Article | Before Investing in SPC Flooring – Rigid Core Board?

My Top Points For Consideration!

With SPC (stone plastic composite), market share is projected to grow 20-25% in the USA alone for 2020. Global uptake of this category looks to be fairly similar, even in Africa. In 2019 South Africa alone saw five new ranges being launched, which is notable for our small market.

With the majority of global product being produced in the East, it’s paramount that prospective buyers understand the impact and complexity of the offered variety before making up their specific products. Just because it can be done, doesn’t mean you should!

Personally, I have seen simple mistakes emerging in my own marketplace and abroad where ‘possible’ attractively-priced options have driven a product into a precarious wholesaler danger zone.

With 2020 upon us, and multiple early international trade fairs taking place in the USA and Germany (Domotex Hannover/USA & TISE2020), I have created a five-point outline for what I consider should be on every new SPC buyer’s checklist. This is purely my own view, so feel free to chip in…

1.     Polyurethane Anti-Scratch UV Coating

In South Africa, we have really harsh UV light which destroys and fades most products and materials eventually. When assembling your new product from the multitude of options and overly keen factories available, make sure you test the offered surface coating under variable conditions for suitable UV protection and serious anti-scratch attributes. This coating is your first line of defense to retain the visual aesthetic, even beyond that of the subsequent clear vinyl wear layer that ultimately determines the lifespan of your product. Options of aluminum oxide, ceramic bead or silica bead coatings are available yet are not always (physically) present. While warranty lifetimes are often punted as a sign of value, rarely do we see products reaching these suggested timelines. Unfortunately, more often than not, products are replaced way before these aggressively sold timelines due to common variables outside of the manufacturer’s carefully-worded warranties.

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2.     Clear Vinyl Wear Layer

Thicker is not always better, especially when considering who the intended target market may be. While clear wear-layer options can vary from 0.1- 1.0mm (4-40mils) which can significantly impact price-points, which don’t necessarily have many benefits for the domestic consumer. Regardless of how thick this layer maybe, an unintended scratch on the surface will display in exactly the same way on either option regardless of thickness. The thicker options only prevent some scratches from engaging with the décor paper, but not all. The benefit for thicker options lies more where extended foot traffic may be prevalent in commercial situations.

I will add that having a thicker option does allow you to have a more pronounced chamfer or micro-bevel along the edges of your plank. The chamfer aesthetic is usually milled into this wear-layer alone. If it’s too thin, then the chamfer will engage beyond the wear-layer and into the décor paper and beyond. This would impact the performance and visual unless you go for a painted upsell, which again costs extra.

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When exploring wear-layers, one usually cross-pollinates into the subject of embossing and texture options. The texture of the plank goes a long way to imitate real wood floors but here too, one must be careful. Aggressive sharp-edged texture can be prone to easier scratching due to the sharper peaks of the grain, especially in some forms of EIR (emboss in register). Much like micro-chamfers along the edge, aggressive embossing can hold dirt easily in its grooves and quickly degrades the clean visual and experience of the floor.

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3.     Décor Paper

The one key feature that inspires us beyond all others, the visual. However, choosing the right décor paper goes well beyond: visual aesthetics; UV resistant inks; design resolution and realis; print repeat quotient; and using the right paper design in relation to your plank size. So often these points are overlooked or not realized when selecting one’s designs. If you use the wrong paper design for your plank size (especially variable toned plank designs) you can create an unsightly striped floor visually. While some wholesalers may not care, quality and brand loyalty come from the details and this component costs no extra, it just requires attention to detail.

4.     Core Board

The ‘Core’ practical feature (pun intended) of SPC / Rigid Core Board is the dimensional stability when exposed to variable heat and moisture. This is the main reason we as the flooring industry are all talking about and chasing this product at the moment. While some variant’s core-board is buttermilk in colour and others, 50 shades of grey, unless you are pedantic about virgin materials, I would not get too caught up on the colour tone too much. SPC is not as structurally sensitive as LVT (luxury vinyl tile) when it comes to recycled content which I believe creates quite a bit of fear and avoidance. It is to be expected that caution drives the market for virgin materials, yet this component keeps your price elevated. As long as recycled content is correctly managed and balanced at factory level, a greater focus should rather be more on dimensional stability, flexibility and chemical safety aspects.

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A key component to consider when exploring the core board options is that of thicknesses. While I won’t get into plank widths and lengths as this is range and market-specific and doesn’t generally impact customer experience, the overall thickness can impact the entire product’s lifecycle. If you choose products that are too thin, they can become unwieldy and tricky to install. This is particularly evident when choosing some twin-click locking systems versus a drop-lock option. Having a thinner core and less meat to work with, means that when manipulating the planks into position, you have a greater opportunity of damaging (bending) the edge corners of the planks unless well versed in its methodology. These bent corners can in time break out leaving your clients with costly repairs. Choosing simpler installation systems will go a long way in building installer confidence while mutually safeguarding DIY installations.

SPC by its very nature is considerably more brittle than other rigid floor types. While these products can span over small divots or imperfections in most substrates, they do still require considerably flat substrates. Unfortunately, many marketing teams punt these products as bulletproof stating that only marginally flat substrates are required. Be careful here – vertical shear along pressured joint structures is a very real problem and I would suggest to rather err on the side of caution in your product’s capabilities.

5.     Acoustic Underlay

SPC or Rigid Core Board is dense and hard underfoot and a poor medium for sound. Most, if not all, factories know this. To improve the products underfoot resilience (feel), acoustic performance and all-round appeal, many factories automatically include options of fused underlay materials to mitigate this. While some options deliver no acoustic benefit whatsoever, I would strongly suggest you choose a performance option carefully that offers more than just cosmetic value and will deliver long term experiential benefit. Cork is my personal favourite, yet costly.

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In Summary…

It’s a minefield out there and when getting involved in a developed market, one needs to fully understand the technical components of the product beyond the more obvious attributes. These are just a few components I have personally encountered over the years which I hope you find useful if venturing into or refining this category this year.

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Cape Town
South Africa