Unmanaged excess subfloor moisture is the leading cause of floor failure and frequently results in delays to projects, major inconvenience and expense when remedial work is required. To help avoid these situations, Stephen Boulton, technical service manager at F. Ball, provides crucial advice to guard against the problems caused by excess subfloor moisture when installing floorcoverings.
Unchecked subfloor moisture, whether residual construction moisture or rising damp, can attack flooring adhesives and floorcoverings, causing wood to warp and damaging textile floorcoverings by promoting mould and bacterial growth. Not only can this ruin the finished appearance of a flooring installation, but it can potentially cause floorcoverings to de-bond, resulting in complete floor failure, and present a health hazard.
F. Ball’s technical service department frequently receives enquiries from contractors who have been called to rectify a recent flooring installation where floorcoverings have begun to lift as a result of unmanaged excess subfloor moisture, and our regional technical representatives often attend site visits where this is the case.
To prevent floor failure due to excess subfloor moisture, it is important to take time to determine subfloor moisture levels and deploy an appropriate moisture management solution, where necessary, prior to installing floorcoverings.
F. Ball recommends that a moisture test is undertaken as part of any flooring installation, having first prepared the subfloor so that it is suitably smooth, sound and free of contaminants. If the subfloor Relative Humidity (RH) levels exceed 75% (65% if wood floorcoverings are to be installed), a moisture management solution will be required to prevent excess subfloor moisture attacking adhesives and damaging floorcoverings.
A quick, non-intrusive way to identify the presence of subfloor moisture is to use a handheld radio frequency moisture meter. If the device indicates the presence of moisture in the subfloor, further testing will be required to determine the precise subfloor relative humidity levels and if a moisture management solution is required.
The only method of measuring subfloor relative humidity levels with certainty, and the method advocated by British Standards, is to use a calibrated hygrometer. These devices measure the relative humidity of a small volume of confined air in equilibrium with the subfloor, taking into account the ambient temperature.
Waterproof surface membranes
There are a number of options available to contractors for creating a barrier to protect the floorcovering from high levels of moisture detected within the subfloor.
The application of a liquid waterproof surface membrane is the usual solution for effectively controlling damp. The best-performing epoxy waterproof surface membranes will isolate excess subfloor moisture where relative humidity values are up to 98%, with a single coat application, which will fully cure in as little as three hours.
Quicker, two-coat, water-based systems are also available that will create an effective barrier against residual construction moisture where relative humidity values are up to 95%. The first coat cures in 15-20 minutes. A further 30 minutes curing time is required for the second coat.
An alternative solution
An alternative solution for dealing with damp is available for where a waterproof surface membrane cannot be applied. This may be the case where flooring installations are part of a refurbishment project and screeds are contaminated with oil, other chemicals or old adhesive residues. It is also useful in heritage settings where the subfloor must be preserved.
In these situations, a loose-lay isolator membrane can be laid directly onto the subfloor, without the requirement for an adhesive, to provide a barrier to stop excess subfloor moisture causing floor failure.
These membranes typically have nodules on the underside, creating an airspace to allow water vapour to travel to the edge of a room, into a dry wall or ventilated area, where it can safely escape.
When a suitable moisture management solution is in place, contractors can proceed with preparing the subfloor for the installation of new floorcoverings. Where an isolator membrane has not been used, this should include the application of a levelling compound to create a perfectly smooth base for the receipt of floorcoverings, remembering to prime beforehand if necessary.
Contractors can proceed to install floorcoverings using an appropriate adhesive once the levelling compound has cured. At this stage, the compatibility of particular floorcoverings and adhesives should be checked to further ensure against floor failure. To do this, contractors can consult the adhesive manufacturer’s Recommended Adhesives Guide or see the floorcovering manufacturers’ instructions.