Several times a year, I get inquiries from companies that want to enter the EIFS business. Sometimes, it’s a big company wanting to set up a new division and it has the resources to do so. In other cases, it’s some small group with a brain-child idea, limited resources and lots of enthusiasm-and they usually think they’ve come up with a better EIFS. In any event, it’s fun helping them to understand the EIFS business, and especially getting them to realize what they don’t know (which is sometimes quite amazing).
One of the topics that frequently comes up goes like this: “Gee, EIFS is pretty simple, it could be a good product for the DIY market. I want to get into that market.” It’s actually not such a dumb question but the point is: Why isn’t anyone doing this already? There must be a reason. And the answer lies in the details of how EIFS is installed and marketed. What follows is some insight into this tempting market and why it’s not yet gone mainstream.
EIFS IS SO SIMPLE. REALLY?
The initial impression that a lot of people have about EIFS-when they start to realize what it is made of and how it’s installed-is: “I can do it.” My question back to them is “Are you a plasterer?” The answer is almost always no. I then explain how professional plastering skills are needed: it’s not like a DIY home project of putting tile around the kitchen sink. You do need to know how to handle a trowel and apply thin smooth veneer layers. Also, if you’re thinking of retrofitting your own home, you’ll need scaffolding and all sorts of special tools to do it right-stuff that the average DIY person probably doesn’t have.
One of the most common DIY comments I get is from homeowners wanting to upgrade their older house with a more modern look and increased energy efficiency. If you’ve ever done retrofit EIFS on homes, you know the trick is not just getting the EIFS onto the wall, but also at the perimeter. There always seem to be lots of little details that pose problems, such as:
• Interfaces with windows, doors, decks and other openings
• Existing items that penetrate the EIFS, such as railing, conduits and pipes
• Objects that are attached to the wall, such as electrical services, downspouts and decorative doodads
When you explain this matter to homeowners, they then realize that they have to think this project through carefully, lest they get in over their head.
I “GET IT” NOW BUT WHERE DO I BUY IT?
Then the $64,000 question raises its head: “Where do I buy it?”
The public does not generally realize that EIFS is sold primarily to professional contractors. In fact, the EIFS producers want it sold and installed by trained people. Thus, Average Joe walking into the local EIFS distributor will probably come out empty-handed because the distributor is unwilling to sell it to someone he knows will do a bad job. In the insurance industry, the selling of life insurance policies to people in known poor health is called “buying a claim” and the concept is the same-asking for trouble. This issue of how to order EIFS gets crazy at times when dealing with the public.
Here’s a great war story: I once got an e-mail from a guy overseas who wanted to buy “EIFS” from me and gave me a shopping list that read:
• 16 pieces, 2 meters x 4 meters
• 29 pieces, 3 meters x 12 meters
I had to laugh at the above well-intended purchase order.
The building codes consider EIFS to be proprietary systems, not generic products like stucco. Thus, all the components (insulation, finish, basecoat, mesh, etc.) need to be part of a complete system that meets a whole range of technical requirements, both as individual components and a system as a whole. The codes also require the EIFS installer to be recognized by an EIFS producer and that the producer maintain records of who these people are. Frankly, this requirement is loosely enforced but it explains, in part, why EIFS is not sold at Big Box home improvement stores. The reason is simple: there’s no way to track who the stuff is sold to.
5.4 Field Inspections and Reporting:
5.4.1 Installation shall be by a applicator recognized by the applicant as being trained to perform such installations. A list of the names and addresses of recognized contractors shall be maintained by the applicant, and shall be available to the building official or ICC-ES upon request.
MAKE AN EIFS FROM SCRATCH?
I’ve had some curious experiences with people trying to make their own EIFS, thinking they’ll save money and get a decent product. It goes like this: They buy some liquid acrylic additive and add it to Portland cement and water, and voila, a basecoat. Not quite. It often doesn’t dry properly or “feels” lousy under the trowel, or absorbs moisture, and so on. The same applies to putting sand in paint and trying to thicken it up to make it trowelable, as an EIFS finish. After a few such disasters, it’s back to square one and buying bona-fide commercial real EIFS products.
I’ve even heard stories of empty pails of well-known EIFS brands being stolen from job sites at night and then filled with “EIFS” that was homemade in someone’s garage. Then, when the real EIFS producer gets a warranty claim for “its” supposed project that didn’t turn out right, and photos of “EIFS” in “its” pails at the job site are produced as evidence. What do you need, self-destructing pails to avoid scams? This technique adds a new meaning to the word recycling. Heck, I use pails for bait when fishing or to hold ice for beers on the patio.
WHAT’S EIFS MADE OF?
I’ve seen the formulas for the adhesives and finishes for many of the major EIFS producers and most are quite similar. Some people think they can buy a gigantic mixer and make their own adhesive and finish, and then buy the insulation and mesh on the open market. But is this a good idea? No and there are lots of reasons.
First, there are enough special ingredients in EIFS formulas, that, unless you are a commercial coatings producer and a trained chemist, you’d have no idea what they do. You may not even be able to get your hands on them-some are specialty products that require special handling.
Second, it’s not as simple as throwing all the ingredients in a blender and pushing a button. There’s color matching and all manner of tricks to make repeatable batches of material. There are also EPA rules for disposing of cleaning residue and issues of handling large amounts of bulky material (such as sand).
Third, some start-up EIFS companies farm-out their production to companies that make all sorts of coatings for many clients, and have extra production time available and the equipment to make EIFS materials. Then, when the sales volume increases to a high enough level, the EIFS producer makes the product themselves. I have done some start-ups like this overseas, and it’s a smart move-it keeps initial costs down, and you get the benefit of working with someone well-versed in the coatings production business. But you’ve got to be careful that your trusted manufacturing “partner” does not run off with your formulas.
After having helped set up new EIFS production facilities, I can say that there is more to it than meets the eye but it’s not the hard or expensive part of making EIFS.
Perhaps the biggest little known, but major cost, of getting into the EIFS business is all the technical work needed to provide information to designers, specifiers and code officials. The amount of data required to be able to play with the big boys is staggering and can exceed many hundreds of thousands of dollars and several years of time to generate. The issue is that without doing this, you really cannot compete on a widespread basis with the market leaders; getting specified at all will be difficult and the competition will get you disqualified for not being an approved product. And if you are trying to get into the DIY market, the buyers for the DIY stores won’t even chat with you about providing some shelf space, until all this technical/legal information is provided.
Is EIFS ready for the DIY and retail market in the U.S.? I think not. But it is curious to walk in a cute, small town in France or Switzerland and see pails of EIFS coatings and rolls of mesh in a small mom-and-pop hardware store. Why is this?
In many parts of Europe, EIFS is quite common-much of what looks like stucco in Europe is EIFS. It’s often applied onto masonry. Skilled plasterers are also in good supply in much of Europe and doing the plain, modest façades of many European style homes is not out of the range of the average home owner who is diligent about taking their time and doing it right. Keep in mind that in North America, we tend to try to make our wood frame homes look like chateaus, and use a lot of complicated foam shapes and decorative trim, which are much more difficult to execute than plain, flat walls.
There is an angle to getting EIFS into the DIY market but it’s a challenge. It would require advanced training of average homeowner DIY people. This would be an expensive program and not practical, and would need to occur nationwide over an extended period. This fact reemphasizes the often made comment that the EIFS contractor has as much to do with getting a good EIFS exterior as does the producer of the EIFS product.
So, for the near term, I continue to see EIFS as a professionally installed product. EIFS, to me, is just past the point where it lends itself to homeowner/DIY use. It’s the same reason they don’t sell elevators at Home Depot: It’s a bit too much for the Average Joe. I think it should stay that way and that is to continue to reinforce the quality nature of the product through the use of professional installers. W&C