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Dealing with a Warped Bathroom Floor

Scott Gibson, Contributing Editor

I own a 1987 townhouse in Charlotte, N.C., which I bought 2 ½ years ago. The toilet in a half-bath leaked around the wax ring. By the time I spotted it, a small area of the engineered wood around the toilet had warped. But the big problem is that water leaked into the subflooring in the foyer. A flooring contractor suggested I remove the wood in the foyer and bath (230 square feet) and replace it with tile. He said it would be next to impossible to match new wood with old. There is quite a bit of water and we fear the subflooring is starting to deteriorate. Suggestions?

Water leaks often pose real dilemmas because much of the damage is out of sight.

But occasionally we get lucky. A water supply line in our bathroom ruptured a year ago, allowing water to seep under the finish floor in the adjacent bedroom. I'm sure the subfloor was soaked. But it dried out and there's no evidence today of a problem. With the leaky toilet repaired, the subfloor may dry out nicely. Whether it's plywood or oriented strand board, subflooring is designed to withstand a certain amount of moisture during construction.

Now, about your finish floor. Engineered flooring is really a kind of plywood. Layers of wood are glued together to form a plank. As a result, engineered flooring swells and shrinks less than solid wood as its moisture content changes.

Laminate flooring, also a popular flooring choice these days, is another story. It consists of a pressed fiberboard core and a plastic wear layer made to look like wood or some other material. Once the fiberboard gets wet it will begin to swell, and there's not much you can do about that.

Wait a while before deciding. If you have access to the floor below, check for signs of water--a damp spot or, let's hope not, signs of mold. Barring obvious signs the water has done any damage, why not give the floor time to dry out? If the only indication of trouble is a few warped pieces of flooring around the toilet, you may get out of this fairly easily.

Your flooring contractor should be able to replace the damaged boards around the toilet. He may be entirely right that new flooring won't match the existing floor exactly. But if that cosmetic flaw isn't too glaring, it seems the simplest and cheapest alternative. A more extensive repair would be to remove all the wood flooring in the bathroom and replace it with tile. This is obviously more expensive but in some ways it's an attractive choice.

No wood likes a lot of water. There's always a risk associated with using wood in a bathroom, even a half-bath without a tub or shower. In the summer, condensation from the toilet tank can stain the floor or even lead to decay. And as you know, toilets occasionally leak.

Tile would be ideal. Whether it's stone or ceramic tile, choices are virtually unlimited. And tile isn't affected by water. You could even install an electric mat under the tile to keep your feet warm in winter. Pulling up the flooring would give you a chance to inspect the subfloor, too.

Of course, your situation becomes entirely different if more flooring in your bathroom and foyer warps or shows other signs of water damage. In that case you may be forced to replace it.

Let's just hope that doesn't happen.

About the Author
An accomplished woodworker and carpenter, Scott Gibson is the former editor of Fine Woodworking magazine, and a former editor at Today's Homeowner and Fine Homebuilding magazines. He also is former managing editor of the Kennebec Journal, a daily newspaper in Maine.

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