Depending on who you ask, fiberglass-backed resilient flooring has either already taken over the resilient sheet market or is poised to overtake it soon.

The one thing that is hard to dispute is the fiberglass market continues to grow at a furious clip, with major manufacturers investing in increased fiberglass floor production and splashy rollouts of fiberglass products. Even those manufacturers Floor Trends spoke with that said the market is still dominated by felt-backed goods do not feel this will be the case for much longer.

Rachel Lombardo, Armstrong’s product manager of residential resilient sheet, said felt-backed vinyl products still claim a 60% share of the market compared to fiberglass-backed flooring, but that percentage is definitely starting to shift. “Armstrong has invested heavily in its Lancaster, Pa., plant, making it state-of-the-art for fiberglass manufacturing, and we continue to introduce exciting products in this construction type because we expect fiberglass to continue to gain market share.”

One area of what she calls a “true conversion” is with property managers who are finding the material easier to work with and more forgiving than felt, since fiberglass flooring can either be permanently glued down, loose laid or installed using a releasable adhesive.

“With releasable adhesives,” Lombardo explained, “the installer can replace or repair a damaged floor in much less time than he could with a traditional felt-backed floor. Fiberglass is also more forgiving to subfloor imperfections.”

Fiberglass products are also often perceived as easier to handle throughout the installation process. Plus, they will not be harmed by water, making them excellent for moist or wet environments including bathrooms, basements and kitchens.

However, despite its myriad of benefits, fiberglass construction does have a few limitations, she pointed out. “Rips, tears and gouges are more susceptible with fiberglass floors due to the ‘cushioned’ structure of the product. Felt or ‘solid’-type structures are the more durable options. Most large-scale builders remain with felt because of its durability throughout the construction process.”

Lombardo said residential consumers don’t generally know the difference between the two construction types before walking into a retail store. “Fiberglass offers benefits that should be told and sold to the customer. Those benefits are installation, comfort, water-friendly, etc., and in certain environments these are good selling features.”

Beauty First

The thickness of the product can also be perceived as value and is easily understood, she added. “However, beautiful designs can be sold on any structure, and that’s the true decision-maker with the retail consumer.”

Paul Murfin, co-CEO of IVC US, believes fiberglass products “might account for as much as two-thirds of the business in North America. The shift is because glass is a better product and more and more channels are being exposed to its benefits.”

Fiberglass products offer many benefits over those made with felt, he said. “By their nature [fiberglass] products have more vinyl content and less filler. As a result, they offer greater flexibility while the glass fiber layer provides dimensional stability. They are also easier to install and significantly easier to repair.”

Along with its three installation options—loose laid, permanently glued or installed using a releasable adhesive—fiberglass resilient flooring also poses other benefits. Since the product can more easily be removed or repaired as needed, Murfin pointed out, “there is no necessity to remove the toilet in bathroom installations and, of course, future replacement is very easy. In addition, fiberglass sheet vinyl can be installed in all three grade levels—above, on or below.”

He noted consumers generally do not know about the benefits of fiberglass, but said the sales pitch shouldn’t necessarily be converting someone from one sheet product to another. “I think the real opportunity is to expose the consumer to the benefits of fiberglass compared to other categories such as LVT and laminate, or even ceramic tile.”

Zack Zehner, Mannington Mills’ senior vice president distribution network and customer service, said felt remains a big part of the company’s business, but “we definitely see a transition going on. Fiberglass products are quickly growing at the retail and builder segments.”

He pointed to several reasons for why this transition is taking place. “There is a real perceived value in the thickness of the fiberglass product. It has a very nice hand, and great comfort underfoot.”

Felt still has staying power in commercial markets, Zehner added, because “it hits some critical points in the marketplace, such as multifamily, property management and new home construction. That’s because there’s less indentation with felt, so in certain high-traffic areas it may be a better fit.”

He said installers tend to prefer fiberglass. “It’s easier to pull up and make adjustments, and it’s less likely to show subfloor imperfections because of that extra weight.”

(Editor’s note: Zehner added Mannington is making a big push into fiberglass sheet this year with a product called Luxury Vinyl Sheet, which the company debuted at Surfaces. For more details about the product see page 30 for the story on why retailers should not rule out sheet vinyl despite the popularity of LVT.)

According to Roger Farabee, Mohawk’s senior vice president of marketing for hard surfaces, felt-backed products make up a majority, 60%, of the total sheet flooring market only when commercial products are taken into account. “If you look at residential only, we believe more than 50% of the volume in the U.S. is in floating/fiberglass sheet products.”

Fiberglass offers a range of installation advantages, he said. “Fiberglass seems to have an advantage when installed over concrete subfloors due to its stability and resistance to moisture. The back of felt products tends to break more easily and the product doesn’t have the luxurious feel of the thicker fiberglass products at the same price point.”

However, Farabee noted fiberglass does not perform as well as felt over wood subfloors because of its rigidity.

He added, “A fully adhered fiberglass floor, depending on the quality and thickness of the product, can still tear more easily and show indentations more readily than felt-backed products. Seams can also be weaker with some fiberglass products. The biggest benefit of a fiberglass product that is correctly installed is it will tend to have a more cushiony feel than a comparably thick felt product.”

According to Shaw’s Drew Hash, vice president of hard surfaces, and Clark Hodgkins, resilient category manager, the company’s fiberglass products offer advantages over felt including greater thickness (up to 130 gauge) and wider widths (13-ft 2-in. instead of 12-ft). Additionally, “while felt-backed resilient often begins to curl during its life, fiberglass resilient sheet will lay much flatter and look much better over the life of the installation.”

Shaw does offer a loose-lay option for installations up to 225 square feet, but the company recommends most installations be adhered. “Installation is very easy,” they noted, “as the glue goes on with a paint-like roller.”

Bruce Ziegler, Tarkett’s director of residential product management, thinks this year fiberglass will eclipse felt in residential sheet sales. Tarkett management estimates the sales of fiberglass-backed products will overtake felt sales by approximately 110 million square feet in 2014.

The company’s FiberFloor product range is a certified healthy living residential flooring system, offering low VOCs and it is phthalate-free, he added. “For both the DIYer and professional, its glueless installation allows for multiple seams with no room size restrictions,” he noted, adding fiberglass products also “will not shrink or curl over time due to the dimensional stability of the construction.”

Ziegler said some of the other reasons to choose fiberglass over felt: “It’s moisture-resistant, making it perfect for any room in a home or small business. And it offers flexibility, softness, warmth and sound-dampening properties.”