Proper Preparation of Gypsum Concrete Substrates Prior to Installing Flooring

By Ray Thompson, Jr.

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A growing segment for underlayment for the past four decades. It can be found in many residential and few commercial applications. My sources tell me there is over a billion square feet in use today. Gypsum underlayment is mostly found in multiple-use dwellings. Normally, it is installed over a wood subfloor and is usually ¾” deep or greater. The gypsum product is generally pumped-in and is a self-leveling product. Because it is pumped into the structure, the amount of water used in the mix, to make it pumpable, is very important. When the installation is in progress the manufacturers of the gypsum product recommend that the underlayment installers take periodic samples to be sent in for analysis for strength. These should be available to the flooring contractor to determine the quality of the underlayment.

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– Determining strength
The more water used in the mix, the weaker the material. One of the most common ways to determine the strength of the underlayment is to see how dusty the surface is. The more dust the weaker the surface.

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– Moisture testing
There are several methods of moisture testing of gypsum underlayment. The oldest method is the use of a 24” X 24” (609mm X 609mm) mat or taped down plastic.
Another method is the use of a moisture meter with needle probes (shown). The reading should be 5% or less for glued down materials.
The newest method is the use of a hygrometer probe with a special protective sleeve. This meets the ASTM F-2170 specifications.
The calcium chloride test method (ASTM F-1869) is not a recommended method for testing a gypsum underlayment. The reason is because gypsum is so porous the ambient humidity will affect the CaCl2 test.

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– Preparation skim coat completed
There are several important factors when selecting a patching material for gypsum underlayment. It is best to use a patching compound that is designed for this purpose and a lot of the patching compound manufacturers make products specifically designed for this procedure. There are two factors that may change your mind. First, Portland-based patch has a different expansion/contraction coefficient which can create a shear, causing a delamination between the two surfaces. Second, you can develop a chemical reaction between the calcium sulfate (Gypsum) and the Portland-cement, creating a crystalline growth known as ettringite. Ettringite appears like an alkaline deposit but is somewhat different.

Ft. Lewis substrate crack repair

– Handling cracks
Many times the gypsum underlayment is installed with too much water or is allowed to dry too fast causing some cracking. The method used to overcome this is to flow a low-viscosity epoxy into the cracks bonding them back together.

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– Priming
Gypsum underlayment manufacturers recommend using a primer about two hours prior to the start of the installation of resilient materials. Priming can be done with a Poly-Vinyl-Acetate (PVA) or Acrylic primer. The primer does several things to make the installation much easier. First, it serves as a surface hardener, increasing the density on the top surface of the underlayment. Next, it allows the adhesive to perform as it is intended. The primer is to be rolled, sprayed or mopped on at a spread rate of about 300 sq. /ft. (27.87m²) per gallon. Not using a primer causes the adhesive to dry too fast and its bond will be compromised. Failure to prime can also result in an adhesive sticking to the dust or laitance on the surface, which also results in bond failure.

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– Weakness beneath the hardened surface
Shown is a properly primed surface. Note how soft the gypsum is below the top of the hardened surface. Gypsum is severely affected by moisture. When it comes in to contact with moisture the calcium sulfate (gypsum) particles will expand and soften. For this reason, it is not recommended for use directly over concrete or anywhere moisture is anticipated. Gypsum is also not designed for areas with heavy rolling loads. Use in these areas will cause sure delamination.
Gypsum concrete is a fact of life and it requires a special type of preparation to ensure a successful installation.

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