Like just about everything else in this era of the COVID-19 pandemic, the residential fencing business has had its challenges.
On the plus side, the pandemic has prompted some homeowners to forgo vacation travel and put money into home improvement projects: one of which is installing that first fence or upgrading to a new one. That means more orders for local dealers and installers as well as a call for more product from the manufacturers themselves.
But the pandemic also has had its drawbacks. In some case, it's been difficult for companies to find workers.
But the bigger issue has been obtaining the product, said Chad Galbreath, president of Penn Fencing in Penn Township.
Galbreath said his company has a solid supply, but it hasn't been easy, given all that's going on. And the recent bad weather, in the form of Hurricane Ida, hasn't helped, either. A loss of power to plants in the south that manufacture fencing and fencing components can have a negative trickle-down effect to dealers and installers hundreds of miles away, Galbreath said.
“A lot of people wouldn't think this hurricane that just hit Louisiana would affect a little fence company in Western Pennsylvania,” Galbreath said.
But it has. And that's on top of last winter's freeze that hit parts of Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi: a freeze that shut down some of those same fencing plants affected by Ida.
“They're struggling,” Galbreath said. “They've been having a rough year, and that's created more demand and increased the supply chain challenges for those products.”
Supply chain issues have an impact on not only the quantity of product available but the type of product that homeowners can buy. Galbreath said the fencing industry certainly has a research and design component, but new products that might have come on line this year have been delayed so that manufacturers can concentrate on producing the types of fencing that are most in demand.
“A lot of vendors have either discontinued certain colors, stopped taking orders for certain products or completely shut them down,” Galbreath said. “They're looking to fill more 'normal' orders.”
Galbreath used vinyl privacy fencing as an example. “Several vendors have new colors other than white or tan that have been developed, but there's been no chance to get them to the marketplace and get them accepted there,” he said. “They've been working on those things, but they're so far behind, they're only interested in producing white and tan.”
Galbreath said a lack of workers has been a factor in some cases, but in others it's a lack of raw materials or limitations in the actual manufacturing process. Galbreath said vinyl fencing is produced on an extrusion line. Essentially, raw ingredients are fed into a machine that turns out fencing components that are then cooled to maintain their shape.
“But there's only so many machines available, and only so much run time,” Galbreath said. “Every time they change over to a different product, it's a pretty long process to switch color or change shape. These product lines already are running at max capacity 24-7, so they're trying to eliminate as many of the changes in color or product style to eliminate their down time.”
Hence the lack of new styles and products coming to market this year.
As for the types of product that are popular this year, Patrick Williams, branch manager for Master Halco — a fence supply distributor that deals with fencing contractors — said he's seen a transition away from wood fencing to vinyl/PVC fencing, ornamental aluminum fencing or chain link, depending upon the purpose or need. That's in part because the price of wood skyrocketed this year.
Williams said that even though vinyl is still more expensive than wood, the gap has narrowed, and the fact that vinyl doesn't require much in the way of upkeep compared with wood has convinced many homeowners to move away from wood.
“The biggest benefit is that it's low maintenance,” Williams said of vinyl products. “With wood, you have to worry about warping and cracking and replacing sections. With PVC, you don't have that issue. People are more willing to spend a little more because it's a lot less maintenance, and people think it looks a little nicer.”
Williams said another trend he's noticing is that some people are moving away from standard gray galvanized chain link fencing to black vinyl coated chain link, for aesthetic reasons.
Galbreath said three main needs drive decision-making when it comes to homeowners purchasing a fence: pet containment, swimming pool safety or privacy.
Sometimes, he said, people are looking to “kill more than one bird” with one fencing style. For example, if you have a pet and you're looking for privacy, it might make sense to go with vinyl or wood.
“But if you're looking for the most cost-effective way to contain a pet, it's a residential chain-link system,” he said. “But that's not necessarily the most aesthetically pleasing approach.”
Galbreath said ornamental aluminum has become kind of an “in-between” vinyl and wood.
“It gives you a nicer residential look while still providing pet containment, as long as the pet is not super-small,” he said.
Galbreath said selections for swimming pool fencing are based on personal preference, although such fencing has to meet specific codes and standards for safety.
“There are certain heights or gaps that you can't exceed or have to exceed,” Galbreath said. “There is a lot that goes into it.”
While the current climate has tended to keep existing products in the forefront, some new products are making their way to customers.
Galbreath mentioned a product known as SimTek, which is a polyethylene-molded fencing line that, in some models, resembles stone.
“It's not a product for everyone,” Galbreath said. “But it fills a niche and gives a certain look. It has some unique proprietary attributes and some sound properties to where it deflects noise. We're starting to see it in some residential and commercial sites.”
Galbreath said it's difficult to provide a ballpark estimate for any sort of home fencing project largely because every job is different.
“If we're installing, we want to look at each project, even if we see the same product line,” he said. “If I have to do 100 feet of chain-link, there's a big difference between being able to get right out and do it, or if I'm doing it in the city of Pittsburgh, where I might have to go up 1,000 steps to get to the property.
“We look at it as no two jobs being the same.”