Homeowners in moist climates have complained for five years that Louisiana-Pacific’s house siding grows mushrooms, swells, cracks and falls apart - long before its warranty expires.
Now problems are appearing in Spokane and Coeur d’Alene, not far from a Chilco, Idaho, plant where the company’s Inner-Seal siding was made for six years. L-P says the siding covers the majority of homes built in the Pacific Northwest since 1989. The siding is still made in Michigan and Minnesota and is still being installed here.
The Better Business Bureau of the Inland Northwest is dealing with two dozen recent claims, said Lisa Stephens, president of the group. Nationally, the Better Business Bureau has mediated complaints between homeowners and L-P for about two years.
The company has paid more than $46 million to 17,000 U.S. homeowners in the past decade and has a $200 million reserve to cover anticipated problems with Inner-Seal.
Louisiana-Pacific also is under scrutiny by the attorneys general in Washington and Oregon, and faces a dozen class-action suits across the country over the siding’s dismal performance.
The Idaho Attorney General’s Office says it has not received any complaints.
These woes come on top of problems with other L-P operations. The company faces federal indictments in Colorado for suspected cheating both on pollution controls and on product testing for a mill producing a plywood substitute.
In addition, a former Chilco quality control manager characterizes the company as more concerned with profit than products.
Locally, most of the siding problems involve Spokane, the Better Business Bureau said. The bureau won’t release details.
More complaints are likely. Inner-Seal has been the “product of choice for new construction” in Washington for six years, L-P said.
The siding is made from a mixture of glue and compressed aspen or pine chips that is covered with resin-impregnated paper.
Raindrops collect along the bottom of the siding and migrate up the back side, according to experts.
“Our belief is that all of it, over time, will fail,” before the warranty expires, said Chris Brain, an attorney representing Western Washington plaintiffs in a civil suit.
While rainfall is a factor in how rapidly the siding deteriorates, freezing and thawing also damage it, Brain said. So “there’s no reason to believe the product is any better in your neck of the woods,” he said.
L-P settled an Inner-Seal case with the Minnesota attorney general in 1991. While the 500 complaints were isolated to four subdivisions in Minneapolis-St. Paul, the problems were sometimes so bad that “people could literally peel the siding off of their homes,” said Deb Strafaccia, a consumer fraud investigator.
L-P defends the product, saying it fails less than 2 percent of the time. That’s minuscule, considering it has made 2.7 billion board feet of the siding. It is a normal defect rate in manufacturing, L-P says.
“People don’t tend to ask General Motors what it spent on warranty payments,” said L-P spokesman Barry Lacter. The siding performs well as long as it is installed and maintained properly, he said.
A man with decades of research work on wood products disagrees. “There’s very little that can be done in installation that affects its performance,” said Bill Dost.
Dost is former head of the Wood Building Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley, and a consultant who now testifies for plaintiffs in suits against the company. He calls Inner-Seal a “fatally flawed product.”
“The combination of it being ill-suited (to outdoor use) and the consequences of inevitable failure make it as bad a product as has been around,” he said.
A failure rate of 1 to 2 percent is quite high by any other wood products industry standard, Dost said. And “it doesn’t include the people who have been put off by the hassle of L-P’s settlement process and the lack of any real (dollar) recovery.”
L-P responded that Dost “has a vested interest in purveying that opinion” because he’s a paid witness.Efforts to reach those researchers were unsuccessful.
Meanwhile, Washington Assistant Attorney General Doug Walsh is investigating L-P’s claims that the siding will withstand Washington’s weather. “It was warranted for 25 years, and personally warranted by ex-CEO (Harry) Merlo,” he said. “We are concerned that they don’t have substantiation for those claims.”
In fact, Inner-Seal lap siding is practically the only product made for outdoor use in a class of wood-chip products called oriented strand board. That’s because the species of wood used in oriented strand board are prone to decay and swell when wet, said Fred Kamke, associate wood science professor at Virginia Polytechnic University.
Kamke works with other types of oriented strand board, but not siding. He is still a fan of oriented strand board products for interior use. The board has provided a viable alternative to cutting old growth forests and shouldn’t be trashed because of L-P’s problems, he said.
But it’s difficult to simulate outdoor conditions in a laboratory. So the only way to test things like siding is by hanging it outside for several years, Kamke said.
“How patient is the company going to be that wants to make some money?” he asked. “Are they going to wait five to six years? Not likely.”
L-P and its suppliers put consider able effort into research, Lacter said. Because of the investigations, that’s all the company will say about research and development.
Ronald Skites, quality control supervisor at Chilco for about 18 months beginning in 1985, said he is surprised complaints took so long to surface. Skites worked with a plywood substitute called wafer wood. Inner-Seal production didn’t start there until 1989. But the production process for the two products is similar enough that attorneys in Florida suing L-P have taken his statement and may call him to the witness stand, he said.
That testimony would include the allegation that L-P “didn’t care about quality, they just ran the mill as fast as they could run it,” Skites said.
He also charged that L-P made special samples of the board for the American Plywood Association’s testing laboratory.
Since Skites, “a disgruntled ex-employee,” wasn’t at Chilco during its Inner-Seal days, he’s not qualified to talk about the product, L-P’s Lacter said.
Still, L-P’s problems pose serious questions about how effectively independent trade groups like the American Plywood Association can police corporate giants like L-P. The association put its “Good Housekeeping” seal of approval on all of the siding. It still does, although some plywood association officials dodge the question of whether they would put the siding on their own homes.
“It’s continuing to meet the standard,” said Michael O’Halloran, the association’s director of technical services. “We are scrambling to see if there are any weak links in the standard.”
Testing methods were changed last November, before the Colorado indictments, to prevent someone from making special samples. But “there’s no such thing as failsafe,” O’Halloran said. “That’s why the IRS has so many auditors.”
, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: TELL US ABOUT IT The Spokesman-Review wants to talk with homeowners who have had trouble with siding made by Louisiana-Pacific. Please call Cityline if you can help us. We also are looking for people who have contacted L-P about the siding and their comments about how the problem was handled. In Spokane, call Cityline at 458-8800 and select category 9895. In North Idaho, call 765-8811 and select category 9895. You will need a Touch-Tone phone. Normal long-distance charges apply.