Deciding which kind of fencing for you is an important question, but it gets more complicated when it comes to areas that see a lot of cold and snow. Harsh winter conditions can be bad on many materials, and when you’re making the investment into a fence to beautify and secure your house, you want to make sure that it can stand up to the elements.
We’re going to look at three different situations: the cold, the wet, and the weight of snow, and compare them to the four primary fencing materials: wood, vinyl, steel and aluminum. And, spoiler alert–aluminum fares the best.
How Do Fences Handle Cold Weather?
Cold weather is more than just freezing temperatures. It’s also the changing of the temperatures from below freezing to above freezing, which makes things expand and contract–expanding when things are warmer and contracting when things are colder. And this expansion and contraction is an important thing to consider when you’re building a fence around your property if you’re in a region that gets a cold winter.
Where expansion and contraction becomes most notable and most important is at the joints and hardware. Something that fits snugly one warm day might be loose on a cold day, or vice versa. And the type of material that you’re using to build your fence in the wintertime is going to make a big difference.
Wood makes for a very attractive fence–the iconic white picket fence comes to mind–but there are problems with wooden fences during cold weather and those problems come with the expansion and contraction of wood and nails. The wood and nails expand at different rate (this is a problem even if you use wood screws) so during the winter the attachment points between the rails and slats will get loose. It might not be much at first, but over time those gaps will grow, and the fence will begin to show its age.
And this is to say nothing of the fact that the expansion and contraction of the wood itself separates the grain, leading to splitting and splintering.
Vinyl fences handle cold in a different way than wood, in that it is not the expansion and contraction of the vinyl that becomes a problem. Rather, the problem is that the colder things get, the less flexible and more fragile vinyl gets. A fence that might take the impact of a soccer ball easily, flexing and bending, in the summer, might crack or break by the same impact in the winter months during a hard freeze.
Steel does well in the winter cold, as the expansion and contraction are not an issue (or only a minimal issue at the anchor points). Also, steel’s brittleness in the cold months doesn’t become a problem as it takes much more cold than a regular winter to render steel ready to crack.
The same that can be said about steel can be said about aluminum: it withstands the cold very well. While there is expansion and contraction, that is accommodated well by the fasteners and hardware that are supplied for installation. And it would take a cold that is more severe than almost any winter storm to make aluminum brittle.
How Do Fences Handle Wet and Freezing Snow?
There is more to winter than the cold–there’s also the wetness that comes from snow, ice, and sleet. How a fencing product stands up to the wet makes a big difference in how it will handle the winter weather.
Wood is going to be a big victim of water damage. Even sealed wood is going to take a beating, even if the sealant puts it off for a few years. There will be a constant battle with a wood fence to deal with cracking, chipping, splintering, cupping, and the inevitability of paint flaking off. Wood may be very attractive, but it is also very high maintenance. If you’re looking to get a wood fence, know that you are going to spend all of the warm seasons sanding, repainting, and reattaching the wood slats to make sure it stays in pristine condition.
Vinyl actually does very well dealing with the wetness of snow and sleet. Vinyl is waterproof, as you’ll know from running the sprinklers in your yard during the summer months. There’s very little water damage that can come to a vinyl fence that wouldn’t also plague other fences.
Steel is a problem in the snow. While steel doesn’t rot, it definitely rusts. And while most steel comes with a coating, such as a powder coating, the smallest scratch in a steel fence will begin to corrode–and right away, too. It doesn’t take a prolonged period of exposure, with your fence buried under feet of snow for months, for your steel fence to begin to rust. Exposed steel will actually begin to rust the first time it comes into contact with moisture and oxygen–it may not even require rain, just humidity.
So while a coated steel fence looks good and is very sturdy, you’d better make sure that there are no nick, scratches, or dings in that steel coating or else you could have corroded metal on your hands.
One of the beauties of aluminum is that it is a non-corrosive metal. It literally cannot rust, even if there is a scrape of the coating that exposes the bare aluminum. So snow, sleet, rain, and moisture will all run harmlessly off aluminum and never corrode or rust.
How Do Fences Handle the Weight of Snow?
Snow may look fluffy as the big flakes fall, but when it accumulates–especially wet snow–it can be very heavy. So how do the fencing materials handle heavy snow? Bear in mind that not a lot of snow usually lands on top of a fence (as the top of a fence can’t hold much snow) but a lot of heavy snow can get shoveled or plowed into a fence. That’s where the trouble lies.
Wooden fences will vary in strength depending very much on the strength of the specific wood that you’ve used. And when we’re talking about the strength of a fence in snow, we’re talking about sideways forces, not top-down forces, so a wooden fence with lots of room between the slats will fare better than a wooden privacy fence that is flat wood all the way across. If a snow plow pushes a snow bank into a privacy fence, there could be real damage.
Just as the large flat walls of a wooden privacy fence are problematic if there is snow pushed into their sides, the same is true of vinyl fences. If you have a vinyl fence with rails and posts, then you’re likely just fine, but a vinyl privacy fence could easily topple if too much snow gets pushed into it.
Steel fences are the strongest type of this bunch, and there are no common steel fences that are large flat surfaces. If a snow plow pushed snow into a steel fence then the snow would merely pass through the pickets and the fence would be fine.
Just as with steel, an aluminum fence can withstand the sideways force of snow being pushed into it, because the snow will merely pass through the fence, leaving the fence standing firm.
As we can see, all of these fences can withstand some elements of the winter cold and snow, but only one of these fencing materials can withstand the cold, the wet, and the weight of the snow, and that is aluminum fencing. It doesn’t have problems with expansion and contraction from the cold, it will not corrode, even if the coating is scuffed, and snow will merely pass through it instead of pile up against it.