What is the Purpose of Floor Underlayment?

If you are remodeling your home and replacing your existing flooring, then you should take the time to learn more about floor underlayment and its benefits. Placing new flooring directly on the subfloor can have significant repercussions that affect the lifespan and durability of your new floors.

Purpose of Underlayment

Floor underlayment is a thinner material that is installed on top of the subfloor and below the floor covering. There are different material and forms that can be used for underlayment. It provides a smooth, flat surface to enable easier installation and an even, beautiful appearance. Floor underlayment provides several benefits including:

Soundproofing – Footprints can clank on hardwood floors and underlayment can help absorb the sounds of shoes and other noises. The hollow sound that can be made from hardwood and laminate flooring can be easily prevented by installing an underlayment beforehand.

Moisture protection – One of the quickest ways to ruin your floors is to have moisture penetrate your home through the subfloor. Hardwoods and luxury vinyl tile are particularly susceptible to water and moisture. Underlayment helps protect and block moisture and water vapors from reaching your flooring materials.

Better adhesion – For tile and natural stone floors, underlayment provides a good surface for it to bond to. Subfloors can expand and contract so tile will better adhere to underlayment for a longer lasting floor.

Insulation – For those living in northern states, having cold floors on a winter morning is something that can now be prevented. Floor underlayment helps provide better insulation so that you don’t ever have to cringe and hesitate again, before putting your bare feet on the floor.

Softens flooring underfoot – Floor underlayment helps soften your floors so they aren’t as hard as they would be directly on the subfloor. The cushion they provide allow for more comfortable, everyday walking on your floors.

Do You Need Underlayment?

In short, yes the majority of floors should have underlayment. In some cases, the floor underlayment may only be a thin layer of rosin paper or a fiber padding for carpet. The benefits of adding an underlayment outweigh any time savings that you may experience in the short-term. Why sacrifice a short term gain for having long-lasting durable floors that will stand the test of time?

One of the few instances where floor underlayment may not be required is for new construction projects where the subfloor is smooth and sturdy. Another time when homeowners can potentially avoid underlayment is when they are installing floor coverings over the existing hard surface like vinyl. However, it is usually still recommended as you cannot be sure that the underlying floor is entirely flat and smooth.

Types of Underlayment

While you might be familiar with a couple kinds of underlayment, there are actually numerous types of floor underlayment available in rigid or soft applications.

Plywood – A/C grade plywood has a smooth face and a rough bottom. They are available in ¼ or ½ inch thick and 4 foot by 8 foot sheets. This underlayment is an attractive option for applications involving hardwood flooring.

Panels – These are interlocking 2 x 2 foot tiles which are easy to install. They are more expensive, but also provide a moisture barrier. Their ideal application is for carpet or laminate flooring over a concrete slab.

Cement board – Also known as Wonderboard, Durock or other fiber-cement board, they are used for ceramic tile or natural stone flooring. Cement board is easy to cut, resistant to mold and provides a smooth base.

Oriented-strand board (OSB) – Similar to particle board, OSB is an engineered wood that is made by gluing and compressing wood strands together. It is cheaper than plywood and can be used for load bearing applications. One downside of this underlayment is that it doesn’t always provide as smooth of surface as other available materials.

Foam or cork – These floating underlayments are not attached to the subfloor, but “float” on the surface. They smooth out imperfections in the floor and provide a buffer in between the subfloor and the flooring product installed above.

Felt/Fiber underlayment – Provides the best features of all types of floor underlayment. It offers superior moisture blocking protection with a 6 mil vapor barrier. It also has special fibers that help absorb sound and provide insulation for your floors.

Rosin paper – This floor underlayment is a thin, recycled paper which acts as a barrier to protect against dust and minimize floor squeaking. It is the cheapest type of underlayment, but does not protect floors from moisture and doesn’t provide any type of insulation.

Vapor Barrier – For homeowners that are primarily concerned about moisture coming in from the subfloor, vapor barriers provide excellent protection. The downside to this type of underlayment is that they don’t offer insulation or noise reduction.

It is important to select the right type of underlayment for your climate and type of flooring material you are installing. If you are unsure which type of underlayment makes sense for your floors, consult with a professional to ensure you get the right product or ask us for our recommendations.

Other Considerations

When possible, keep the floor underlayment as thin as you can. Thicker ones can present some transition issues between rooms with different types of flooring. Also when deciding which type of underlayment to use, consider the time to install, any requirements and additional materials (like adhesives) to use when applying to the subfloor.

The benefits are clear. Underlayment provides better comfort, insulation, moisture blocking and helps flooring last longer. No matter what type of floors you are installing in your home, be sure to include a quality floor underlayment on top of your subfloor.

Be sure to check out the top best underlayments on our site. We our current best pick of flooring underlayment is QuietWalk® by MP Global Products floor underlayment products due to their high quality materials and environmentally conscious solutions. Our product offerings include hardwood flooring underlayment, laminate floor underlayment, moisture barrier underlayment and vinyl flooring underlayment.

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