High in fiber
No doubt fiber cement is gaining in popularity. The census didn't even keep specific figures for the building material until 2005, when it used on 9 percent of new houses compared to 34 percent for vinyl.
The slurry of sand, Portland cement, wood fibers and trace amounts of additives is turned into sheets and a wood grain pattern is rolled over the top. Fiber cement's early ability to look like wood gave it a foothold in the siding market, Freedonia analyst Matt Zielenski said in a telephone interview.
“Until recently, vinyl had that plasticy appearance, which some consumers don't like,” he said.
Fiber cement first was used to replace rotting wood siding in the west and then it took off in the south, where manufactured housing builders bought it in bulk, Zielenski said.
“Right now there has been a push by fiber cement producers to market it as a replacement for wood and vinyl,” he added.
One major fiber cement manufacturer posts a four-point chart on its website that says its siding offers better protection than vinyl when it comes to flame, fade and weather resistance as well as thickness. The online comparison says fiber cement is approved for fire-rated construction while vinyl siding will melt or burn from significant heat. It also says fiber cement withstands hail and 150-mile per hour winds while vinyl can be damaged from flying debris. And, it says colors resist fading more than vinyl with an asterisk of fine print noting tests were accelerated in a lab.
Jerome Zenoby, brand manager of Heartland Siding and Heritage Stone, which are made by Ohio-based ProVia, said he is troubled by what he and others in the vinyl siding industry consider misinformation. ProVia's website has a 10-point comparison chart that touts vinyl advantages over fiber cement for maintenance, water resistance, color retention, wind load, impact resistance, energy efficiency and cost, among other qualities.
“It's not unlike other markets with ‘he said, she said,' but you're competing against lies and what not, if I can be that bold,” Zenoby said in a telephone interview. “It's definitely got our attention and we are concerned.”
With estimated sales of $50 million, Heartland Siding ranks 56th among PPT extruders, according to Plastics News.
To help educate end users, ProVia started offering a sales presentation kit earlier this month that describes how the raw ingredients of its siding contribute to impact resistance and UV protection at the molecular level. The kit is called “The Science of Super Polymer Siding.”
Lionel Dubrofsky, president of Kaycan Ltd., which makes KP Building Products, also questions fiber cement claims.
“The only thing it has over vinyl is a higher fire rating,” he said in a telephone interview, quickly qualifying the statement. “If houses are built very close to each other, a certain rating board has to be put behind vinyl siding.”
KP Building Products is ranked 18th by Plastics News with estimated sales of $230 million. Dubrofsky said fiber cement has its place in the market and he doesn't want to bash it but he is glad vinyl siding advocates are doing a better job of tooting their own horns.
“Vinyl siding has caught up with the color palette,” he said. “It installs easier. You don't need to wear respirators or masks because of the silica dust. Vinyl is affordable. It's a value-based product that looks excellent for many years to come.”
The competition from fiber cement is spurring some polymer product improvements and marketing.
“As an industry, when fiber cement came in, we took our eye off the ball a little,” Dubrofsky said. “Fiber cement made us become more aggressive and really step up to the plate. We continue as an industry and as a company to come out with different profiles, different ways to attach the siding, and new innovations.”
Bring it on
Montreal-based KP, Heartland and other manufacturers and suppliers to the industry belong to the Vinyl Siding Institute (VSI) — a trade association that is in the midst of its own blitz of brochures, website information and community engagement, particularly in the fast-rising area of Charlotte, N.C.
According to the VSI, vinyl siding has it all over fiber cement in terms of durability, beauty, maintenance, installation, value and even life-cycle analysis. Some manufacturers offer products that withstand 190 mph winds, the institute says.
“Market leaders are always a target for new players,” VSI President and CEO Jery Huntley said in an email. “Rather than compete on the merits of their own products, they often resort to marketing their cladding as ‘not vinyl.' But since vinyl siding has been the No. 1 cladding choice for the past two decades, is that really good positioning?”
Vinyl siding has come a long way since VSI launched a product certification program in 1998, the institute touts.
“One of the most significant evolutions is quality assurance,” Huntley said.
Participating manufacturers are required to meet or exceed international standards for performance to obtain the certification label and most do. The VSI says 98 percent of all vinyl siding made in the United States is certified and more than 400 colors have been certified to retain color.
Huntley also points out that compliance is verified by a third party.
“Vinyl siding, including insulated siding, and polypropylene siding are the only exterior claddings whose certification program is administered by an independent, quality control agency that ensures that products and colors meet or exceed ASTM standards,” she said.
ASTM International develops technical standards for materials, products and services to guide quality design and manufacturing.
Kelli Hill, spokesperson for siding products manufactured by Associated Materials LLC, said in a telephone interview that part of her job is to do competitive analyses of all claddings. Associated makes building products sold under several brand names, including Alside, and it ranks 16th with estimated sales of $252 million, according to Plastics News.
Hill welcomes the chance to talk strengths and weaknesses about siding.
“The nice thing about vinyl is the price,” she said, citing VSI figures, which say that for dollars per square, vinyl costs $201 ($97 for materials and $104 for labor) and fiber cement costs $300 ($121 for materials, $124 for labor and $55 for paint).
The Charlotte area is shaping up to be a good place to have a conversation about cladding. Population growth in the area is expected to outstrip the nation with Mecklenburg County — now at 969,000 people — exceeding 1.3 million people by 2040, according to an outlook released this year by Regional Economic Models Inc.
Jeffrey Smith, VSI's senior manager of communications, said in an email that vinyl siding manufacturers see opportunities there compared to regions like the Southwest where stucco dominates. In addition to positive economic indicators, Eastern homeowners prefer traditional architecture and the look of wood. Smith describes it as overlay region “where housing is recovering at a faster pace, incomes are healthy, unemployment is low and you have a reason to stay strong in Charlotte.”
VSI will exhibit at the 21st Century Building Expo in Charlotte in September “and of course, we will be promoting our presence there,” Smith said. “To be clear, the industry has been serving Charlotte-area builders and remodelers successfully for years. The strategy is to keep doing what we've been doing; after all, it's what's kept us ahead of the competition for two decades.”
Hill expects industry leaders also will reach out to specific decision makers and homeowners in general.
“In North Carolina, we're dealing with a perception issue so we're looking at a very grassroots level campaign — sitting down at small lunches, meet and greets, little events to get to the builder, consumer and local officials,” Hill said. “All we really want to be certain about is that they have the facts.”