There’s a saying that I’ve heard all my life: Vinyl is Final. And in part, it’s true. It’s a durable, strong and diverse material that is used in a wide variety of building products in and around your home’s exterior. To me, vinyl is one of those products you either love or you hate — there really isn’t an in between.
I personally like it in some forms, but shockingly, not everyone will agree with me. As far as a cheap exterior siding product goes, not much can compare in price. Since vinyl really doesn’t need much when it comes to maintenance, it’s cheaper than painted or stained siding materials in the long run vs. biannual touch ups with paint or stain. But don’t let me get carried away touting how great the mighty vinyl god is. Vinyl can be seriously bad too.
Polyvinyl chloride is affectionately known as PVC. It’s everywhere you go and, for better or worse, it makes an impact on your life dozens of times a day. It’s in sewer pipes, water lines, electrical conduits and, yes, even on the side of your house as vinyl siding. It’s everywhere and in everything and you can’t escape it no matter how bad you think vinyl siding and other vinyl products suck.
Before you start bashing PVC and vinyl exterior home products, you should learn how it’s made. Here are the layman’s directions with a little poetic license:
- Mix plasticizers into microwave-safe dish
- Stir in monomer vinyl chloride to produce polymerization
- Nuke on high for 20 minutes, stir in love and put in the oven to bake for one hour
- Remove from oven and let cool five minutes before serving
- Add salt and pepper to taste
To make PVC into all those weird products that the anti-vinyl team hates, you need to add the salt, pepper and other spices. Before PVC can be made into the finished products you know oh-so well, it requires the addition of crazy stuff like heat and UV stabilizers, pigments, plasticizers, impact and thermal modifiers, processing aids, fillers, flame retardants, biocides, blowing agents, smoke suppressors and for god’s sake — lubricants.
Once you mix all that stuff together, you get all kinds of nifty products. But the problem with adding all that stuff to the mixing bowl is that after a while, you’ve got more of a soupy stew than a nice firm casserole. The more sketchy crap you add to the recipe (scientific term), the more PVC can become brittle from UV exposure, weak from chemicals and even toxic around water sources. And that’s partly why they don’t make vinyl exterior materials out of PVC, they use uPVC.
A chemical of many names, uPVC is like the weird uncle of the PVC family. The “U” in uPVC stands for “unplasticized” (not uncle). It simply means that certain additives, especially weakening chemicals like plasticizers, are not added to the mix. uPVC is also known as rigid PVC and is used throughout the building industry as a low-maintenance exterior building material. uPVC is well known as being resilient against chemicals, sunlight, and oxidation from water. Pretty sure termites don’t like it either. Here in North America it’s called vinyl and it comes in a huge range of colors and finishes (even photo-effect wood finishes) and is used as a substitute for painted wood products. It’s used mostly on the exterior for window frames, fascia, soffit, siding, gutters, downspouts and deck boards, but it’s certainly not limited to them. It can be used in other exterior and interior applications all over the home. It’s everywhere!
The Anti-Vinyl Siding Team and the Disadvantages of Vinyl
Besides being so well known for all those good inventions, it’s still thought of as a cheap, brittle and inferior product in most circles. In some neighborhoods, it’s even banned by the homeowners association to prevent it from lowering overall home values. Some, including HomeFixated’s editor, can’t stand the sight of it. But if you set aside those negative feelings about the material, you’re still left with a product associated with toxins.
In the early 70s, the carcinogenicity of the vinyl chloride monomer was linked to cancers found in the workers of the polyvinyl chloride industries. More specifically workers, in the polymerization section of the B.F. Goodrich plant near Louisville, Kentucky were diagnosed with liver angiosarcoma, a rare and fatal disease. Since “the good ole days” of PVC, things have certainly changed and those toxic materials are long gone but the stigma that surrounds the materials toxicity and the Frankenstein chemistry that’s often associated with working with these chemicals steer many consumers away from this product and contributes to a bias that divides the building industry on the subject of vinyl to this day.
According to VinylNewsService.com (which appears to be an industry-backed site to share the many wonders of Vinyl), “Vinyl has been extensively tested and used for decades, and numerous government agencies have examined and confirmed its safety. Vinyl manufacturing plants are designed, regulated and operated to protect workers and plant communities.”
Of course, there are others who believe because plastics degrade over time, safety of vinyl and PVC may not be as clear cut as the vinyl industry might have us believe. PVC dust has been reported as linked to asthma and even lung cancer, and the burning or improper disposal of PVC has been tied to releases of toxins into the environment. The variety of additives to the product also leaves a lot of room for skepticism for any industry claims of universal safety.
The Vinyl Team: The Advantages of Vinyl
It’s no secret; I’m a fan of vinyl. Set aside the fact that vinyl can be weak, warps easily or may have *toxicity / evnironmental issues (*opinions vary on this – don’t sue me vinyl industry lawyers), vinyl is a pretty neat product that’s easy to install and can almost cover your entire home from top to bottom easily and affordably.
What I really like about vinyl is that it’s super easy to install. As long as it’s loose enough to freely expand and contract with the setting and rising of the sun; it’s good to go. That means cutting pieces ¼” short overall, putting in fewer nails and leaving it looser than conventional wood materials; it’s like lazy construction! That translates into less labor, fewer materials and more flexibility during the stresses of the day and night temperature fluctuations. Throw in the fact that it never needs painting and I’m hooked.
If you want to know more stuff (like everything there is to know) about vinyl, PVC and uPVC, there are dozens of great books and resources online like the Wikipedia webpage on PVC. It’s full of all kinds of big words and vinyl jargon that’s enough to make your head spin. But if you really want to know everything and become a PVC nerd, then check out this riveting novel the PVC Handbook. It’s written by three guys who apparently understand chemistry, so if you’re into emulsification and synthetic hydrocarbon waxes, its right up your alley. At a bargain $399, how you can pass it up? That’s not a typo, it’s seriously a $400 book on PVC! It must be a real page-turner!
Have any love or hatred about vinyl, PVC or uPVC you’d like to share? If so, please chime in via the comments section below.