Do You Need Underlayment for Vinyl Plank Flooring?
While there will be some instances where you don’t need underlayment for vinyl flooring generally speaking some form of underlay is recommended. This could be in the form of pre-attached underlayment that comes with your vinyl floor product or it could simply be in the form of underlay beneath pre-existing flooring on top of which you are now installing vinyl flooring.
In our comprehensive round up of floor underlayment we discussed using plywood as the best underlayment for vinyl sheet flooring. Today we turn our attention to vinyl plank flooring underlayment. Read on to learn when you need underlayment and which is the best underlayment to use for vinyl plank flooring for your home.
Do I Need Underlayment for Vinyl Plank Flooring?
Well, “need” might not be the right word. In many applications, no, you don’t need to use underlayment. But its cushioning and sound-dampening qualities are appreciated in any room. And anything to make concrete warmer will help.
To be specific, underlayment isn’t necessary when the luxury vinyl:
1). Comes with attached pad underlayment. Most LVP and LVT includes a thin foam pad underlayment.
2). Is being installed over flooring that already has an underlayment cushion. One of the appealing virtues of LVT and LVP is that it can be installed over any level, clean floor in good condition.
More cushion isn’t always good. When you’re laying vinyl over vinyl and the existing material is cushioned, skip the underlayment. Adding another pad might make the floor a little squishy.
And some installers warn that the click-lock edges of luxury vinyl are a little delicate. When there is too much “give” in the floor because of two layers of underlayment beneath it, the up/down stress on those edges can cause breaks. Yikes – your flooring might fall apart! That’s a rare scare, but why tempt it?
3). Is installed below grade – basements, lower levels of tri-levels, etc.
A better way to say this might be that no underlayment is necessary when the vinyl is installed on a floor that doesn’t have living space below it.
Why is this true? Noise. Luxury vinyl planks and tiles can be a little click-clacky when walked on, and the material is thin, so it doesn’t absorb other noises like loud kids, barking dogs or “clunks” from things dropped on it. Noise is transferred to and through the wood subfloor beneath.
Does that mean I shouldn’t use underlayment for vinyl plank flooring below grade?
No, not at all. We still recommend it for the cushioning value and because it makes the floor a little warmer – a definite advantage in below-grade use. Read more on how to insulate a basement floor.
It just isn’t a “must.”
Fun fact – If you live in a multi-level, multi-family dwelling, like an apartment or condo, you might be required to use underlayment. Again, the reason is noise. Underlayment with an acceptable STC (sound transmission class) rating and/or IIC (impact insulation class) rating will be needed. The rating varies, so check with the apartment/condo association for details.
What Does Underlayment Do? What Doesn’t It Do?
Yes: Underlayment adds cushion, dampens noise and adds a small amount of warmth, which is desirable when the subfloor is concrete or tile.
Thicker underlayment can also hide minor imperfections in the subfloor like a light gouge or scrape or very small gap.
No: Underlayment does not act as a vapor barrier. If the floor immediately beneath the vinyl is concrete, then a vapor barrier is essential. Read more about installing a vapor barrier on a basement floor.
And soft materials will not hide significant gaps, gouges or bumps beneath. Those major imperfections will show – the technical term is that they will “telegraph” through the luxury vinyl – and it will look like cheap vinyl instead.
The only potentially suitable underlayment for floors in poor condition is plywood – as discussed in the next section.
Underlayment Types, Costs, Pros and Cons
This section explains your luxury vinyl flooring underlayment options, prices, advantages and disadvantages. It will assist you in determining the best underlayment for vinyl plank flooring in your home.
In the next two sections, we’ll address the best underlayment choice based on the subfloor and the type of vinyl flooring you’re installing.
This is today’s most frequently used underlayment for vinyl plank and tile flooring. The average thickness is between 1-3 mm. When the flooring has attached underlayment, it is often foam. Most foam pad/underlayment is polyethylene.
Pros: Foam provides some cushioning and limited insulation. It’s sound dampening value is fair, not great. The thicker the foam, the softer and quieter and warmer your floor will be. Various widths are produced in roll form that is easy to install.
Cons: It’s not a vapor barrier, and in fact, it can trap water if it gets soaked by a spill. Mold is usually the result, followed by musty odors and the need to tear up the affected portion of flooring.
Cost: Cheap. $0.35 – $0.60 (35 to 60 cents) per square foot for the foam based on thickness. The installed cost is $0.80 to $1.15 per square foot.
Cork is a fine choice for luxury vinyl planks and tiles. It is available in cork-only rolls and in cork with an attached vapor barrier for use over concrete. Your options are thinner half-pound cork and denser but more expensive 2-pound cork.
Pros: Softer than foam, it also does a good job reducing noise and has better insulation value too. While cork without a vapor barrier isn’t suitable for wet areas because it can harbor water, cork naturally resists mold and mildew if it gets damp.
Cons: There’s the potential moisture issue just mentioned, and it costs twice as much as foam.
Cost: $0.75 – $0.1.10 per square foot for material – and around $1.40 to $1.85 per square foot installed.
Felt is most commonly used over wood, tile and concrete subfloors.
Pros: It is denser than foam, so offers better sound control. You can choose a felt underlayment with attached vapor barrier where needed. Insulation quality is also a step up from foam and cork. Cost is competitive.
Cons: The cheapest felt is thin, so the cushion factor is minimal. If the subfloor is hard, your feet will be happier with thicker felt, foam or cork beneath the vinyl.
Cost: $0.50 – $0.90 per square foot for the material. Around $1.00 to $1.50 per square foot installed.
A top choice for use under tile, plywood is sometimes installed specifically to serve as underlayment for vinyl flooring, but most typically vinyl sheet flooring.
Pros: It does the best job covering imperfections and providing a clean and smooth base for luxury vinyl.
Cons: It is hard, so no cushioning, doesn’t add much warmth and it might raise the floor level higher than adjoining floors, which prohibits its use in those applications.
Note: Where floor height allows, a cushioning underlayment can be installed over the plywood before the vinyl flooring is put down.
Cost: $0.90 – $1.25 for the plywood or close to $3.50 per square foot installed.
Best Underlayment for Each Subfloor
What will you lay the underlayment on? That can affect your decision of which underlayment material is best.
Concrete: You’ll want cushion, so cork and thicker foam are the best choices. And importantly, you’ll want to install a separate vapor barrier or choose an underlayment with an attached vapor barrier.
Plywood or OSB: If the underlying material is in good condition, then any of the soft underlayment choices are appropriate. If the condition of the plywood or OSB is poor, a thin plywood underlayment is best.
Hardwood: Foam and cork are the most commonly used. Felt dampens noise, but doesn’t make the floor much softer.
Tile: Cork provides the best protection against grout lines showing through. The best option might be a thin layer of self-leveling concrete followed by a vapor barrier and foam or cork underlayment.
Vinyl: Choose foam for low cost; consider cork for a softer floor.
Best Underlayment for Vinyl Plank Flooring
Here are the two common LVT/LVP flooring types with the best underlayment for each.
SPC: Stone-plastic (or stone-polymer) composite core flooring sounds hard, doesn’t it? It is, so softer underlayments like thicker cork or foam are ideal.
WPC: Wood-plastic composite vinyl is softer and has slightly more “bounce.” For this reason, thinner foam or felt underlayment is preferred to prevent a squishy feel and the potential damage flexing the floor can cause.
About the Author:
Rob joined the Home Flooring Pros team in 2014 and is a freelance writer, specializing in flooring, remodeling and HVAC systems.
“I’m the son of an interior designer and picked up an eye for design as a result. I started hanging wallpaper and painting at 14 and learned enough on the job to be the general contractor on two homes we built for our family and did much of the finish plumbing, electrical, painting, and trim work myself.”