The differences between vinyl and metal drop ceiling grids

By Timothy Chapel

Thinking about replacing your basement drop ceiling? There are all sorts of different ceiling grid systems out there today.

metal1Some drop ceiling grids have a track system that mounts directly to the floor joists. These systems are made out of vinyl plastic but are only useful if you have an extremely low basement with all of your electrical, water, and heating components up inside the joists. These systems are difficult to install and the ability to take them apart and access the space above is limited as well.

Another type of vinyl drop ceiling grid is designed just like a metal system except for the fact that it is made out of vinyl plastic. It has support wires just like a metal drop ceiling system and the ceiling tiles are the same as well. Metal drop ceiling grids are by far the most common but installing a vinyl ceiling grid system in your basement can be an alternative to metal.

We recently installed a vinyl drop ceiling in a basement, let’s take a look at that installation.

Step 1   Overview of a vinyl drop ceiling grid system

On a residential or commercial level you will find almost all ceiling grid systems are metal-based grid systems. In fact I’ve been in this business for over 20 years and I am yet to see a commercial, industrial, or government project that has had a specification for a vinyl grid system.

metal2There is a reason for this: Load capacity. Vinyl grid cannot carry loads anywhere near to that of metal grid. In many cases drop ceiling grid not only needs to hold the weight of the tile but other accessories like track lighting, can lighting, or brackets that span across the grid for weight distribution. In other cases the grid may need to have a seismic requirement and vinyl isn’t suitable for this application.

If you are contemplating a vinyl grid system for your project let me show you all the pros and cons of each system before you decide.

Step 2   Overview of the packaging of a vinyl system

metal3Vinyl ceiling grid comes in handy, lightweight boxes that are only 8’ long. This is an advantage over metal grid as metal components are in 12’ long sections and quite expensive to ship.

Another advantage of vinyl is that it is highly unlikely that vinyl grid and tile will get damaged during shipment. Conversely, it is more likely that metal grid and their fiber-based tiles will suffer some damage during shipment.

Clearly, another huge advantage to a home owner would be the ability to have the product delivered right to their home without having to pick it up.

Step 3   Company comparison of vinyl grid to the metal grid system

As we open up the cartons we find this pamphlet from the company comparing the vinyl grid to the metal grid.  Let’s look at it…

metal4

COMPANY CLAIM: According to this company “only” the HG grid…which is the vinyl grid, is suitable for high humidity environments. Is this a true statement?

UNTRUE: Standard metal systems have a galvanized main beam and can be used in wet locations including industrial showers. If your application were high humidity, then I would recommend a metal grid with an aluminum cap on the face. The cost of this metal system is still less than half of a vinyl one. There are also options for an all-aluminum grid system that is still less expensive than vinyl.


COMPANY CLAIM: Next on the list is that the vinyl system doesn’t show rust or scratches but the metal does.

PARTIALLY TRUE: I agree that metal can show scratches and will eventually rust in wet locations in about 10 years if you don’t have an aluminum capped system, but plastic will show scratches as well, especially deep ones.


COMPANY CLAIM: Next on the list is that both systems can utilize any 2×2 or 2×4 tile.

TRUE:  I will also add that metal systems can handle larger than 2×4 and smaller that 1×1 for special applications.


COMPANY CLAIM: The next line item is that the UV stable PVC is easy to cut and use but the metal is not.

WHO CARES:  Insignificant! There’s no need to have UV protection on ceiling grid that is installed in a basement. That is…unless you don’t intend on having a roof on your building. As far as vinyl being easy to cut, I’ll agree with that but metal is just as easy unless you purchase a fire rated system.


COMPANY CLAIM: Next we see that the vinyl grid can be installed by one person but the metal grid system cannot be.

UNTRUE:  This line item is completely false. I personally have installed more than 5 million square feet of metal grid systems and most of that footage was by myself.


COMPANY CLAIM: 8’ vinyl grid sections are easy to get home.

TRUE:   Metal systems are typically 12’ and at times difficult to transport in a passenger car.


COMPANY CLAIM: Next we have the advantage that ceiling tiles are removable.

TRUE:  Both systems have that ability.


COMPANY CLAIM: Vinyl grid is easy to determine how many pieces to buy but not the metal system.

UNTRUE:   It’s not easier or harder to determine either one. In most metal systems 1 box of mains, 2 boxes of 4’ tees, 2 boxes of 2’ tees, and 1 box of molding covers 1000 sq. ft.


COMPANY CLAIM: Next we see the vinyl is available in different colors and finishes but the metal is not.

UNTRUE:  Another very dishonest statement here.  Metal systems have not only more color options available to you but you can also get them in a dozen different styles and forms.


COMPANY CLAIM: Finally, on the company’s pamphlet we see that only the vinyl cross tees are removable.

UNTRUE:   I don’t who comes up with this stuff but they obviously have never installed a metal grid system. Metal cross tees are easily removable. I have been removing them for over 20 years.  I will say however that metal “stab” grid systems are more difficult to remove than metal “hook” systems. The vinyl grid that we are about to install is a hook system.


Clearly, this company is hoping to sell its product to an un-informed and un-educated customer.  That’s why I am here…to help level the playing field.

Step 3   Comparing the components of vinyl and metal drop ceiling grid

Vinyl grid systems only have a main runner and 2’ tees. Metal systems have a Main runner, 4’ tees and 2’ tees.

metal5Some differences are that the vinyl runner only has slots for tees every 2’ o.c.  Whereas the metal grid has slots every six inches.  The spacing of these slots is very important and will save you a lot of time when attaching your support wires.

The vinyl runners are 2” tall and the metal are about 1 ½”. This has to do with load capacity. Metal systems can handle more loads.

The vinyl main runners have a plastic slide keeper that joins the main T runners together. The metal grid runners interlock together.

The 2’ tees in the vinyl grid attach to the main runner by simply laying it in the enlarged slot.

Another important note is that the wires to support the vinyl grid system must be installed every 2 lineal feet along the main runner where the tee connects and every 2’ apart from main to main.

With metal you only install a wire every 4 lineal feet and 4’ apart from the main. In other words, with vinyl you’ll be installing a lot of wires. This has to do with its inability to carry as much load as the metal.

Vinyl grid cannot span a distance any longer than 2’ without a wire. For every 4 wires hung in a vinyl system, you only need 1 wire for a metal system. This means 4 times as much labor for wire installation on vinyl.

Step 4  Installing the wall angle for the vinyl grid system

As with any ceiling system, we recommend using a laser…even more so with vinyl because of the sag potential in the main runner and the wall angle.

metal6The vinyl wall angle installation is identical to the metal angle…simply place the angle on the wall and secure.

One advantage to vinyl angle is that it will conform to the imperfections on the walls without having to relieve it. One disadvantage is that this angle is only colored on one half of the piece. We ended up having to tear one piece off the wall when it was installed the wrong way. Luckily we had an extra.

Step 5  Installing the main runners for vinyl drop ceiling grid

Once you’ve installed your wall angle, wires, and figured your layout by equalizing the borders…you’re ready to install the grid.

metal7Cut the main to give you the proper border dimension and then install the first and second mains. Once temporarily tied up with two wires install the 2’ tees.

When you get to the end of the first main, cut and install the end main just like you would for metal and slide the keeper over. With metal grid it simply snaps together and you’ll hear an audible click.

Finally, finish installing the 2’ tees down the first run of mains.

A couple of things that we notice when installing the first 2 mains:

  • The grid was easy to install but had a very cheap and flimsy feeling to it. We had to be very careful with the grid not to knock any tees out of place.
  • Mains cut into the wall have to be tight which doesn’t leave you any room for adjusting for square later. If you have to adjust for square you’ll need to rivet the main.
  • The wires didn’t line up with the holes on the mains. This was not our fault. Our joists are 19” o.c. and the holes are 24” o.c. The result was we had to punch holes in the main runner for our wires. We see that there was no possible way to have the holes in the mains line up with our joists. Clearly this was a flaw in the vinyl main runner. This would not happen with metal main runner, as there are more than enough holes punched in the main runner.

Step 6  Cutting in the perimeter wall tees for vinyl drop ceiling grid

Before you begin cutting the tees to the wall, string a line just like you would with a metal system. As you cut the wall tees in you’ll notice they will be a little stubborn in fitting together.

Square up the tee, clamp it, line up the main with the string and punch and rivet the tee to the wall angle just like we do with metal.

A few things we noticed when cutting the wall tees in:metal8

  • The cross tees were easy to cut.
  • The tees only go in one way. There is a raised groove on one side of the tee and it’s smooth on the other. The two smooth sides must face each other.
  • It was not as easy to keep the main straight, as there is no rigidity to the vinyl runner.
  • You must tie back the tee or rivet it…if we installed a rivet we simply paint the head the same color as the grid.

Finally…finish the grid by installing the field grid. Do the same thing you did with the other two mains and install the runner and two foot tees.

The notable differences here were:

  • The cross tees do not go in very easily.
  • Even with the tee locked in on both sides, it’s still a very flimsy grid system.

Step 7  Installing vinyl ceiling tiles into the vinyl ceiling grid

Vinyl tiles are inexpensive to ship and come in small lightweight boxes.

The vinyl tile that we installed is designed to look like a tin ceiling. The backs are unpainted and the tiles are very thin and flexible. Cost for vinyl tiles are between $2 and $3 per sq. ft.…OUCH!

metal9Measure and cut the vinyl tiles just like you would with a fiber based tile. Vinyl tiles are very easy to cut and one advantage is that they’re dust free.

Another advantage is that you can cut several tiles at one time. On our project we cut 7 tiles at one time, which is something you could never do with a fiber based tile.

The tiles go in quickly and easily, much faster than any fiber board tile.

A couple of notes we made during the vinyl tile install were:

  • Definitely faster to install than any fiber based commercial grade tile.
  • Completely dustless.
  • There is no acoustical value to the tiles. The room sounded like we were in a cave.
  • We installed a ceiling fan in the room and all the tiles rattled in the ceiling.

Step 8  The Pros and Cons of a vinyl ceiling grid system

PROS:

  • Lightweight
  • Won’t corrode
  • Low shipping cost
  • Vinyl tiles are fast and easy to install
  • Decent looking
  • Vinyl tiles come in different styles and are dustless

CONS:

  • Flimsy/Cheap feeling
  • Three times the amount of Labor to install. It took three hours for vinyl vs. 45 minutes for metal grid system
  • The ceiling required three times as many support wires
  • The grid is 300% more expensive at $1.60 sq. ft.
  • Layout is more complicated as there is not enough holes in the main
  • There’s absolutely no sound absorption if using vinyl tile
  • Cannot handle additional loads
  • Insulation above the ceiling cannot contact the tiles due to sagging
  • Ceiling grid comes only in one style
  • Vinyl tile cost $1.50 to $3.00 sq. ft. vs. Fiber based tiles cost $.40 to $2.00

Step 9  The Pros and Cons of a metal ceiling grid system

PROS:

  • Installs faster
  • Very strong for high loads
  • Only need 25% of the support wires
  • Available in many colors and styles
  • You can insulate directly above tiles
  • Half the labor and less complicated
  • Easily paintable
  • Less overall cost ($.50 to $1 sq. ft. for grid material)
  • Fiber based tiles have acoustical value for privacy

CONS:

  • Not cost effective to ship as they are heavy and long
  • To achieve a real tin ceiling would cost $6 sq. ft. vs. $4 sq. ft. for vinyl
  • The cartons for fiber based tiles are heavy
  • Fiber based tiles are not dustless

So…that about wraps it up for our vinyl vs. metal grid comparison. What’s our opinion?

Go with the metal grid and don’t believe everything you read. Hands down we believe metal wins in most categories. There are many more advantages to a metal grid system then vinyl and the possibilities are endless.

Take a look at the video to see step-by-step instructions on exactly how to install a vinyl drop ceiling system in your basement.

Good luck installing suspended ceilings! –Tim

*No Claim is made to the exclusive right to use “CEILINGS” apart from the mark as shown.