Vinyl Siding and Your House

Who sides with vinyl? Builders love it, environmentalists hate it

vinyl siding and other inappropriate remodeling of two-story flat-roofed Prairie school design
Arthur L. Richards Duplex, 1916, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Frank Lloyd Wright Details Obscured by Vinyl Siding.

Raymond Boyd/Getty Images

Careful homeowners do their homework before choosing exterior siding for their new or renovated house. The advertisements for vinyl siding seem so enticing — the prospect of never having to paint your home is a tempting argument for the busy parent or hard-working family. A lifetime of no maintenance seems like a dream. 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.

Key Takeaways: Vinyl Siding Considerations

  • Like any plastic product, a good quality vinyl siding can be everlasting to the point of indestructible. Durability, however, does not mean it cannot be damaged.
  • Vinyl siding should be periodically washed and examined. Its low-maintenance nature often breeds homeowner complacency, leading to neglect.
  • No exterior siding product is the end-all answer to home energy conservation.
  • Vinyl siding comes in many colors and also can be painted.
  • Like vinyl windows, vinyl siding is inappropriate for historic preservation and can cause irreversible damage to brick and stone.
  • Low cost vinyl siding can increase the value of a neglected or derelict home, but property values of older homes may decrease. Vinyl siding covers the good and the bad of a home's exterior.
  • Plastic is a questionable construction material because of environmental and health concerns at all points in its life cycle.

Life Cycle of Construction Materials

Many consumers are taking on global warming as individuals. People are making conscious decisions about products they use in their home and on their homes. For construction materials, look at three areas—manufacturing and transportation to the work site, toxicity when in use, and disposal after use. Even before the 2002 documentary film Blue Vinyl exposed the human dangers of manufacturing vinyl, environmentalists had taken aim at the product. The manufacturing process is highly toxic, yet there is little waste in the operation. The product is lightweight and easily transportable, yet it is hardly ever locally sources—vinyl siding requires long haul transportation for delivery to a store or building site. After its usefulness, vinyl siding can be recycled, but some claim it rarely is. Unless legislation is passed to require recycling, plastic products forever remain in the environment, contaminating the soil or the air if burned. The industry may dispute its contaminative properties, but vinyl is a polymer, similar to the polymers in carpets, bottles, toys, and paint, designed for durability.

Unlike concrete mixtures that were used even in ancient Rome, vinyl is a mixture of chemicals not readily found in nature.

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 without chemical additives is less durable than wood and masonry. Titanium dioxide is often added to the chemical mixture to block UV rays, which deteriorated older vinyl siding. Consumers can purchase different grades of vinyl, both recycled and what is called "virgin," and different thicknesses are available. Installation also affects its durability—because it expands, it must be installed loosely, but if it's too loose, 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. Thicker vinyl poses challenges during installation, as the vinyl pieces are usually overlapping. New developments have made vinyl stronger and less brittle, but the plastic sheets will still crack or break if struck or pulled at by a lawnmower or snow blower.

The many choices offered today make vinyl siding not always the low-cost alternative to exterior siding.

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.

Maintenance

Wood must be painted or stained—vinyl requires no paint, but most can be painted. It is not exactly true to say that vinyl is maintenance-free, however. 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.

Home 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—it basically just hangs on the outside of your house. Regardless of the type of siding you choose, you may want to install additional insulation inside the walls.

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. Look at both sides of the siding, especially recycled products, to ensure that the color is not simply on one surface. 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.

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. Entire stairways can be covered over. 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 a diminished value compared with the original architectural design. Why would you install vinyl siding on a house designed by architect Frank Lloyd Wright?

two-story duplex, flat roof, grey stucco or concrete, Wright red trim, boxy design, stairs up the center
Vinyl Removed Reveals Frank Lloyd Wright 1916 Design, Arthur L. Richards Duplex Apartment, American System-Built Hom. Raymond Boyd/Getty Images

A good example of vinyl on a historic residence is the Arthur L. Richards Duplex Apartments on West Burnham Boulevard.in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Frank Lloyd Wright designed a row of what he called American System-Built Homes way back in 1916. Why doesn't the house in the photo at the top of this article look like a Wright design? The stone and stucco siding has been re-sided, losing the original Wright details found on similar Richards Apartments, including an exterior center staircase. Historic preservation professionals recommend that aluminum and vinyl siding on historic buildings should be avoided. Technical Preservation Services Preservation Brief 8 says:

"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."

Property Values

Removing the vinyl siding from a Victorian-era home or Craftsman bungalow from the early 20th century may increase the home's value. Restoration of historic American dwellings to their original workmanship will certainly increase a home's aesthetic value. As the quality and variety of vinyl improves, acceptance is growing. More and more new homes in the United States are finished with a vinyl veneer. 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. Vinyl can give a ramshackled eyesore a new, clean look, hiding whatever is underneath it.

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.

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 work in and 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, like home fires, 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. Nevertheless, in 2007 the U.S. Green Building Council declared that PVC is not a healthy building material.

Consumers should choose wisely when making difficult decisions about their homes.