Q: We have a mid-1950s Eichler-style ranch home with radiant heat. The radiant pipes are copper, not galvanized steel. They do not leak, and the heating works beautifully. Our kitchen floor is ceramic tile that was installed way before we purchased the home six years ago.

Several years ago we had a contractor pull up and replace about 10 of the tiles that had cracked. He told us that the tiles would not settle properly because the concrete pad was inherently uneven. Sure enough, we have new cracks in both the old and new tiles.

We are considering remodeling our kitchen and would like to know what type of flooring is compatible with both the concrete pad and the radiant heat. Our design books always refer to the subflooring, which does not exist. Do you have any suggestions?

A: Here are three alternatives to ceramic tile. All will work well with the slab subfloor and radiant heat. Your choice will ultimately be determined by the look you want and your sense of style.

The first and most obvious choice is a good-quality vinyl floor covering. Vinyl is durable and cleans easily, and, most important in this case, it is flexible and resilient. It’s comparatively inexpensive, comes in a plethora of colors and patterns, and is easily installed.

Vinyl is sold in squares, usually 12 inches, or in sheets that are either 6 feet or 12 feet wide. We do not recommend the squares. Over time, every seam will show. In a normal-size kitchen you should be able to install a seamless floor, or at the very least, seams can be hidden in out-of-the-way places, such as under the refrigerator or stove.

Another alternative, and for our taste a better one, is a “floating floor.” A floating floor is exactly what it sounds like. Rather than being nailed or glued to a concrete or plywood subfloor, these floors float on the subfloor, in this case your concrete slab.

Floating floors move with changes in humidity. Because of this, a small gap is left around the edges of the floor to allow for expansion and contraction. Cabinets or other fixtures should not be attached to this type of floor.

Most often these floors are prefinished and laminated. They are easily cleaned, and if properly installed and maintained, they will not buckle, crack or squeak.

Floating floors are installed over a vapor retardant supplied by the manufacturer and are either glued or snapped together to create a monolith. The vapor retardant is often a foam-like material that also cushions the floor.

Finally, if your tastes are more retro, you might consider painting the floor. Normally we wouldn’t recommend this, but the radiant heat in your floor will eliminate the usual coldness of concrete.

As with all painting, preparation is the key. You will have to remove the glue or mortar base for the existing tile floor, fill any cracks and smooth the floor before applying the finish coat.

If you go this route, we recommend that you apply a good concrete sealer before you apply the finish coat of paint. The final look can be one solid color or whatever design you care to create.


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