dust and moisture (the rug will dry people's shoes and trap some of the dust).
Underlayment -- do not skip using an underlayment. Use a very high-quality underlayment as it will improve both the insulation (which means your floor won't be ice-cold in winter) and the sound absorption and transmission, because laminate floors can be very noisy. Do not get an underlayment with an integrated vapor barrier, because with a separate vapor barrier, you will get superior insulation and superior sound absorption (the extra air between the underlayment and the vapor barrier will provide additional cushioning against heat or cold and sound).
There are many kinds of underlayments: cork, which is one of the most environmentally friendly, and has a R-value of 3; foam, which comes in many varieties, including an ecologically friendly type; and various other underlayments. Do some research, and check with your laminate manufacturer.
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Ease of installation -- of course, if you are using a professional installation service, you may not care so much about how easy your laminate is to install, but if you are installing laminate yourself, you will want to make sure that you thoroughly understand the instructions and have tried out the installation before you buy the product. Otherwise, you may end up using language you would not want your neighbours to hear, and worse, you may find yourself having to have the unexpected expense of professional installation. Many stores will have seminars and practice sessions on installing laminate flooring, so be sure that you do not skip this, or you may find that your job will take much longer and be much more difficult that you budgeted for.
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General tips for laminate floor care:
Don't wear shoes (or allow others to wear shoes) inside the house. You can encourage this by setting out a nice, attractive shoe bench and providing some slippers for guests (and discreetly turning away when they take their shoes off so you won't see the holes in their socks).
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Vacuum and dust frequently. To keep my floors clean, I use a Roomba, which is great for picking up loose dirt, and run it twice daily. In five years my laminate floor shows absolutely no signs of wear. Loose dirt gets tracked around and will make microscopic scratches in your floors, which, over time, will cause significant wear. Daily vacuuming picks up all the loose dirt and prevents these scratches. (Don't forget the baseboards; dirt will fall off of them and get tracking into the wear layer of the floor.) If you have a regular vacuum, make sure that you use the hard floor attachment to avoid grinding in dirt into the wear layer of the laminate.
Use only a damp cloth to clean your laminate. Never use a floor cleaner, or any product containing wax or oil to clean your laminate floors. If you must use a cleaning product, call the manufacturer beforehand to discuss what kind of product to use, otherwise you could end up voiding your warranty.
Above all, do not rely on what the sales person tells you -- their job is to sell you a floor. If you do your research well in advance, read customer reviews, check with publications such as Consumer Reports (which reviews laminate flooring each August), and decide in advance what factors are most important to you, you can be sure that you will be satisfied with your laminate flooring for many years to come.