I’ll bet there are a lot of readers of The Finish Line who have run into the following situation: You get a phone call from an alleged customer who rants that their EIFS has problems. You can’t recall the job, but in the spirit of being a Good Joe, you take the time to go check it out. Once you get to the building, you still cannot recall working on it. Yet, the customer swears that it’s a brand of EIFS that you have been installing for years.
Later, after a lot of detective work, you realize that it’s not one of your jobs after all. So how do you tell whose EIFS it is? Or better yet, how to convince them, for sure, that it’s not your problem. It’s not as easy as you might think. Sometimes this troublesome situation even gets to the point of layers becoming involved, only to find that the wrong guy is getting sued. In the end, such unwarranted finger pointing wastes our time and money, and the only benefactors are the counselors.
To help you in this frustrating situation, here are some thoughts on how to tell which brand of EIFS is actually on a building.
EIFS by any other nameFirst things first: Is it EIFS at all? No doubt many of you have walked up to the walls of a bemoaned homeowner’s abode, and solved the “EIFS” problem instantly. All you had to do was rap it with your knuckles: stucco is hard and stiff, while EIFS sounds hollow and resonant. “It’s stucco,” you say. But the duped homeowner still thinks that it’s EIFS. “Well,” he says, “it has XYZ brand product on it.” That may be true, in the terms of the outside coating being an EIFS material. But using EIFS finish as a top coat for stucco does not make it an EIFS. The moral: Make sure the owner has a clue about what EIFS is and what it is not. Time spent coaxing an owner through a quick education about EIFS on the phone saves a lot of time by not having to go the site.
Forget the specs. Most commercial buildings have written specifications. The level of detail varies, including often specifying one or more acceptable brands of EIFS. In contrast, many residential jobs have no specs. In fact, the drawings may simply point to the wall and say “EIFS,” or worse yet, “stucco.” When the job later gets converted from stucco to EIFS, not only is the EIFS brand not known, the construction details, if there are any, do not even show the right material. The point is that specs are only an indication of what the building designer intended to be used, and are not a guarantee. Luckily, there are ways of establishing the product that was actually used.
The telltale pail. Sometimes pails of EIFS finish and basecoat can be found at the building after the job is complete. It is actually a good idea to keep some extra material for maintenance purposes, such as repairing impact damage. However, the fact that a pail says XYZ brand EIFS on it, does not mean that XYZ brand was originally used on the building. It’s possible that another brand was used to originally install the EIFS, and the maintenance staff for the building simply purchased some other brand for doing repairs. On the flip side, pails can be a good indication of what was actually used, especially if you can talk to the person that obtained them to discover their true source. Even more useful is the lot number printed on the pail. The lot number can sometimes be used to work backwards to find out who made it, as well as where and when. It can also sometimes tell you if the EIFS product was destined to be used on the building at hand. Photos of pails on scaffolds, taken as the EIFS is being installed, are also often an excellent indication of what was used. It’s hard to imagine that a whole job was done using mislabeled pails, but I have heard rumors of used pails being cleaned out and refilled with some odd, non-EIFS brand of adhesive or coating. No wonder the bid was low, even though the owner thought they were getting XYZ brand because they “saw” it being installed. The proof is in the pail.
Mesh color may help. Many EIFS manufacturers use a specific color for their EIFS mesh. The color comes from a tinting material that has been added to the plastic coating that is applied to the mesh. The coating does several things. The key purpose is to protect the glass from the weakening effect of the alkali present in Portland cement-based basecoat adhesives. Another function is to allow identifying whose mesh it is. For example, Dryvit uses blue, Sto uses yellow, Senergy uses white, and so on. Unfortunately, the fact that XYZ company uses “Color A” does not guarantee that the mesh is from XYZ company. EIFS mesh can be bought on the open market in various colors, and no one has a right to a specific color. To complicate matters, some EIFS brands use a specific color for the regular weight mesh, and “no color” for other weights. Thus, mesh color is not necessarily proof positive of the brand of EIFS. The problem with mesh color is also that the mesh is embedded in the basecoat and its color is not visible. It is true that sometimes the mesh is “hanging out,” for instance, at the bottom of the wall, and the color can be determined by simply looking at it. Most other times, however, the basecoat needs to be scraped away to reveal the color. Thus some destruction of the wall must occur to try to reveal the mesh color.
More cluesSome finishes are distinctive. EIFS finishes are available in a number of base textures, from which can be created various final texture patterns. Many finishes look the same from a distance, but when viewed close up, differences emerge. For example, some EIFS producer’s finishes have a creamy, smooth, “filled” appearance, while others have a natural, “dull” appearance. Getting to know whose finishes look like what can be helpful in identifying whose EIFS might be on the wall. Photos in catalogs are not useful for this purpose, and thus physical samples are needed; start a sample collection. Sometimes EIFS finishes are painted, usually for maintenance purposes. This tends to make the texture look “filled,” thus masking whatever appearance the original finish had. There are also non-EIFS textured coatings that look like EIFS finishes, but are intended for use indoors and that do not fare well outdoors. These materials are often cheaper, but look good enough to pass muster until the check clears.
Some finishes are truly distinctive. A number of EIFS brands have specialty finishes that are unique. This includes finishes that use colored aggregates and clear binders, thus creating a multicolored appearance when viewed close-up. By getting samples of such finishes, it’s sometimes possible to rule out whose finish is not on the wall, because a given EIFS producer simply does not make that kind of finish.
It helps to know “who is who” in a given EIFS market. Most EIFS are installed by plasterers who work in their hometown region. Similarly, EIFS distributors tend to be local businesses too. Sometimes, especially on large projects, an installer from far away will come into a town where he is not normally active. This makes inquiring about “who did this job” less effective, since the installer is not locally known. Often, a good way to get a idea of whose EIFS is on a building is to chat with the local distributors for the various brands, and to do the same with the local EIFS installers. Frequently, they will recall that “XYZ company did that job.” Then, by calling XYZ, you can confirm what product was used. The same technique applies to EIFS distributors, who often can recall specific buildings, and what product was used on them. In a nutshell, let your fingers do the walking in the Yellow Pages, or, better yet, do a search on the Internet using the electronic Yellow Pages. If you do not know who the EIFS distributor is for a local area, EIFS producers can often give you this information. Likewise, many distributors sell to only a select group of EIFS installers, and can put you in touch with them too.
When in doubt, become a chemist. If there is an “acid test” for determining whose EIFS is on a wall, chemistry is probably as close as it comes. It is possible to analyze the composition of EIFS materials in a laboratory, and to determine precisely what is really in it. A simple way to start is to determine the composition of the texturing aggregates and the fillers. Some EIFS use sand and some use marble and this basic difference can rapidly narrow down the field of potential producers. As another example, most EIFS use acrylics, but some also contain vinyls, silicones and other non-acrylic materials. The presence of a material that is not part of the composition of an EIFS product can confirm whose product it is not, or perhaps what it is. Also, some producers put tiny amounts of “tracer” materials in their products. These are usually some type of rare material that gives a distinctive “signature” when analyzed using chemistry techniques. To use this type of investigative technique, the cooperation of the EIFS producer is needed. It is not enough to have a sample of the EIFS and to send it to a lab. This is because only the EIFS producer knows what is in the product, and thus only they can confirm that the test results match what they know to be the results for the product; the EIFS producers aren’t about to give you their secret formula. Using this “reverse logic,” if the sample does not match the materials, than it is not their problem. Using chemical analysis to determine the producer of an EIFS material can get expensive, and is often used only in serious matters, such as court cases, when other avenues of investigation have been exhausted.
The deep pocket syndrome: It’s no one’s product. It’s not smart to mix the product of one EIFS manufacturer with that of another. Unfortunately, it’s done all the time. Different brands of EIFS products may not be chemically compatible and hence may not work together from a functional standpoint. For example, the finish may not adhere well to the basecoat. At the very least, such mix-and-match products may raise havoc with warranties, and will also create problems if lawyers get involved. In the end, mix-and-match EIFS products are no one’s specific product, and hence, whoever has the deepest pockets, of all the identifiable material producers, will likely get a lot of the blame.
For the long run, the most useful approach may be to simply keep good records. Lawyers love paper trails that point back to who really did what. Keeping records is easy, in the sense that what you need is copies of invoices and purchase orders that are coupled to specific buildings.
By keeping good records, you can save a lot of time when someone calls and wants you to bend over and participate in resolving a problem on an EIFS building. It’s nice to be able to quickly say with confidence that it simply is “Not my job, man,” and then move on. W&C