Natural wood has long been the preeminent material for residential landscape fencing. Easy to cut and assemble, widely available, and relatively affordable, wood fencing can be adapted to just about any landscape style and is a relatively easy material for DIYers to work with. Its natural appeal has made wood the first choice for most homeowners for many years. But recent years have seen a newly manufactured contender enter the arena. PVC (polyvinyl chloride) plastic is a petroleum-based product that has a variety of uses in the building trades, and one of its recent adaptations is for landscape fencing materials.
Made from the same plastic that is used in white plastic plumbing pipes, PVC is gradually becoming widely used in fencing materials. Some home centers now stock PVC fencing components as well as preassembled panels in a limited range of colors. The first PVC fences were simple white plastic panels with shiny surfaces—not very natural looking—but additional colors have now been introduced, including brown wood tones. Some PVC fencing is now even textured to resemble wood. These days, nearly any fencing style can be constructed in PVC, ranging from ranch-style rails to New England pickets to tall solid-panel privacy fences.
A point-by-point comparison between PVC and traditional wood will help you decide if PVC is the right option for your fence.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and nowhere is this truer than with landscape fences. Most people will find real wood to be more attractive than PVC plastic fencing, thanks in large part to wood's flexibility. Wood is an adaptable material that can be left to weather naturally, or it can be stained or painted however you want. A wood fence can be custom-built to make it unique to your landscape, and it can readily be adapted to uneven building sites.
Vinyl, on the other hand, tends to look best where it tries to mimic the look of a traditional white-painted fence, but even here it is hard to fully overcome the artificial look. Older vinyl fences and less expensive new products have a shiny surface that looks somewhat artificial. As PVC fences weather, the shininess may give way to a chalky coating that dulls the look of the fence. PVC fence panels stocked in bulk come in a limited range of options, so you may find yourself disappointed to find that your fence looks exactly like dozens of others in your community. It is hard to get a "designer" look when building with mass-produced PVC panels.
One advantage that PVC owns is that its color will not change and it will not require repainting, as does wood. Except for dirt and moss, white PVC fencing will stay white, year after year. Of course, this can also be a drawback—once you've installed your PVC fence, you are stuck with its appearance and color for its lifetime. Unlike wood, PVC cannot be easily painted a different color if you want to change its appearance.
Some of PVC's liabilities are gradually being removed as manufacturers offer additional colors and have now introduced textures into their products. And add-on features such as lattice panels and shaped post caps are making PVC fences a bit less utilitarian than they once were. Much the way that synthetic decking material gradually became a more premium option, it is likely that PVC fencing will also see improvements in appearance.
One option if you want a better-looking fence that still has some of the advantages of vinyl is a wood-composite fence. Made from the same blend of wood fibers and plastic resins as used in synthetic decking, these fence products are very durable and stable. However, wood-composite fencing is not cheap—expect to pay at least twice as much as for a PVC or wood fence.
Ease of Installation
Both wood and vinyl fences typically come out better when installed by a professional fence company. For any type of fence, digging post holes and setting posts is a very difficult task. Typically fence posts should be buried to at least one-third of their length (and deeper in some cold-weather climates). After that, the posts must be set in concrete. Multiply this task by 20 fence posts, and you can see why so many homeowners hand this job off to a fencing contractor.
But if you are a dedicated DIYer, vinyl fencing is a bit easier to work with than wood, since the posts and panels are considerably lighter than wood posts and panels. Many PVC fence products are designed for easy assembly, with posts that are notched to accept rails and matching panel brackets available.
As with any large project, working slowly and in discrete stages will make the work easier. Plan to take your time, and be especially diligent in the layout and when installing the posts. Installing a large landscape fence should be regarded as a season's worth of work—not something to knock off in a weekend or two.
Remember that both wood and vinyl fencing installations usually call for municipal building permits. Most communities' fence laws tend to treat vinyl and wood equally in terms of installation requirements.
Do-it-yourself vinyl fence panels once were considerably more costly than wood panels, but this price discrepancy has narrowed considerably as vinyl fencing panels have become more widely available.
As of 2018, sample prices for preassembled fencing panels at a major big-box home improvement center:
- 6-feet high x 8-feet long pressure-treated pine privacy panel: $50
- 6-feet high x 8-feet long red cedar panel: $109
- 6-feet high x 8-feet long white PVC plastic privacy panel: $98
- 6-feet high x 8-feet long wood-composite privacy panel: $284
Here is one reported virtue of PVC fencing that holds true: PVC doesn't decay and it doesn't need to be sealed, stained, or painted. Vinyl fencing is largely maintenance-free, which is why so many ranch and farmers opt for vinyl fencing for large installations. Easy maintenance greatly outweighs appearance and other considerations when you have a lot of fencing to maintain.
Properly sealed wood will resist rot for a few seasons but it will always need to be re-sealed eventually. Some fence woods, such as cedar, are naturally oily and are better at resisting decay than other woods. Still, all woods benefit from some type of surface treatment, whether you are sealing or painting. If your only priority is to eliminate fence rot, vinyl fences are the way to go.
But be aware that vinyl fences get dirty—very dirty. Many owners come to regard this as the single worst thing about a vinyl fence. Most vinyl fence owners say that owning a pressure washer is essential if you have a vinyl fence. At least once a year, vinyl fences need a thorough power washing to remove dirt that splashes onto the lower section from rain, as well as fungus, mildew, and moss. Wood fences also get dirty, but wood textures and colors are much better at hiding grime than the shiny white surfaces of PVC fencing.
Further, vinyl fences are more difficult to fix when problems arise—repair is usually a matter of replacing entire panels, not fixing individual elements.
PVC plastic fencing has made strides in the last few years, with additional colors and even textured surfaces now available. And the price gap between PVC and natural wood has now been reduced, with costs fairly comparable. But while PVC is very durable and immune to rot, it needs regular cleaning. And even the best PVC fencing products will not be as elegant as natural wood or wood-composite fencing. But PVC can be a great choice where your main goal is a long-lasting fence that won't rot or need painting or staining.