Reuben's Home Inspection Blog

Siding Replacement Wars: James Hardie vs. LP SmartSide in a Battle for Contractors, Builders, and You

June 17th, 2014 | 7 comments

This is a guest blog post by Ryan Carey, of My 3 Quotes.

We’ve all seen some epic battles over competing products in which parts of the ad campaign relied on going after the competition. Pepsi vs. Coke, Chevy vs. Ford, or today’s PC vs. Mac and I-Phone vs. Android are just a few. While those have played out on the national stage, home improvement product battles take place with the contractors, builders, or with you at your kitchen table. The current battle of paintable composite siding boards has given rise to quite the rivalry between LP SmartSide and James Hardie. These two really don’t like each other; they make the Vikings/Packers rivalry look pretty tame in comparison. And like Vikings/Packers, the front line of this battle is taking place in the Twin Cities because this is one of the top remodeling and building markets in the nation.

Why Use Paintable Composite or Engineered Wood Boards?

Siding on new houseAfter thousands upon thousands of houses were done in “maintenance-free” siding like aluminum, steel, and vinyl, a demand for more traditional looking paintable products started to build in the 90′s and into the 2000′s. Most customers wanted the wider 6″ or 7″ exposure to differentiate from all the 4″ vinyl out there. However, these new products needed to perform much better than earlier hardboard products, which had the problem of swelling and falling apart in high moisture areas. Some were basically sawdust and glue. Customers also wanted to stay away from the expense and regular refinishing needed with real cedar.

Modern composite boards were the answer for millions of homeowners. They got the traditional look they wanted with a vastly improved resistance to moisture. One advantage of these boards over maintenance-free products comes when it is time to sell the house. A fresh coat of paint can make the product look brand new again if it had experienced some fading over time. Also, these types of products stand up much better to hail and other impact than vinyl, aluminum, or steel.

Hardie Takes Over

James Hardie sidingAn Australian company, James Hardie, stepped in to the market with their “fiber cement” product and began killing it in the 90′s. Many new neighborhoods were built with a Hardie covenant, meaning every house must be sided in Hardie. Building plans with more traditional looks were calling for Hardie every time. It could be purchased primed (to be painted on the house) or it could be ordered pre-finished with one of their “Colors Plus” colors. Despite some other fiber cement products on the market, like “Certainteed Weatherboards” or the Japanese “Nichiha,” the term “Hardie Board” became known as the generic term for “Fiber Cement,” much like “Kleenex.” They were working with little competition, and the customers were loving the look of the product.

While contractors had complained about Hardie’s service with certain warranty issues, they were in no position to switch to anything else. As a response to some of the delamination issues that came up in high moisture areas or as a result of it being installed incorrectly, Hardie re-formulated their product a few years back for the northern climate and named it HZ5. It has improved the overall performance of the product. Also, I have heard that the reps have been more receptive and helpful with warranty claims than they once were. Could the reason for this be that a certain competitor has been taking large bites out of its market share? Enter LP SmartSide.

Here Comes LP Smartside

LP SmartSideLP (Louisiana Pacific) SmartSide came into the marketplace in 1997 with barely a blip on the radar. LP had just gone through the fiasco of their earlier Oriented Strand Board (OSB) siding product, Inner Seal, which had major problems. It was plagued with rot and swelling, and once that process started the paint would no longer hold. LP had to settle a class action lawsuit and resolve homeowners’ claims.  Obviously, the focus of their next siding panel would be resistance from moisture. They still use OSB product, but all of the wood flakes are coated in zinc borate beforebeing pressed into siding with MDI resins and marine waxes.   The result? More than 7 billion square feet of siding sold and over 17 years of dependable performance.  I’ve not had to deal with one warranty claim on this product.

Aluminum flashing from roof line to Hardie shake

Aluminum flashing from roof line to Hardie shake

The confidence in moisture resistance also shows in their install specifications.  LP can be installed 1″ up from where a roof line meets a wall; Hardie requires a 2″ gap to maintain warranty.  The 2″ gap requirement leaves installers with a challenge to put something in that gap that looks better than exposed shiny aluminum flashing.  Some paint the aluminum only to have it peel later.  Others use a small trim board made of a PVC-heavy composite. The image to the right shows aluminum flashing in the gap from the roof line to the Hardie shakes.

When I first saw LP SmartSide, I was pretty skeptical of an OSB siding product based on the history. It took seeing moisture tests and demonstrations for me to become a believer. If you pour water on the back side of each product, it will absorb into the Hardie while staying beaded up on the SmartSide.  There is a lumber desk employee who had a piece of SmartSide submerged in a pail of water by his chair- when people asked about how it handles moisture, he would pull it out of the pail and show them how it stayed intact.

LP Advantages

This is why LP SmartSide has resonated like it has with contractors and builders. Once the contractors believed in the product, the information was passed to the homeowners, including the following advantages: LP SmartSide has superior moisture protection and strength, longer lengths than Hardie (16′ over 12′), less weight than Hardie, and is less expensive to install (no special cutting tools needed).  Most importantly, contractors weren’t spending their time on warranty claims.  LP has quietly won over more contractors, builders, and homeowners every year. LP had its eye on showing advantages to James Hardie from day one. Hardie now fully realizes the threat that LP poses to them, and is aiming a lot of marketing material back at their foe.

Hardie has a video on their website showing an “OSB product” delaminating, rotting, and falling apart. That product on the house, of course, is the old Inner Seal that had the class-action lawsuit, but Hardie is trying to generate as much doubt into any OSB product as possible to slow down Smartside’s rise.  They also have an 11-point siding check list based on Hardie vs. a “wood-based” product.  I love these checklists that include phantom products!  LP SmartSide would have actually scored really good on that check list. Of course the unnamed “wood-based” product (that must have all the worst attributes of anything ever made with wood) only got credit for 2 token positive marks on the list, I believe for “not melting” and “not causing childhood obesity.”

LP has many marketing pieces on comparisons of SmartSide vs. “fiber cement,” which you can also find on their website. They recently posted an impact test done by NASA, showing LP with much greater impact resistance than fiber cement. Which fiber cement? Not sure, since they never name each others’ brands on these comparisons. I’m guessing the legal department has its concerns with that, but I would love to see them start to call each other out by name in a WWE-style tirade.

Hardie Advantages

James Hardie ShakesHardie is non-combustible, ASTM-rated for fire protection, which is a property of being a fiber cement product.  Also, Hardie has the huge advantage of more name-brand recognition. That is still a battle that LP is fighting, and they have been putting more money into it in the last few years. They have relied more on contractor word-of-mouth, but lots of LP radio ads have helped their branding lately. They are also the corporate sponsor of LP field, where the Tennessee Titans play. Their corporate headquarters are in Nashville, and they do have a Minnesota plant up in Two Harbors. Despite that, Hardie had a big jump on LP by being the name that gets mentioned in every composite board conversation. Customers have asked over the years, “Do you carry Hardie Board?” Only recently have customers started to ask for SmartSide by name.

For another Hardie advantage, I’ve always thought Hardie’s shakes look better than the LP shakes. Putting shake siding in the peaks (or gables) of LP Smartside Shakeshouses has been a very popular way to dress up the front of the house for curb appeal. Hardie’s shake has a laid back cape cod look on both their straight-edge and staggered edge version. LP makes more of a bold, hand-split rustic shake for an up-north look. The look of the shake is all about personal preference, but I have had others share my opinion on that. I’ve had customers of mine do LP on the house and combine it with Hardie shakes in the gables. I’ve also had customers do Hardie siding and combine it with LP corner posts, since LP corners have a cedar woodgrain and the Hardie corners only come in smooth (same with window trim boards). Products from bitter rivals on the same house? Happens quite a bit, actually. For the siding boards themselves, LP has a little deeper woodgrain than Hardie, but they are both designed to look like cedar and they both do a pretty darn good job.

Prefinishing Options

Hardie is the only one that comes prefinished from the manufacturer, with the Colors Plus process that has a 15-year warranty. Both Hardie and LP can also be prefinished through a number of different outlets that are arranged through the contractor. Any color under the sun can be put on your home. Prefinishing warranties have improved over time, and two of my favorite prefinishing options are from Prefinished Staining Products and Diamond Kote. Prefinished carries a Lifetime paint warranty for the lifetime of the existing homeowner that includes an excessive fade warranty. DiamondKote from Wausau Supply offers the only 30 yr no-fade warranty in the industry, and has a very impressive paint process. It must be noted, however, that these products have a bit of a shine to them so make sure you look at the samples before signing off.

And the winner is…

LPSmartSide houseLP SmartSide. I used to work at a large contractor that sold installed services for both products. All of the 10 sales reps that worked there recommended LP over Hardie to customers, despite the fact that the Hardie job would be a higher ticket sale. Again, this is what happens when contractors believe strongly in a product and have good experiences with the reps from that company. With My 3 Quotes, I can collect quotes for customers using any siding on the market. When asked for my opinion on LP vs. Hardie, I simply tell customers that I believe LP has more advantages and you’ll pay less. That’s not to say that I don’t think they are both great products; I’ve had many happy customers with each one. Some like the look of one woodgrain over the other and that makes their decision. Some are more comfortable because they have heard of Hardie and they like the name brand recognition. Others may have been referred by a friend or neighbor and want whatever they have.

However, the SmartSide advantages easily tip the scales in their direction for me and for many others in the industry. That is why this battle is very intense at this stage. There are contractors talking about Hardie getting more competitive with pricing and even trying to “buy back” home builders they have lost to LP.  In other words, offering a big lump of cash up front for builders to switch back to Hardie. LP SmartSide is using its competitive advantages in an effort to de-throne King Hardie, and obviously the King doesn’t plan on going down without a fight. It’s been truly amazing to watch SmartSide go from a product that few ever mentioned in contractor circles 10 years ago to a royal pain for Hardie today. It will be interesting to see how the battle plays out from here, but a good competition like this is always great for the end customer. When two companies badly want to earn your business over the other, you typically see a renewed emphasis on better service and competitive pricing.

* * * * *

Ryan CareyRyan Carey has 15 years of experience in exterior remodeling for Twin Cities Homeowners and Property Management Companies. He is the owner of “My 3 Quotes,” a company that provides the free service of collecting 3 competitive home improvement bids for customers. For more information, visit www.getmy3quotes.com for free home improvement estimates on window replacement, siding, roofing, and more.

 

Related Post: Problems with James Hardie Siding Installations

Transite Asbestos Flues

June 10th, 2014 | 3 comments

Transite asbestos was a common product used to vent gas appliances such as furnaces, boilers, and water heaters in older homes in Minnesota.  This material is no longer used because the interior of the vent can deteriorate and flake apart, collapsing in on itself.  That, and it contains asbestos.  Once the interior of the flue deteriorates it can get blocked, causing hazardous exhaust gases from the appliance to vent back into the home, rather than be carried to the exterior.

The photos below show a transite asbestos chimney flue liner found during an inspection of a 1955 built home in Columbia Heights.  The top of the flue liner had fallen off the chimney, and the interior had collapsed in on itself, causing the water heater to backdraft.  This first photo shows what the chimney looked like from the roof.

Chimney

I had to bring a ladder onto the roof to get to the top of the chimney to get a look down the section on the far right.

Missing top flue section

Here’s the top section of the transite flue liner that had fallen off of the chimney.

Damaged transite flue

Here’s another shot looking at the top of the chimney.

View of top of chimney

Here are a couple of shots looking down the flue.

Looking down the liner 2

Looking down the liner 3

As you can see in the photo above, the interior had flaked apart and completely blocked the flue.  When the happens, the exhaust gases can’t escape, so they go back into the home.  There was heavy rust staining on top of the water heater, which is a telltale sign that the water heater backdrafts.  It doesn’t get much more obvious than that.

Backdrafting water heater

This fix is to leave the transite asbestos material in place, block the openings at the top and bottom of the chimney, and replace the water heater with either an electric unit or a powervent unit that can vent out the side of the house.

When buying a home with a transite asbestos flue liner / vent, be sure to have the interior of the flue inspected.  If it’s in pristine condition, as some of them still are, just plan to not use it again once the gas appliances that are connected to it are replaced.  If the flue is deteriorated, have it abandoned immediately for safety.  An HVAC contractor can help to figure out a different way to vent the existing appliances, or can replace the existing appliances with new ones that don’t need to use the transite asbestos flue.

For anyone curious about what other transite asbestos flues looks like, check out the photo gallery below.  These are all transite asbestos flues that I’ve found while inspecting older homes, mostly in Minneapolis.  In each case, it’s that white stuff.

Author: Reuben Saltzman, Structure Tech Home Inspections

          

How Accurate is Exterior Moisture Testing?

June 3rd, 2014 | 3 comments

This is a blog post by Barry Eliason, which has been posted at our moisture testing web site.

I received a call a few weeks ago that was typical of calls I get several times a year. It was the real estate agent for a client of mine that had recently hired me to do a moisture test on a stucco home they were buying. The moisture testing had found several areas of high moisture and even some soft or missing sheathing, indicating some structural damage. The sellers of the home questioned the accuracy of my report and hired another company to re-test the house. This other company did their testing from the interior rather than from the exterior as I had done. Their report to the home owners? “Every place we tested was dry”.

The agent on the phone was politely asking me if I thought I had gotten it wrong. First I summed up the situation. “Well, you now have two different opinions and we need to know which one of them is correct.” He agreed and wondered how to resolve the situation. My answer was to do what I had recommended in my initial report: remove some small pieces of stucco in the areas that tested high and see what’s going on.

Click here to continue reading: How Accurate is Exterior Moisture Testing?

The Problem with Attaching a Deck to a Cantilevered Floor

May 27th, 2014 | 6 comments

“Decks generally fail for one of two reasons.  The deck falls off the house, or the guard rails fall off the deck.”

That’s a quote from ASHI Certified Inspector John Bouldin, Ph.D, in the May issue of the ASHI Reporter.  I’ve already blogged about the importance of strong guardrails at decks, and I’ve blogged about the importance of properly attaching a deck to the house, but I need to revisit that last topic.  After attending an excellent seminar at Inspection World by John Bouldin on deck inspections, I have a little more information to share about one of the more common deck construction defects that home inspectors come across on a regular basis.

Decks typically shouldn’t be attached to cantilevered floors*.

Deck Attached to Overhang

The image above comes from the Prescriptive Residential Wood Deck Construction Guide.  The problem with attaching a deck to a cantilevered floor is that there is nothing below the cantilever (overhang) to keep the rim joist at the house from pulling loose; there is no support below it.  John Bouldin had some excellent diagrams illustrating exactly why this is so important and exactly how this connection can fail, and was kind enough to share them with me.

This first diagram shows a traditional deck connection.  The deck joist is at the far right, which is connected to a metal joist hanger, which is nailed into the deck ledgerboard.  The deck ledgerboard is connected to the house with lag screws, which are attached to a 1″ engineered rim board.  The rim board is fully supported below by either a wall or a foundation.  That’s good stuff.  That’s how it should be done.

Rim Board Supported

This next diagram shows a cantilevered connection.  Everything in this diagram is pretty much the same, except the floor of the house is now cantilevered.  The rim board for the house is no longer supported from beneath.

Rim Board Not Supported

What happens when the rim board has no support?  It can fail.  The animation below shows how this can happen.

Rim Failure Animation

If there was support directly below the rim board for the house, this couldn’t happen.  That’s why attaching a deck to a cantilevered floor is generally a bad idea.

When a deck is built around a cantilevered section of the house, the most common way of supporting it at the house is to have the floor framing headered off, as shown in the diagram below.

deck headered off

If this is done, just be sure that the ledgerboard is large enough to support the added weight.  The two photos below show an example of a deck that was headered off at the patio door, but all of the weight was concentrated to a tiny little piece of wood that you could hardly call a ledgerboard, and was simply nailed to the house.  I made a big stink about this.

Bad Cantilever Header

The fix for this particular deck was to have posts installed near the house.

*Of course, there are always exceptions; sometimes it’s perfectly fine to attach a deck to a cantilever.  If someone went out of their way to make this connection more secure by installing upside-down joist hangers at the house and the framing consisted of all dimensional lumber, it would probably work fine.  As a home inspector, I usually don’t get to see those details though.  That’s why I raise concerns over these types of connections.

Author: Reuben Saltzman, Structure Tech Home Inspections

          

Troubleshooting a Leaking Temperature and Pressure Relief Valve

May 20th, 2014 | No comments

After writing a blog post about leaking temperature and pressure relief (TPR) valves at water heaters, I learned that this particular issue seems to completely befuddle folks.  In the two years that I allowed comments to be posted, that post received 245 comments, including my own.  The majority of the comments were questions from readers who were trying to troubleshoot their own leaking TPR valves.

I spent so much time responding to questions on that one blog post alone that I finally disabled comments on blog posts over 90 days old.  Responding to reader comments on old blog posts was turning into a part-time gig for me.

The good news is that while answering reader questions, I ended up doing a fair amount of research to help myself understand problems that people were having, and to make sure that the advice I was giving was correct.  The purpose of this blog post is to give some troubleshooting advice to people with leaking TPR valves.

A Quick Primer

All water heaters are equipped with a temperature and pressure relief valve.  This valve will allow water or steam to escape from the water heater if the temperature or pressure gets too high; these valves are set to open when the pressure reaches 150 psi, or when the temperature reaches 210 degrees fahrenheit.  This prevents water heaters from exploding or turning into missiles.

Troubleshooting

The rest of this blog post is going to be about troubleshooting a leaking TPR valve.  If a TPR valve leaks, either it’s defective or it’s not.  If it’s not defective, it’s leaking because the temperature was too high or the pressure was too high.  In other words, a leaking TPR valve indicates one of these things: a defective valve, excessive pressure, or excessive temperature.

1. Verify the right valve is installed.

As I mentioned earlier, the TPR valve on a water heater is set to go off at 150 psi, or 210 degrees Fahrenheit.  These numbers will be printed right on the valve, or on a tag attached to the valve.  See below.

Tag on Relief Valve

If a pressure relief valve  for a boiler is accidentally installed on a water heater, it will leak like crazy from the start.  These valves may look identical, but they’re set to go off at 30 psi, not 150 psi.

If the proper valve is installed and it leaks, go on to step 2.

2. Replace the valve

As I mentioned in my original post about leaking TPR valves, an easy troubleshooting step is to replace the leaking valve.  TPR valves cost less than $15 and they’re fairly easy to replace.  If you’re not sure how to go about doing this, hire a plumber.  If you’re trying to do this on the cheap because you can’t afford a plumber, search YouTube for videos of “relief valve replacement”.  You’ll find a ton of ‘em there.

If a new, proper TPR valve leaks, it’s probably just doing its job.  It’s relieving excessive temperature or pressure.  The next step is to find out which one it is.

3. Check the temperature.

This one is pretty simple.  Run some hot water at a plumbing fixture and take a temperature reading with a meat thermometer.  Make sure there are no tempering valves installed between the water heater and the faucet; whole-house tempering valves are typically installed at the water heater, and look like the type shown in the photo below, which I used in my blog post about safe water temperatures.  If one of these valves is installed, the temperature you’ll get at the faucet will be less than the temperature inside the tank, by design.

Tempering valve function

New single handle bath tub faucets installed in Minnesota since 2013 also require tempering valves (http://www.structuretech1.com/2013/04/new-safety-requirements-for-bath-tub-faucets-in-minnesota/).  Those valves are typically installed below the bath tub, but can sometimes be found near the water heater.

Dangerously Hot WaterFor the record, a safe temperature for water coming out of faucets is 120 degrees.  Temperatures in the 150 degree range are downright dangerous and in need of attention, but still wouldn’t explain a leaking TPR valve.  Temperatures really need to approach boiling to set off a TPR valve.  This is extremely unlikely, but I suppose it is a possibility.

4. Check the Pressure

Pressure GaugeIf the pressure in the plumbing system exceeds 150 psi, the TPR valve will leak.  Getting to the bottom of this issue should be quite simple and straightforward.  Buy a pressure gauge with an extra indicator to show surges, and connect it to the plumbing system.  It doesn’t matter if it’s connected to a hot or cold water pipe, because both will be at the same pressure.

The easiest way to do this is to get a gauge with a garden hose thread, connect it to an outside garden hose faucet (sillcock), and open up the faucet.  You should expect the pressure to be somewhere in the 40 – 80 psi range, with no other water running.  If the pressure is over 80 psi, it should be corrected.  The solution is to have a pressure regulator installed.  Get a plumber to do that.

If the pressure is within the acceptable range, you play the waiting game.  Once the temperature and pressure relief valve at the water heater leaks, go check the pressure gauge.  If the ‘surge indicator’ shows something at or near 150 psi, the problem is excessive pressure.  Excessive pressure is typically the result of a closed system; the water heats up and expands, but it doesn’t have anywhere to go, so the relief valve does it’s job and relieves the pressure.  The solution, as I mentioned in my original blog post (http://www.structuretech1.com/2012/01/leaking-relief-valve/), is to install an expansion tank.  If an expansion tank is already installed and there is still a problem with excessive pressure, either the expansion tank is not installed properly or it’s not charged properly.

I may write another post later this year on solving excessive pressure, because that seems to be the most common problem that people deal with.

Author: Reuben Saltzman, Structure Tech Home Inspections