With exterior trim sales on the rise, 2015 opened with another salvo from the major player in the fiber cement arena.
Dublin, Ireland-based James Hardie Building Products released results of a study that says its HardieTrim NT3 product costs less and takes the same time or less to install than cellular PVC and engineered wood trim.
Last year siding manufacturers fended off marketing campaigns promoting fiber cement — a mix of sand, Portland cement, wood fibers and additives — as a durable replacement material for vinyl and wood. Trade association members of the Vinyl Siding Institute responded with a blitz of brochures, website information touting vinyl's low maintenance and high impact resistance, and community engagement, particularly aimed at Charlotte, N.C., which has experienced a faster recovery in the housing market.
This year, vinyl building product makers are mostly scratching their heads at the trim study. Conducted by Home Innovations Research Labs, the study says fiber cement trim is 15 to 18 percent faster to install than cellular PVC and “engineered wood” when using a pneumatic nailer. When using a concealed fastening system, the HardieTrim system was 33 percent faster to install than the PVC fastening system but took more time than the pneumatic trim nailer, according to the findings.
The study, which was done by a subsidiary of the National Association of Home Builders, also says the total cost of using HardieTrim boards is 13 to 20 percent lower than PVC and up to 6 percent lower than engineered wood.
At first blush, many vinyl product manufacturers say the study sponsored by James Hardie raises a lot of questions. They say the fiber cement trim material might have a lower price tag but they don't see how the overall cost can be lower after installation. Fiber cement is heavier and harder to cut, usually requiring more complex tools, painting and caulking.
However, Ed Hudson, market research director for the home labs, said the tests were done on a new James Hardie fiber cement pre-finished trim material that doesn't need painting and caulking.
He recommended a test on a two-story lab house with installation crews using the identical number of trim pieces of pre-finished engineered wood and pre-finished fiber cement (no painting or caulking needed) and unfinished cellular PVC, which is assumed not to need finishing.
These products also were selected to provide the greatest degree of cost comparability among the trim types. Pre-finished fiber cement and engineered wood are more expensive than primed or unfinished trim.
However, Hudson reiterated: “The goal of the study was two-fold: No. 1 to see what the initial installation time would be with the fiber cement trim for a crew who never used it; and No. 2 to install it many times — in fact, we did four complete house installations with the fiber cement trim — so we could determine how long it took the crew to be proficient with it.”
Out of the several hours it took to trim the windows, doors, corner boards, fascia, frieze board and band, the initial installation times for the three products were “virtually identical,” Hudson said.
“Essentially they felt the only difference was the fiber cement material was slightly heavier than the wood and significantly heavier than the PVC. They said they didn't believe they would take more time to install it but it would take more physical effort.”
The crew performed nine installation trials, including two with engineered wood, three with cellular PVC and four with fiber cement trim. From the first to the final trial using fiber cement trim, the workers cut their installation time down from 330 minutes to 277 minutes, which James Hardie says is 15 to 18 percent faster than the other two materials.
“It's a report I trust but bear in mind that for the conclusion we measured the motions and time it took to get the material from a stack beside the test home onto the wall and the costs thereabouts to get it on the wall,” Hudson said, adding that the results can't be extrapolated to every trim installation project.
He described the work crew as “fairly nonchalant” about the material types.
Merits of PVC
“This was a crew who primarily installed PVC when we hired them to come and spend six days in our lab to do the installations,” Hudson said. ‘They still claim to prefer PVC over any material to install, which is what you'd expect. They were a PVC crew. Nonetheless the goal of the study wasn't to determine which was the favorite, it was a time and cost study.”
James Hardie says the costs varied from $2,775 for its product to $2,870 for engineered wood to $3,734 for cellular PVC trim.
Even so, Hudson said, “PVC is a good material and it's not going away.”
He said he believes the manufactures of PVC products should focus on the non-installation benefits that add up to value.
“It does cost more but it's popular and the reason builders and siding contractors are using it is because they believe its going to last for the life of the home and it requires little maintenance outside of a periodic washing,” Hudson said.
Cellular PVC trim makers were reluctant to comment on the study, which they point out was commissioned and funded by James Hardie and has only been released in summary form.
However, Azek Product Manager Ben Bainter said in an email, “A lot of fiber cement installers are connecting with our product because of low dust levels, ease of handling without breakage, and its lightweight. These are benefits on which Azek trim has built a large following and has made it the No. 1 brand according to recent independent industry brand studies.”