Adela Uchida with Austin, TX’s KEYE copy-catted a Washington, D.C. NBC affiliate’s story from November, using the flawed report on vinyl siding and fire safety that withheld a number of critical facts for viewers.
Unlike NBC4, however, Ms. Uchida failed to contact the Vinyl Siding Institute (VSI) for comment – or provide any balance whatsoever in her story. Ms. Uchida was no doubt aware of VSI’s participation in the NBC4 story (a simple web search reveals it), and any credible journalist would have reached out to us – the nation’s leading voice for the vinyl siding industry – to provide valued perspective on this important matter.
So we’re taking this opportunity to provide a detailed correction of her one-sided interpretation of this issue, and deliver the facts – which we would have gladly provided, had she extended us the simple courtesy of responding:
KEYE sensationalized a nine year-old tragic house fire by laying blame on vinyl siding. A 210-page report issued by the local fire chief found that a number of factors were to blame for the tragic results of the fire. KEYE concealed this critical fact for viewers, and opted instead to show footage of the burning home while misleading viewers to believe vinyl siding may have been the cause – a flawed assumption not supported by the report or other studies. KEYE’s Adela Uchida sensationalized a single fire event from eight years ago that occurred approximately 1,500 miles away from the Austin area to create reckless fear and unnecessary concern over vinyl siding safety for her local viewers. And the careless way in which Ms. Uchida approaches this topic is perhaps best illustrated by her misspelling of where the fire in question took place. It was in “Loudoun” County, not “Loudon” County as her online story and on-air chyron show.
UL ignored its own advisory group’s concerns about the study featured in Ms. Uchida’s report. Before undertaking their study, UL convened an advisory group of industry experts, which expressed many concerns about the test plan and tone of the proposed work. UL dismissed those concerns and did not consult with the group through the rest of the program. As a result, the report published by UL reflects flawed test methodology and inappropriate conclusions. Ms. Uchida disregarded these facts in her story.
UL has not responded to these concerns and continues to make it available online. The UL tests used an unusually high-energy ignition source and atypical plywood sheathing, rather than the more common OSB sheathing. UL performed improperly controlled tests that mischaracterize the role of vinyl siding in house fires. When properly controlled tests are done, the differences between the use of plastics and wood are less significant or non-existent. In fact, the technical deficiencies in the UL report were so egregious that representatives of UL’s working group signed a joint letter in February, 2016 urging UL to promptly remove the report and related wall assembly training videos from UL’s website, UL’s YouTube channel and other UL forums to avoid misleading the public. UL dismissed the working group’s request to have the flawed study taken down. Remarkably, UL never even responded to the facts presented by the working group regarding the discredited report. Ms. Uchida concealed these points in her report.
The KEYE story improperly suggests that vinyl siding is specifically responsible for spread of fire. Typical houses are by design composed primarily of combustible materials. Combustible sheathings of several types are normally used under the cladding. When a wall catches fire all of the combustible materials will contribute in some way to fire progression. Because of its inherently fire retardant characteristics, vinyl siding is neither the only nor the primary cause of fire spread. Indeed, when a noncombustible material is used, a fire involving just vinyl siding is far less aggressive and may not even progress all the way up the wall.
Vinyl siding is more difficult than many other building materials to ignite. Ms. Uchida failed to correct an inaccurate statement by Lake Travis Fire Rescue Assistant Chief, Rick Tess. His comment that vinyl siding “catches fire more rapidly” is not true. Vinyl, also known as PVC or polyvinyl chloride, starts with two simple building blocks: chlorine (57%) from common salt and ethylene (43%) from natural gas. This means vinyl siding won’t ignite, even from another flame, until it reaches about 730°F (387°C), and will not self-ignite until 850°F (454°C). Those ignition temperatures are significantly higher than common framing lumber and wood exterior wall covering, which ignites from a flame at 500°F (260°C) and self-ignites at 770°F (410°C).
Even if ignited, vinyl siding burns more slowly than wood. Tests show that vinyl siding needs unusually high amounts of oxygen to burn and stay burning. It will not independently sustain combustion in air with a normal concentration of oxygen (about 21 percent) — so it extinguishes relatively easily. A more detailed explanation of this may be found here. Ms. Uchida failed to explain this to her viewers.
The fact is, residential fires rarely start outside the structure, and claddings of any type are seldom a factor. According to the National Fire Protection Association, only four percent of all residential fires start on the outside of the structure, but do not necessarily originate with the exterior cladding. Fewer than two percent of house fires originate with the exterior wall surface, and fewer than three percent of all fires go beyond the structure of origin. The most common areas that produce fires are the kitchen, bedroom, and living room, and most fires (69 percent) never leave the room of origin.
To contain residential fires, efforts should focus on limiting the spread of fire to critical areas. This includes eave construction, for example, which should be reexamined to slow a fire’s acceleration from the exterior wall to the attic. One approach would be to “harden” the interface between the exterior wall and the attic so that fire cannot spread so readily into the attic. This would be consistent with the overall fire protection strategy for combustible buildings, which is to compartmentalize fire so that it cannot readily spread to different areas of the building, while still providing necessary functions such as ventilation. This perspective was missing from Ms. Uchida’s story.
We thank our brave firefighters for their courageous service to our country. But their concerns with respect to vinyl siding and home fires are misplaced. VSI will continue to work closely with fire chiefs, other fire service members, and other material stakeholders to study recent trends in suburban fires. Our focus has been on working cooperatively to identify appropriate actions that can be taken to accurately and effectively address correctable fire safety issues, and ways to limit fire spread into the building interior.