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Fence replacement likely better idea than repair

Question: I have a PVC fence that is over 20 years old. The fence is sagging in spots and I am worried about the integrity of the fence. Last winter one of the panels had a problem. The bottom rail somehow dropped and almost all the pickets in that panel fell out. That section of the fence is behind the garage and I was unaware that it happened. Fortunately, someone walking behind the fence let me know what happened. I just happened to have a sheet of press board in my garage, so that was my fence until the weather warmed up and it could be fixed. In the spring, I contacted a few vinyl companies to see if they could advise me what to do, especially with the sagging issue. Two companies didn’t come out, as they said this fence is not their product. They did give me a quote on replacing the fence. One of the companies said it probably is a fence from Sears, but that sure doesn’t help. I don’t know who took over maintenance after Sears closed.

I would like to know whether I should replace the fence or if it can be shored up so the sag doesn’t worsen. Because this issue is not house related, you may not be able to help, but you may be able to direct me to someone who may be of some help.

Thank you, KLT.

Answer: Replacing portions of outdated manufactured fencing may not be practical, due to the difficulty in finding similar or identical components. Budgeting for a complete replacement is likely the only good solution for a fence of that age.

There are many types of materials used for residential fencing, still mostly wood or composite wood products, but newer materials have been available for a while. These range from vinyl coated chain-link metal fencing, which has been around for decades, to various types of plastics. The PVC and other plastic fencing materials are generally newer, but various lattice and trellis materials are becoming more popular. The benefit of a metal or plastic fence is the obvious lack of maintenance required, compared with various types of wood.

Most older wooden residential fences were made of lower cost materials, like spruce or pine. These types of softwoods were economical and easy to work with, but had very little moisture or UV resistance. For this reason, they had to be stained or painted ever five years, or so, to prevent premature damage. This was a laborious chore, especially if solid colour paints were used. Often, older paint would partially flake off and have to be scraped, sanded, and primed prior to recoating. Still, these boards had limited life expectancy, around 20 years, even with good maintenance and regular new finish applications.

A more costly, but far superior, option was to use cedar for fencing, which has natural resistance to rot. That type of wood was often used only for posts, to prevent rotting in or above the soil. When it was used for the entire fence, rails and pickets in addition to the posts, the longevity of the increased to approximately 25 years. The cedar did not have to be painted or finished, which severely limited the maintenance required. The only downside of using unfinished cedar is that the UV rays from the sun would turn the wood grey. When it was nearing the end of its life, the boards would get even darker in colour and be almost black when rot had infested the fencing.

Some homeowners like the weathered grey look of cedar, and many later composites copied the colour and texture, to simulate a more authentic appearance. Many of these types of materials use wood byproducts, like sawdust or shavings, mixed with plastics and binders to further emulate weathered wood. But unlike wood, these rarely have to be finished and have a longer life expectancy. This type of product is more costly and was generally not used for fencing, but more for decking and other areas where wear and tear on wood surfaces is more pronounced.

In the late 20th century, a process to imbed preservative deep into wood was developed and became known as pressure treated wood. This was done by soaking lower cost softwoods in a preservative bath and driving the liquid deeper into the core by pressurizing the process. In the highest quality method, preserved wood foundation or PWF, the wood is normally incised with small crevices to get the preservative even deeper below the surface. This process was so effective that some of the preserved wood, normally pine, would last up to 40 years, even buried below grade. Later advances added a cedar-coloured coating above the normally green-coloured preservative, which is still very popular for fencing and decking.

Regardless of the advances to wood fencing materials, they eventually rot and need replacement. Vinyl (PVC) fencing, which has been in regular use for a few decades, gained some popularity around the turn of the century. The main problem was the much higher cost of production. While vinyl has a longer life expectancy, it also had to be constructed with more measures to counter much higher expansion and contraction due to temperature changes. This could be why the section of your fence failed, and modifications to allow for the movement may be the only way to save the fence. Otherwise, it is likely impossible to find similar materials, after two decades. Replacing the damaged section and the adjacent ones with pressure treated fencing, or the entire fence, may be the only good solution for the long term.

Trying to replace 20-year-old warped or damaged vinyl fencing materials may be futile, due to the limited production of this costly material. Replacing the damaged sections, or the entire fence, with more popular and less costly treated wood fencing materials may yield a more fruitful outcome.

Ari Marantz is the owner of Trained Eye Home Inspection Ltd. and the past president of the Canadian Association of Home & Property Inspectors — Manitoba (cahpi.mb.ca). Questions can be emailed to the address below. Ari can be reached at 204-291-5358 or check out his website at trainedeye.ca.

trainedeye@iname.com

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