Vinyl Siding and Your House

Builders Love It, Environmentalists Hate It. What's the Truth About Vinyl?

a Frank Lloyd Wright apartment duplex obscured by vinyl siding and other inappropriate remodeling
Vinyl Obscures Historic Details of a 1916 Frank Lloyd Wright Design. Photo by Raymond Boyd/Getty Images

The advertisements seem so enticing. Install vinyl siding, they say, and you will never have to paint your house again. Unlike pine board or cedar, this durable plastic will not rot or flake. Vinyl is available in several dozen colors, and can mimic architectural details that were once made from wood. It's no wonder that vinyl has become the most popular siding material in the United States and is quickly gaining momentum around the world.

But, wait! What the ads don't tell you can cost you dearly. Before you install vinyl siding over wood clapboard, cedar shingles, stucco, or brick, consider these important factors.

1. Health Concerns

Although polyvinyl chloride or PVC has been around since the 1800s, today's manufacturing of the plastic is a cause of concern for many people who live near the industrial areas.  Vinyl is made from a PVC, a plastic resin that contains the hazardous chemical chlorine and stabilizers such as lead. In high temperatures, PVC releases formaldehyde, dioxin, and other dangerous chemicals.  A series of scientific studies has linked the PVC used in FEMA emergency housing with respiratory problems. Dioxin, which is released when vinyl siding is burned, has been associated with a wide range of diseases from heart disease to cancer.

Siding advocates such as representatives from the Vinyl Siding Institute say that these hazards are overstated. While fumes from burning vinyl may be unhealthy, vinyl burns more slowly than wood.

2. Durability

Advertisements often imply that vinyl siding is permanent. It is true that vinyl will last a very long time. (That's why it is so difficult to dispose of it safely.) In extreme weather, however, vinyl is less durable than wood and masonry. Violent wind can get underneath the thin sheets of vinyl siding and lift a panel from the wall. Windblown debris and strong hail can puncture vinyl. New developments are making vinyl stronger and less brittle, but the plastic sheets will still crack or break if struck by a lawnmower or snow blower. Damage cannot be patched; you will need to replace a section.

Liquid vinyl coatings, which are sprayed on like paint, may prove to be more durable than vinyl panels. However, liquid vinyl coatings are difficult to apply correctly. Numerous problems have been reported. Just Ask the Builder about miracle liquid siding products.

3. Maintenance

Wood must be painted or stained; vinyl requires no paint. However, it's not exactly true to say that vinyl is maintenance-free. To maintain its fresh appearance, vinyl siding should be washed every year. Any wooden window sashes and trim will still require routine painting, and ladders leaning against the house can scuff or crack the vinyl siding.

Unlike wood and masonry, vinyl siding presents its own breed of maintenance worries. Moisture trapped beneath the vinyl siding will accelerate rot, promote mold and mildew, and invite insect infestations. Left uncorrected, dampness in the walls will cause wallpaper and paint inside the house to blister and peel. To avoid hidden decay, homeowners might want to routinely re-caulk joints between the vinyl siding and adjacent trim. Roof leaks, faulty gutters, or other sources of moisture should be repaired without delay. Vinyl siding may not be a wise option for an older home with a chronically damp cellar.

4. Energy Conservation

Be wary of a vinyl salesperson who promises very low energy bills. Vinyl siding can help, especially the more expensive grades of insulated vinyl, but vinyl siding is, by definition, a superficial treatment. Regardless of the type of siding you choose, you may want to install additional insulation inside the walls.

5. Color

Vinyl is available in more colors than ever before, and new vinyl siding does not fade as quickly as older vinyl. Also, the pigmentation is baked through instead of applied to the surface, so vinyl won't show scratches. Nevertheless, depending on the quality of vinyl you buy, expect some fading after five years or so. Time and weather will also alter the gloss of your vinyl siding. If a panel is damaged, the new replacement panel might not be an exact match.

After you have lived in your home for a number of years, you may grow weary of its color, especially if the vinyl has grown dim and faded. You can paint the vinyl, but then the vinyl is no longer "maintenance-free." In general, the color of your vinyl house is the color it will always be, until you install new siding.

6. Historic Preservation

With a careful installation of a better-quality vinyl, the siding will truly fool the eye. Yet no matter how closely vinyl resembles wood, any artificial siding will diminish the historic authenticity of an older home. In many cases, the original trim and ornamental details are covered or removed. In some installations, the original clapboard is completely removed or seriously damaged. Vinyl siding will always alter the overall texture and proportions of the house, changing the depth of moldings and replacing natural wood grain with factory-made embossed patterns. The result is a home with less appeal, and diminished value.

Shown on this page is one of the Arthur L. Richards Duplex Apartments in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. It is an historic American System-Built Home designed by architect Frank Lloyd Wright in 1916. Why doesn't it look like a Wright design? The stone and stucco siding has been re-sided, losing the original Wright details found on similar Richards Apartments on West Burnham Boulevard in Milwaukee. Historic preservation recommendations for aluminum and vinyl siding on historic buildings clearly states:

"When applied to brick or other masonry units, the nail penetrations attaching the furring strips and siding can cause irreversible cracking or spalling of the masonry. Although this reference to damaging masonry is included as a point of fact, the application of aluminum or vinyl siding is highly inappropriate to historic masonry buildings." — Preservation Brief 8

7. Property Values

As the quality and variety of vinyl improves, acceptance is growing. More and more new homes in the United States are constructed with vinyl. On the other hand, vinyl is not the siding of choice for upscale, architect-designed homes. Many home shoppers still perceive vinyl as a tacky shortcut, a cover-up for possible problems, or at the very least, a low-budget solution.

Typical homeowners tend to come down evenly on the use of vinyl siding — half consider it attractive when properly installed, and half find it unnatural and unappealing. The bottom line is this — when considering vinyl siding, check out all exterior siding options.

Learn More About Health Risks