When it comes to exterior walls, most homeowners think that beauty is only skin deep – if the outside of the house looks good, then all must be well.

But there’s a lot more to exterior walls than meets the eye. Exterior walls help protect the interior structure and living space from sun, wind and water damage. If you learn the facts about exteriors – the type you have, its age, and its characteristics – you will have a better understanding of the need for preventive maintenance.

What Type Of Exterior Wall Surface Do You Have?

More than a dozen types of exterior wall surfaces are found throughout Canada. Some are regional favourites, others represent methods no longer in use, while still others are classic forms that have been covering homes for more than a century.

Here are the facts about the most common types:

Wood Siding comes in the form of shingles, shakes, plywood panels, boards or hardboard, and is generally available in cedar, spruce, fir, redwood, hemlock and pine. All wood is susceptible to weather and insect damage, and must be carefully maintained to stay in good condition.

Brick may be a veneer or a solid masonry wall. In either case, assuming the material and workmanship was of good quality, brick will last the life of the building, as long as any cracks and mortar joints are maintained and repaired as needed to prevent water entry.

Aluminum Siding has been the choice of many economy-minded homeowners in recent years because it is relatively inexpensive to install and, with minimum maintenance, has a comparatively long life expectancy. It will not rot or rust, unless in contact with concrete or masonry mortar joints, and is impervious to insects. However, it dents, scratches, fades, and chalks easily, and needs to be electrically grounded  for safety.

Vinyl (plastic) is now a favourite low-cost, easy-to-install choice for exterior siding. Despite its ability to last for many years, early vinyl products can fade from exposure to sunlight, and does not take paint well. It also tends to crack on impact in very cold temperatures.

Steel Siding comes in various weights and finishes, providing a fire-resistant and durable exterior. Steel is more dent-resistant than aluminum, but it can rust. For that reason it is not recommended in moist climates. It also must be carefully installed in order to prevent rusting at the cut ends.

Stucco is a compound material made from sand, cement, and water, or it may be an acrylic material. It can last as long as the life of the building. However, it may crack and crumble due to settlement and moisture penetration, and may require occasional repair. A good stucco wall can last 15 years with little or no maintenance before it needs to be repainted or recolour-coated. Stucco on masonry surfaces is more prone to lifting from water leaks than stucco installed over wood framing with wire backing.

The Importance of Maintenance

No matter what quality materials are used, and regardless of what claims manufacturers make, the simple truth is that materials will not last unless they are well maintained on a regular basis. This is the only way to get the maximum life expectancy of any exterior wall.

Do-It-Yourself Maintenance Inspection:

The first step in maintenance is to perform your own maintenance inspection every Spring and Fall. Examine the walls systematically – from top to bottom, and from one side to the other. Make sure you cover the entire surface area.

Of the four sides of your home, pay particular attention to the southern and southwestern walls because they are the ones that are much more exposed to the sun and temperature variations, and are therefore apt to deteriorate at a much quicker rate. North facing walls may be more susceptible to mildew.

  • Check for ways in which water may have penetrated the wall. Water in any form (rain, melting snow, or ice) is your main adversary in home maintenance, and water damage is often the first sign that the exterior wall needs repair.
  • Check wall sections close to gutters and downspouts. The adjacent trim often shows evidence of water problems.
  • Check the walls near shrubs which grow against the house, and/or near overhanging trees. These portions of the exterior walls are often susceptible to fungus and mildew growth, and, in the case of wood sidings, eventual A minimum of 2′ clearance is recommended between the sides of the house and any shrubs.
  • Check low wood members, especially wood that is in direct contact with the soil, for signs of wood-destroying Earth should be kept at least 6″ below wood siding and floor joists to prevent insect and/or moisture damage.
  • Check aluminum, vinyl, and steel siding periodically as it may become loose at each floor level due to shrinkage of the wood framing. If a strong wind blows the siding off, you will need to consult a professional for repairs.

Recommended  Maintenance Tasks:

  • Periodically clean the exterior walls by hosing them down or scrubbing them with a car wash brush attached to the end of your hose. Scrub away any mildew with a solution of one quart liquid bleach, 2/3 cup powdered detergent without ammonia, and 2/3 cup Trisodium Phosphate (available at paint and hardware stores). Add warm water to make one gallon of the solution and scrub the affected areas with a stiff brush.
  • Clip back any overgrown branches or vegetation regularly to prevent future mildew and fungus.
  • Caulk all window and door frames, and seal up any joints or gaps in your exterior wall covering, to prevent water and draft penetrations.
  • Paint or stain exterior wood or hardboard walls – on the average of every 3 to 5 years – to prevent wood decay and moisture penetrations. Proper surface preparation and application techniques are critical.
  • Exterior wood trim, such as on windows and doors, should be kept well painted.
  • Keep your rain gutters and downspouts cleaned out and leak free so that water is effectively carried away from the exterior surface. Peeling paint, rotting wood, and cracks in masonry may be related to wayward roof run-off.

Many repair and maintenance tasks-like cleaning, caulking, and painting, can be done by the handy home owner. However, more complicated tasks which require special tools, equipment, and skills should be left to the professionals.