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4 Reasons Vinyl Products Get a Bad Rap

Sep 2015

I sometimes receive a question from an architect or a designer who had a bad experience with a vinyl product. In trying to understand what happened, I often find that the “problem” is either not substantiated or based on bad information.

Here are four common reasons vinyl products get a bad rap.

Reason #1 – It’s a Different Plastic

About 13 years ago, a water supply pipe broke in my front yard. My neighbors stood around, peering intently down into the big dig, and proclaimed they knew about the problems with PVC pipe. Ironically, however, the main problem was that it wasn’t a PVC pipe in my yard but instead a polybutylene pipe. My neighbors thought all plastic pipes are made of PVC—but this is not the case.

I often use this pipe story to guide architects and designers in understanding the basic differences among, and performance attributes of, different kinds of plastic. It’s all about knowing what plastic materials you are considering and how they are intended to be used.

There are many plastics on the market and they have different chemistries that are designed to be appropriate for specific applications. The American Chemistry Council’s Plastics 101 website has interesting and useful information on this topic.

Reason #2 – It’s Not a Recommended Use

Complaints about a product failure may simply be the result of a product not being used correctly. For example, have you ever melted a plastic container in a microwave oven? Everyone laughs when I say this because we can all identify with this experience. As we often learn the hard way, some plastics are compatible with microwave ovens and some are not. Similarly, vinyl products should always be used for their intended applications. The best way to know what these are is to talk to the manufacturer about the intended use to be sure the material will perform as desired.

Vinyl resin is an inert white powder very much like baking flour used to make a cake. To continue with the cake analogy, that white powder has little direct commercial use until other materials are added to it and it is made into useful products. The additives in the compounding process are designed with a specific end use in mind. Plasticizers make vinyl flexible, and stabilizers can keep vinyl from breaking down during manufacturing or from exposure to sunlight. For example, PVC pipe will not usually have a UV stabilizer in the compound since pipe is typically buried in the ground or installed within a wall cavity. So if an architect has an application calling for exposed pipe, it should be coated to prevent degradation.

Reason #3 – It Wasn’t Installed Properly

An architect told me recently about the “terrible” problem he had with CPVC fire sprinklers. Sprinkler systems had been mandated on all high-rise buildings, and CPVC was being widely used because it was easy and fast to install. As I dug deeper, I learned that the projects had been rushed and the problems were related to installation errors (and not to the product itself).

It’s important to make sure that your vinyl products are installed properly. Manufacturers go to extensive efforts to develop and publish detailed installation instructions. Downstream trade groups can also be a good source for advice on installation. And some, like The Vinyl Siding Institute offer certified installer programs.

Reason #4 – Products Have Been Improved Over Time

Vinyl is a relatively new material compared to many traditional building materials that designers and specifiers deal with daily. And, like most building materials, it is being improved over time.

I occasionally receive comments from architects who have experienced exterior fading, chalking, plasticizer migration, or drying out of flexible vinyl products—issues that deal with poor performance with early versions of these products. Some architects have also had experience with early unreinforced vinyl roof membranes that failed prematurely.

That was then—and this is now. Vinyl products have changed and advanced over time through better design and improved material formulation.