How Long Will My Vinyl Signs Last?
Whether it’s spring, summer, winter or fall, there are vinyl signs outside battling the elements. The main obstacle to outdoor durability is UV radiation from the sun. Choosing the right vinyl is the first step to making sure that whatever comes out of your vinyl cutter stands the test of time. But in order to choose the right vinyl for the job, you need to understand how the sun impacts your work and what a vinyl film’s outdoor durability rating really means.
To meet or exceed customer expectations, you must choose the right vinyl, understand the details of the makers’ warranty, know the difference between the durability of printed vinyl vs “cut vinyl”, and be aware of environmental and maintenance issues. Let’s tackle these in that order.
Choose the Right Vinyl for Your Vinyl Signs
By now you probably know there are major differences in the outdoor durability of various self adhesive vinyl films. In previous blog posts, we’ve discussed the virtues of cast and calendared films, solvent and acrylic adhesives, and looked at various types of vinyls like reflective film. To categorize them in terms of outdoor durability, it might help to break them into four groups.
- Calendared PVC: These are the economy and intermediate vinyls used for short to medium term outdoor vinyl signs and graphics. These include ORACAL 631, 641, 651, Avery 500 and 700 series, MACtac 8900, and the LG Hi-Cal 4000 and 6000 products. They tend to have outdoor durabilities ranging from three to six years depending on the color. Speaking of color, we should note that the lifespan warranted for a particular vinyl series, such as the three to five year rating for LG Hi-Cal 4000, depends on the particular color. Not all pigments are created equally. Some are inherently more susceptible to UV fading. So if you’re not sure where your job will fall in the stated range of a vinyl’s outdoor life, check the color chart. Metallic colors like silver and gold will fade more quickly because of the metal flake content. We’ll explain that momentarily. Standard colors are more durable with reds on the lower end of the range. The most durable options in any vinyl product palette are typically black, white, and transparent. No matter what color you choose, the projected outdoor life assumes a vertical application in an environment relatively free of chemicals and pollutants. More on those later.
- Cast PVC: These are the higher performance versions of their more affordable counterparts. The primary difference between cast and calendared PVC vinyl is the superior dimensional stability produced by the casting process. This gives cast films outdoor life ranging from five to twelve years depending on the brand and type. Why such a broad range? One factor is the amount of UV inhibitors baked in during the casting process. ORACAL 951 has more UV resistance than 751, its more affordable alternative, and lasts up to 25% longer outdoors. Remember that not all cast vinyl is standard PVC film. There are also cast metallic and ultrametallic films used primarily for automotive accents. These have shorter outdoor lives because the metal flake in the pigment traps and holds more heat resulting in a shorter road to failure. Metallic and ultrametallic cast films tend to expire in three to seven years depending on the color. Metalized polyester films are even more susceptible to heat failure and should be put in their own category.
- Metalized Polyester: Metalized polyester or mylar films are used to emulate dazzling metallic effects and textures such as brushed and smooth chrome, gold leaf, and holographic foils. Instead of bits of metal mixed into the face stock, these films contain a layer of metallic foil. Typically, metalized films like silver and gold chrome mirror are only good for up to two years outdoors. Some expire in as little as six months as the accumulated heat causes them to blacken like tarnished silverware. There have been advances in the last five years in this field so you can now purchase metalized films that last three to five years outdoors. Our VC series Schein holographics are in that category. Beware. Some brands are available in both a long term or “durable” version and a short term or “decorative” version. Don’t use decorative foils for long term outdoor signage unless you sell them only to people you don’t like.
- Fluorescent: Despite the fact that fluorescent vinyl is either cast or calendared PVC, it deserves to be placed in its own category in this discussion. As noted above, not all pigments are as durable as others. Fluorescent pigments are at the bottom of the UV toughness list. Regardless of whether it’s a cast or calendared film, fluorescent vinyls are inherently limited to short term applications. Depending on the hue, some may last up to two or three years. But fluorescent reds and yellows are notoriously susceptible to dramatic UV fade. Use these only for short term promotional graphics such as “going out of business” sales, retail promotions, or indoor graphics. If your customer insists on a fluorescent green for his or her signage, do your best to persuade them to opt for a similar color in a more durable product. ORACAL’s #063 Lime Tree Green for example, is a popular and durable substitute for fluorescent green.
Applying Vinyl Vertically: The Big Asterisk or Why You Need to Insert the Words “Up To”
The Outdoor durability statement for Avery 700 High Performance vinyl stipulates “Vertical Exposure: 6 years”. The reference to “vertical exposure” can be critical to you fulfilling your customers’ expectations. If you install a storefront vinyl sign using 700 High Performance Black vinyl, Avery warrants that application for six years. If you use Vibrant Blue, it’s warranted for four years. What if you use those same products to install a graphic on a metal awning, a windshield, or on the hoods of a fleet of service trucks? If you do so and promise your customer four to six years on the installation you will be unpleasantly reminded of the “vertical exposure” clause.
Awnings and windshields are typically slanted on a 45° angle. Vehicle hoods are of course horizontal. Both of these variations intensify the exposure to the sun’s rays as they “beat down” on your vinyl from above. Lest you think the good folks at Avery Dennison are just being picky, you should know that ORACAL makes the same stipulation. ORACAL’s General Warranty defines a vertical application as one that deviates less than 10° from ‘straight up’. Anything between 11 – 45° from vertical carries a reduced warranty–with an outdoor life expectancy half that of a vertical application.
So a graphic made with ORACAL 951 Black would be rated for 12 years on a vertical storefront, but only six years on an awning. Click here to view or download the Oracal General Warranty. We’ve added it to the Support Resources folder in our shopping cart for your convenience. What about those hood graphics? The General Warranty states—in red– “No warranty applies to graphics installed on horizontal surfaces (>45° from vertical) such as vehicle hoods, trunks & rooftops.”
So never tell a client that this is how long your sign will last. We recommend inserting the words “up to” before you quote the film life. There’s a big difference between laboratory life and real world life. Be aware of the detrimental affect of the sun’s rays on vinyl installed horizontally or at an angle, and set your customer’s expectations accordingly.
Outdoor Durability of Printing Ink on Vinyl
As sign makers have moved from using vinyl primarily in plotters to using it as a digital printing medium, there has been some confusion about the predicted outdoor life of a printed vinyl graphic. ORAJET 3951 for example, is rated for ten years outdoors and is suitable for use with Mutoh Eco Ultra ink.
That does not mean that an image printed with this ink on 3951 will last for ten years without fading. What it means is that the vinyl will last for ten years before it begins to shrink, crack, yellow, or peel. Solvent and eco solvent inks are generally rated for up to three to five years outdoors. By the time the 3951 reaches the end of its usefulness, the ink will have been erased by the sun. Don’t promise your customers that your prints will last seven to ten years just because they’re printed on high performance vinyl. If you make that mistake, your reputation will fade along with your prints. Remember the word “up to”.
Speaking of printing and vinyl, this takes us back to step one. Choose the right vinyl. Plotter films like ORACAL 651 and Avery 500 are not designed for inkjet printing. They may look okay if you run them through your ValueJET or VersaCamm, but the surface treatments used to produce the desired levels of gloss on these products will deter the ink’s ability to penetrate the surface. The result will be inferior abrasion and UV resistance. If you want to get the most out of your printer, use solvent printable vinyl. The roll cost may be higher, but the square foot cost will be within pennies of the plotter film and your prints will perform as expected.
Environmental Factors Affect Your VInyl Signs: Outside of Your Control
Finally, let’s consider the environment factors that affect outdoor durability. By environmental factors, we mean the extra intensity of the sun’s cruel rays in certain climates, and known chemicals or pollutants.
Climate: The vertical outdoor durability ratings for most self adhesive vinyls sold in the USA are valid for most of the country. But there are a few areas in which Ole Sol hits with such force that even the best vinyls don’t last as long as they should. These are identified in the manufacturers’ warranties or product data bulletins. Avery Dennison’s Durability of Avery Films bulletin identifies the following states areas in which the outdoor durability will be reduced by 20% as “Zone 2”. The Zone 2 areas in the USA are Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Southern Florida. Likewise, the ORACAL General Warranty identifies two climate zones in North America. The standard outdoor warranty applies in full to graphics installed in zone one; vertically of course. Graphics installed in zone two are warranted for 75% of the standard. Zone Two includes Central & South Florida, Central and South Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Southern Utah, Central and Southern Nevada, Central & Southern desert areas of California, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central & South America” It sounds like a lot of territory, but, as shown on the map above, it’s a pretty small percentage of the continental US. So, a storefront graphic made with ORACAL 951 Black vinyl installed in Kansas City (either one) would be warranted for 12 years. The same sign installed in Phoenix would be warranted for nine years.
Pollutants: Speaking of the southern desert, there is a relatively new problem that has arisen in Southern California, Arizona and parts in between. Wrapped vehicles in these areas have been failing due to something called “acid dew”. Corrosive pollutants in the air condense in the dew and collect on wrapped vehicles. As the dew evaporates, the pollutants are left behind and leave a rusty, crusty coating that erodes the overlaminate. We’ve gotten at least one complaint recently about the failure of a printed banner in this region, so it’s not just affecting vehicle wraps. If you’re installing vinyl graphics in this region, you would be wise to follow these steps from the ORACAL Dealing with Fallout Bulletin.
Suggestions for Sign Shops:
- Prepare a Vehicle Wrap Care Guide
- Educate Wrap owners of the importance of care
- Modify warranties with regards to fallout to avoid liability issues.
- Always use the words “up to this many years” when discussing the length of outdoor durability because you don’t know how the customer is going to treat the letters/decal you provide.
Suggestions for Vehicle Wrap Owners in this area:
- Rinse the vehicle every morning to minimize deposits
- Wash the vehicle at least once a week with a very mild soap. Ask wrap installers for a vehicle wrap care guide.
- Use a Teflon type polish designed for vehicle wraps to help protect the surface and gloss. Follow manufacturer’s directions and application frequencies.
As technology advances, the quality of the materials used in digital sign making gets better and better. Ten years ago, cast vinyl was only expected to last 8 years outdoors, and calendared films were only good for half that lifespan.
Now you can install and warrant your vinyl signs and graphics for up to 12 years. But there are important distinctions and limitations. Knowing these and educating your sales people, installers, and customers, can make the difference between managing a growing business and struggling to stay afloat.
To keep your business growing, remember to choose the right vinyl for the job, understand the difference between the life of a printed image and its substrate, and be aware of environmental issues that can degrade the life of your product.