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A Rotten Deal



Does everybody know what EIFS is? It’s fake stucco. EIFS stands for Exterior Insulation Finish System. The EIFS industry’s PR wizards want us to pronounce it “eefs.” As in, “Eefs! A mouse!” But this pronunciation hasn’t caught on yet. Everybody I know calls it “eefus”—rhymes with “doofus.”

A reminder: Don’t call it Dryvit™. Dryvit™ is just one of about 20 manufacturers of the stuff. Utter the company’s name in vain, and the twitchy EIFS execs up in Rhode Island will have to ratchet up their already high doses of Thorazine.

Thorazine? The powerful anti-psychotic medication? Well, yes. Y’see, the purveyors of EIFS are going through a really stressful time. Everything was just swell in their industry until 1995, when owners of EIFS houses in Wilmington, N.C. started noticing some little bits of rot around their windows and doors. This led to some testing and probing and to some engineers being called in. Next thing you knew, 90 percent of the EIFS houses tested had serious hidden damage.

Predictably, the EIFS industry’s first response was a variant on the single-gunman theory. The problem was peculiar to one little neighborhood in North Carolina, they said. It was shoddy construction, carried out by a small squad of local building goons.

But soon the same problems turned up in landlocked parts of North Carolina, then Georgia, then all across this great land, clear out to the Pacific Northwest. My buddy Charlie, who runs a home-inspection company down in Atlanta, tells me that every EIFS house he’s tested has had problems.

Now, quick, before any of y’all get into denial, I’ve got to tell you: They didn’t build EIFS houses any better here than they did in Atlanta or North Carolina. Yes, I know that your builder is a fine human being, that he worked real hard on the custom cabinets, and that he wouldn’t have done anything to hurt you. Still, from everything we’ve seen, and from everything we can find out, there’s trouble in those EIFS houses.

There’s trouble enough to stop a lot of termite companies from writing clear termite letters on EIFS houses. There’s trouble enough to stop The Maryland, a huge insurance company, from insuring contractors who’re building EIFS houses.

The trouble, simply stated, is water entrapment. The outside wall of an EIFS house is made up of a layer of sheathing (such as plywood), a layer of foam insulation (think coffee-to-go cup), a layer of fiberglass mesh, and a thin layer of plasticized fake stucco. When water gets into the wall—and it will get in—it stays there. It can’t trickle or evaporate out through the waterproof foam and fake stucco. Instead, the sheathing and wall framing absorb the water—and when wood gets to about 30 percent water content, it’s rotten.

You might be thinking, If the wall’s so waterproof, how does all that water get in there? Well, it gets in around the windows and the doors, through the chimney top, and through the holes made for light fixtures and cable and telephone wires.

It gets in where the sidewalk joins the house, it gets in where the deck is bolted on, and it gets in where the gutters leak. I could go on and on.

Every EIFS manufacturer has detailed specifications for waterproofing these trouble spots, and more. They provide excellent technical drawings, showing how to install backer rod (think gasket), caulk, and flashing. The manufacturers call for all potential leak points to be sealed to their specifications, and they call for the work to be done by a professional sealant applicator. But there’s the worm: With very, very few exceptions, there are no professional sealant applicators on residential jobs.

There is only Caulk Boy. The sorriest, lowest-paid dirt-eater on the construction site. Lower in the pecking order than the guy who throws scrap wood on the fire. Caulk Boy prays for the day he’ll get promoted to picking up cigarette butts and stomping down the stuff in the Dumpster.

You think Caulk Boy has memorized the manufacturer’s drawings? You think he has ever seen backer rod? Nope. Most likely, the boss only trusts him with one tube of caulk a day.

And when the dozen or so EIFS class-action lawsuits go to trial, you watch. The manufacturers will blame the builders. The builders will blame the subcontractors. And the subcontractors will blame Caulk Boy.

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