The modern version of fiber cement siding dates back to the 1980s when the Australian company, James Hardie Inc., perfected a new process to fabricate fiber cement siding without asbestos commonly used in cement siding of yesteryear. A man-made material composed of a blend of cement, silica and natural cellulose fibers, the mixture is pressed wet into molds to form clapboard planks or shingles sized for use as exterior siding.
Once cured, before shipping the product may be painted in a variety of desirable exterior colors. If not painted at the factory, it will be given a primer coat and can then be painted onsite after installation. Fiber cement siding is manufactured in several textures from a contemporary smooth finish to a rough, rustic wood appearance.
Now sold under a number of major brand names, modern fiber cement siding caught on gradually but has recently accelerated its capture of market share from the long-time leader in exterior siding: PVC vinyl.
Today, the future looks even brighter as fiber cement siding is forecast to experience almost 50 percent growth over the five-year period between 2013 and 2018 while vinyl siding growth will lag at about 28 percent during the same time span.
Residential installations represent the overwhelming majority of fiber cement’s booming market share. Fully 15 percent of new home construction makes use of fiber cement siding.
Here are some of the pros that help explain the rapid growth of fiber cement siding in homes, contrasted with a few of the drawbacks that homeowners also should consider before making a decision:
Advantages of Fiber Cement Siding
Just the name—“fiber cement”—has an industrial-strength ring to it. Indeed, this product is considered the most resistant to common enemies of residential siding. The material doesn’t rot or warp and is crack-resistant. UV exposure does not degrade it and it resists hail, snow and ice. Wind is not a threat: In locales that experience a high incidence of hurricanes or tornadoes, many local building codes actually specify the use of fiber cement siding. Pests that attack conventional wood siding, notably termites and woodpeckers, show no interest in fiber cement.
In finished form, fiber cement siding isn’t recyclable, per se. However, unlike PVC siding, a petroleum product that breaks down and releases toxins inside landfills, the ingredients of fiber cement siding are considered environmentally inert and do not degrade into damaging substances.
Fiber cement siding typically offers an estimated maximum 50-year service life for non-backcoated product and 75 years for backcoated versions. Warranty coverage for the product typically extends from 30 to 50 years. If the siding was painted during the original manufacturing process, the factory coat of paint may also carry a guarantee against fading, peeling, chips and other defects for a specific span of years, usually around 15.
This one’s pretty much a no-brainer. Wood siding adds more fuel and more flame to a house fire. PVC vinyl siding requires temperatures around 700 degrees to actually ignite, however, it melts and falls off the house at temperatures as low as only 165 degrees. Fiber cement siding is generally unaffected by both heat and flame. It has a Class 1(A) rating for fire/flame spread, the highest available rating.
Disadvantages of Fiber Cement Siding
The insulating factor of exterior siding helps minimize household heat gain in summer and heat loss in winter. The higher the insulation R-value, the more effectively the material retards the movement of heat energy into or out of the house.
Fiber cement and vinyl offer insulation R-values of .5 and .61, respectively—pretty much a draw. However, vinyl siding potentially gains a greater edge if the homeowner opts for insulated vinyl siding that increases the R-value to 2. That extra R-value comes with a cost, though, boosting the price of insulated vinyl by as much as 40 percent.
The installed price of fiber cement siding can run substantially more than vinyl siding and generally averages between and $6.00 and $11.00 per square foot. Vinyl siding typically costs $3.00 to $4.00 per square foot. In the spectrum of siding choices, fiber cement is more expensive than vinyl, about the same cost as hardboard or composite siding and cheaper than brick and synthetic stucco.
Some handy homeowners successfully manage DIY vinyl siding replacement. The tools are common and the product is fairly light. Even when hiring a contractor to do the job, installation costs of vinyl are comparatively low.
Fiber cement, however, is another matter. The word “cement” is the tip-off: the product weighs about 300 pounds per each 100 square feet, versus about 60 pounds for the same amount of vinyl siding. Installation typically requires a crew of experienced professional installers with specialized expertise and tools. The job is definitely not a do-it-yourself project and, when handled by a contractor, the expense of installing fiber cement represents a greater portion of the total cost of the project than vinyl siding.
The factory paint coat on fiber cement siding could last up to 25 years before painting is required. Colorfast vinyl siding will never require repainting, however. Maintenance recommendations for both vinyl siding and fiber cement siding are similar and straightforward—spray down with garden hose or other low-pressure water source every 6 to 12 months, sponge away any dirt or grime with soapy water.
Quality of vinyl siding is tested and certified by ASTM (American Society for Testing and Materials) International. Currently, fiber cement siding is not tested and certified by any similar quality control agency.
However, many sources of fiber cement are well-established name-brand companies with reputations for quality—the company that actually invented the product is among them—so taking care to deal with only recognized, standout manufacturers of the material as well as reputable local contractors is advised.
While vinyl siding isn’t about to become extinct anytime soon, the benefits and popularity of fiber cement siding are making a major dent in vinyl’s dominance in the marketplace. Adequate data from major manufacturers of both products is as close as a few clicks on a search engine. Arm yourself with accurate information and make the choice that works for you.