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Claims: Underlayment vs. self-leveling

by Lew Migliore

This column was instigated by a commercial flooring contractor who was questioned on the use of underlayment versus a self-leveling material for the installation of new car- pet tile.

The installation proposal stated underlayment was included but the customer disagreed with an additional charge for the self-leveling required for a successful installation. They felt underlayment and self-leveling materials were the same thing and were already paying for it. While both materials do go under flooring, there is a very distinct difference.

Underlayment is a separate material, such as plywood, OSB, luan, cement board or other sheet good placed over an existing wood or concrete subfloor to provide a new base or build up an existing one. It is not to be used in an installation where the substrate needs to be floated to a level surface for successful installation of a flooring material on top of it.

Self-leveling materials are typically cement products that will flow onto the surface of existing concrete, wood, terrazzo, metal or ceramic to create a smooth, even surface.

Underlayment is typically used in a residential environment when, for example, a new wood or laminate floor is installed to help both level the substrate and raise it to finish evenly with another surface.

Self-leveling materials are flowed onto substrate commonly in commercial installations to provide a level surface or a smooth transition, which underlayments may not provide.

Self-leveling materials are not underlayment and underlayment is not self-leveling material. The cost of the two is different and should be stated as separate items in a quote or proposal.

The end user’s interpretation of paying for underlayment was, to them, the same as self-leveling material. Not knowing the difference is understandable but a simple explanation and seeing what both products are should hopefully answer the question. In a proposal, include the fact that an underlayment or a self-leveling material would have to be used, explain what they are and state there is a separate charge for each.

This is nothing new—in the trade we understand the difference. Someone outside the trade does not understand the difference and you should always assume they don’t know. This will prevent contestable issues, arguments and frustration. Don’t think because you know, the customer knows.

If you’re working in the commercial arena with a general contractor, architect or specifier you could assume they know the difference between an underlayment and a self-leveler. But again, it would be in your best interest to be specific. Don’t give anyone a reason to argue. Listing what has to be done and then not having to do it is easy and delights customers as long as you’ve done a good job and they’re satisfied. Trying to add underlayment or self-leveler when you get into the job and arguing that it is needed makes you look less than trustworthy to the customer.

The real issue here is that you have to take into consideration and assume all that may have to be done to successfully complete an installation and at least make mention of its cost when pricing the job. Whether you do it or not makes no difference. You could simply state, “If we have to use a self-leveling agent this is the cost per square foot.”

Just put everything in writing and you won’t have to be bothered with this kind of problem.