Vinyl flooring comes in rolls, sheets, tiles, and plank sections, and is fabricated from polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which is a resin augmented with fillers, dyes, texture elements, rubberizing plastics, and stabilizing agents. Laminate flooring is available in tiles and planks and is typically made of dense fiberboard, melamine (a binding formaldehyde-based resin), a photographic layer that simulates wood or stone, and a protective clear-coat surface.
Both flooring materials cover a quality range from basic to premium. Quality determines aesthetics, durability, installation features (i.e., tongue-and-groove locking laminates vs. non-locking vinyl) and pricing. Generally, the highest quality vinyls and laminates appear most similar to the materials they imitate. Laminate flooring almost always emulates natural products, while vinyl flooring does the same, although typically not as well, and offers a limitless range of manmade designs and color combinations.
Appearance and Composition
Vinyl flooring is comprised of polyvinyl chloride (PVC), a resin-based plastic that is essentially rubberized, textured, and pigmented to create various designs, from floral to geometric patterns, to marble and stone lookalikes, and even woods, ceramics, blocks, and bricks. It is available in rolls, sheets, tiles, and strips, as well as in planks, for glue-down installation.
Laminate flooring is manufactured from fiberboard (highly compressed wood fibers) and melamine resin (a.k.a., melamine formaldehyde, a plastic material hardened by heating). The patterning, most often made to look like naturally-occurring hardwood and stone, is achieved by a designer paper layer that is sealed to the base materials and coated with a clear polymer. Laminate flooring typically comes in planks that are tongue-and-grooved to lock together and float or be glued to a subfloor.
Vinyl flooring lasts 10-20 years and laminates last 15-30 on average. This difference in durability gives laminate floors a slight pricing edge when a property goes up for sale. Additionally, vinyl is typically less expensive than laminate, may look to be of lesser quality, wears more readily, and is not as trendy as it was in the 1950s to 1970s. Consequently, the perceived resale value of a house with trending laminates may be slightly higher.
Both vinyl and laminate flooring are considered to be quite durable, although they can experience dents, scratches, discoloration, and warping. In particular, they can lose their attractiveness due to dirt and water damage. Both flooring materials feature products designed for higher traffic and moisture- and water-rich environments — i.e., bathrooms and kitchens — and should be selected accordingly.
Laminate flooring may peel away from the subfloor if it is glued, especially if it is not locked by tongue-and-groove installation. The top graphic layer may also delaminate from the melamine and fiberboard beneath it. Some laminates are adversely affected by excessive heat and direct sunlight and may warp or discolor. Pet toenails can scratch lower quality laminates, and pet urine, if left unattended, can cause water damage and odor.
Vinyl flooring can work well in bathrooms, kitchens, laundry rooms, and other moist environments, or those where pets may occasionally soil, if the vinyl is designed for those rooms and manufactured in sheets or rolls that have fewer cracks through which water can ingress. Standing water and excessive heat and sunshine are likely to discolor vinyl and cause it to peel away from the subfloor.
One consideration when choosing a floor is the type of heating. Radiant heating under the floor may limit your flooring choices because you would need the thermal conductivity of your floor to be as high as possible.
Stone and tile offer the best thermal conductivity, while cork has very low conductivity and high insulation. Vinyl floors offer better conductivity than laminate floors so if you're using hydroponic or electric radiant heating, vinyl is a better choice.
Vinyl flooring is always glued down, preferably to a very clean, non-porous surface. It can be measured and cut with a variety of tools, from a utility knife to a table saw. Some brands and styles require a separate adhesive, while others have a backing adhesive with a peel-off protector that is removed for installation.
Laminate flooring is typically installed floating on the subfloor or cork or foam pad glued to the subfloor. Floating means that the laminate is not glued, stapled, screwed, or otherwise attached to the floor beneath it. Instead, its tongue-and-groove construction locks each piece together. Some non-premium laminates are glue-down. All are readily cut with a variety of power saws.
Only those comfortable with DIY projects should consider installing these types of flooring for themselves. DIY Network, which offers guides on how to install laminate flooring and vinyl flooring, suggests laminate floors are easier to install, taking only 1 day from start to finish, compared to vinyl's estimated 2-day installation process.
Maintenance and Replacement
To avoid damage, vinyl and laminate floors should be cleaned with products sanctioned by the floor's manufacturer. Keeping both floor materials dust and water free, using non-beater brush vacuum settings, and damp mopping regularly, helps preserve, protect, and maintain the appearance of these floors.
It is advisable to buy all flooring materials for a project in one lot, as slight variations do occur in manufacturing. This means it is also wise to buy extra material for future repairs at the same time. Neither material can be refinished, so replacement of damaged or discolored sections is the only recourse. If sections of either floor do need to be replaced, the damaged area must be cut out, removed, and replaced per installation directions.
The price per square foot of vinyl and laminate flooring varies with quality — i.e., basic vs. premium. Generally, vinyl flooring is less expensive than laminate, and any associated labor costs for installation also tend to be lower. With new product variations entering the market regularly, prices do change, but, on average, vinyl flooring can be installed for $1-$7 per foot, and laminate for $3-$11.
Both vinyl and laminate flooring are manufactured from potentially toxic materials: PVC and melamine, respectively. PVC can release toxic gasses like chlorine, and melamine may release formaldehyde; however, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) indicates that the incidence of this is rare, and so the threat is minimal.
Some adhesives used in the vinyl glue-down process also release mildly noxious fumes, as do some cleaning products for vinyl and laminate. A Scandinavian study found a higher incidence of autism in children living in homes with vinyl flooring, but the connection is inconclusive and further study is needed.
Other considerations include radiant heat energy conservation and what to do with the flooring when it is removed and replaced. Both materials can insulate the radiant heat from the room, especially the thicker, denser floors.
Additionally, it is unknown how long it takes for either flooring material to disintegrate in a landfill, and recycling for vinyl is minimal. In contrast, some laminate manufacturers do take back their used flooring and recycle up to 80% of its content.
- Animal lovers in search of pet-proof flooring - Consumer Reports
- Five (Toxic) Stars: Consumer Reports and Vinyl Flooring - Center for Health, Environment & Justice
- Floor Buying Guide - Consumer Reports
- How to Properly Dispose of Vinyl Flooring - Environmental Remediation Experts
- Laminate Flooring Q & A - European Producers of Laminate Flooring
- Questions and Answers Regarding Laminate Flooring - EPA.gov
- Radiant Heating - Energy.gov
- Scientists Find 'Baffling' Link Between Autism and Vinyl Flooring - Scientific American