When my friend and his wife bought their starter home, it came with a traditional wooden privacy fence in the backyard. A few years into owning the home, the fence started to get noticeably crooked. When my friend looked into the cost of replacing the fence, he was astonished by how expensive it would be, and instead of replacement chose years of makeshift repairs and reinforcements carefully placed out of sight. When they eventually went to sell that house, the fence prompted a lot of intense prayer from my friend and equally intense celebration when the fence held up for two weeks after closing before finally toppling, thus sparing my friend the expense of replacing it.
This was something that could have been avoided. My friend and his wife are both pretty handy people, and they could have replaced the fence themselves for far less than the price they were given by a fencing contractor. DIY fence panel installation isn’t difficult, because modular, pre-assembled fence panels are designed to be put in place quickly using a simple system of brackets. But the first step in choosing a fence panel system is deciding on a material.
DIY-Friendly Fence Panels
Fence panels are simply preassembled sections of fence that are part of an integrated system. What this means is that everything is worked out for you in advance. The pickets are already attached to the rails, and the hardware required to mount the rails to the posts is usually provided. Systems like this make some of the best fencing for large yards because they save a lot of installation time. How these fence panels install and how easy they are to install vary depending on the material used. Here are the most commonly used materials for fence panel systems:
- Wood is the traditional material for fencing. Fence panels made from wood range from the six-foot-high privacy fences that are the standard in backyards to the white picket fences that are synonymous with suburbia. Wood is easy to work and it’s easy to modify during installation. However, pre-assembled wood fence panels don’t usually come with hardware or instructions–you’ll get the bare bones, which means you’ll need to be comfortable choosing hardware and making modifications on your own.
- Vinyl is a popular choice for fencing panels because it’s inexpensive and doesn’t require painting. It’s also not vulnerable to rotting or mold. For the DIYer, vinyl’s lightness makes the fence panels easy to carry and hold in place while installing. However, vinyl is a relatively delicate material and can crack if you try to cut or drill additional holes in the panel during installation.
- Aluminum is a popular choice for panel fencing. Aluminum fences are generally designed to have the look of wrought iron while being much lighter than iron, which makes them easy to install. One disadvantage in installation is that they can only be worked with special cutting blades, or bits. This means installing them will require power tools. They have a disadvantage in being a high-value metal that thieves have been known to steal.
- Steel is another common material for fence panels. This is the strongest material for fencing available, and high-quality steel can stand up to even large fallen branches without damage. This same strength means that steel can be hard to cut and drill into, which means installation requires power tools and some endurance. Steel panels are also heavy, which may make carrying them and putting them into place difficult for some. However, a well-designed steel panel system should come with all the hardware and instructions you need, and be intuitive and easy to put together.
All of these fences share an advantage in installing more quickly and easily than a traditional fence that comes in individual pieces. One of the most important differences between these materials is how well they last and how well they stand up in the face of the elements. Steel has an advantage in durability and is the sturdiest fence material available. It also has another advantage in dealing with one of the trickiest parts of installation: some steel panel systems offer rackability, which lets them adjust to a slope. We’ll talk about this feature later on in this post, but it can make installing a fence infinitely easier for the DIYer.
DIY Fence Panel Installation
The first part of installing a fence is knowing where the fence will be located. This will usually be along the property lines, which you can determine by consulting your home survey or by visiting your county record holder or assessor’s office. When planning out your fence you should know that there are some pretty steep penalties for going over the line; these can be fines or the cost of moving the fence back. Most professional fence builders will place the fence a foot back from the property line in order to be safe. This is an option you may want to keep in mind if you have any uncertainty about your property line.
Once you know where your fence is going, simply drive stakes into the ground to mark the corners, pull a chalk line from the stake, and mark the ground. Then anchor the posts along the line. From there, it’s simply a matter of cutting the fence panels to length and mounting them to the posts according to directions with the hardware provided. This hardware is usually in the form of a bracket that screws into the post and cradles the top rail.
Installing Fence Panels on a Slope
With most fence panel systems, the only option to deal with a slope is to step the fence, changing the elevation of the fence on the post so that its lowest point is above the highest point of the slope between any two posts. It’s called stepping because the resulting fence has a profile similar to that of a set of stairs. It’s an imperfect solution that doesn’t work for everyone aesthetically. There are some functional problems with it as well, as it can leave a gap beneath the fence that lets pets and children crawl under.
Recently, however, some manufacturers have begun designing steel fence panel systems that have a more versatile way of matching a slope: racking. Rackable panels have pickets mounted to the rails with hinges. This allows the panel’s rails and pickets to change angle to follow the slope, and it results in a fence that maintains its lines around the property without the messy look or gaps of a stepped fence. A steel panel fence system with this feature is usually the best fence for a sloped yard.
There are some limitations to these racking fence panels. Allowing the pickets to swing freely means leaving space in the rail and leaving too much space can weaken the fence. In practice, this means that rackable panels can’t be exactly matched to an extreme slope. And, as you might imagine, the hinges on a rackable panel also aren’t as sturdy as a fully-welded joint. If these hinges aren’t well designed then they can interfere with the coating on the fence, leaving it vulnerable to corrosion. For these reasons, it’s important to look for a high-quality rackable steel fence system that uses generous dimensions of steel and a carefully-engineered racking system that doesn’t open access points for rust.
A unique example of a fence like this is the Versai Fence from Fortress Fence Products. It’s a modular, easy-to-assemble panel fence with easy rackability for adjusting to changing grades in a yard. This is accomplished through the use of hidden pins that won’t damage the fence’s extremely durable, multi-layer coating. The Versai’s pickets that have a true ⅝-inch dimension for greater strength and durability, and Fortress also offers a variety of customization options, from knuckles to decorative finials. To find out more about the Versai Fence or other steel panel fences, contact Fortress Fence Products.