The 7 Deadly Sins of Vinyl House Siding

Contemporary home showing siding, roof, and gutters
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Vinyl siding is cheap, quick to install, and easy to maintain, making it seem the ideal cladding solution for your home. Or is it? Architects and designers detest this material for aesthetic reasons, but vinyl may be even more evil than it is unattractive. Here are the seven deadly sins of vinyl house siding, exposed:

1. Manufacturing Is Really Bad for the Environment

Although manufacturers tout siding as a great way to earn LEED points, the US Green Building Council actually declined to support a credit specific to vinyl use. Vinyl siding is primarily composed of polyvinyl chloride (PVC), and the manufacturing process produces greenhouse gases such as nitrogen oxide and carcinogens including dioxin. Another by-product of vinyl siding manufacture is sulfur dioxide, which causes acid rain and smog. Not to mention, this process requires vast amounts of electricity.

Obviously, working around all these chemicals can be dangerous. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) maintains strict workplace exposure limits for employees in vinyl siding plants. Also keep in mind that as vinyl siding ages, it continues to releases low levels of the same harmful chemicals that were produced during the manufacturing process. And people install this stuff on their houses? Studies are inconclusive as to whether this causes health problems for residents; however, if your house catches fire, the siding will release high levels of lethal chemical vapors. Many people die from these fumes in house fires before succumbing to smoke inhalation.

2. Not "Maintenance-Free"

Manufacturers brag that high quality siding lasts about 20 to 30 years. However, depending on your climate, siding could look worse-for-the-wear at around 10 to 15 years. The color fades and the planks become dirty. Painting is a poor option, since it will likely peel and crack after a short time, and pressure washing could be disastrous if water enters your house through cracks and crevices around the siding. Siding planks often split or break due to the expansion and contraction caused by temperature changes, and if your lawnmower sends a rock flying at your house, it will cause quite a bit of surface damage to the siding. It can't be patched; the entire plank must be replaced.

Where does that scrap siding end up? A landfill.

3. Does Not Get Recycled

Sure, vinyl siding CAN be recycled, but usually it's not: according to Greenpeace International, "currently less than 1 percent of PVC is materially 'recycled'." The reason? Recycling post-consumer PVC is both difficult and expensive. When you think of recycling plastic, that typically means polyethylene terephthalate (PETE), the type used to make soda bottles and other household products. Most recycling centers won't accept items containing PVC. Once siding arrives to the landfill, it's usually burned; and as you know, that's a really bad idea. According to the EPA, PVC incineration "is the largest known source of dioxin emissions in the United States" (Environmental News Bulletin, Backyard Burning Could be Major Source of Dioxins Washington, DC, January 4, 2000).

4. Will Not Drastically Reduce Your Energy Bill

Were you under the impression that vinyl siding can work miracles for your home's energy efficiency? While it isn't the worst material choice in this respect, vinyl siding by itself will do little to reduce heat loss from your home. Though some manufacturers sell siding with rigid foam insulation included, you're better off with traditional wood siding, which has a higher R-value (the measure of thermal resistance), or spending that money on weatherizing your doors and windows and adding insulation for your attic, where most of the heat escapes.

5. Might Lower Your Home's Value

Financially, it seems to make sense to cover your old, peeling wood siding with fresh vinyl siding. However, if your home is historically significant, this addition can lower its value. Vinyl siding tends to "flatten" the exterior of a home; special molding and trim are obscured, resulting in a one-dimensional look. Many people regard vinyl as "cheap," and it may prove a turn-off to future home buyers.

6. "Green" As In "Moldy"

The main purpose of cladding, like roofing, is to keep water out of your house. Vinyl siding, unfortunately, is not so good at this. Real wood siding and other traditional cladding materials allow the wall to breathe; water vapor may move through the wall construction, but it can escape during colder weather. However, vinyl siding is typically installed over a layer of styrene insulation board, which traps the water vapor within the cavity of the wall.

Water also enters the wall cavity through gaps at the edge of siding if it is not caulked--which isn't a good idea in the first place, since vinyl must be able to move independent of the wall surface. While a water-resistant house wrap is typically installed under the siding, it's punctured by nails during the installation process, contributing to leaks. The moisture can rot the wood structure of your home, not to mention that decaying wood invites termites and the dreaded M-word: mold.

7. Your Contractor May Have No Idea What He Is Doing

Vinyl siding manufacturers have one goal: to sell. Once you've purchased siding, they don't often monitor the installation of the product. You can install siding yourself, but most people rely on a contractor. Since vinyl siding's effectiveness depends on proper installation, a shoddy job is the kiss of death. If your siding is nailed too tightly, it will expand and crack, bulge, or warp. Construction warranties often last only a year, and the product warranty may be voided by faulty installation. Not every contractor has invested in proper training and certification, which is loosely regulated and expensive.