Vinyl is everywhere these days, and in many different forms when it comes to construction. Replacement windows, siding, gutters, flooring, trim, soffits, it’s everywhere! The vinyl industry will tell you that this is a good thing. After all, vinyl products are relatively inexpensive and maintenance free. Isn’t that what we all want these days?
Maybe so, but at what cost? In the race to the bottom, vinyl has taken over huge swaths of the building industry and it shows very little sign of slowing down. So, what is the big problem with vinyl? Is there ever a time when vinyl is a good idea? Let’s see.
Let’s start with some of the benefits expounded by vinyl advocates first. There are usually two major benefits proclaimed by vinyl companies.
#1 No Maintenance
Vinyl siding salesman promote siding as a simple and inexpensive solution to making a tired old house look like new. And if you like the look of vinyl siding, it does certainly transform the look of a building.
And once installed, vinyl doesn’t ever need painting. Whether it’s windows or siding, vinyl does not need a protective coating of paint. Wood, for all its benefits, requires painting or coating of some sort to protect it from the sun and elements if you want it to last for long.
Vinyl fits very well with our very busy lives these days since it doesn’t require annual maintenance of any sort.
#2 Low Price
In my opinion, one of the main reasons vinyl has skyrocketed to popularity is because it offers an affordable alternative. Where else can you find a new window for $189 installed?
Vinyl offers a bargain basement, entry level product that puts some items that would ordinarily be cost prohibitive within the reach of certain homeowners.
Is that a good thing? That I leave up to you to decide, but there can be no argument that vinyl has created a less expensive alternative to traditional building materials.
Why Not Vinyl?
We’ll start this section with a quote. “The environmental, health, and social equity impacts of vinyl throughout its life cycle – from production to use to disposal – make it the worst plastic for the environment and the antithesis of a green building material.” – Bill Walsh of Green Building Advisor.
That seems like a strong assertion, but I wonder if Billy has something to back up his statement.
The US Dept of Energy seems to agree with him, at least on the performance side of thing. Since the mid 1990s, they released statements in several instances in their consumer fact sheets on windows, pointing out vinyl’s poor performance as a building material.
In 2002 they wrote, “Vinyl frames are not very rigid. Vinyl windows with large openings usually require an internal metal extrusion to make the frame stiffer. This can lower the frames R-value significantly. Vinyl frames can also soften, warp, and twist if heat builds up within the frame. In hot sunny climates, direct exposure to sunlight is not recommended.”
That is an unfortunate limitation for vinyl’s use in construction. No exposure to direct sunlight in hot climates? How is that supposed to work?
It’s not just the US government that speaks up about vinyl’s performance woes. Canadian agencies have a lot to say about vinyl and its performance in a cold weather climate.
- The Canadian Centre for Energy Technology in 2005 said, “Unreinforced PVC window profiles have a lack of rigidity and a high coefficient of expansion. PVC profiles are subject to distortion.”
- National Research Council Canada in 2006 reported, “Because of the plastic’s high coefficient of expansion, dark colors may cause excessive distortion. The high coefficient of thermal expansion has to be taken into account in the decision of the window. In cold climates, contraction of the window frame will enlarge the width of the joint with the wall.”
- Canadian Research and Technology in Housing in 2005 wrote this regarding vinyl windows, “PVC is too brittle in cold conditions and breaks easily.”
So, several unbiased sources think that vinyl is a bad idea as a building material due to some of its inherent flaws. What about the the fact that it’s no maintenance?
No Maintenance Means it Can’t Be Maintained
Sadly, it turns out that the “no maintenance” claim that vinyl boasts is not without its problems as well. First, as the name of this section mentions, vinyl cannot be maintained. If it is damaged, the only option is replacement, cracked window frames, melted siding, torn flooring, in every situation vinyl shows itself to be extremely difficult or impossible to repair or maintain.
Also, when you have a product that is impervious to the elements, it makes for real problems when it is finally thrown in the landfill. Vinyl products don’t ever break down and decompose. They simply break into smaller pieces for all eternity. Not exactly a green end to its lifecycle.
How about the beginning of its lifecycle?
The Manufacture of Vinyl
Vinyl is manufactured by combining heavily processed petroleum and chlorine as well other additives and plasticizers (softening agents) like phthalates.
The EPA has recently setup new regulations regarding phthalates due to their toxicity and link to reproductive issues in males and autism in children. Phthalates are continually released into the air from vinyl products over their life, so there is really no escaping them.
Another important chemical you should know about is dioxin. Dioxins are highly toxic and can cause cancer, reproductive and developmental problems, damage to the immune system, and can interfere with hormones. The EPA rates dioxins as one of the most toxic and carcinogenic chemicals in existence.
What do dioxins have to do with vinyl? Dioxin is created when PVC is manufactured and is released in large quantities if PVC is burned.
In February of 2007, the Technical Science Advisory Committee of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) released the results of an assessment of the health and environmental impacts of vinyl building materials.
- PVC’s (Vinyl) cancer ranking is consistently the absolute worst for each of the four product types studied.
- PVC’s Total Human Health ranking consistently comes out either tied for worst or absolute worst.
What’s the Verdict?
I really did try to find studies that countered the negative effects of vinyl and PVC, but all I could come up with are copious studies revealing the dangers of vinyl in our homes. Especially when it comes to our children.
A study published in 2009 found a statistically significant link between PVC flooring, asthma, and autism spectrum disorder. The study found that children who live in homes with vinyl floors, which can emit phthalates, are twice as likely to have autism. Source: Kolarik, B. et al. 2008. The association between phthalates in dust and allergic diseases among Bulgarian children. Environmental Health Perspectives 116(1): 98-103.
Is it any wonder autism and asthma have grown increasingly more common as our homes have been more inundated with vinyl products? At this point in my research, the correlation is merely anecdotal, but the timeline of the two are eerily similar.
When it comes down to it, vinyl is a choice, not a solution. There are so many better choices to use in your home than vinyl right now. Maybe the science will play itself out and we will discover vinyl is not as bad as it seems, but right now, the research points in one direction, and it’s not good for vinyl supporters.
Founder & Senior Editor
I love old houses, working with my hands, and teaching others the excitment of doing it yourself! Everything is teachable if you only give it the chance.