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The Role of Misinformation: How Vinyl Products Get a Bad Rap

May 2014

More than once I have been left scratching my head after comments made by an architect or designer who had a bad experience with a vinyl product. Usually after asking a few questions I find that the ‘problem’ is not substantiated or is simply based on bad information. I have found four common reasons for these situations.

Reason #1 – “It’s a Different Plastic”

About 13 years ago, a water supply pipe broke in my own front yard. All my neighbors stood around, peering intently down into the big dig, proclaiming all they knew about ‘problems’ with PVC pipe. But ironically the main ‘problem’ was that it wasn’t about PVC pipe at all. The pipe in my yard was a polybutylene pipe. A tarnished reputation was born that day based on incorrect assumptions by some well-intentioned observers. My neighbors simply thought that all plastic pipes were made of PVC, which is not the case.

I have often used this pipe story with architects and designers to guide them in understanding the basic differences between, and performance attributes of different kinds of plastic. The first piece of advice I usually offer to my audience of design professionals is to know what plastic materials they are actually considering and how they are intended to be used. There are many plastics on the market and they have chemistries that are designed to be appropriate for specific applications. The American Chemistry Council offers a Plastics 101 website that many decision makers find interesting and useful.

Reason #2 – “It’s Not a Recommended Use”

Complaints about a product failure may simply be that the product was not used correctly. My advice point number two is about appropriate use, where the common mistake is using a plastic incorrectly. How many of us have melted a plastic container in a microwave oven? Everyone laughs when I say this because we can all identify with that experience. As we learn the hard way, some plastics are compatible with microwave ovens and some are not. So I always caution architects and designers to use vinyl products in their intended applications. The best way to know what those are is to talk to the manufacturer about the intended use to be sure the material will perform.

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”

This is the category that prompted my article in the first place. I was in Atlanta recently and an architect told me about the ‘terrible problem’ they had with CPVC fire sprinklers. Sprinkler systems had been mandated on all high rise buildings and CPVC was being widely used because it was easier and faster to install. According to the architect they had ‘many problems’ but as I dug deeper I found that the projects had been rushed and the problems were related to installation errors and not to the product itself.

So advice point number three is make sure that products are installed properly. Manufacturers go to extensive effort to develop and publish detailed installation instructions for their products. 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”

When compared with many ‘traditional’ building materials designers and specifiers deal with daily, vinyl is a relatively new material. I have occasionally gotten comments from architects who experienced poor performance from an early version of a vinyl product. As examples, I sometimes get questions about exterior fading, chalking, plasticizer migration and drying out of flexible products. Some architects have had ‘history’ with early unreinforced vinyl roof membranes that failed prematurely. Forty years ago some exterior vinyl trims were known to crack after exposure to intense sun and extreme weather conditions. But today it is always a pleasure to reassure my audience that vinyl products have changed and advanced over time through better design and improved material formulation. Modern vinyl products offer extraordinary performance. So my fourth piece of advice is to explore and get to know the many impressive vinyl products that are on the market today.