Plastics in Home Building

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Last week, I talked about PEX tubing and how home builders are slow to adopt new technologies with good reason.

This week I want to talk a little about new technologies and products which have been developed for homebuilding with a focus on plastic materials.

As I mentioned last week, home builders are slow to adopt new technologies. A house is a big investment and a long term one as well. New technologies carry some risk including that they might not last and need to be replaced or that they might even reduce the value of a house permanently.

The polybutylene plumbing disaster is a good example of what can happen if a new technology gets adopted by builders and then goes wrong. Vermiculite insulation is another one that caused a lot of problems. If your house had vermiculite, even if it has been removed, you will have to disclose it if you ever sell. This will cause difficulty selling at best and likely be a tool for a potential buyer to get you to lower the price.

When I was shopping for my first house, I looked at one that backed up to a major power line annex. My dad warned me not to buy it. He said “all it takes is one story on 60 Minutes about how living by power lines causes cancer and you’ll never be able to sell it”. This is a legitimate fear that people have when buying or building a home. This attitude understandably causes home owners and builders to exercise extreme caution when choosing materials.

The PBS show Hometime did a great series back in the early 90s called “The House of the Future”. They showed some of the wild predictions that were made in the past that never came to pass. Kitchen cabinets that could be loaded from outside the house come to mind as something that never took off. They made the point that they did not expect housing construction to change much in the near future. If you can find this series on DVD, I would highly recommend it. They made an excellent prediction about the wide spread use of personal computers in the home which might be used to access some type of global computer network.

So, let’s take a look at some new technologies that have (and a few that have not) gained wide acceptance in homebuilding focusing, of course, on plastics.

  1. Vinyl Siding

Vinyl siding dates back to the late 1950’s and was sold as a superior replacement for aluminum siding which was in wide spread use already. Vinyl siding, not unlike the aluminum version, is not really seen as a long term product. It is a quick and inexpensive product typically used to cover up old wood that has seen better days or in some cases asbestos siding. The vinyl version was seen as an excellent replacement for aluminum because it resisted dings and did not fade as much as aluminum which was painted. However, early vinyl siding that was white did yellow relatively quickly. This product has to be considered a success and it makes up a large portion of the market for PVC material.

  1. Cellular PVC Lumber

Cellular PVC lumber seemed to come onto the market about twenty years ago and has become a widely used replacement for wood trim on the exterior of houses. The PVC lumber is basically boards and moldings that are made from solid PVC material instead of wood. On the TV show, This Old House, they use it all the time.

With vinyl siding proving that vinyl could hold up on the exterior of a house, I guess using solid vinyl lumber for trim was not that big a stretch. It also helps that this stuff can be machined with ordinary woodworking tools. The downside of it is that it makes a mess when you cut or machine it.

This product is successful but is probably not used on the majority of projects. I suspect that it will continue to gain in popularity.

  1. Vinyl Windows

Vinyl windows were developed in the 1950’s but did not catch on until the 1980’s. Windows are a big investment and I think people were a bit skeptical to buy them at first. The fact that aluminum windows were such crap might have helped. Vinyl windows have stood the test of time but they still only get used on lower cost projects. More expensive houses tend to have wood windows, although sometimes they are vinyl clad wood.

This product also has to be considered a success. Chalk another one up for PVC.

  1. PVC & ABS drain piping

PVC and ABS drain piping started being used in the early 1970’s. Prior to that, all drain piping was either cast iron or to a lesser extent, copper. Plastic drain piping has many advantages over cast iron. The cast iron was rough inside and thus much more likely to clog. Also, roots from nearby trees could grow through the threaded connections and clog your drains causing a back-up. The plastic pipe is smooth inside and the joints are glued with special glue that actually melts the plastic together. PVC and ABS drain piping might be the biggest success story for plastic in the building industry.

The other story is labor. Installing cast iron drain piping in a house is very difficult and expensive. The plastic piping cuts down on the labor substantially.

In some ways it surprises me that it took off as it did. If PVC drain pipes began to fail after twenty years it would have been a disaster. It was a big risk for homebuilders to switch to it. Oddly, some states like New York and California did not allow PVC or ABS drain pipe for many years but this may have had more to do with keeping union plumbers employed that it did with questions about safety or durability.

  1. PEX supply piping

PEX tubing which I discussed in last week’s post has been around since the early 1980’s but has only recently started to see wide spread use maybe in the last ten years or so. There has been a lot of uncertainty about it after the polybutylene plumbing fiasco. However, it has a solid track record and is now allowed by building codes in all fifty states.

I would not put PEX in the fully accepted category yet. Many builders and home owners are still a bit skeptical about it. I think it’s odds of success are pretty good though.

  1. Laminate flooring

Laminate flooring is in fact made of plastic or at least one layer of plastic. Similar to Formica, it is made from melamine which is a thermosetting plastic. The first laminate flooring was introduced by Pergo in 1977. Although this flooring was new, I think that consumers knew that it was similar to laminate counter tops which were a proven product. The early versions never looked much like actual wood but the stuff that is out now looks terrific.

Similar to Vinyl windows though, this stuff only seems to get used on less expensive houses. In a higher end house, you would only see wood flooring.

This has been a major success which has probably provided a good home for all of the melamine that isn’t getting used for laminate counters which seem to have lost favor.

  1. Polyethylene composite decking

This product is not pure plastic but is usually a mixture of polyethylene and wood fiber. It was introduced in the 1990s and while you see it in stores, it does not seem to have gained acceptance like the other items on this list. One problem may be the price. It is significantly more expensive than wood and while it offers some advantages, people love the look of natural wood for a deck.

Also, in recent years there have been a number of other options put on the market for decking like ceramic tile and also new wood species such as Ipa which has extreme durability and rot resistance but looks like wood (because it is). The outlook for PE composite decking is not as bright but I would probably use it if I was building a deck right now.

  1. Cast Acrylic countertops

Cast acrylic countertops became very popular in the 1980’s but quickly fizzled out. These countertops were sold under the Corian trade name and became known as just Corian countertops.

You almost never see Corian anymore partly because it was supremely pricey. You could put granite countertops in for the same price and the Corian did not have near the durability. They offered the advantage of a being seem-less so there was nowhere for crud to collect. The problem was that they had very low heat resistance and could discolor, blister or even melt if something hot like a pan off the stove got too close. Also, they seem to be susceptible to stress cracking over the long term.

 I suspect that if they were not priced in the stratosphere, this product might have been more successful. At this point this product is nearly dead.

As you can see from this list, introducing new products for residential construction is a bit hit and miss. The product has to offer some real advantages like better price and durability and ease of installation and even then the road to acceptance can be a long one. As a homeowner myself, I can appreciate not jumping in to a new technology with both feet.

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