by Joseph Truini
Vinyl fences are popping up in neighborhoods all across the country, and it’s easy to see why. They’re extremely weather resistant and, unlike wood, vinyl won’t ever rot, splinter, warp or crack. Vinyl fences are attractive, insect-proof and never need to be painted—nor scraped, sanded and repainted. Plus, vinyl stays in like-new condition for many years. That’s why many homeowners are choosing to have vinyl fencing installed in their yard.
For these and many other reasons, vinyl fencing is touted as being virtually maintenance free, which is absolutely true. However, being virtually maintenance free isn’t the same as being maintenance free. (Truth be told, no building material is 100 percent maintenance free.) Even if you have a professional install it for you, vinyl fencing does require occasional maintenance, though not nearly as much as a wood fence.
To get the most out of your vinyl fence, including a long life and spanking-new appearance, there are two routine maintenance tasks that you must perform: cleaning and repairs.
Vinyl fencing typically requires a good cleaning at least once a year. The most effective cleaning technique depends on the condition of the fence. A light coating of dirt, dust, pollen and chalky residue can be removed by simply spraying the fence with a garden hose or by wiping it down with a sponge dipped in warm, soapy water.
Smart Tip: Never use any type of abrasive cleanser or scouring pad on vinyl fencing. Abrasives can scratch and dull the glossy sheen of vinyl.
To remove slightly tougher stains, such as tar, grease and rubber marks from lawnmower tires, use mineral spirits (a.k.a. paint thinner). Start by putting on rubber gloves and eye goggles. Next, dampen a soft cotton cloth with mineral spirits and lightly wipe the fence clean. If the stain remains, re-dampen the cloth and hold it against the stain for 30 seconds or so; that gives the solvent time to soften the stain so you can easily wipe it away.
Vinyl fencing is susceptible to staining by algae and mildew, which appears as green, yellow or black spots and patches. Scrubbing with warm, soapy water will remove the stains, but it won’t kill the algae or mildew. To prevent the stains from returning, you’ll have to use something a little more stringent, such as white vinegar or chlorine bleach. (Bleach is stronger, but vinegar is nontoxic. Be aware that bleach can lighten dark-colored vinyl.)
Put on rubber gloves and eye goggles. Pour one gallon of water into bucket, then slowly add one cup of vinegar or bleach, followed by a half-cup of liquid soap detergent. Mix well, then use a large sponge or household scrub brush to wash the fence clean.
Smart Tip: To reduce algae staining, hose off grass clippings that stick to the fence after lawn mowing and string trimming; algae feeds on the nutrients and sugars in the clippings.
If you’ve got a lot of fence to clean, such as a border fence that encircles your entire property, then save some time and trouble with a gas-powered pressure washer. This super-effective, water-blasting machine is available for purchase or rent at most home improvement stores.
Be sure to wear proper safety gear when pressure washing, including gloves, work boots and eye goggles, or better yet, a face shield. To avoid etching the surface of the fence, use a wide fan-spray nozzle, don’t stand too close to the fence and spray at an angle, not straight into the surface.
The pressure washer will easily remove most common stains, but for a little extra grime-busting power—especially when dealing with algae or mildew—get a jug of concentrated all-in-one detergent. Made specifically for use with pressure washers, the detergent is pumped into the machine, mixed with the water and then delivered through the spray nozzle. One gallon of concentrated detergent costs about $10 and yields 26 gallons of cleanser.
To remove particularly stubborn stains, use a specially formulated all-in-one detergent and gas-powered pressure washer.
To ensure your vinyl fence lasts as long as possible, it’s important to conduct an up-close-and-personal inspection at least once a year.
Walk along both sides of the fence and look closely at the fence posts, panels and horizontal rails. Make sure each vertical post is solidly planted into the ground and isn’t wobbly, leaning or loose. If a freeze/thaw cycle has upset a post, dig around it with a shovel until the post settles back down to its original position. Back fill the posthole with a mixture of gravel and soil, then compact the mixture around the post with a long 2×4.
Check for tight connections between the posts and fencing panels. Be sure the horizontal rails are securely attached and haven’t pulled free from the posts or panels. Don’t forget to inspect the gates, as well.
Smart Tip: Be careful when using a string trimmer near a vinyl fence. The fast-whipping string can easily damage vinyl fence parts. If a landscaper maintains your lawn, caution them to work carefully around the fence.
Most vinyl-fence components are assembled with hidden metal connectors. Over time, these connectors can become loose or break. As you inspect the fence, keep an eye open for any faulty connectors. If one has come loose, tighten it with a screwdriver or wrench. If the connector is broken, replace it. You can order replacement parts from wherever you purchased the fence.
Fences topped with lattice panels are attractive, but lattice is relatively weak and easily damaged. Be sure each lattice panel is held securely in place within the horizontal rails and that it hasn’t popped loose. Replace any broken lattice or missing diagonal slats.
Lattice-topped fences provide extra height without blocking light or views.
Finally, if the fence posts are topped with caps, check each one to ensure it’s securely attached and not loose or cracked. Post caps can be damaged by falling branches and errant baseballs.
By keeping up with regular cleaning and making repairs as necessary, your vinyl fence will look good as new for years to come.
About the author: Home do-it-yourself expert Joe Truini has taught many homeowners the finer points of DIY kitchen design and organization. Joe’s work has appeared in several national magazines, including This Old House, Popular Mechanics, Woman’s Day and Today’s Homeowner. Joe writes his tips for the Home Depot, where you can find a number of fencing installation options for your home.