The Finish Line
To Be, or Not To Be, an EIFS
How many times have you gotten a phone call from someone moaning that his or her "EIFS" is leaking? How many times has it turned out that this building does not have 1 square inch of EIFS on it? Or how often have you gone to a job site to check on a problem, only to find out that it's not an EIFS job at all, but it is just some textured coating over concrete? It happens all the time. What a pain.
Despite the fact that EIFS has been in North America for more than three decades, some people still do not seem to know what an EIF system is. It's understandable in a sense, as there are quite a few products that, even up close, look just like EIFS. To those of us that are inside the EIFS industry, it's a no-brainer to tell if a wall is EIFS or not, but sometimes it is pretty amazing how little some people know about what their homes are made of. However, I don't know how to sew, either.
The EIFS ingredientsFirst, the name EIFS almost says it all. EIFS is simply an externally located, insulated-wall cladding system. It consists of a foam plastic insulation layer, a reinforced coating system on top of the insulation, and a decorative outermost coating. Unfortunately, that definition covers a lot of wall claddings that many people do not feel are "real" EIFS. Hence our predicament. If any one of these three basic layers is not present, then the cladding is just not an EIFS: no foam equals not an EIFS, etc. It's actually almost as simple as that.
Second, we all know that all EIFS are a type of insulated wall cladding system, but they are not a "wall," per se. A "real" EIFS is a proprietary system and is the product of a specific manufacturer. Expressed in another way, EIFS are not generic products. Unlike Portland cement plaster ("stucco"), which is a generic cladding and made from generic materials that are obtained separately from various manufacturers from building supply yards, EIFS is usually purchased as a system from specialty building product distributors. This is why the code agencies issue technical reports to individual manufacturers for specific EIFS products; all EIFS are not created equal.
An extension of the proprietary product aspect of EIFS's nature is the fact that all the materials of which an EIFS is made come from one source. In other words, the basecoat adhesive, attachment adhesive, finish and reinforcing mesh come from a single EIFS "manufacturer." Actually, technically speaking, an EIFS is not made by its manufacturer at all, but rather is created at the construction site by the EIFS applicator. This has lots of important implications, as follows.
One important implication of EIFS's being created at the job site is that warranties are dependent not only on the EIFS materials as provided to the EIFS contractor, but also on the skill of the EIFS contractor. No kidding. This simple fact is from wence cometh the oft-spoke comment that "EIFS are application sensitive." It's sort of true, but to say that EIFS is hard to install is foolish. Even yours truly can get it right, given enough time.
The fact that EIFS is made at the job site is different from, say, residential windows, that are made in a factory and are merely mounted in an opening. Thus, with EIFS, the possibility exists that the EIFS itself may not be properly created on the wall, and hence the EIFS raw materials as provided by the EIFS manufacturer, be they good or bad, don't necessarily control the final performance of the wall. Historically speaking, this perception that EIFS is a type of wall construction, rather than a cladding material, appears to have been the result of the way in which EIFS was originally promoted. In other words, EIFS was sold as a wall system, and not a cladding. This marketing approach has come to haunt the EIFS industry.
The warranty matter is further compounded because if EIFS raw materials are "mixed and matched" using products of various manufacturers, then whose system is it? The answer is: no one's. This situation sometimes crops up when the "look" of particular EIFS finish is desired, yet the architect or contractor wants to use another manufacturer's basecoat or mesh. It also occurs when repairs are being done to an existing EIFS project, in the sense of one manufacturer's being asked to warrant the performance of its repair materials when used to fix someone else's problem. Hmmm, I smell trouble.
For instance, although the materials may be chemically compatible, it's possible that they are not, and hence the EIFS may not "work." Some EIFS finishes contain materials that enhance water shedding and reduce dirt pickup. Some such finishes tend not to accept other coatings on top of them, unless that new coating is formulated to bond well to the original coating. From a manufacturer's standpoint, it's a stretch to ask for a manufacturer to approve the performance its product when used in conjunction with a competitors. It's not surprising that some manufacturers simply do not want to get involved with such situations; they see it as "asking for trouble," and they're right.
No good EIFS will go unpunishedA "real" EIFS has a continuous substrate behind it, usually in the form of some type of solid material like concrete, or some type of sheathing over stud framing. However, there are a number of types of EIFS-like products that are installed directly over open stud framing, i.e., there is no sheathing substrate. This type of EIFS-like material is used virtually exclusively on house construction, due to wind load limitations and fire performance requirements. However, many of these systems really do look like EIFS but use thick, cement-based coatings, rather than the thin resinous ones used in traditional EIFS. These systems are not EIFS, either.
In a similar vein, if EIFS foam shapes are applied over Portland cement plaster, it is not an EIFS wall. Such walls are stucco walls with EIFS trim, pure and simple. What if the foam shapes are not made of the EIFS used on the main wall, but rather are some aftermarket EIFS-like coated piece of foam that is attached to the real EIFS. Lawsuits over "whose wall is it?" and "why did it fail?" have paid for attorneys' kids to go to college. We hope also NOT to become members of the bar ....
Likewise, putting EIFS finish over stucco is really no different from applying any colored textured coating over stucco. Just because one part of a wall has one EIFS material on it does not make it an EIFS wall. Such walls most definitely are not EIFS walls, and possess few of EIFS's special attributes, including jointlessness and insulation.
This lack of definition as to "what is an EIFS" is troublesome at times, and points to the need to develop a comprehensive description and classification system for EIFS and EIFS-like products. This is an area where cooperative work between the EIFS industry, the stucco industry and other related industries is needed. For one thing, having such a system for defining EIFS would help specifiers and owners be more accurate about what kind of cladding they want on their buildings.
Leading suspectFrom a perception standpoint, buildings are often spoken of in terms of their dominant opaque cladding. If most of the wall is EIFS, then it's an EIFS building; if it's mostly brick, then it's a brick job, etc. This way of defining a building is OK until something goes wrong with the wall. In the case of leaks, because EIFS is seamless in the field of the wall, leaks almost always occur at the perimeter of the EIFS, especially at windows and other openings. But since the EIFS is the dominant cladding, the affected building is often referred to a "another leaky EIFS job." I'm not sure what can be done about this other than continuing to make it plain to architects, owners and especially lawyers that in most cases the EIFS is not the source of the problem. Perhaps this is an area in which the EIFS industry should do a little PR work. By this I mean educating the public, and not preaching to an EIFS choir, such as those in-the-know, like Walls & Ceilings readers.
As you can see, part of this "Is it an EIFS?" question is routed in the current state of the EIFS industry. Namely, that EIFS is both semi-proprietary and semi-generic. A key question for the EIFS industry is to chart a course whereby EIFS either returns to being more of a proprietary product, or continues to become increasingly generic. The trend is toward the latter, and is a bit spooky, as you get the low prices of generic products (and hence low margins, low profits and field problems) but need the higher process commanded by proprietary systems. What on earth to do? Personally, I feel EIFS should be priced higher, so that the necessary support and margins exist so that quality can be more easily maintained. Will an industry leader please come forth?
So the next time you get a grouchy phone call about a supposedly nonperforming EIFS, show this article to the caller, and perhaps it will help him or her understand what he or she really has on the wall and where the source of the problem is actually likely to be.