By Jim Cory. Armor Siding Co. is something of a rare bird among vinyl siding contractors in Traverse City, Mich. That's because the company also offers fiber cement.

Owner Jeff Armor says that until three years ago, Armor Siding had never done a fiber cement job. What prompted him to take it on, he says, were customer requests, plus "everything I was reading about it, which said that, in other parts of the country, it was the next best thing to sliced bread." Today installing fiber-cement siding is 25% of his company's business.

Skill sets

Apart from vinyl, Armor's company also installed cedar siding. So when he decided to go into fiber cement, he had his "wood crew" to do the installation. That turned out to be a stroke of good luck because fiber cement requires more woodworking skills than vinyl does. Companies with carpenters on staff are "ahead of the game," says Bob Smith, New England sales rep for James Hardie. "With carpentry skills you already have the detailing that is required. If you're used to installing wood products, this is very much a parallel."

For example, installers who want to get a clean edge on the face cut fiber-cement siding from the back -- that's standard procedure for woodworkers.

Photo: Sal Alfano

Smith points out, however, that even without carpenters on staff, "if you're conscientious and detail oriented, then you would have no problem handling and installing fiber cement." In addition to standard-issue carpentry tools, like circular saws and rasps, special dust-reducing blades are available as well as electric and pneumatic nibblers to make all kinds of cuts -- straight, curved, plunge, or beveled.

More options

For siding companies and remodelers who install siding, fiber cement is an upsell with increasing appeal to both residential and commercial clients. The product is gaining in popularity, even though costs for cladding a house in fiber cement are higher than for high-end vinyl. "And a lot of that has to do with the labor involved," says Mike Spector, owner of St. Charles Exteriors, St. Charles, Mo., a full-service remodeling company that also installs siding. Although Spector still installs vinyl, in the past three years his fiber-cement siding jobs have grown to between 30% and 40% of the company's volume.

Working with fiber cement requires more care, especially when installed with traditional trim. "If you cut your vinyl too short, the J-channels will hide it," says Armor. Not so with fiber cement, where "you've got to be right up to the edge with those cuts." Armor says it might take a crew eight days to install a $9,500 vinyl job, but 10 to 12 days to clad the same house in fiber cement.

Even so, increasing numbers of clients are willing to pay the premium. Many are pre-sold on fiber cement, having researched the subject on the Internet. For those who aren't, Armor discusses the pros and cons. The length of the warranty -- 50 years for fiber cement, compared with the "limited lifetime warranty" offered by many siding companies -- and the fact that fiber cement provides a better seal of the home, often clinch it.

While some customers may see the need to paint fiber cement as a liability, many contractors see it as an additional selling point. In addition to the availability of factory-finished siding with a 15-year warranty on the coating, the ability to paint fiber cement means homeowners can change colors. With vinyl, "you're stuck with what you get," Armor says.

For vinyl siding companies that have taken on fiber cement, an additional attraction is the ability to market a product others in their area don't carry, giving them a leg up in a highly competitive area of home improvement. In the St. Louis area, says Spector, "there are 50 companies doing vinyl siding, and maybe two others doing fiber cement."

How long that situation lasts is anyone's guess, given the growing popularity of fiber cement.