September 15/22, 2014; Volume 28/Number 7
AirStep, StrataMax lead the way in alternative options
By Jenna Lippin
While many flooring executives note the importance of fiberglass sheet vinyl in their product offering and its ongoing capture of market share, felt products still command a significant portion of the market. In fact, FCNews research reveals felt still represents 38.6% of residential sheet sales dollars and 45.5% residential sheet volume (FCNews, June 30).
Felt remains desirable in sheet vinyl because it allows for some movement of wood subfloors. When examined under a microscope, felt contains long fibers held together with latex resin. When glued to wood subfloors that expand or contract due to atmospheric moisture or drying from heat, the felt will move with the wood.
Felt is also beneficial on concrete subfloors as the residual moisture collected from the ground can lift into felt layers, move to the outside edges of a room and fade off.
Unlike felt, fiberglass stays its absolute size, so on wood subfloors it is unable to expand and contract in harmony with the subfloor, which can lead to buckling or gapping. On concrete, the problem becomes one of moisture. If moisture is trapped underneath the floor there is no place for it to go, making the floor susceptible to mold and mildew.
While some major industry players continue to make felt products, those offerings are not felt in the traditional sense. Rather, an increasing number of companies are developing alternative sheet products in which felt is utilized but not necessarily for backing.
A benefit of fiberglass is its ability to lay flat, a characteristic considered by felt producers. Congoleum’s AirStep product, which the company categorizes as “flexible flooring,” includes felt in its construction but with a polymer composite backing underneath the fiber layer. “Now you have a felt product that can handle some expansion and contraction that you get in seasonal change in size in wood subfloors without buckling, whether glued down or loose laid,” explained Mike Sansone, senior vice president of sales at Congoleum. “With this construction we can offer all the benefits of felt with all the benefits of fiberglass. Fiberglass does not have the ability to move with the seasonal changes in temperature and humidity of wood subfloors the way AirStep can.”
Similar to Congoleum, Armstrong created its StrataMax line as a felt product with an extra layer on the back of that fiber portion. “We’ve taken felt products as they exist today and added a layer on the backside of the felt to encapsulate it and receive adhesive that sticks to the floor and provides that loose lay benefit,” said Rachel Lombardo, general manager of residential vinyl sheet for Armstrong. “There is enough product on the back of the felt to balance the structure as we would in a fiberglass product. Glue is not needed because the product won’t curl.”
Installation options are critical in determining the desirability of a flooring product. While most fiberglass sheet floors are glued down, both AirStep and StrataMax boast loose lay capabilities. AirStep can also be perimeter installed with no size or seam restrictions. “[AirStep] can go directly over a ¾-inch subfloor without the added expense of a ¼-inch underlayment,” Sansone explained. “A typical subfloor today costs about $1.50 per square foot installed. You can save $14.50 a square yard in underlayment expense, or on a 20-square-yard kitchen, for example, you save 4 cubic feet of wood, so it’s a greener installation. There are no chemicals involved, no adhesives or odors/fumes. With loose lay or staple around perimeter you have a better system.”
According to Lombardo, installation—not construction—is what separates StrataMax from other sheet products on the market. “We don’t look at it through that lens [of fiberglass vs. felt]. We look at loose lay vs. glue down. Felt is insignificant to the story for our customers; the attribute they seek is loose lay, or products that can be easily removed when replacing. We will mention features and benefits of our construction, but it’s not our story.”
In terms of price, while StrataMax and AirStep are some of the more expensive products on the market (namely because of the additional layer in the product), the cost ends up being less to the end user due to a lower-price installation.
Armstrong has plans to launch a value-end product line from StrataMax to aggressively enter lower points where the larger piece of the market is flat. “That value product is more expensive than felt but less than glass,” Lombardo said. “It’s a better product for a cheaper price. We have an advantage as the cost of manufacturing is not as high as glass.”
Sansone anticipates improved technology relating to printing and design for products that include felt, particularly in creating more texture. “It’s very difficult to get in-depth embossing with fiberglass products because of the way they are constructed. There is a technical limitation to the manufacturing process of fiberglass.”