Underlayment Choices And Their Impact On Engineer Expenses

Underlayment is an important component in any hardwood flooring installation. As an engineer specifying hardwood floors, choosing the right underlayment is crucial to control expenses over the lifetime of the flooring. The underlayment sits between the subfloor and the hardwood flooring, serving several purposes:

Common Underlayment Options

There are several common underlayment options to consider:

Felt Paper

Felt paper is a lightweight paper material impregnated with asphalt. It offers minimal cushioning and sound insulation.

Cost: $$

Lifespan: 5-10 years


Foam underlayments like polyethylene foam provide cushioning for comfort underfoot. They absorb sound better than felt paper but tend to compress over time.

Cost: $$

Lifespan: 10-15 years


Cork underlayments offer natural sound and moisture absorption. Cork is also naturally antimicrobial. However, cork tends to compress over time under heavy use.

Cost: $$$

Lifespan: 15-20 years


Rubber underlayments like recycled rubber provide excellent sound insulation and moisture resistance. They are highly durable but also the most expensive option.

Cost: $$$$

Lifespan: Over 30 years

As you can see, each underlayment material has pros and cons. Keep reading for tips on selecting the right option depending on your project requirements and goals.

Factors Impacting Costs

Many variables impact the costs and benefits of different underlayment materials over the flooring lifetime:

Initial Material Cost

The underlayment material cost is the most obvious factor impacting engineer expenses. However, cheaper materials like felt may have shorter lifespans or need frequent replacement. Pricier options like rubber will have higher upfront costs but last decades longer.

Labor Costs

More expensive underlayments don’t necessarily have higher installation costs. In fact, easier to work with materials can reduce contractor hourly rates and speed up installation. Quicker turnarounds also minimize business disruptions.


How often an underlayment needs replacement is crucial for long-term costs. A 10 year foam underlayment seems cheaper than 30 year rubber initially. But replacing it twice over the flooring lifetime may make it the pricier choice overall.

Moisture & Mold Resistance

Underlayments that resist moisture help preserve the subfloor and flooring, preventing costly repairs and replacements. Mold remediation projects in particular have exorbitant costs if moisture seeps through a permeable underlayment over time.

Sound Insulation Qualities

For multi-family units, hotels, and other environments with noise considerations, underlayment sound insulation can make or break noise complaints and related expenses. These projects warrant splurging on higher-performing materials.

Health & Environmental Factors

Sustainable materials like cork and recycled rubber boost health and environmental credentials. Projects seeking green building certifications like LEED qualify for more points with eco-friendly underlayments. This allows engineers to charge a premium.

Tips on Underlayment Selection

Keep these tips in mind when selecting underlayments:

Consult Flooring Manufacturer Guidelines

Follow flooring manufacturer instructions on underlayment requirements. Using incompatible materials voids warranties. Also ask about recommended options as they know performance limitations.

Consider the Subfloor

Assess the subfloor type and condition first. For example, concrete subfloors warrant moisture-resistant underlayments. Particleboard and OSB subfloors require reinforcement from stiff underlayments before installation.

Evaluate Site Conditions

Consider the environmental conditions the underlayment must endure. For basements at risk of flooding, mold-resistant materials are ideal. In dry climates, moisture protection is less crucial.

Determine Noise Insulation Needs

In noisy spaces like multifamily housing, prioritize sound dampening ability with high IIC/STC ratings. This prevents tenant complaints and related costs.

Assess Durability Requirements

Do high traffic conditions or heavy furniture warrant ultra-durable underlayment? Prioritize longevity and compression resistance.

Set Realistic Budget Expectations

Cheaper underlayment seems attractive upfront but may cost more long-term in replacements. Set lifecycle cost expectations early when comparing options.

Read Contractor Recommendations

Experienced flooring contractors have valuable insights on real-world performance to help narrow options. Trust their expertise.

Common Issues with Poor Underlayment Choices

Be aware of these common (and costly) issues with subpar underlayment selection:

Premature Wear & Damage

Underlayments lacking durability compress quickly under heavy use. This causes uneven wear, splintering, and excessive gaps in hardwood above.

Mold & Moisture Damage

Permeable underlayments allow leaks and floods to seep underneath and cause mold, mildew and rotting subfloors/flooring.

Noise Complaints

In sufficient sound dampening underlays lead to tenant complaints and lost revenue in rental properties or hotels.

Short Lifespans & Frequent Replacement

Cheaper underlayment wears out quickly, requiring expensive rip-outs and new installations far before the flooring itself needs replacement.

Poor Indoor Air Quality

Low quality padding emits high VOC levels. This causes respiratory complaints and lost rental income.

Invalidation of Warranties

Incorrect underlayment grades/materials void manufacturer flooring warranties. This leaves expensive repairs and replacements uninsured.

Solutions & Preventative Measures

Luckily, the right underlayment choice avoids these pitfalls. Follow these guidelines to maximize benefits:

Choose Materials With Long-Term Durability

Prioritize underlayment with at least 10 year lifespans, with 15-30 years ideal. This prevents frequent replacements.

Ensure Moisture & Mold Resistance

Look for underlayments with high moisture resistance, antimicrobial properties and mold/mildew protection.

Meet Sound Ratings For The Space

For multifamily units, aim for IIC 60+ and STC 60+. This prevents noise complaints.

Ensure Even Load Distribution

Choose rigid and stiff materials in subfloor trouble spots to prevent uneven wear and damage above.

Favor Healthy Green Materials

Opt for sustainable materials with zero/low VOC emissions and healthy air quality.

Verify Manufacturer Approvals

Double check underlayments meet/exceed flooring manufacturer guidelines for warranties.

Trust Contractor Judgment Calls

Defer to experienced contractor recommendations during selection. They know real-life performance.

FAQs on Underlayments

What underlayment thickness should I choose?

Follow flooring manufacturer guidelines on underlayment thickness. Typically 2-3mm for floating floors and 1/4″ for nail down. Ultra-thick options may obstruct locking systems.

How is underlayment cost affected by thickness?

Thicker underlayments are pricier but provide better cushioning and durability. Find the sweet spot balancing performance and project budget.

Do I need a moisture barrier underlayment?

On concrete subfloors, yes – moisture barriers are crucial. Otherwise assess site conditions. Protect floors from below in damp spaces.

How does underlayment choice impact flooring warranties?

Always follow manufacturer underlayment type/thickness requirements to uphold warranties. Deviating voids protections.

Can I install radiant heating under hardwood flooring?

Yes, but the system must heat the subfloor first. Ensure underlayment tolerates required temperatures.

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