Editorial Feature

Vinyl Fencing, Decking and Railing

Vinyl fencing, decking, railing and other outdoor living products - including pergolas, arbours, gazebos and bridges - are among the newest and fastest growing applications in the building products industry. Vinyl offers a lower maintenance and more durable alternative to the traditional materials that have dominated these products, including wood and metals.

Overview

One of the newest areas for vinyl in the building and construction industry is fencing, decking and railing. Vinyl fences are available in traditional and innovative designs, while for decks and railings vinyl is increasingly replacing traditional materials like wood and metals in residential, commercial and agricultural applications. Remarkable product characteristics are driving the demand for these types of vinyl outdoor living products. Also, the rising cost of lumber has driven more and more specifiers and consumers to look for alternatives to wood. Even though vinyl alternatives still have a higher initial cost today, the lower lifecycle cost due to lower maintenance needs makes vinyl a cost-effective choice.

Fencing

Vinyl fencing can look just like any ordinary whitewashed wood fence and comes in standard styles.

Manufacturers have broadened choices to include colours such as tan and grey and fencing styles now include scalloped edges, plank styles for privacy, lattice top styles and more. There is a low maintenance vinyl-fencing alternative for virtually every fencing variation, except chain link.

Decking

Vinyl decking has all the components of a wood deck including planks, rails and steps. Its appearance is quite different from wood, though; its overall smooth surface is etched to provide slip resistance, and because it is primarily manufactured in three colours - white, tan or grey - vinyl decking can more closely colour match the exterior treatment of a building or house.

Railing

Vinyl railing is similar in appearance to metal or wood railing. It can look like the tube railing that is attached to handicapped-accessible ramps or the railing that lines balconies of highrise apartment buildings, or even the railing that is found around a typical backyard deck. Beyond the standard look, however, vinyl railing is made in several different styles, including colonial, contemporary, and other custom styles to meet specifiers needs.

Within the residential market, vinyl fencing is becoming a popular landscape feature at the entrance to new subdivisions, and is being used as landscape ornamentation in the front yards of many homes. Vinyl decking can increasingly be found in neighbourhood backyards. Homeowners are drawn to vinyl decking for the same product characteristics as fencing and railing.

Other Products

At the same time that vinyl fencing, decking and railing are growing in popularity, other outdoor vinyl products are also gaining market share in applications such as marine docks, arbours, shade pergolas and trellises. For clarity, the use of the phrase vinyl "outdoor living products" in this article refers to vinyl fencing, decking and railing.

History

In the early 1980s, many manufacturers of traditional vinyl products such as vinyl piping, vinyl windows, and vinyl siding all recognized the potential market for vinyl outdoor living products. As a matter of fact, for many of these manufacturers this new market helped close their recycling gap. Instead of selling the excess vinyl that results from die-cuts and extrusion lines, these manufacturers seized the opportunity to develop new products from this material. With added inhibitors for ultraviolet protection and modifiers for strength and durability, the vinyl outdoor living products industry was born.

Horse Industry

The birthplace of vinyl outdoor living products was in the horse farm industry. It was there that vinyl fencing was fully appreciated for its product characteristics. Vinyl fencing allows more "give" than wood, thus preventing serious injury to horses. Horse farm owners also found another advantage: because vinyl's surface retains virtually no moisture and has no taste - unlike wood - horses' urge to chew on a vinyl fence is greatly reduced.

New Products

As market demand grew, general contractors, architects and landscape architects began asking for these products, so it didn't take long for manufacturers to look for other outdoor applications for vinyl and hence the vinyl railing and vinyl decking industries were launched.

In the mid-1980s, vinyl railing's initial use was for decorative applications such as front porch railings. Manufacturing systems evolved; product testing evolved at the same time. Next, the railing was reinforced and ultimately an entirely new market was developed. Now vinyl railing is one of the most cost-competitive outdoor living products in the industry. It is being used wherever traditional wood and/or metal railings are found, including high-rise apartment balconies and stadium guardrails and front porches.

Vinyl decking is the latest newcomer to the vinyl outdoor living products industry. This part of the industry was formed in the late 1980s. In addition to the product characteristics shared by vinyl fencing and railing, homeowners found the benefit of a slip-resistant surface that provides safety underfoot for children and pets.

Growth

All indications show that market demand for vinyl outdoor living products will continue to grow. According to Window and Door magazine, the overall U.S. fence products industry will top $1.7 billion in the year 2000 - nearly tripling in size since 1987. Vinyl fencing is seen as the fastest growing segment of the total market with a compounded annual growth range between 25 and 33 percent. According to the same article, this confirms that vinyl fencing is now in the early stages of its growth, and is poised for expansion over the next few years.

Market Share

A study conducted in July 1998 by Pure Strategy, a building products industry consulting firm, revealed a more definitive look at vinyl's share of the industry. At the time of the study, vinyl fencing products accounted for approximately 3 percent of the fencing market while vinyl decking materials accounted for approximately 3.3 percent. While the total size of these still growing markets has not been updated since the study, combined sales of vinyl decking and fencing products have gained market share, averaging 32 percent growth for the period 1997-1999. The combined market for all plastic decking and fencing was projected to be approximately $512 million by 2001, a number which (according to the study) may prove to be conservative. At current growth rates, vinyl decking and fencing could account for 30 percent of the residential market by 2007.

Design Considerations

Product characteristics

Vinyl fencing, decking and railing have come a long way since the days on horse farms. Architects, general contractors, remodelers and landscape architects can now offer their clients products that have exceptional weatherability and durability along with minimal maintenance.

Quality vinyl outdoor living products are designed to remain consistent in shape and tend not to warp or swell. There are no fibres in the product, so there are no burrs, splinters, chips or slivers. Because of added stabilizers and UV inhibitors, the products are weather-resistant and waterproof.

Fading and Weathering

All outdoor products will fade over time. Vinyl outdoor living products are no exception. The advantage that vinyl has over other materials is that it fades uniformly.

Vinyl won't blister, rot, rust or peel and it weathers uniformly. Because colour is extruded throughout the product, it doesn't need paint or other surface treatments such as water sealants and stains. The way it is designed and engineered to be put together, no surface screws, nails or sharp edges show. It is also resistant to stains. Testing for chemical resistivity reveals that vinyl is not affected by rock salt or other chemicals used for snow removal.

Safety

Vinyl decks offer slip-resistant surfaces and since vinyl does not splinter or have rough edges, it is a safe material ideally suited for decks. That is also why it is so heavily used in the equestrian sector; direct impact into a rail doesn't cause splintering and minimizes injury to a horse. Vinyl horse fencing systems can be designed to bend back into place. In the case of a concentrated load impact, vinyl horse fencing can simply pop out of a post and quickly be refastened.

Under normal use, vinyl fencing will not break when installed properly. If subjected to a direct substantial impact (e.g., an automobile running into a fence line) vinyl fencing can break. Planks, pickets and rails are easily replaced if damaged.

Temperature Changes

Vinyl outdoor living products stand up to temperature extremes; although vinyl will become less flexible in colder weather conditions. Nevertheless vinyl will not break or crack unless subjected to an unusually strong impact. Also, it is normal for vinyl materials to expand and contract during temperature changes. Proper design and installation can accommodate this process.

Scratches

Another product characteristic of vinyl is that minor scratches don't show or lead to bigger problems. With metal, scratches can expose a product to the elements, allowing rust to set in. Likewise, scratches on wood can expose it to accelerated degradation, more swelling and harmful insect infestations.

Colours

Typical colour choices for vinyl fencing and decking are white, tan or grey. However, new colour choices will soon expand the selection. For example, two of the newest colours for vinyl decking are wood tones similar to redwood and pressure-treated wood. Vinyl railing comes in a variety of colours and can be matched to a designer's choice.

Dark colours are not recommended for vinyl planking because they have high heat buildup that could cause unreinforced planks to distort, sag or bend.

Warranties

Some manufacturers offer lifetime warranties that are transferable with the sale of property. Extended warranties typically last more than 25 years.

Technical data

The performance of vinyl outdoor living products is measured by a variety of physical characteristics. Following is a brief description of each product's standards and testing criteria.

Decking

Vinyl decking is subjected to tests for low temperature, high temperature, puncture loads, blunt impact, uniform loads defined by uplift and live loads, fire resistance, weatherability and stair tread structural integrity.

Fencing

The specifications for fencing differ depending on the type or use of the fence - whether it is for commercial, residential or agricultural use - but all fence profiles conform to the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) standard ASTM F964: Standard Specification for Rigid Poly(Vinyl Chloride) (PVC) Exterior Profiles Used for Fencing.

It is best to check with individual manufacturers on the specific standards that apply to a particular type of vinyl fence. Standard testing for vinyl fencing includes tests that measure its ability to withstand cracking, temperature extremes, direct impact, warping and discoloration.

The standard also dictates that the fence be free from visible cracks, holes, foreign inclusions, or other defects. The fencing profiles should be as uniform as commercially practicable in colour, opacity, density and other physical properties.

Railings

While the provisions of codes and standards differ slightly, most handrails must be designed and constructed to withstand a concentrated load of 200 pounds (91kg) applied at any point and any direction. Intermediate rails, balusters and panel fillers are designed to withstand a horizontally applied load of 50 pounds (23kg) on a one-square-foot area. The top of a guardrail must be at least 36" (914mm) from the floor. The spacing in the guardrail ornamental pattern, balustrade or pickets must not allow the passage of a 4" (10cm) diameter sphere. Railing systems, regardless of material composition are identified in three categories: Decorative Grade (for installation less than 30" (762mm) off the ground); Residential Grade (for installation more than 30" (762mm) off the ground); and Commercial Grade (a railing height equal to or greater than 42" (1067mm) high).

Weatherability

For all vinyl outdoor living products, weatherability testing is also conducted to measure resistance to the elements including sun, wind, rain and pollution. In addition to accelerated tests conducted in a laboratory, outdoor exposure tests are done in "real time."

Test results reveal that outdoor vinyl products retain a high degree of their original physical properties and colour during exposure to these various weathering conditions. Test results are available through individual manufacturers.

Vinyl has a relatively high ignition temperature as compared to other materials. This means that even when exposed to an open flame source, vinyl will resist ignition much longer than most materials, which could serve to slow or even stop the spread of fire.

Installation

Techniques for installing a vinyl fence are similar to those of a wood fence. The same tools and principles apply with the notable exception that vinyl fencing does not require job-site welding and gluing. As with wood, vinyl posts are set in the ground with gravel and concrete. The posthole depth should be below the frost line to avoid the effects of ground shifting and swelling. Two types of fastener systems are commonly used to fasten rails to posts:

  • Fence rails attached to posts by galvanized screws hidden in the post so that no screws show, or
  • A vinyl or nylon snap-in type system that uses clips to secure rails to posts.

Vinyl deck systems are installed by a number of different methods based on specific designs of the manufacturer. Vinyl deck planks can be cut just like wood deck planks using a power saw. A blade made for vinyl will deliver the smoothest, cleanest cuts. If that type of blade cannot be found, a fine-toothed tungsten carbide blade may be used.

The same tools that are used for wood materials are also used for vinyl fencing, decking and railing.

Vinyl railing is installed in a similar way to vinyl fencing, with the main difference being the post mount. The first thing that is done when installing a vinyl rail is the attachment of a post mount. Vinyl posts are then installed by simply sliding over the post mount. Most railing styles feature a bottom horizontal rail; if so, then this is installed next, followed by the pickets and then the top horizontal rail. Next, vertical pickets are placed into pre-cut holes in the bottom railing. Then the top railing fits over the pickets and is secured into place the same way as the bottom railing. There are several options for post caps to add a finishing touch such as a dome-type cap, gothic style or a New England style cap.

Cost

According to Today's Homeowner, vinyl decking is 30 to 50 percent more than a standard pressure-treated wood deck. In addition, the magazine Workbench reported that vinyl decking could cost twice as much as pressure-treated southern pine, which is the least expensive wood on the market. However, the difference in cost goes down when compared to more expensive woods such as tropical hardwood, redwood and cedar.

Typical costs of vinyl fencing range widely because of its versatility, which allows it to be configured in various styles of functional and decorative fences.

Vinyl railing systems are cost competitive with painted wood railing systems. While the very lightweight metal railing systems can be less expensive than vinyl railings, specialty vinyl railings are extremely competitive with welded commercial aluminium railing systems.

Maintenance Costs

Despite these higher initial costs, vinyl's lifetime of low maintenance and long-term durability makes it extremely competitive, especially when compared to the lifecycle maintenance costs of other products. When purchasing products made with other materials, there is the initial cost of the product itself and, in cases where painting is desired, the added cost of labour and materials. After that are the costs of repairing and replacing worn boards, adding chemical preservatives, repainting or re-staining and the labour cost associated with maintenance. This can dramatically increase the lifecycle costs of wood and/or metal fencing, decking and railing.

Cost Comparisons

A standard southern yellow pine deck will need to be completely replaced every 7 to 10 years, depending on how well the deck has been maintained. Vinyl decks, on the other hand, require virtually no maintenance and will last more than 20 years.

To illustrate the impact of lifecycle cost in fencing materials, the owners of two horse farms in Kentucky kept stringent documentation on maintenance and labour costs on their standard wood horse fences for a period of three years. Periodically the fencing was painted according to installer's recommendations and worn boards were replaced as needed. The records revealed an annual maintenance cost of 50 cents to 70 cents per linear foot. Therefore, maintenance on a 5000-foot horse fence could cost between $2,500 and $3,500 annually. Using this example, the savings on maintenance alone can pay for the difference in original cost of a vinyl fence in seven years or less.

Maintenance requirements

Ease of maintenance is vinyl's most significant advantage over other materials. As with all exterior products, vinyl outdoor living products will become dirty when exposed to the elements. A mild detergent and water should be sufficient to keep the products looking new. For tough stains, a soft abrasive scrub or baking soda works well. Light chalking may appear on the surface of some outdoor vinyl products. This would also be normal on any coated or painted surface. Washed away by rainfall and normal changes in weather, this process helps to keep the product looking like new. There is no need to paint any outdoor vinyl product because the colour pigments are added at the beginning of the manufacturing process and are compounded into the raw material prior to production. Although not classified as graffiti proof, most paint can be removed from vinyl outdoor living products with just a little effort. It may require the use of a pressure washer or in an extreme case the use of paint thinner. Four-hundred-grit sandpaper can be used when some spots will not come off using the above methods.

Vinyl outdoor living products will, when subjected to extended damp weather, collect mould and mildew. They are, however, easily cleaned with a solution of mild household detergent and water.

Static Electricity

The phenomenon of tribo-charging - the buildup of static electricity on a flat surface - can affect vinyl walking surfaces. This phenomenon occurs most frequently in dry climates, where hot, dry winds and dust-born particles can create static electricity on the surface of vinyl decks. This static electricity is the same as when people drag their feet across a rug on a dry day or rub a balloon on fur or wool. Some manufacturers are now incorporating anti-static additives to their products to prevent this problem; a quick hosing-down of the deck with water will also dissipate the static electricity.

Selection and Specification Guide

Relevant standards

Because of the relative infancy of vinyl in the fencing, decking and railing market, standards are now in development for these specific areas. During this process, manufacturers are relying on railing and flooring requirements contained in existing building codes while standards specific to outdoor decking and railing are under development at ASTM and AAMA.

Manufacturing Process

Raw materials

All vinyl products are made from a combination of vinyl resin and various additives, which gives these products their particular properties. Most formulations are different, and most are proprietary. Most vinyl fencing formulations are made up of about 80 percent vinyl resin. Some of the additives commonly used in vinyl outdoor living products include the following.

  • Stabilizers improve heat stability, minimizing the degradation of the vinyl during exposures to high temperatures in the extrusion process. They also add to the product's strength and help it resist cracking, splitting, pitting.
  • Impact modifiers improve impact strength, or resistance of the profile to cracking or breaking during the fabrication processes (sawing, routing and punching). They also improve resistance to general abuse during transportation, storage and installation.
  • UV inhibitors protect the finished product from damaging rays of the sun. Titanium dioxide is the most common material used.
  • Pigments provide consistent colour throughout the product and may screen or absorb UV radiation, which would otherwise cause rapid degradation of the product.

Processing / Fabricating

Extrusion and co-extrusion are the manufacturing processes used to make vinyl outdoor living products. The product is extruded through moulds to form various shapes and is cut into various lengths. Extrusion uses the same vinyl formula (compounds with stabilizers, modifiers and inhibitors) throughout the entire manufacturing process. In a co-extrusion process, the UV inhibitor and other modifiers for weatherability are concentrated in an outer layer while stabilizers and modifiers for durability and strength are put in the inner core of the product.

  • Fencing. Vinyl fencing is either extruded or co-extruded then shaped into various components by routing and cutting. The rails, pickets and posts are cut to specific lengths as required for style. The corner, gate and end posts are internally reinforced with metal or wood. Then the parts are assembled, shipped and installed at the job site.
  • Decking. Planks are either extruded or co-extruded into various lengths depending on the customer's need. Support ribs are added for strength and impact resistance. Then a slip-resistant design is etched into the planks to provide safety and security underfoot.
  • Railing. The vinyl railing manufacturing process is similar to that of vinyl fencing, with vinyl components being extruded and then reinforced with metal or wood.

Environmental Considerations

Recyclability

Because vinyl is a thermoplastic, it can be reheated, melted and used again. A recent study determined that more than 99 percent of all vinyl ends up in a finished product. Even the vinyl sawdust that is created by decking installation can be put back into the recycling stream. No paints or stains are left over requiring special treatment for disposal, and no preservative chemicals are needed thereby eliminating potential absorption into the ground water.

Energy Efficiency

Because of its durability, vinyl outdoor living products do not have to be replaced as often as many other outdoor building materials. Durability is a significant benefit for the environment because less energy and other resources are used to make the product.

Resource Conservation

As with all resources, the use of wood has consequences for the environment - especially the loss of habitat and soil from over-harvesting and old growth forests that produce the best wood.

Source: The Vinyl Institute

For more information on this source please visit The Vinyl Institute

Tell Us What You Think

Do you have a review, update or anything you would like to add to this article?

Leave your feedback
Submit