Seeking silence underfoot

Fixing Squeaky Floors

The Natural Handyman

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Dear NH,
I am going to have some new carpet installed in my two-floor condo. The floor under the carpet is plywood. I know because the installer and I peeked under the old carpet when he came to measure.

My problem is that the floors squeak so loudly that it frightens my cat! The carpet man told me the best time to stop the squeaks is before the carpet is put in. How do I do this, and can this be done before the old carpet is removed? I have a finished basement so I can't see under the floor.

By the way, I don't have many tools but I have lots of heart!
OB from Chicago, IL

I give credit to your carpet installer for his honesty, knowing that his job might be delayed while you do the repair. Some companies tell the homeowner to wait until after the new carpet is installed. Home repair myths never die; that squeaky floors can be repaired with the carpet in place is near the top of the list! It is usually a "fool's sport" in my opinion. Floor squeaks are caused by a number of factors and most repair methods require a clear view of the floor to be efficient and effective... especially when a floor has as many squeaks as you describe!

The only exception is if you have a clear view of the underside of the floor, such as a downstairs floor above a crawl space or unfinished basement. Then there are some techniques that can be used, such as installing blocking, using construction adhesive or angled screwing through the beams to pull the floor down. However, since 50% of floors don't have any access from underneath, I will address the three most common causes of floor squeaks and repair tips...

Squeak #1: The nails holding the plywood to the beams have loosened.

The noise is caused by movement of the plywood against the nails. Simply banging the nails back in may silence the squeak temporarily, but the most reliable solution is to first bang in the nails and then install a screw within an inch or so of each nail for added strength. Sometimes, the plywood or the beams have slightly bowed. This pressure will pull the nails back out over time, making the use of screws an absolute necessity. It is helpful to stand on the squeaky area to press it down while installing the screws.

Screwing down a floor can be both backbreaking and time consuming especially if the squeaks are widespread. At the least, you must use an electric drill with a screwdriver bit. An electric screw gun designed for this purpose would be a step up, since they have features making screw installation quicker and more accurate. A third option (the fastest and least fatiguing) is to buy or rent a self-feeding screw gun that uses strips of screws. They drive screws almost as fast as you can place the tool against the floor! One such gun, the Quikdrive can be seen online at Quick-Drive.

For screwing down 3/4" plywood, 2" #6 drywall screws are quite adequate, though (if available) a heavier weight #8 subfloor screw is better. Either square drive or Phillips heads are fine, though square drive screws can be driven with more power and less slippage. I have used both with excellent results.

Squeak #2: The floor is flexing at seams and two plywood edges are rubbing against each other.

This can happen when two pieces of plywood were pressed too tightly together during installation or if structural settling has caused pressure between the edges. Stepping on the seam can cause a squeak. You may lubricate the seam with silicone spray or graphite, but this is, at best, a temporary fix. The better solution is to simply open the joint up slightly with a circular saw or jig saw. Just a "saw kerf" (blade thickness) of space is all that is necessary to ease up the pressure! I prefer the circular saw because of the shallow depth of cut. The deeper cut of the jig saw could hit pipes or wiring that were not installed to current codes and are too close underneath to the floor! Once the cut is made and the squeak silenced you could put some subfloor adhesive (either with a caulking gun or force it in with a putty knife) into the crack. This will stabilize and seal the seam, further reducing movement. Not absolutely necessary but a nice finishing touch!

DO NOT use the sawing method along plywood edges directly over a beam! Instead, install additional screws to tighten up the floor. The "saw kerf" repair is strictly for squeaks originating in seams that extend between beams (perpendicular to the beam) with no support underneath.

Squeak #3: A mysterious hidden structural member is moving when the plywood is walked on.

This is the worst possible squeak and requires the most skill to repair. You have this one when you have screwed your little heart out and the squeak is still as strong as ever! Sometimes the squeaky sound seems to come from "everywhere and nowhere", making it difficult to locate. These squeaks are caused by movement in the underlying beam or truss and are repaired on a case-by-case basis depending on the type of movement. First, a section of floor must be removed to expose the beam or truss. Second, examine the beam or truss for looseness. Third, stop the movement by using a combination or nails, screws and/or construction adhesive. Finally, reinstall the cut-out section of floor.

Floor repair is a whole lesson in itself, so I will leave you here (for now) and pray that all your squeaks are little ones!

Reviewed February 2018

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